Rajyashri Goody

Burning books and making ghosts

What if you wear clean clothes?

If you put a tiled roof on your house?

If you send your children to school?

What if you give up carrying dead animals,

eating carrion, and begging from door to door?

If you change your religion?

If you call yourself by a decent, respectable name?

If your house faces the main road?

If the sound you make falls upon their ears? 

If you enter a profession, obtain a position of authority,

buy land, enter commerce, become economically independent,

are counted among the well-to-do?

Why should they suppress you?

Why do they all conspire to hold you at bay?

Adapted from ‘Their Wishes Are Laws Unto Us’ by Dr. Ambedkar

The Manusmriti is a revered ancient text written between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE. It is an anthology of rules and directions for social life, and gives sanction to practices of caste and gender-based segregation and Untouchability. The Manusmriti states that the god Brahma created Brahmins from his mouth, Kshatriyas from his shoulders, Vaishyas from his knees, Sudras from his feet. Dalit, or ex-Untouchable people, have a place below the feet. For thousands of years, these rules have dictated every aspect of our lives, from what our names are, what we wear, the work we do, where we live, where we can go, what food we eat, which water we drink, and who we marry. Babytai Kamble, in her book The Prisons We Broke (2009), writes about a Dalit family whose caste job included informing everybody about a death in the village, and collecting sticks for the funeral pyre. Once the body was at the pyre, the white cloth covering it would be thrown off. This, and the bamboo used for carrying the body, were considered payment for the Dalit family. The cloth would then be washed thoroughly and used to make clothes out of. Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan (2008) describes his family members waiting outside a wedding celebration in the village with huge baskets, to collect the dry leaf plates from the guests once they had eaten their fill. These plates would be taken home to save any leftovers remaining on them. These customs have roots in the Manusmriti, so deep that one may never have read the text but may follow its rules unquestioningly throughout one’s life.

The Manusmriti also places strict controls on literacy. According to the pronouncements, Dalit people are not allowed to read and write. This has left a deep impact on the development of the Dalit community, and even today, with constitutional safeguards in place, a large section remains illiterate. Dr. Ambedkar, born in 1891, was able to go to school despite daily hardship and discrimination by teachers and Caste-Hindu classmates. He even managed to study the language of the scriptures Sanskrit, secretly, having been denied access to it at school. In 1912, he was the first in his community to receive a BA degree, and a string of educational achievements followed from New York and London. In India he committed his life towards the upliftment of Dalit people and the annihilation of caste. It was he who, on 25th December, 1927, publicly burnt a copy of the Manusmriti in the town of Mahad in Maharashtra.

This gesture has become Manusmriti Dahan Din, commemorated every year by Dalit people across the country as a symbol of rejection of the practice of Untouchability.

I may seem hard on Manu, but I am sure my force is not strong enough to kill his ghost. He lives like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to, and I am afraid will yet live long.

Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development by Dr. Ambedkar

The burning of the Manusmriti was an incredibly powerful act, but Ambedkar recognised that without deep structural, religious change, Manu’s words would continue to reside in people, no matter how many copies of the Manusmriti continue to be incinerated. Today, crimes against Dalit people are surging, particularly Dalit women, and Untouchability, though illegal, is still practiced across the country. Just this month, January 2024, a Dalit woman was pushed into a cauldron of hot oil at the oil mill where she worked, and two Dalit women were assaulted for drinking water from a source near a temple. Perhaps this is why, in my practice, I choose to make pulp from the Manusmriti, instead of burning it. I seem to be stuck, haunted by the ghost of Manu like so many people around me. The pulping is a long, drawn out, repetitive process, attempting to strip the power away from a thing so beyond my own control or strength. And yet I must, and I do, continue to have hope. If Manu’s ghost refuses to die, Ambedkar is alive too, with statues of him in every Dalit neighbourhood, dressed in a bright blue suit, a pen in his pocket, and holding a copy of the Constitution of India. The pulp I make, erased of its original words, is a blank surface, a white sheet of paper, waiting to hold ink, to make new meaning, to fight back with dignity and self-respect.

When the sun begins to set

and the cattle return to the village,

gather in front of the temple

to play the halgi.

When you are done with Maruti,

Vital-Rakhumai, Lakshmi-ai,

saluted each and every god

go back to your hut.

In the dark,

when the stoves are lit

and the village cooks their bhakri

go, stick in hand,

and stand in front

of the doors of the upper castes

and in a pitiful voice, beg

them to feed the lowly,

to give you some roti.

Compete in your begging

with the Yeskars.

The woman of the house

might give you both something.

Now reject this life.

In the morning,

when the farmers

let their animals loose,

go to the enclosures.

Fill the shit and piss

gathered through the night in baskets.

Carry it to the dung heap.

Dispose of it there.

Wash the pen.

Clean the women’s courtyard.

Dispose of the dirt.

Wipe away the sweat.

Set the baskets down by the wall

and peer through a window

into the house.

A voice from inside might tell you

to take the bhakri

before you leave.

With the edge of your sari over your head,

your eyes fixed on the ground,

take the stale bhakri.

Let this go on for generations.

the cleaning of the shit

the begging for bread

not raising your head to speak

a life of dependence.

Now reject this life.

Adapted from Strike A Blow To Change The World by Eknath Awad

Rajyashri Goody (1990) b. Pune, India, lives and works in India and the Netherlands.

Goody has a B.A in Sociology from Fergusson College, Pune and an M.A in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester, UK. She has had two solo shows - with Galleryske, New Delhi and Clark House Initiative, Mumbai, and group shows across the world. She was a resident at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam from 2021-2023.

Goody's art practice is informed by her academic background and her Ambedkarite Dalit roots. She is interested in creating space and time for thinking through everyday instances of caste-based violence and Dalit resistance, and how elements like food, nature, language and literacy are actively used as tools to enforce caste rules for generations.

Goody incorporates various mediums in her practice – text, voice, paper pulp, ceramics, photography, printmaking, video and installation.