Musings on Art, Caste and Rape in Churu, Rajasthan

“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”- Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

It hung in the air, a piece of information she did not know what to do with. Another day, another brutal gang rape of a Dalit woman. This time by a group of policemen who beat her brother-in-law to death first. Inured usually to such news, two details stuck out the fact that this took place in Sardarshahar and that they had pulled out her nails. 

Something of a woman needs to be pulled out for us to sit up and take notice. Once it was her insides, this time it was just the nails. Well, who am I kidding, she only noticed this because of where it had happened. Maybe that was also true for the time they pulled out her insides with a rod.

Sardarshahar, Churu this was a town she knew well. This was the town with the upside-down “made in Germany” painted over an image of a ship on a wall of a rich merchant’s house. She had made many presentations using that image. 

“Made in Germany” painting. Photo Credit: Author

The audience of scholars always laughed at the naivety of the late nineteenth-century wall painters who had copied English lettering, in this quaint Rajasthani town, probably from a paintbox imported from Germany. Not knowing what they copied, they painted it upside down. 

The incomprehensible text making the ship more exotic for those who must have looked at it. She had spent some time in that town, photographing paintings, visiting opulent mansions, and their still resplendent baithaks. She thought it was a town of helpful people and some of the best wall paintings in all of Shekhawati. And now, she did not know what to do with the way its name had forced itself into her world again.

She never did walk the streets of this town alone. Her privilege assuring that she could always hire someone to accompany her. She was, after all, going to do fieldwork in Rajasthan. She knew not to take any chances. What chances did this woman take for which she was tortured and raped? They said something about some theft. They did not need to say anything about her birth.

Also read: Dear Sabyasachi, an ‘Overdressed’ Woman is Not ‘Wounded’

What does this do to the wall paintings she studies? She is an art historian, not an anthropologist and she does not study caste or violence against women. So what does it change? She never spoke about caste in her thesis, except for that of the Rajput rulers and Marwari merchants. Even the castes of the painters are too complex a morass to enter. So, does this take away from the beauty of the paintings? Shouldn’t it? 

If she was a poet she would evoke an image of nail scratches on the “made in Germany” painting. If she was a painter she would paint hands without nails with an upside-down “made in Sardarshahar”. If she was a vandal… but, she is a research scholar. So what does she do?

Another researcher working on a city that had recently been tagged by Unesco, wrote an article for The Wire on the conflicting emotions that ‘heritage’ evokes. I greedily thought, well, now was my moment too.

Saumya Agarwal is writing a thesis on the wall paintings of Shekhawati, and has done fieldwork in Sardarshahar.