The digital sketch depicts a naked person slumping against a beige wall, head cradled in their arms. Around them, on the floor, are three discarded theatre masks, piles of books, a tasselled graduation cap, a rolled-up degree certificate, and a pen. The room appears to have no ceiling; instead, the walls segue into endless darkness, with multiple pairs of disembodied eyes gleaming, staring at the figure below them. Many of the objects, including the crevices where the walls meet each other and the floor, the stuff scattered on the floor and the person in the sketch, are outlined in red. “It signifies the hollowness of caste that gets transferred to everything the person ‘touches’,” explains the description below the sketch, Imposter Syndrome, posted on Instagram on 10 October 2022.
The work, part of a larger series by the Crossroads Collective that reflects their work as a support community for disabled and queer people in the Dalit Bahujan community, has been created by Prateek Draik (he/they), a Delhi-based urban designer and artist. Like most of his other work, it explores “how disability, caste and queerness define our lives,” says Draik who created the work in collaboration with Kamna Singh, a research scholar, artist and educator whose work focuses on caste, gender and the body as a site of oppression. “The artwork is based on her (Singh's) personal experiences of dealing with imposter syndrome as a person from the Dalit community navigating through spaces like academia, fashion and urban spaces,” adds Draik.
Draik is part of a community of Dalit artists who identify as queer, for whom art becomes a way to explore identities, decode intersectionality, reclaim their own histories, create legacies, and focus attention on the forces of oppression Dalit queer bodies are constantly subjected to. “We don’t have enough art by and for the Dalit queer community,” believes Draik, adding that non-conforming art tends to get invisibilised. He sees his work as an autoethnographic method to explore his own identity and those of others like him. “It still feels like a niche, is far from being mainstream,” he believes. “I feel like we are creating the groundwork for it and that is a powerful thing.”
This is not to say that Dalit queer art does not have a history, as Delhi-based actor, Dalit activist, artist, feminist and writer Jyotsna Siddharth (she/they) points out. “Through the internet, we have found different channels and mediums to create but it is not new,” says Siddharth, a second-generation Dalit feminist. “Dalit art has always existed and shaped society.”
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Siddharth, a transdisciplinary artist who produces stark, haunting, powerful work, uses multiform to create art that is “deeply personal, a channel to be able to process all the inner workings that one has as an individual, which is a product of social, institutional and cultural conditioning,” they say, adding that they see it as a process of catharsis and healing. “My art is a reflection of who I am and all that I have gone through in life as a person and as a Dalit queer woman.”
Yet categorising Dalit queer art simply as identity-centred art is highly reductive. “We are humans and individuals first, then the identities that we are born and socialised into. The Ambedkarite discourse is about breaking away from social labels that have been enforced upon us,” says Siddharth. Every Dalit queer person is different, they say, adding that their work is also an attempt to break boundaries and binaries of all kinds, moving away from societal, institutional and systemic codes and conditioning that often puts people more rigidly into the very labels and moulds they are trying to break out of. “What defines a Dalit queer perspective is the interplay and intersection of caste, gender and sexuality that often interacts with existing social and cultural norms that creates the unique embodied experience and identity of Dalit queer,” they say.
In a 2020 essay, Hopeful Rantings Of A Dalit-Queer Person, Dalit queer activist and poet Dhiren Borisa talks about the casteism within queer spaces, which continue to be shaped by caste, class and other power dimensions. The queer movement often does not accommodate the more complex identities of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi queers. “All of us continue to live in shadows of the humiliation you serve us every day through caste oppression,” Borisa says, quoting American political activist and writer Angela Davis, who called for the intersectionality of struggles, not just identities. “This movement is not queer until it is for everyone.”
Draik, who grew up in Shimla, talks about the loneliness he experienced even when he moved to a metro. “It is only in metro cities that queer culture can exist easily,” he says. “But I was still not able to identify with a lot of the queer people around me.” The queer community doesn’t make space for people of lesser privileges, he says. Then he discovered the Dalit Queer Project, a collaborative space that serves as a living archive for Dalit queer people, possibly the first of its kind in the country. “It was only the community support of the Dalit Queer Project that started convincing me that I was an artist.”
The Dalit Queer Project’s Instagram page is filled with art from the community: from Borisa’s poetic take on the enmeshment of the city, caste and sexuality to a series of gorgeous portraits of members of the community, including primary school teacher Rabi Raj, poet Sarita Khokhar and Dalit-trans activist Grace Banu. “The power of my art, at least to me, comes from the simple fact that I am able to find strength and produce beautiful things despite the world around me desperately trying to end the fire and life within me,” believes artist and lawyer Akhil Kang (they/them), currently a PhD candidate at the department of anthropology at Cornell University, US, and part of the Dalit Queer Project. Kang, who works with charcoal and mixed mediums, including pen, soft pastels, watercolour pencils and torn pieces of fabric, adds,“I work with fiction and reality and imagine queer people and queerness in places, spaces—just living their ordinary lives, striving for a fulfilled everyday-ness,”
Aroh Akunth (they/them), who founded the Dalit Queer Project in 2019 (and subsequently the Dalit Art Archive), says the initiatives stemmed from the need to “consciously build a space where community members can come and express themselves in so many ways through the forms of poetry, creative writing, painting, film-making”. Akunth, who will be part of a conversation, Looking At Art Historical Blind Spots: Queer Voices In Art, at the India Art Fair on 11 February, adds: “Art has been historically imposed on many caste groups. How do you rescue joy from that?”
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So can the internet, on which much of this work exists, help eradicate the systemic erasure Dalit queer artists face? The answer isn’t simple. “The internet is a powerful thing that has proved social movements can exist across geography,” says Draik, citing the Black Lives Matter movement. However, it is still a very urban phenomenon, accessible to only a fraction of society. More importantly, the visibility it brings isn’t necessarily a positive thing. “Visibility often brings with it violence. The more visible I am, the more backlash I face,” says Akunth. The opposite of erasure, therefore, is not visibility “because both erasure and visibility can work in ways to kill Dalit- queerness”, they say. “The opposite of erasure is to be seen and heard by your communities.”