Rajyashri Goody on Pulp & Porcelain

A conversation about Dalit histories and the caste system, and how experimenting with materials can be used to tell stories

Maddie Rose Hills: Can you share some of the historic and personal narratives within your practice?

Rajyashri Goody: I guess, the main theme of all my practice is around the caste system and how it's functioned historically as well as now in India, in South Asia everyday. And I'm particularly interested in Dalit histories or ex-untouchable histories, and how the rules of the caste system have affected our daily lives. But also, and especially in the last hundred years, what has changed and what my community has changed, in order to push themselves forward from this system. So I guess that's a major historical and current narrative in my work.

MRH: You’ve studied on theoretical and academic courses such as sociology. And so that made me think, how do materials and visual languages change the way that you engage with / express that research?

RG: Well I studied sociology and then I studied visual anthropology, and with visual anthropology I think that gave me a bit of a sort an idea of the possibilities of visual and also sound as a possibility for doing research. And just how much a photograph can carry, or how much a video can carry in conveying something, that possibly writing might not have enough of. So I think that did have a big impact on me. I mean, like photography and film and sound are also materials, right? I think learning a bit of that gave me the confidence to look at other mediums as a possibility for having the same strength to convey certain things. Especially because there's kind of a shared understanding and language with different kinds of materials, whether it's like paper or clay, that you can start somewhere with an audience and take them much more easily than you would say, like an academic paper. But I was very excited, and I still am, in the possibilities of just in-depth academic research. And yeah, I think that's also quite an important thing for me. But I think it comes down to, yeah, like how to share this with, with other people as well. Yeah.

MRH: So do you still engage with that then, like writing your own papers and academic research as well?

RG: Honestly, not really. I do a lot of reading of academic papers, especially with caste and different themes around caste. I try to read a lot of what other people have written, whether they're sociologists or anthropologists or historians. So I feel like I still engage with it. I try to take as much in as I can. But to do it myself, I guess now I'm a bit spoiled where I find it a bit limiting. I think that's the freedom of making something or doing some research and then calling it Art. Just having that possibility for your own opinions and imagination also to come in a bit. Which I think is hard with academic writing. I mean it's a whole other thing.

MRH: How do you arrive at these material processes such as paper porcelain, or your photographic printing methods where you really distort those photos. Both of which are so visually unique. So I guess that's kind of a question about - how does it work in the studio phase?

RG: Um, well, I think I with people porcelain, that process has existed for a very long time, sort of mixing paper in clay. And even when I was in India, the studio that I would work at would use like paper in clay a lot to make their clay works. Because it helps me make like big clay objects lighter if you mix paper in clay. And so it’s not a new technique at all. But I just got fascinated with the idea that, like, it is paper and you’re technically burning the paper within the clay to make it what it is. And I just felt like that really works in the context that I was thinking of, and I was thinking of the manusmriti, which is this law book. And what happens if I put some of it's pulp into this porcelain and then yeah the paper sort of vanishes, but the porcelain becomes hard and, you know, has the possibility to last forever if it's taken care of. And it was just like thinking about that, like what you can do with ceramics, you can make clay hollow, but you can also burn off something like paper or other organic materials in that same process. But it was really about like, yeah, if I want to destroy something, how in this situation or with the photographs that are a bit distorted. It was. Yeah. Like that's specifically to do with this body of work around water and caste. And they were photographs that I have taken off of Google Maps, which are like people were taking them around this water tank, and I felt like those photographs were quite important to be seen. But yeah, I didn't just want to show them as, like photographs on Google Maps. I just wanted to involve the element of the water in it a bit more and make them, I don't know, like, almost make them like more precious than just, you know, like some data hanging around on Google. So with that, I tried this technique where I would print it on plastic so the ink can't, like, seep into the plastic. So the ink is just sort of like hovering on the plastic. And then I transferred that onto printmaking paper. So technically it's just printed the same way that you would a regular image. But because the ink doesn't seep in, it becomes like it's still wet and it starts moving around. Yeah, those were the sort of things I ended up with.

MRH: In this work you were taking pages from the manusmriti and turning it to pulp. Can you tell us more about the process of pulping and how it can relate to power in your opinion?

RG: I guess I was kind of interested in its possibility of just being paper, and the fact that if you tear up paper you can use the same thing to make more paper. It was kind of interesting as a material that you can just sort of reuse it technically again and again. And with the manusmriti, activists have burnt it. So our leader burnt it in 1927. And people have burned it afterwards as well because it does have many discriminatory things written in it. But our leader, Dr. Ambedkar, somewhere he also wrote that you can burn as many of these books as you like, but it's not going to make a difference until you structurally change something. And so there was this sort of interesting thing, like, you know, you're burning a book as a gesture, but ultimately it's just a gesture. And for me, the pulping is kind of in line with that, that it is just a gesture, because technically the words of the book are, even if I ever raised them, it's still somewhere in there. And I think for me it is full of hope as well because it's a blank piece of paper. But at the same time, I have used it to like the book hasn't gone away like its words haven’t really like it's still sort of part of it

MRH: Totally. The fire would get rid of it, whereas you're kind of working with the transformative nature of a material to turn it into something new. And you are sort of creating a future for that..

RG: Yeah, and I think that's also a big part of like Dalit history as well. At least within my community I see that we haven't forgotten our past or at least maybe we just can't because it's still sort of quite difficult for people from lower caste communities. But it's also like, how do you move forward while acknowledging what has already happened and what is happening still.. But how do you still keep moving forward? You can't really make a blank slate, as much as my blank paper is like hinting at that, but I know that it's not blank. So there is a bit of sadness in it, and I guess ridiculousness in the repetition. But it's also like, okay, despite this sadness, there is something happening. There is some transformation.