Mumbai-based illustrator-designer Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar and musician Nayantara Bhatkal set up the Dalit Panthers Archive in 2016. The idea was to revisit the Dalit Panthers, an organization founded in 1972 by Marathi poets Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Avinash Mahterkar, Arjun Dangle and J.V. Pawar that was considered revolutionary in its fight against caste discrimination. In the past three years, the multimedia archive has tried not just to document the lives of key figures such as Dhale, but also explore the lasting influence the movement has had on Marathi literature and art.
Till this project, documentation was scant on the impact of the Dalit Panthers in bringing together aesthetics and political intent. Over the course of time, the duo hopes to translate related texts, which were not available to non-Marathi-speaking people, giving them the opportunity to draw parallels with movements elsewhere in the country.
These days, both Shridhar and Bhatkal are busy adding a new dimension to the archive. They are exploring the intersection between the Dalit Panthers and the Little Magazines, or unperiodicals, which came up in the 1950s and featured experimental writing. If you were to go through the Instagram page of the archive, you would find several images of Little Magazines such as Rava and Samuh, published in Maharashtra in the 1970s. Sepia-toned, often dominated by one colour—usually black—these would feature early works by poets, writers and artists who were part of the Dalit Panthers movement.
In recognition of the significance of this project, the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation and Asia Art Archive in India (SSAF-AAA) have awarded Shridhar the research grant for histories of ideas, art writing and visual culture for 2019. Her project “Architects Of A Literary Revolution: Unpacking The Connections And Aesthetic Of The Dalit Panther And Little Magazine Movements”, will take forward the work done by the Dalit Panthers Archive. According to a press statement, the jury of the SSAF-AAA grant, Janaki Nair, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Sneha Ragavan, were impressed by Shridhar’s astute understanding of the visual and political vocabulary of the Panthers.
For this year-long grant, the Dalit Panthers Archive is specifically looking at major political interventions by the Dalit Panthers, alongside their experiments with literary and visual form, which manifested in diverse print modes such as booklets, pamphlets, postcards, inland letters and posters. The materials that Shridhar digitizes will contribute to the Dalit Panther Archive, and thus will be freely and publicly accessible should permissions from their holders be granted. Facsimiles of printed materials will also be distributed to local public libraries in the region for wider public access. According to the jury, this project is an important and timely contribution to a relatively underdeveloped area of research.
For both Shridhar and Bhatkal, the trigger for starting the archive was the manifesto of the Dalit Panthers, who aligned themselves with the Black Panther movement in the US, and who defined Dalits as “all those who are exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion”. Their reading of the manifesto coincided with scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016. “We realized that a lot of questions raised in the manifesto continue to be pertinent even today. We wanted to take that word forward and introduce it to the youth on a national level,” says Shridhar.
So, what are the motifs and aesthetics that have come to define the movement? According to Bhatkal, the Panthers felt the need to experiment and challenge the establishment—both political and literary—in every way. “We are yet to articulate a fully formed analysis of the same,” she says. But when it comes to the Little Magazines, the work that has already been digitized shows minimal use of colour, since two-colour and four-colour printing was expensive at the time. “They had minimal financial resources. So, the only people using colour were visual artists. Take Raja Dhale, for example, a prominent poet, writer and artist, who used two-colour printing a lot,” says Shridhar.
But that too was used in a minimal way. For instance, the cover would only have the title in red, with the rest of the text in black. Or the box and the text would be in dark magenta, with the illustration in green. “They challenged existing design sensibilities as well, even something as simple as page numbers would be mentioned as letters instead of numerics. They would have something like ‘the next issue will be published as and when we goddamn please’ on the back cover. Existing formats would be turned on their head,” says Bhatkal.
Given that the material is so scattered, the duo has had to scour different archives. Some of the prominent ones they have tapped include the collections of Ramesh Shinde, who has been collecting Ambedkarite literature for decades, and Satish Kalsekar, a publisher and poet from the Little Magazines movement.
Shridhar and Bhatkal are also looking at the role of women in the Dalit Panthers movement, both as contributors and critics. “The manifesto does address the issue of subjugation of women. However, we have found only one female contributor so far in the material we have digitized, and that is Malika Amar Sheikh, although her name appears in the publication as Malika Namdeo Dhasal. We definitely want to get in touch with Urmila Pawar, who made a good critique on the movement,” they say.
Three years into the archive, both of them continue to be taken by surprise by the contemporary relevance of this material. “Even today there is a lot of anger about cases such as Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide (at the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences in Mumbai). People want answers, and those answers sometimes come from history,” says Shridhar.