Sumesh Sharma traces the circuitous roots of Afro-Asiatic history, from the world’s first civilisations in Eygpt to Dravidian civilisations of southern India. Through the exhibition of the work of two radical artists, the Senegalese Issa Samb and the Indian Krishna Reddy, and the writings of the radical philosopher and physicist, Cheikh Anta Diop, he introduces a thread of dissenting voices and practices towards an alliance of black people in Africa and their diasporic fellows.
In December 2016, Koyo Kuouh, the director and curator of Raw Material Company, organised a showing of Indian artist Krishna Reddy’s prints at the Laboratoire Agit’art in downtown Dakar. This was the laboratory of Senegalese sculptor, poet, painter and author, Issa Samb, also known as Joe Oukam, before he passed away early last year. Reddy, for his part, is a printmaker and sculptor known for his role as a teacher and for hosting printmaking workshops across the world. Reddy and Samb shared a belief in dissent and a loud disdain of isms, political clubs and definitions of practice.
My first conversation with Issa Samb revolved around Cheikh Anta Diop. Samb drew my attention to the great Senegalese historian, anthropologist, philosopher, physicist and politician’s theories on the filial relationships Africans hold with India’s Dalits. Diop, who initially was a physicist, conducted a linguistic study around his native Wolof and languages of the Afro-Asiatic family that proved a shared root.
“[T]he Indo-Europeans never created a civilization in their own native lands: the Eurasian plains,” wrote Diop in The African Origin of Civilization (1974). “The civilizations attributed to them are inevitably located in the heart of Negro countries in the southern part of the northern hemisphere: Egypt, Arabia, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, Elam, India. In all those lands there were already Negro civilizations when the Indo-Europeans arrived as rough nomads during the second millennium.”
Diop’s study was scientific, but his science cannot be separated from the radical politics and acts of solidarity that provoked and sustained it. To tell this story, it’s thus necessary to travel a circuitous route, starting in the 19th century, when Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, reformer and philosopher from the Bombay hinterland, appropriated the Sanskrit word for “broken” or “marginalised” in his critique of the stigma of untouchability in India. He used the term “Dalit” in critique of the exploitation and ostracism attached to forced historical vocations such as the collecting of human excreta, skinning of dead animals, keeping of cremation grounds, and prostitution and servitude.
A half-century later, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar again took up the thread when he united his people under the umbrella term “Dalits”. After returning to India with degrees in law and economics from Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics in 1923, he proposed “Dalit” as a politicised identity that, through solidarity, rejected the exploitation of the Brahminical caste system.
In 1946, Ambedkar wrote to WEB Du Bois asking him to share the petition the Negro National Congress had written to the United Nations Organisation, commenting that “there is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary”. He goes on to describes himself as “a student of the problems of the ‘Negros’”. WEB Du Bois replied in the affirmative, sending him a copy of the petition and letting Ambedkar know that he was aware of his name and work and that he had similar sympathies for the untouchables of India.
After independence in 1947, Ambedkar became the architect of India’s republican constitution. The text prepared by Ambedkar provided constitutional guarantees and protections for a wide range of civil liberties for individual citizens, including freedom of religion, the abolition of untouchability, and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination.
Significantly, there was a schism between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar on what, precisely, constituted discrimination. Ambedkar saw Gandhi as an apologist for the Hindu caste system known as the “Varnashrama Dharma”. Rather than reform Hinduism, which meant casting away some of the religion’s discriminatory rituals and philosophy, Gandhi adopted a condescending and patronising attitude. He termed the so-called untouchables as “Harijans” or the “children of God” and published a periodical of the same name to distribute information on social reform.
While Nelson Mandela famously acclaimed Gandhi’s “message of peace and nonviolence”, and the influence it had had on his own life and the ideology of the ANC, this history in the South African liberation struggle is complicated by the racist statements made by Gandhi when he was young. In countering the arguments of the white racists, Gandhi initially tried to show that Indians, unlike the Africans, had an ancient civilisation. He used the language of the whites and referred to black South African as “kaffirs”.
Science, however, would prove Gandhi wrong. Cheikh Anta Diop was among the first to establish that Egypt was the world’s first civilisation and that it was black. In his laboratory at the Institut Fondamental de l’Afrique Noire, Dakar, he began carbon dating objects. It is here he proposed the possibility of measuring the melanin count of the Egyptian mummies to determine the Nile civilisation as one that was black. In later essays he expanded his proof that the Dravidian civilisation in southern India arrived from Africa, arguing that Buddha himself displayed characteristics attributed to Africans. Buddha’s bust was always adorned with long curls and dreadlocks.
Before his death in 1956, Ambedkar accepted Buddhism after encountering and testing religions as diverse as Islam and Sikhism. In his last major work, Buddha and his Dhamma (1956), Ambedkar proposes a school of neo-Buddhism, called Navayana, that positions itself as a humanist philosophy rather than a theistic religion with belief in Buddha as God. Here he foregrounds Buddha’s mission to annihilate caste and eradicate the Greco-Roman myths of a galaxy of gods and goddesses that had strong affinities in Hinduism, perhaps bringing Buddhism back to its roots within the animist beliefs of Africa that sought equilibrium between man and nature.
