The people have been asking me.
What should I tell them?
I’m the people’s poet,
I’ll tell it straight
Why should I stammer?
With a gamcha wrapped around his head in the style of a peasant from the northern Indian state of Bihar, Nagarjun (1911-1998) was a people’s poet who looked the part. He would break into an impish grin even as his words tore through the corruption and complicity that have long defined postcolonial India’s political scene. As a multilingual poet – he chose to write in his native Maithili as well as the more widespread Hindi, and also in Sanskrit and Bengali – he addressed local audiences in several regions and also a wider national audience. Born into an orthodox Brahmin family in Bihar’s Madhubani district as Vaidyanath Mishra, he renamed himself Nagarjun on converting to Buddhism in the 1930s. His Buddhism was coloured by a Marxist solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable. Revolutionary in his politics, he was experimental in his poetics, constantly testing the limits of language.
Nagarjun’s stance, in some of his poems, might cautiously be described as Ginsbergian. He met Allen Ginsberg when the Beat poet visited India in the early 1960s. If Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1955) was the poster poem of the counterculture and had influenced the best minds across the globe, the Beat poet learned from the Bihari poet too. Their lively exchange of ideas cut both ways across the North-South axis. In Banaras, Nagarjun introduced Ginsberg to the harmonium.2 Originally imported into India by European missionaries, this instrument has become integral to popular performances of Hindu devotional songs composed by dissident Bhakti saints such as Tukaram, Meerabai, Chandidas and Kabir. Ginsberg carried the harmonium with him to the US, where it became part of his performance repertoire based on extempore improvisation.
Arguably Ginsbergian in its effect is Nagarjun’s ‘Mantra Kavita’ (‘Invocatory Poem’), which he wrote in 1969 during the heady days of the counter-culture, and in the aftermath of the far-Left peasant uprising staged in Naxalbari in 1967, which shook the Indian polity. This poem howls with a disruptive anti-establishment energy, playfully breaching the borders of the high and the low, juxtaposing incantatory Sanskrit with street vernacular, kindling the chants of the sacrifice with the slogans of the protest march.
In ‘Mantra Kavita’, the anaphoristic use of the primal syllable ‘Om’ – with which all of Hinduism’s sacred chants begin – should have filled our lungs with a cosmic expansiveness. Instead, we grow breathless as our recitation of ‘Om’ is followed by a staccato litany of clichés drawn from politics, journalese, and bureaucratese. We are reminded that ‘mantra’, the Sanskrit word for a sacred chant, can also mean a well-parroted formula in English. Take a deep breath and receive the vibrations emanating from Nagarjun’s fierce satire:
Om Revolution, Revolution, Revolution, All-knowing Revolution
Om Peace, Peace, Peace, All-knowing Peace
Om Delusion, Delusion, Delusion, All-knowing Delusion
Om Help, Help, Help, Help
Om Remove, Remove, Remove, Remove
Om Encircle, Encircle, Encircle, Encircle
Om Perform, Perform, Perform, Perform
Om Among parties one party that’s our own, Om
Om Confirmation, Purification, Nationalisation
Om Fistification, Soft-soapification, Justification3
Had Nagarjun been alive in these Covidine times, he would have spoken truth to power. During the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, when civil freedoms were suspended and all democratic institutions superseded, he wrote scathing poems against her. He joined the opposition leader Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement for a ‘total revolution’ against Mrs Gandhi, and was imprisoned.4 Today, under a right-wing government committed to an authoritarian populism, Indians live in a permanent state of emergency. The views they hold, the food they eat, the religion or caste into which they are born, determines what kind of balancing act they need to perform to survive. Lawyers, scholars, poets, and political activists are languishing in jail. Their crime? Speaking up for the rights of workers, women, the formerly untouchable Dalit community, religious minorities, and indigenous communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown could not have been more propitious for the Indian government. A year that began with mass protests – most dramatically, the protests led by economically vulnerable Muslim women against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which could be misused to disenfranchise India’s Muslim minority – was plunged into silence by the lockdown. Bustling cities became spectral wastelands overnight, haunted by the bloody footprints of migrant workers who had to walk long distances, often without food and water, to reach their villages. While Parliament was in abeyance, labour laws were tweaked to increase working hours to 12 hours a day. Mining, hydroelectric power and highway construction projects were cleared in flagrant defiance of environmental laws. Meanwhile, all debate has been silenced in the sacrosanct name of the Nation, invoked in the most hypernationalist, majoritarian terms.
In India, the ruling Hindu-majoritarian party has proclaimed a new slogan: "Vocal about local”. This populist commandment and its twin, “Self-reliance”, offer no economic salve to the country’s falling growth rate. They propose no geopolitical strategy for engaging with China, which has flooded India’s economy with an excess of goods and now threatens India with a Himalayan war.
The lockdown has brought back the ideological obsession with the local, which had retreated after the onset of globalisation in the 1990s, when the trope of the local became reinterpreted as the ‘glocal’, indicating a shifting balance between a regional culture’s distinctiveness and global culture’s homogenising influence. Populist authoritarians are now weaponizing the exceptionalism of the hypernationalist local everywhere: Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ideology in Turkey, the ghosts of the Arrow Cross Party raised by Orban in Hungary, Trump’s appeal to those who worship the phantoms of the Ku Klux Klan.
