With fists in the air and placards in hand, women who have been raped, burned, stripped naked and set on fire have gathered around India to demand that their government acknowledge the crimes committed against them and work to stop other women from facing the same fate.
They are also fighting for their ancestors, who were deemed untouchable before the government abolished the use of the term in 1949.
Many of these Dalit women lack the resources for efficient telecommunication, so they gather in districts near the statue of BR Ambedkar, a legendary Indian politician and former Dalit leader. Police are often nearby, including officers who the women believe are ignoring their rape accusations and sometimes abetting them.
With these women – taking their photo, supporting their stories and spreading their message to the rest of the world – is Dalit-American artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. She is a transmedia artist, which means she creates and translates stories across platforms. It also means that for her, everything about the #Dalitwomenfight movement – from social media posts to professional photography to security training for its participants – is an art form.
“There are so many traditions of art as healing, art as investigation, art as inquiry, and all of those also mean art as social justice and art as self-determination,” Soundararajan told the Guardian.
Her work is backed by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which last week announced that she is part of its inaugural class of Artist as Activist fellows. The fellowship is one of an increasing amount of grants that backs people who blur the lines between engaging with people through art and engaging with people through activism.
Risë Wilson, Rauschenberg’s director of philanthropy, said it can be hard for artists who work on activist projects to find professional support because they are not aligned with one type of engagement, so they slip through the cracks.
But there are increasing amounts of grant programs for the genre and universities have introduced programs in art and activism, which give the concentration a more professionalized look. New York University offers a masters in Arts Politicsand Rutgers University held a prison arts and activism conference in October. “I don’t think enough is known about this way of working,” said Wilson. “It’s not new, but the energy around it is.”
Soundararajan agrees and attributes this new energy to the increasingly networked world, which plays a role in her work to put the voices of Dalit women in one place. “It’s the nature of making art today to be engaged – connecting audiences and reproducing that experience in a kind of spiraling process,” Soundararajan said.
She is going to use the foundation money to close a documentary on #Dalitwomenfight, to finish an art exhibit on the movement and continue to speak about the issues at events around the world. The funds will also help for more practical activism, such as communications and security training workshops for Dalit women.
The movement brings victims of sexual violence and their supporters to “atrocity-prone” areas, where they confront perpetrators, comfort other survivors, hold mass rallies and call out public officials that are not taking action on cases.
While it may look like straightforward activism, Soundararajan pulls from her training as an artist to further the women’s narrative and connect people to these traumatic experiences. Soundararajan is still shaken by a video of a gang rape she watched during a session with other members of the movement about evidence. She said the video was recorded on a mobile phone and distributed through the district to shame the victim. What surprised her most was how banal the image seemed. “We’re so used to dramatic visions of violence, we’re not really prepared as a culture for what real violence looks like,” said Soundararajan.
“As a creator who is making images, making film, making content in that work – you find that real violence is far more disturbing than people really understand,” Soundararajan said. “And when you use art to work in that realm, you have to know what you’re wading into and give yourself and your collaborators time to grieve.”
She believes that violence is meant to destroy meaning and break down how people understand themselves. “So when you start to use art to create in this context, you are rebuilding the bridge of meaning,” she said. “You are constructing a narrative of grace – whatever is happening, I can transcend it.”
Soundararajan believes the sexual violence inflicted on Dalit women underlies a systemic issue with how women in the country are treated. “If you have 80 million to 100 million women whose bodies are porous to this violence, then what is going to be expected to the rest of the status of women in the nation?” she said.
India’s reluctance to address its issues with sexual violence was made clear to an international audience in recent weeks when the country banned the documentary India’s Daughter – which examines the gang rape of an Indian national in Delhi . Soundararajan’s work is meant to extend the conversation beyond the rare case that attracts international attention and show how caste-based rape impacts the entire country’s attitude towards sexual violence.
“There is this aimless conversation about rape in India and somehow Indian men are just more sexist and patriarchal, and it’s not about individual cases and individual localities and perpetrators that are out of control,” she said. “What we’re looking at actually is a system where the rule of law is not being implemented for all.”
Along with the insufficient response to rape cases, Soundararajan is concerned about the status of the Indian activists and organizations that back the movement like her collaborators, the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum. Foreign-owned NGOs have faced increased scrutiny since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister in May. Environmental groups like Greenpeace say they have been targeted by the administration. Meanwhile, the International Dalit Solidarity Network is in its eighth year of waiting to get UN consultative status.
Soundararajan said these and other limits force creativity, but they have also led her to take precautions with her identity. She has worked anonymously in the past to avoid being blacklisted by the government, but now that she is a Rauschenberg fellow, she has decided to not self-censor to take a more firm stance about what’s happening in the country.
“A lot of times when people talk about the caste system, they talk about it being one of the oldest systems of repression in the world,” she said. “But I also like to talk about the fact that that means Dalit movements are one of the oldest resistance movements in the world.”