Arnab Adak /India

Worshipping the Name

Caste system in India - the four-fold varna system- was arranged in a stringent rather rigid hierarchy, the highest caste being that of the Brahmins. Other castes included the nobility and the military, the mercantile class, and the farmers. Those not included in the caste system were quite literally 'outcasts' and deemed 'untouchables', whose very touch, even their shadow, was detested and avoided like plague. Outcastes were subjected to unspeakable social humiliation, and they barely had the right to life. The irony of the situation was, while they were burdened with the scavenger's duty of keeping human habitat clean, their bodies - their touch, their shadows - were codified as unclean, defiled, and contaminated. The term 'Dalit', derived from the Sanskrit word, 'dalita', which is used to designate these outcastes literally translates into 'the oppressed' - a fitting nomenclature for a population of people who have been at the receiving end of mindless upper caste brutality for ages. In the 19th century, setting an exemplary mechanism of revolt, a sect of these people called Ramnami, tattooed their bodies and faces with the name of the Hindu God, Ram. This was a disruptively bold act, given that outcastes were barred from entering temples, although they were the ones who kept the temple precincts clean.

Since the middle of the 20th century, under the aegis of colonial rule, the country has enacted several laws and taken social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. Mahatma Gandhi's renaming of 'untouchables' as 'Harijan' (meaning, people of the God) gained some political currency before the independence. However, Gandhi's endeavour of appropriating the Dalits into the Hindu caste-fold was contested by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who thought it was important to recognise Dalits as an independent community, outside the Hindu caste-system. In any case, little has changed so far. The caste-system is not dead yet, although it has been outlawed. Caste-based prejudices are rampant, and the cycles of poverty inherited from that system persist. In fact, casteism is so inextricably ingrained in people's mind that despite conscious-raising programmes across the country, the hierarchical power relation between the 'caste' Hindus and the outcastes has not essentially changed. Instances of casteist violence in both urban and rural sectors fill newspaper columns even today.

Till this day, the Ramnamis worship, and sing and dance the praises of Ram. They have faith in the power of his name and recite and swear by the holy Ramayana, a scripture that combines ethical values with the spiritual beauty of poetry. They neither maintain a temple nor worship an idol. However, the population of the Ramnami Samaj is shrinking due to the socio-economic approach of the newer generations and as a result, a group, once prominent in the society, is on the verge of extinction.

Curator Statement:

The caste system, hierarchy, and its complexity in the Indian social structuring have been a subject of introspection in this modern world, where all human beings are meant to be equal, yet this equality defies the convenience of the people on top.

Arnab brings us the story of a small section of the oppressed community of Dalits who in their own and in the slightest symbolic way made an effort to raise their voices, silently rebelling in the form of Ramnami's. The Ramnani's permanently tattoed the name of the most loves Hindu god "Ram" all over their bodies, in the Devanagri script as a form of a silent protest.

The photographer creates an intriguing series of portraits of their simple, curious, and quiet world.

( Sandeep Biswas )

Arnab Adak is a self-taught and a self driven photographer living in Kolkata, India. He holds a degree in Mathematics and a Post Grad in Computer Applications and works with a consulting firm to provide business and technology solutions. The primary focus of his photography is to delineate various cultural, social and environmental concerns that need attention and raise awareness among the masses. His works cover gender issues, climate issues, caste issues and religious or social events that impose threat to humanity in the social platform.

He is the recipient of the Silver Prize in the United Nations Environment Program, 1st place: outstanding achievement in the International Color Awards, performance award in Humanity Photo Awards and honourable mentions in Black & White Spider Awards, Moscow International Photo Awards etc. His works have been selected for exhibition at the Environmental Photographer of the Year for two consecutive years. His works are published in magazines like Creative Image, Life Force, Dodho etc.