A Silent Apartheid

DETRITUS, 2012, Kochi-Muziris Biennale - ICU Jest | Kadist Art Foundation Paris 2013

Sponsored by the manufacturer of a cream that ligthenes the skins of dark men, the recently released Bollywood film 'Chennai Express' is basked in racial prejudice and cultural stereotypes. Tamil, the language spoken in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is a classsical language and the only one in India that has continued for over two millenia and continues to exist in the contemporary. It is not mutually-intelligent with Hindi or the languages of North India that are often derived from Sanskrit. Tamil has been a source of much music, literature, and poetry. Though spoken by large diasporas in all Indian cities, it is spoken world-over as Tamilians spread out first as merchants in Southeast Asia and then as refugees of the Sri Lankan Tamil Genocide of 2009 to places such as Paris, Zurich, London and New York. India conveniently ignored this genocide and was complicit in providing arms to the victorious Sri Lankan Army that not only killed its own citizens but decimated their institutions of culture - temples, churches and most importantly the public libraries of Jafna.

Due to a many decade-old cultural insensitivity the Federal Government often holds for neighboring states (that then turn into long socio-political conflicts), India chose to ignore the events in Jaffna.

Tamil often becomes a language to be ridiculed on radio stations, on MTV by presenters and actors mimicking accents, in movies by comedians who polish themselves dark and wear fake moustaches, and every dark-skinned Indian from the south is called a 'Madrasi', after the former name for Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Walking the streets of Paris one might come across numerous portraits of Sharukh Khan, the protagonist of Chennai Express, adorning shopfronts of stores and restaurants run by Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. His movies find francophone audiences, especially in the Marghreb and West Africa. 


The brand he endorses, Fair & Handsome, a skin-tone lightening cream that arose from the desire created by the perversity of the caste system, clearly has intensions of reaching out to a larger market in Tamil Nadu through its sponsorship of 'Chennai Express' by creating a larger acceptance of prejudice and inferiority based on skin colour by mocking the popularly perceived attributes of that culture as un-cool.

Speaking to people from Africa living in the city, we realise how even as India sees Africa as a market for Indian goods, with the semblance of a path towards neo-colonialism apeing China and its exploits in the resource rich continent, Africans in Bombay are heckled everywhere, even in mosques, prompting them to live segregated isolated lives within the city. The city's racism mocks and jeers at those with whom we most approximate in skin colour. 

Caste builds its prejudice in colour. Amol Patil, a young performance artist, critiques the nihilism of the youth in India who are often the targeted audience of skin-whitening cream commercials. International mega-brands such as L'Oreal, Dove and Garnier compete with regional players for skin whitening creams, risking legal suits in the future that may be put against them for propogating racial prejudice, and profiteering on hate. In 'Molt'  a one minute video shows him wriggle out of an outer-molt made of white adhesive or fevicol that he applies on to his body and lets dry. It resembles a snake shedding its skin, an aspirational attribute for most Indians. 

'Impression' is a stop-motion animation using more than 1000 stills of Amol covering his body in henna using intricate designs one finds adorned on the hands and feet of women during Indian weddings. He later pastes the same white onto the dried henna, the adhesive dries and takes on the impression of the henna design as it seeps into it. The performance takes more than 24 hours, where Amol is required to stand and bear the heat of the drying adhesive. Amol then slips out of the dried henna and adhesive as it ftakes the shape of a waistcoat, where in the inner layers one finds the imprints of the texture of his skin and the design of the henna on the outer layer. This 'Impression' metaphors our dead skin and our obsession with changing fashions often used to conceal one's identity.

In 2012, Amol was invited to a performance art festival for the young artists in Nottingham, this was a project funded by the Arts Council England who were required to help in the visa granting process. After his first application of the visa he was informed by the UK Border Agency of his rejection, that claimed his profile matched their definition for a probable illegal economic migrant or alien. Someone who would jump his visa period and not leave the shores of England. These decisions were taken on the lack of adequate funds in his bank account and his marital status as 'single'. He applied once again, his visa to be rejected again stamped onto his passport to further bias any other application to other industrialised nations of Europe. Foreign Embassies in India have outsourced their Visa Services to a private entity called VFS that collects fees, visa forms and passports on behalf of them. Such agencies often profile certain neighbourhoods in cities and income groups that are not seen as favourable for visa seekers.

An ability to travel to residencies and visit museums and art spaces abroad create a certain cultural capital often seen essential to art careers, but most Indian families with median incomes less than 200 dollars a month like that of Amol often do not hold the resources to apply and travel, leaving art practice in developing economies as an arena for the elite.  

Amol created  a public performance called 'Visa Rejects' on a busy street in the district of Colaba where Police seldom grant permission for any such public event due to security arrangements for a large tourist population, the neigbouring court of justice and the seat of the regional government. Enlisting the help of revellers of a religous festival that occurs in Bombay each September he was able to circumvent the rules, gathering a crowd of more than 300 onlookers. The 'Ganpati Festival' had begun as a socio-political initiative by freedom fighters to circumvent British laws that disallowed the gathering of people as they suspected dissent and conspiracy against the crown. Using a plastic film Amol stuck to himself various objects including his passport. 


Amol was born to a family of traditional performers. His grandfather Gunaji Patil was a Povada Singer or a roaming bard who would sing songs to extoll chivalry into the hearts of the people he visited. His father worked for the sanitation department of the Bombay Municipality. His father was also an avant-garde playwright who wrote plays with absurdist situations that discussed the ravages of immigration on the personal lives of the people. But the sanitation department still practices an unfortunate method to clean human faeces from septic tanks and gutters using human labour that do so using their hands put themselves in contact with toxic gases and numerous types of diseases. Most do not live long. In his work 'DETRITUS' Amol uses human hair, which he ties to the spool of a walkman which then turns to form an abstract image one would experience on viewing a moving windmill. When it comes to a standstill one realises that it is human hair. Hair is seen as an unclean impure part of human body, within funerary rites of the Hindus. Pollution from the dead is cleared by shaving ones hair. Amol comments not only the society's refusal to deal with the issue of sanitation workers but also with the prejudices of caste and inherent ideas of pollution within the Indian society that gave birth to unfortunate idea of human untouchability.

A Chawl is a kind of a community building that consists of small one-bedroom homes that share utilties of a balcony and bathroom together with many neighbours. These homes are often community or region specific and over the years create real intimate and close relationships between people living there. It erases the idea of privacy among couples who have to depend on the availability of space to be initmate. The city has unaffordable renting costs for homes, young artists such as Amol rarely find places for studios or personal work. Here he puts his grandfather's creaking bed to motion as if the object captures the latent sexual revolution that is repressed in the city's lack of space.

In the impressive capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, besides relics of a forgotten feudal past are large red sandstone edifices that hold statutes of icons of the Dalit movement, from the architect of the Indian constitution Dr. BR Ambedkar to the living icon and one of India's most powerful women Mayawati. She constucted large parks and round-abouts naming them after leaders of movements against caste and untouchability creating visual icons for India's Dalit, who were considered untouchable under the tenets of Hinduism. The need of an icon may be essential to create an idea of self-respect in a culture that revels in sycophancy, but its is artists such as Amol Patil or Yogesh Barve, hailing from Neo-Buddhist families - Dalit converts to Buddhism, who raise questions by reminding us of the role of caste in India and its silent apartheid.