Visual artist and filmmaker Rahee Punyashloka talks about calling for resistance through art

Art, for a long time, has been used as a means of social change and resistance across the world. In India, the Dalit community has made several promising attempts to democratize art and use it to exercise their freedom of expression.

Visual artist and filmmaker Rahee Punyashloka (28), originally from Bhubaneswar who currently lives in Delhi – he did his master’s degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and is pursuing his doctorate in English literature there – is an evolving name in the field of Ambedkarite Art (works rooted in the philosophy of Ambedkar).

Punyshloka’s art project ‘Artedkar’ is a strenuous attempt to use minimal aesthetics to create illustrations that convey a strong message on the issue of caste discrimination. In this interview, Punyshloka talks about her art, her journey as an artist, and more. Extracts…

Tell us about your artistic project ‘Artedkar’ (2020).
In Movies Noise Reduction [Video works made by Punyashloka in 2014 that were exhibited at film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival, New York, and International Film Festival, Rotterdam], there was this kind of fuzzy political position that I was trying to take. There is a particular movement, especially around the death of Rohith Vemula, that has forced many in my community to look at how the structural issues of caste oppression, systemic violence and discrimination are so deeply operating . My political position was refined in this atmosphere.

I also felt that there was this need to expand my art in the discourse of Ambedkarite art. My cinematic training has always been conceptual and focused on an abstract and minimal aesthetic. I recognized that something was missing and I thought of the obvious [way] I can use those artistic interests that were mine to take on the blue and white color scheme of the Ambedkarite flag. So I did that.

Would you say your work is a personal response or a larger reaction to the issue of caste discrimination?
It’s not a reaction per se because often the art that comes from the community has a reactive history. When you think of news articles about the Dalit community, they tend to be reactive, about an incident or some horrific atrocity that happened. There is no uneventful foundation on which the idea of ​​a Dalit person exists. I try to resist the reactive element of it.

People from marginalized communities are not [only] to think about when a horrible atrocity has happened. I try to provide more nuanced, complex and holistic thought of ideas through my art. There is a lot of personal history and wider Dalit collective history, how our icons and people’s interaction with those icons are intertwined with the idea of ​​what is dignity, freedom and true release.

You cite (in captions as seen in his works) many examples from BR Ambedkar’s life in your work. Do you read a lot about him?
I do but these [the instances] are well known to all who belong to the Dalit community because they have been preserved. In the same way as the ancient Hindus sit in the adda and discuss things, in the same way, the members of the Ambedkarite and Dalit community constantly have these discussions. If we talk about reading practices, the Ambedkarite community has a very strong reading habit. You can buy Annihilation of Caste in any major language for ‘5 or ’10, which is not possible for other books; there is therefore a culture of reading and the dissemination of ideas. These are things that are part of the popular consciousness.

You lead a series of live conversations entitled: “Assumptions for a less opaque world”. Tell us about it.
The Path of Dalit History Month [April] has worked so far is that we celebrate our history, but in the process people who haven’t had much interaction with the Dalit community, they are educated. I wanted to destabilize this and bring in people from upper caste communities and share their knowledge and resources with them. So that the difficulties I had to face when I started my artistic career because I had no role models, are not encountered by others.

You are part of South Asia Speaks [literary mentorship programme]. Tell us about your first novel.

It is an experimental anti-novel. He taps into people. There was a literary movement in 1960s France called the anti-novel “Nouveau Roman”. It was about deconstructing the novel by writing a novel. My novel is inspired by it. It talks about how we remember violent pasts. The protagonist comes from a group whose real world equivalent would be the Dalit community and this person is trying to remember what happened in their childhood, the way this person can do that is to go back to that moment particular banality that he experienced in his childhood because the story was written by people who oppressed this community. I intend to complete the final draft by this year. It should be out next year.

Briana R. Cross