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A visual narrative of a middle-class Dalit family in modern India

On realising there are no proper archives of Dalit lives in modern India, Jaisingh Nageswaran has started archiving his family history

This family photograph is a significant, proud one from the time Jaisingh and his two siblings started college. Here they can be seen in a new house built by their father. Photo: Jaisingh Nageswaran

For photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran, Christmas has always been about coming home. Wherever he might be—working in Madurai or Mumbai on film and documentary projects or in Goa for photography workshops—the 40-year-old has always made it a point to return to his village, Vadipatti, in Tamil Nadu for five days. “It is important to me and my family. My maternal family belongs to the Dalit Christian community, so I was exposed to two cultures while growing up. I would visit temples with my father and church with my mother,” says Jaisingh.

On Christmas Day, the family would paint the house, setting up a kudil, or crib, to depict the nativity scene. Most years, they would travel to Madurai, his mother’s maternal home. The highlight of the trip was watching the pasca, a tradition of enacting the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Preparations for it would start weeks in advance, with people across professions participating—some roles had been passed down through generations in a family. “This would happen all night. I loved going to the church in Madurai as it was one of the few churches with a pipe organ,” he says. Jaisingh would sometimes take part in the choir as well. “I was dyslexic as a child and participating in such cultural activities helped me communicate with people,” he adds.

For him, the pandemic has been a time of reflection, a journey inwards. Jaisingh has shifted base to his village and started archiving his family history, for he feels “there are no proper archives of Dalit lives in modern India”. The journey started last year; he was attending a book-building residency organised by photographer Dayanita Singh when news of the nationwide lockdown came.

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At Goa airport, when he saw people maintaining distance from one another, he was struck by a sudden realisation. “We have always been practising social distancing. In my village, the quarters for the high-caste and Dalit communities have always been separate. We can’t enter certain streets, homes and spaces. In society, my community has always been in isolation. Perhaps for the first time, the virus has made the privileged realise how we have felt all along.” This realisation has informed his new work, I Feel Like A Fish.

The title came to him one day in Vadipatti, during the early days of the first lockdown, when he saw the fish tank in his house. For the avid traveller found himself confined to the house as the restrictions kicked in, much like the fish in the tank.

From the series, ‘I Feel Like A Fish’. Photo: Jaisingh Nageswaran
From the series, ‘I Feel Like A Fish’. Photo: Jaisingh Nageswaran

It’s a series that led to his selection as one of two Indian photographers for the non-profit Magnum Foundation’s photography and social justice fellowship 2021. He has also been awarded a grant by the Serendipity Arts Foundation.

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Jaisingh has been working on photo series on the marginalised for some time, for instance, about the transgender community in Tamil Nadu. It’s a series Dayanita Singh believed was also about him, his feelings and emotions. “She asked me not to shy away from my identity and who I was,” reminisces Jaisingh. That conversation freed up a side of him he had kept hidden. And that’s when he realised he wanted to document his own family history. “I wanted to take this up earlier too but was a little reticent about telling our own story. But after the residency, I came home and decided it was time,” he says.

Last year, when the migrant workers began the long walk home during the lockdown, he learnt that his great-grandfather had also walked to Vadipatti to set up home there. “I asked myself why I always make stories about other people. My family had this amazing history too. My grandmother was a rebel. She started a school 70 years ago not just for Dalit children but for others too. If I don’t tell these stories, who will?”

When he googled Dalit life in India, he found most of the information available was about murder, rape, police custody deaths, violence and vulnerabilities. There were hardly any positive stories about people like his grandmother—though this is beginning to change.

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“The surge in Dalit literature in Maharashtra has had an impact on Tamil Nadu as well. The arrival of Pa. Ranjith on the scene brought Dalit issues into contemporary film-making as well,” says Jaisingh, who is deeply influenced by the manner and scale in which Ranjith is raising these issues. “I am only starting out now by photographing our everyday, and life in the time of covid-19, as there is a lacuna in the documentation of middle-class Dalit life in modern India,” he adds.

This Christmas, he will continue the documentation, delving into the archives to find out more about his grandmother and father. He is planning several video art pieces for the fellowships. Meanwhile, he is taking long evening walks, reliving childhood memories of looking at the river. The name of the work based on this is Down By The Mullai Periyar.

“No one taught me swimming or photography,” he says. “There is this notion propagated by the privileged gatekeepers that only they can do certain tasks, like studying. That is not true. Every human has every skill inside of them and as per the situation, they draw on those energies. I was dyslexic but I discovered photography as a means of expression. My grandmother made education accessible to children across castes. That is my interest, to place humanity above everything else.”

Also read: Celebrating Christmas without Christians

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