The Bombay Black exhibition at the ongoing Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai is about the city’s relationship with the colour black. A part of the project that features several contemporary artists, this photo series has portraits from rural Maharashtra. Padma Shri winner Sudharak Olwe, award winning photojournalist Helena Schätzle, along with advocate Sujit Nikalje and journalist Shraddha Ghatge travelled to Beed, Satara and Pune to discover what sort of oppression Dalits face in rural Maharashtra.
Among the photos is one that captures the despair of the Udage family. The 25-year-old bread winner of the family, Manik Udage, was hacked to death for celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti in 2014.
A contractor by profession, Manik was threatened not to celebrate the event by men from the upper cast. When he didn’t take the threats seriously, Manik disappeared and his brother Shravan found Manik’s mutilated body two days later.
But that was just the beginning of Shravan and his mother’s problems. Though the men responsible for Manik’s death have been apprehended, Shravan and his mother have been under constant pressure to take back the case against the accused men. They haven’t even found a permanent lawyer to fight their case yet and have to live under 24 hour police protection because of threats.
Speaking of the photo series, Olwe says he is passionate about this work for one reason: “It is about giving downtrodden people a voice. My camera and I, we want to give them a voice. These images are a gateway to bringing change. These people I photograph, they are human beings too, just like you and me; and yet they have to go through so much. ”
“Maharashtra is such a progressive state and the fact that this [dalit oppression] is happening is not good. They are polarising and diving the state with caste politics. It is a land of Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule and Samartha Ramdas.”
“Because these atrocities are happening around Maharashtra I felt it was necessary to visit them and see what is happening. A photo can capture emotion that can touch a raw nerve and propel people to make a change,” Olwe concluded.
Special Public Prosecutor for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks case Ujjwal Nikam, who visited the exhibition on 9 February, also noted that the Dalit atrocities in rural Mahatrashtra have reached an extreme level. “It is upsetting that it has come to this. I am honoured that people have faith in me, faith that I can help them achieve justice,” he said.
The Paradhi tribe: Termed as a ‘criminal tribe’ during the British Rule, the Paradhis, though denotified in 1952, are still struggling for their basic rights as they live under the shadow of their past identity and rigid orthodoxy. About 17 Paradhi families lost their houses which were allegedly vandalised by the neighbouring upper caste families. All they now have is an open place with only one broken tent covered with a black plastic sheet as their roof.
Rohan Kakade: Just a day before he turned 19, Rohan Kakade was brutally murdered. A Mahar (lower caste) boy from Satara, Rohan was murdered by five men over suspicion of having an affair with the sister of one of the accused. The perpetrators chopped off Rohan’s head, burnt his body and dumped it in some hilly area near Jadhavvadi waterfall.
Sagar Shejwal: The 24-year-old nursing student who lived in Shirdi had his whole life ahead of him until he made a fatal mistake of changing his phone’s ringtone to a one that praises Dr Ambedkar. In May 2016, Shejwal was assaulted and killed by upper caste men who were intoxicated.
Salave Guruji: Salave Guruji, a 69-year-old retired primary school teacher, was lynched by an angry mob of upper caste people with sticks, swords and iron rods when he came to resolve an ongoing dispute between two castes in Bagh Pimpalgaon in 2009.
All photos courtesy Sudharak Owle and Helena Schätzle. Text courtesy Shraddha Ghatge.
The Black Bombay exhibition is on at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival; at the Jehangir Art Gallery until 13 February 201