view EYE'S RECAST
PROTEST-IDENTITY POLE OF DALIT ART
Savi Sawarkar is neither the only Dalit who paints nor the only one who paints Dalit subjects, but he is unquestionably the most powerful visual artist dealing with Dalit themes anywhere in the world today. The fact that he is a Dalit himself and vulnerable to severe harassment for speaking out, is only one indication of the difficulty he has faced and continues to face. The more significant fact is that his work speaks out so passionately and eloquently in defense of all downtrodden and in condemnation of all those who continue to degrade the humanity of their human brothers and sisters. Where the limit of most other Dalit artists has been portrayal of Dr. Ambedkar, Savi's strength has been to stand with Ambedkar and proclaim the truth of continuing pogroms against Dalits in a manner so systematic that they cannot be overlooked.Savi Sawarkar represents the protest-identity pole of Dalit art in contrast to the more common decorative-integrationist pole seen in most other artists dealing with India's contemporary social reality. His intention is not only to achieve acceptance into the celebrated precinct of high art display, but to do so while denouncing the identities of the very social and economic elite upon whom this art world depends. Among other artists in the high art world, we may identify both reformist and revolutionary approaches to the situation of Dalit artists in a caste society. We should be thankful for the rare reformists we have. We must be doubly appreciative of Savi, the model revolutionary, who shows us that it can be done. In his works on glass of 1990-1991 and subsequent works on canvas, we can see one and then another strident assertion of anger at the historic and continuing oppression of the low caste, and of women. Untitled, and so often ambiguous as most of the specific works are, the general series titled 'Expression of the Untouchables' is shrilly distinct enough to establish the essential meaning. Savi is a Dalit whose art speaks fearlessly about the Dalit condition, and almost exclusively about the Dalit condition. And as such he is in the bourgeois gallery and exhibition world, an anomaly of a sort we need to think about.From the way I have been taught the history of art, and I have read the various popular surveys found in today's university courses and comfortable living rooms, I could gather the idea that many, if not most, artists are revolutionaries both in terms of their formal development and their social attitudes. Serious space is devoted to the political and social protest found in Goya, Delacroix, Manet, Picasso and others. But, as anyone who looks through the bodies of their work will quickly notice, these artists actually produced very little social interest or impact. Whoever it was that Delacroix sought to serve with his Liberty Guiding the People, he never turned in their direction again. For all his enthralling colourism and figurative form, Delacroix was an anti-democratic reactionary in his politics and his art. Picasso's Guernica is similarly unusual within his vast production. And this is our conundrum visible here and useful as a reminder of our own situation. How can one create revolutionary art in a medium institutionally dominated by the reigning elite? Contrary to the accepted wisdom, it is not only difficult, but relatively impossible to convince the elite to willingly sponsor their own indictment. For these reasons we must salute him.
Prof. Gary Michael Tartakov
History of Art and Design at IOWA State University, USA