Painting the History of India’s Anti-Caste Movement

NOIDA, India — A pyramidal arrangement of one hundred frames occupies a long wall within artist Vikrant Bhise’s solo show at Anant Art Gallery. Two words in Devanagari script and the familiar motif of a leaping panther repeat across the series of paintings, instantly catching the eye. This is not material translated from the Black Panther Party; rather, it’s a fragment from the archive of the Dalit Panthers, a radical anti-caste movement started in India in the 1970s and inspired by the same revolutionary ideology.

The 2023 series Archival Historicity/Dalit Panthers draws from the legacy of the artist’s father, Vishvas Bhau Bhise, who was part of the Dalit Panthers in Mumbai and organized alongside leaders including Raja Dhale and Bhai Sangare. Although the artist himself was born only after the Panthers disbanded in 1977, he grew up immersed in the movement’s ethos of equality and justice. Through gouache, watercolor, and ink on reproductions of the letterhead used by the Dalit Panthers, Bhise’s series canonizes the leaders, iconography, and influences the Panthers left on the anti-caste movement in India. Drawing from direct references, the artist weaves a vivid emotional tapestry of the group, moving beyond one-dimensional stereotypes of insurrectionist violence.

Bhise dalit panthers series
Vikrant Bhise, Archival Historicity/Dalit Panthers (2023), gouache on paper, 8 1/4 x 6 inches each, set of 100

The resulting complexity, unfolding across the show, titled Sense and Sensibilities: A Reflective Realisation, is a testament to the importance of platforming artists who narrate history from the vantage point of their lived experiences. Curator Y. S. Alone’s depth of historical knowledge and involvement further frames the works with rich curatorial context through his essay and walkthroughs.

Looming large throughout the exhibition is the figure of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the late revolutionary anti-caste leader who demanded equal rights for Dalits and other caste-oppressed communities alongside the struggle for independence from the British. The polymath advocate and economist became India’s first law minister in 1947, inserting key provisions into the constitution to protect the rights of women, oppressed castes and tribes, and laborers. Bhise depicts Ambedkar’s intersectional contributions in a magnificent 10-panel painting, “Quest for Justice” (2023), stretching 40 feet wide. In it, Ambedkar leads the way with his finger pointing toward the annihilation of caste and other structures of inequality. Following behind is a procession of bodies and burdens deftly intertwined in a defiant style reminiscent of Mexican socialist muralists like José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Bhise includes visual references to some of the contemporary movements rooted in Ambedkar’s teachings, including agitations against Dalit lynchings in Una, Gujarat, opposition to India’s anti-muslim citizenship laws, and farmers’ protests for fair economic policies.

Ambedkar Bhise
Painting depicting B.R. Ambedkar in Vikrant Bhise’s series Archival Historicity/Dalit Panther (2022–23), mixed media on paper, 8 1/3 x 6 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Anant Art Gallery)
Vikrant Bhise Assembly of Parinibban
Vikrant Bhise, “Chaityabhumi: Assembly of Parinibban of Great Being” (2023), oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches

Bhise frequently draws from the confluence of community rituals and his personal experience within them. A standout example of this mode of narration is “Chaityabhumi: Assembly of Parinibban of Great Being” (2023), marking his impressive strides in oil painting. The densely populated canvas charts the landscape of the congregation commemorating Ambedkar’s death anniversary, which attracts millions. The artist maps the scene using the vanishing point technique, illustrating leaders giving speeches amid large cutouts of Ambedkar and Buddha and scores of independent booksellers publishing in a range of languages to channel the energy and importance of this annual assembly. Upending narrow framings of caste-dominant representation, Bhise’s works instead render the grassroots, capturing the interminable movement to rise above caste.

A core aspect of caste violence is the denial of resources, from water to education, and it is especially invigorating to see a show of this magnitude by an Ambedkarite artist. Foregrounding not only scenes of great intensity but also the quiet, quotidian ways in which movements grow, Bhise redeploys the elitism of traditional history painting to center the most marginalized. One such scene, “Jayanti” (2023), points to everyday acts of joy as resistance. Against a deep blue twilight sky, a luminous procession celebrating Ambedkar’s birth anniversary takes over the street. Asserting the right to claim an expanse of open space, and filling it with the spirit of liberation, Bhise paints a future that actualizes freedom for all.

Sense and Sensibilities: A Reflective Realisation continues at Anant Art Gallery (A-21, Vyapar Marg, Block A, Sector 5, Noida, India) through March 16. The exhibition was curated by Y. S. Alone.

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