CASTE: A DIVISION OF LABOUR AND LABOURERS
Today, India is regularly in news for the lynching of beef eaters, cattle transporters, leather skinners, supposed beef eaters who have only mutton in their refrigerators, inter-community couples, inter-caste couples, clan-endogamous couples, inter-religious couples, and people of African descent, among others. The history of lynching has also a sexual perversity, something to do with skin, the sex of the victim and vulnerability of the naked human body. After the 19th-century civil war in the United States, freed slaves who were lynched had their private parts dismembered. The bodies of disappeared Algerian men on the streets of France during the Algerian Revolution were subject to similar atrocities.
Global capitalism has served to further reinforce the caste system. In Thane, a neighbouring sleeper metropolis of Mumbai, an apartheid based on consumer choice is being raised against the Bahujans (“people of the majority”) of India, the majority of the subcontinent who remain caste-bound and ruled by upper-caste minorities. Gated communities have sprouted, ones which promise lavish amenities. Home buyers move out of the malaise of unplanned development and socialist-era low income housing to inhabit a community that separates them from their neighbours with a wall. They see it as a democratisation of luxury or a standard of living that reflects their class status and probable caste status.
As Ambedkar tells us, the caste system “is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers”. To counter this, he proposed a subaltern radical philosophy that held its ground in pragmatism rather than international standing. The dams and industries of modern India may have created access to resources, but this was soon lost to private interests who monopolised capital after liberalisation. Today, a tiny population controls more than 70 per cent of the country’s resources, towering over a subservient middle class and a disaffected working class that includes the many millions of Dalits, Tribals, Muslims, and all those removed from power.
THE DALITS OF THE WORLD AND THE PANTHERS
In 1972, a group of dejected young men in Bombay founded the Dalit Panther Party, beginning the formal association of Dalit identity with political “blackness”. A year later, they released the Dalit Panther Manifesto which defined a Dalit as “members of scheduled castes and tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”
Dalits today refuse the moniker Harijan and actively identify with the term Dalit, or Bahujan. This re- appropriation cannot be seen in isolation. It’s a move born from and with, amongst others, conversations between Ambedkar and Du Bois, that speaks to both Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa and the Black Power Movement of the USA.
As the Dalit Panther Manifesto of 1973 states: “Due to the hideous plot of American imperialism, the Third Dalit World, that is, oppressed nations, and Dalit people are suffering. Even in America, a handful of reactionary whites are exploiting blacks. To meet the force of reaction and remove this exploitation, the Black Panther movement grew. From the Black Panthers, Black Power emerged. The fire of the struggles has thrown out sparks into the country. We claim a close relationship with this struggle. We have before our eyes the examples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa and the like.”
AN IMAGINARY DIALOGUE BETWEEN DIOP AND AMBEDKAR
A dialogue between Diop and Ambedkar, even though imagined by me, someone who represents both caste and class privilege, allows us to conceive of a new Bahujanafrique, which, in opposition to the monumental Françafrique, is an alliance built in camaraderie by black people in Africa and their diasporas.
The arts are already a vehicle for this. The Black Arts Movement is seeing a renaissance among Dalit artists in India who are claiming their rightful position within culture by proposing an alternate aesthetic. Artists such as Jithin Lal NR, Amol K Patil and Yogesh Barve draw from their lived experiences to compose art works that resent and resist. A feminist Dalit critique is rising in solidarity to deal with misogyny as an intersectional approach against the dual oppression women face.
Double-consciousness is not only a cultural position in politics that WEB Du Bois proposed, but a truism of the conundrum in aesthetics artists face in South Asia. The artist Krishna Reddy, at 93, has a long association with African-American art. His practice is a clear example of WEB Du Bois’s 1903 essay “The Souls of Black Folk”, in which he describes a vision of self from the context of your own eyes and from the eyes of the racist white society.
The exhibition that placed Issa Samb and Krishna Reddy’s practices in conversation at Laboratoire Agit’art in 2016 corresponded with Samb facing eviction due to the sale of the property by a developer who claimed ownership despite Samb’s forty years of residence there. The exhibition was thus staged as a performance of protest and solidarity.
Here is the opening of my text for the collaboration:
“Issa Samb is Senegal’s foremost conceptualist. He was one of the first Senegalese artists to criticise Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Negritude movement, demanding they disentangle themselves from the political line established by the state patronage of the arts. Samb has long lived beneath a banyan tree and a couple of baobabs that grow in the last space on rue Jules Ferry and the Plateau where trees grow wild. Here, he lives and tends to his garden and a laboratory of art where people are invited to make performances or to exhibit urban detritus that is turned into magnificent structures of dissent.”
In the exhibition, Samb and Reddy continue this tradition. At the opening, a crowd of more than a 1,000 gathered in solidarity, to the cacophony of performances and drums that recalled Indian rhythms. Samb once told me, in a loud clear tone, that he and I shared a history through the Dravidians. He explained how his banyan tree, standing next to the baobabs, represented that link. He told me how the Senegalese musician, Ahmadou Badiane, had gone to Rabindranath Tagore’s school in Santiniketan in search of Indian music, and had returned with the sound of drums and dances only people in Senegal could enact.
I encountered the Agit’art laboratory during its final days, not long before Samb died. After his passing, the legal owners of the plot came and chopped down his banyan tree. I watched the destruction from the pages of friends on Facebook. In India, cutting down a tree unleashes the spirits that inhabit it. I believe Samb’s spirit inhabited that tree and is now actively working to push artists towards a collective practice, that can cohere in a laboratory like that of Diop’s, or propose a new vehicle akin to Ambedkar’s Navayana, a confluence I describe as “Bahujanafrique”.
This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.
The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?
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