I was introduced to Nagarjun by Ranjeeta Kumari (born 1983), an artist who lives in Patna, Bihar’s capital. The poet was meant to provide an epigraph to this text on how Indian artists have been dealing with the cross-hatch of the local during the lockdown. Instead, he offered a detour into the turbulent present. Like Nagarjun, Ranjeeta is a Bihari – although she belongs, by birth, to the historically exploited Dalit community, at the other and utterly vulnerable end of the caste hierarchy. “When I was growing up,” she tells me, “my father often said that we are the people of the ‘hashiya’, the margin.” She has experienced the local about which we should really be vocal: a fraught, increasingly volatile array of social interrelationships mapped across neighbourhoods polarized along religious lines, villages through which fault lines of caste now run ever more sharply, towns where the ties between ethnic groups have become frayed under political pressure.
Ranjeeta’s father, who was associated with the local chapter of the CPI (Communist Party of India), had begun to read Marx and Lenin early. Under his tutelage, she was socialized into an ethos shaped by these seminal figures, vibrant with the writings of radical poets like Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Nagarjun.5 Just as influential, to father and daughter, is the foundational legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the dynamic and visionary leader of the Dalit community and chairman of the committee that drafted independent India’s Constitution in the late 1940s. From this Marxist-Ambedkarite background, the artist inherits her resolve to fight against the tyrannies of class-caste discrimination.
Meanwhile, Ranjeeta’s mother – who could not complete her own school education – gave her the gift of an oral tradition of storytelling, song and artisanship, customarily known as an alekhya (literally, ‘unwritten’) transmission. Her mother embellished everything: beauty was a means of survival as well as conviviality. For several generations, Ranjeeta’s family has crafted objects from bamboo: she grew up seeing relatives make baskets, winnowing trays and fans. Her extended family has practised the upcycling art of the sujani, stitching quilts – often collectively – from old saris and embroidering patterns on them: “Women tell their stories in these sujanis.”
The donkey is a recurrent image in Ranjeeta’s work. Enslaved, humiliated, not-quite horse, it grazes in her imagination. She grows wistful: “I can hear the voice of the silbatta-wallah from my childhood. He would be accompanied by his donkey, crippled by the load of heavy masala grinding stones for sale.” Yet Ranjeeta’s ongoing ‘Donkey’ series, begun in 2016, is tender in its tenor, without being sentimental.
The weight of history could have broken the animal’s spirit, but it sets out, carrying on its resilient back a giant black cloud perforated with star-seeds. Ranjeeta’s washes and drips dance between calibration and instinct, releasing a slow radiance. Her handling of watercolour is fluid: “I feel a great sense of freedom while making a watercolour.” She transmits that freedom to the figure of the isolated donkey, which streams and flows, its eternal exploitation unravelling, even if for a moment.
Apart from the talismanic donkey, Ranjeeta paints inanimate objects associated with the life of manual work, such as the gamcha, as well as objects signifying the unregarded and unpaid domestic labour of women, such as the grinding stone, wok, and sieve. By defamiliarizing these objects from their functional contexts, Ranjeeta reveals their ‘latent physiognomy’, a term I borrow from the Hungarian film theorist Bela Balazs. The red-checkered cotton gamcha – a multipurpose cloth used as a towel or a headscarf by Bihari peasants and workers – is choreographed into an origami dance in ‘Afternoon’ (2016). A dance that reveals dried blood spotting the checkered pattern, or allows the gamcha to float above a spectral train, reminding us of the Bihari migrant workers who crisscross the country in overcrowded locomotives. Bihar has been one of the worst-affected of India’s states during the lockdown, having to deal with the reverse migration of thousands of workers forced to leave the big cities and return home.
In her 2018 installation, ‘Poetry of Resistance’ at The Showroom, London, Ranjeeta articulated her solidarity with the women of her region, who have borne the brunt of the migrant labour syndrome, being left to run households by themselves. A grid of old saris collected from her neighbourhood functioned like a seismograph, registering the tremors of women’s minds and bodies, their desires, their sorrows, their hesitation. Each square of sari, with its discoloration, wrinkles and stains, told a unique story. She contrasted their drudgery with the buoyant liminal spaces they open up through craft, song and performance. In a video on ‘Gaali Geet’ – ‘songs of abuse’ sung by Bihari women during wedding celebrations – Ranjeeta bears witness to a release mechanism for the women’s pent-up emotions. As a child, she was shocked by the vulgarity peppering the songs and the general merriment aided by the alcohol that flowed freely during the festivity. This raw, colloquial take on the classical trope of viraha or separation expresses the loneliness of the rural wife as she deals with the absence of a husband forced to migrate to Delhi, Bengal or Punjab in search of work.
I would contend that Ranjeeta’s art does not turn migration and labour into abstract propositions. It relays them through the luminosity of loneliness. An epic loneliness that comes from centuries of exclusion as well as centuries of fortitude. Only women can create communities of caring, conviviality, and laughter to push back this loneliness.
Ranjeeta uses the untranslatable word ‘sukun’ to express her happiness at my engagement with her art practice in its contextual materiality, instead of beginning with readymade, universalizing notions about ‘Dalit art’. While this term could be empowering as a basis for resistance, the artist has misgivings about her work being confined within such a category. In trying to make up for centuries of caste oppression, we risk creating another silo into which artists of Dalit origin may find themselves corralled. As Ranjeeta says, “It is like being stamped with caste and casteism once again. And the insecurity and inferiority complex that I have fought against come back to haunt me.”
The prerogative to engage with their history and deploy it as they wish in their art can belong only to artists of Dalit origin themselves. The Dalit identity, as reflected in Ranjeeta Kumari’s work, is an intersectional one in which the themes of caste, class and gender overlap. By sensationalizing the ethnographic details of a person’s birth community to salvage our guilt, we only contribute to ghettoizing that person. To vocalize the local, we must deal with its complex granularity, not fetishize it.