Art Activism

How Dalit digital artists are debrahminising Indian visual art

Ambedkarite women give water to Indra Meghwal, a nine-year-old Dalit boy who—after being hit by his school teacher for drinking water from a pot reserved for upper-castes—died on 13 August 2022 in Rajasthan’s Jalore district. This illustration, titled "Water & Caste," belongs to a two-part episode on the Mahad Satyagraha by The Subverse, a podcast by Dark ‘n’ Light magazine. Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar/Dark 'n' Light
31 August, 2023

BR Ambedkar portrayed as a young man burning the Hindu caste pyramid. Savitribai Phule sitting cross-legged in style and reading a book. Rohith Vemula dressed as an astronaut. EV Ramasamy’s shawl, draped over his shoulders, turning into an ocean where young people dive. Migrant workers constructing a map of India against a background dotted with coronaviruses. Kabir Das standing handcuffed in prison.

These are some of the digital illustrations created by Dalit artists for their social-media feeds. Almost all these illustrations are accompanied by detailed captions, reflecting on the revolutionary past of the anti-caste struggle or mapping the routineness of caste discrimination in India.

Over the years, particularly after the widespread protests in December 2019 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, digital artists in India began to share their work on social media, especially on Instagram, to register dissent against the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party regime. For young Dalit artists, the digital medium and its popularity allowed them to create a visual language deeply rooted in the lived experiences of marginalised castes. The artwork, widely shared by the Bahujan community on social media, is striking, often employing metaphors and symbols borrowed from Dalit history.

“To understand the basics of visual language in India, one need not go very far off, one can see the pattern that is already existing on social media,” a Mumbai-based illustrator and researcher, who runs the Instagram account The Big Fat Bao, told me. When the 33-year-old started to share her art on Instagram in 2020, she said the platform was dominated by upper-caste Hindus who “primarily use typical Hindu elements in their work,” which never resonated with her. Even the portrayal of Bahujan leaders such as Savitribai Phule by upper-caste illustrators, she said, was that “of a Hindu woman who was very fair-skinned and refined.” To disrupt this one-dimensional portrayal of the Dalit community and anti-caste leaders, she decided to use bright colours with floral elements to depict the diversity of the community. “Even if we are labelled untouchable or broken, we are not that,” she said. “We are complete, loving, kind, and intelligent people, and this is what my art says.”