New Delhi

Rajyashri Goody, untitled, 2022, ink-jet print on paper, 8 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Rajyashri Goody, untitled, 2022, ink-jet print on paper, 8 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Rajyashri Goody

In 1927, Indian social reformer and activist Dr. B. R. Ambedkar led a procession of more than ten thousand Dalits to the Chavdar water tank in Mahad, in Western India. Considered untouchable, the Dalits were not allowed to drink water reserved for upper-caste Hindus. Through the nonviolent act of gathering and collectively drinking from the pond, the group asserted its basic human rights and appealed for social equality. In December of the same year, Ambedkar returned to the site to burn a copy of the Manusmriti, the ancient Indian legal text that forms the basis of this violent exclusionary social system. These events formed the premise of Rajyashri Goody’s exhibition “Is the water chavdar?” While this title nodded to the name of the water tank, chavdar also means “tasty” in Marathi, the official language of the region.

The Chavdar tank has over the decades become an important site of pilgrimage for the Dalit community, a place for them to gather and pay respects to Ambedkar. Over the years, Goody has assembled images of people visiting the tank, posing either with family and friends or in selfies. Almost all of the images feature the tank as the backdrop or are taken in the shadow of the statue of Ambedkar installed nearby. Here, the gallery walls were filled by twenty-seven monotypes, which the artist made by ink-jet printing the images on plastic sheets and then manually transferring them onto paper while the ink was still wet. These hazy, drippy, haunting images pay homage to the unknown ten thousand who participated in the Mahad satyagraha. Even through this blur, we are able to see the personhood of the people pictured. A smiling face or a stare, an adjustment of posture or a patting down of hair: These gestures indicate people who are preparing to assign themselves to the history of a site that has deeply affected their lives.

Goody further commemorated the unknown participants of the satyagraha with her untitled central installation of about ten thousand small, domical ceramic objects. Largely glazed in blue-green tones to signify water, these items were arranged in the shape of the square pond. Hand pinched to resemble the architecture of Buddhist stupas, the sculptures stand for the largely unknown participants in the events at Mahad. The artist left just enough space for viewers to circumambulate around the installation, as one would in prayer around a stupa. There are many references here. For example, stupas are sacred to Dalits, many of whom, like Ambedkar himself, converted to Buddhism in hope of escaping caste-based violence and oppression.

Goody has constantly returned to the act of ripping and pulping the Manusmriti. The act of pulping by hand until the ink is released from paper symbolically erases these oppressive verses. By the end, the mulch is just gray material that she can recycle into paper or use as cladding for architectural surfaces. In this instance, the central pillar of the gallery was covered in Manusmriti pulp. A shelf at the far end of the gallery held a display of Goody’s small publications. In them, stories extracted from memoirs by Dalit authors are condensed into poems. Recurrent concerns in these texts are acts of eating, playing, and navigating public spaces with others. For a community that is discriminated against and persecuted for these very actions, such mundane activities can represent both revolt and resistance. As Goody reminds us, we need to continue telling stories like those of a people who reclaimed their basic human right with a sip of forbidden water.