Art & Voices Matter: Sajan Mani puts a spotlight on casteism through his work

Intersectional and multidisciplinary artist, Sajan Mani, currently based in Berlin, questions the non-existing histories of Dalit and hegemonic Brahmanical archives.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jul 12, 2021

Sajan Mani is an intersectional artist who explores the idea of caste and colour through his work. He was born in 1981 in Kannur, a remote village in the northern part of Kerala, India, and currently lives and works in Berlin. Mani has participated in international biennales, festivals, exhibitions and residencies, including CODA Oslo International Dance Festival, Norway (2019); Ord & Bild, Sweden (2019); India Art Fair (2019); “Specters of Communism”, at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2017); Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh (2016); Kampala Art Biennale, Uganda (2016); Kolkata International Performance Arts Festival (2014–16); and Vancouver Biennale, Canada (2014). For 2019–2021 the multidisciplinary artist has received an artistic research grant from the Berlin Senat, Fine Arts Scholarship from Braunschweig Projects and the Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship, Germany.

Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs | Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs by Sajan Mani Image: Billie Clarken

1. Please talk about your general practice.

Body, space, and time are my fundamental medium. My works are based on long durational artistic research. Moving images, drawings, performances, sculpture are all part of my practice. I am not just interested in visuals, but sensorial too. In my recent solo show Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs, you could touch, smell, and feel the works on natural rubber. I think any performance or performative installation, or an exhibition is a process rather than the final work, and everything is interconnected. I do not differentiate my life from my works. That boundary is really a blurred one for me. I think I have been performing since my birth…

Shot from Kampala Biennale | Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Shot from Kampala Biennale Image: Courtesy of Sajan Mani

2. What are the key concerns that you aspire to address through your work? What prompted you to make this your area of focus?

My practice is largely about the ‘Post-colonial black Dalit body’ in space. Caste is the fundamental social reality and the most violent oppressive system of India and South Asia. But when you look in to the visual art history of India, you will not find any (probably one exception is Ramkinkar Baij) critical reflection on caste. Rather it was/is largely supportive of Brahmanical knowledge of production through the image culture. Indian modernity was a Brahmanical modernity. As an artist living in 2021, I think it is more than anything but my responsibility to interrupt this hegemonic visual culture and resist this knowledge production. As we know the dissent is violently suppressed in India, most of the think-tanks of the country are in prisons. Artists and cultural practitioners are agents and actors in the production of knowledge. We need to be aware of our complicity in the climate of social and political violence in the country today.

Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs: an exhibition on spirituality, casteism, racism and appropriation, on touch and untouchability | Sajan Mani |Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs: an exhibition on spirituality, casteism, racism and appropriation, on touch and untouchability Image: Billie Clarken

3. How does art interventions aid the process to voice anxieties of the subaltern and question the normative order? Do you think art helps its audience to think and experience about matters that are otherwise considered of a lesser-importance?

I have issue with post-colonial terminologies like subaltern which are made by Indian upper caste academics celebrating post-colonial theories but never open their mouth about the internal coloniser that is Brahmanism.

#makeinindia | Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
#makeinindia Image: Courtesy of Sajan Mani

4. What kind of artistic liberties do you take to reflect (your version of) the reality of the community? 

We do not have a culture of archiving in India. There are some kinds of archives in the form of mythological stories and epics, but even their Dalit bodies were subjugated and erased. In the popular histories our stories and histories were erased, manipulated or appropriated by Brahmanical knowledge production. I do not consider my practice as a singularity. When I perform it is about a collective body rather than a single body. Also, I am excited to work on topics like ‘other than human bodies’, ‘politics of food’, forced migration of plants and trees and our own personal biographies that are connected to the larger story of external and internal colonisations.  

Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs was a solo show by Sajan Mani in Berlin, Germany, 2020 | Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs was a solo show by Sajan Mani in Berlin, Germany, 2020 Image: Billie Clarken

5. How do you involve artistic sensitivity to capture the fragility of the people already relegated to the margins? How do you balance the aspects of sensitivity and solidarity?

Fascism is on our doorsteps. Hindu right wing, which is based on Brahmanical ideology, has already captured the major democratic institutions which include the judiciary. India’s critical minds are inside the prisons (Bhima Koregaon), dissent voices, even from a 21-year-old girl are not allowed. Historically a marginalised body has to strive a lot to move through the oppressive physicality and corrupted power discourse around it. My works are an act of resistance. My everyday life – when I carry my ‘post-colonial black body’ into different public spaces - is itself a political act. That boundary between artist and fragile body is already blurred here. Artists should not be considered to be alienated from the social bodies around us. That is a patriarchal construction. Art and artists are part of the social realities and also active agents of it. That is why the Indian art world is casteist in its foundations and imaginations. My attempt is to find new artistic imaginations and aesthetics with and within ‘Dalit-ness’, erased histories and beauty of labour.  

01 min watch Excerpts from ‘Caste-pital’ Munich, 2018 and 'Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs, Berlin, Germany, 2020| Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Excerpts from ‘Caste-pital’ Munich, 2018 and Alphabet of Touch: Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs, Berlin, Germany, 2020 Video: Courtesy of Sajan Mani

6. Lastly, how far have things changed in past years and what do you aspire as an outcome in medium to long term through your work? 

India is changing. When I was performing in some public spaces about five years ago it was difficult to talk about caste-apartheid to fellow artists and public, even though each of us was connected through caste-based social relations. Now this social reality is becoming more visible and I am glad to see powerful works from young Dalit artists which are an act of resistance in itself. 

I am working with videos, sound, sculptural elements and also excited about artificial intelligence, digital futures. Here in Europe, I am curious to work with archives (in my mother tongue Malayalam) and Dalit bodies have an important relationship with Europe. Many of our archives, photos and letters of our grandparents are present here. In my next fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude I will focus on these histories. 

Sajan Mani | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Sajan Mani Image: Billie Clarken

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

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