I had been carrying The Prisons We Broke like a talisman for months, skirting the pages, keeping a safe distance by holding it close. In the stillness of lockdown, through Babytai Kamble’s words I was transported to Veergaon, into the world of the Mahars of Maharashtra.
Kamble’s historical account is the first autobiography by a Dalit woman in Marathi, capturing the dawn of the Ambedkarite era. Although it is a short read, it carries the weight of a tome and the monumentality of an epic. Kamble recounts that which only a woman could—the passing of each day in domestic spaces, the worship of local deities and rituals, the physical toll of violent spiritual possessions and superstitious beliefs. Through her eyes, we see the lice-infested rags stitched together to cover the women’s bodies, we sense the layers of dust and dirt upon our own skin, taste the stew of decaying food and smell the acrid stench of animal carcasses in the waste pits.
Woven in are the most graphic accounts of the lives of the Mahar women. The child brides are battered by floggings, torture and dismemberment at the hands of their in-laws. Kamble details childbirth in abject poverty—the repeated prodding of unlearned midwives, the gnawing hunger in the empty belly of the new mother and the dirty rags used to stop the incessant bleeding. Whilst some women plan a treacherous escape from their marital homes, others are forced into heavy iron stocks that lacerate their feet. Miraculously, the women are not broken by the rage of caste and patriarchy: every morning they sing sweet songs to their children as they grind stones.
These harrowing instances of deprivation and disillusionment are described without a grain of self-pity or glorification. The emotion Kamble withholds makes the rawness of her writing more palpable and confronting. She speaks as one with her community, in a voice that does not censor the carnage of caste.
For every Dalit, The Prisons We Broke stirs that which cannot be described. It unstitches a century-old wound and awakens remnants of memories that are our birthright. There is an unborn and imperishable cord that connects us to each Dalit life and generation. The impressions and sensations held within us are pre-language yet are evoked powerfully through Kamble’s words.
Babytai Kamble’s visceral language guided my material expression as I sought to create a work that was as monumental as her writing. When I closed my eyes, in the darkness I saw centuries of accrual compressed like geological strata. I set about forming this landscape, led by intuition through a process that was much like drawing from images in my peripheral vision.
I turned to familiar materials: cow dung—used by the Mahars to polish the walls and floors, thick tar in all its tonal ranges, wax as smooth and impressionable as skin, the roughened edges of coir rope, laal dhaga from my travels that had now been worn down to a lifeless red, Indian cotton soaked in black charcoal and oil, vats of human hair, coconut husk, broom sticks from a jhadu and radiant gold leaf.
My materials are my words and they are not dictated, they come from the same embryonic silence from which the art is born. They are potent and charged with the politics of my body. In the cacophony of these heightened times, it is this silence that I return to, that I know to be true.
—Kirtika Kain, 2020
Kirtika Kain (b. 1990) draws from archives and literature in an intuitive and alchemical practice that confronts the embodied stigma of the Dalit or “Untouchable” caste, into which she was born. This exhibition reflects the artist’s ongoing interest of shedding light onto neglected histories, recasting the historical representation of her community and contributing to the dearth of their surviving art and material culture. Kain was awarded the Lloyd Rees Memorial Youth Art Award and Hornsby Art Prize (Printmaking) in 2017. As the recipient of the Bird Holcomb MFA Scholarship, she graduated Masters of Fine Arts at National Art School in 2018. In 2019, she completed consecutive studio residencies in New Delhi, supported by Art Incubator and the Dyason Bequest, and at the British School at Rome. She was recently a finalist in the 2020 Create NSW Emerging Artist Fellowship at Artspace and is currently a recipient of the Parramatta Artist Studios program.
Stone Idols is Kirtika Kain’s second solo exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.