Decolonial Subversions
Special Issue 2023-24

Editorial: Introducing a new, radically inclusive, decolonial knowledge landscape


This Special Issue has been a long time in the making. Its seeds were first sown about three years ago, when Vimala, from her home in Hyderabad, India, and I, at that time based in London, United Kingdom, started envisioning ways in which we could bring the innovative publishing options offered by Decolonial Subversions to their full potential, in particular with respect to South Asian vernacular cultures.

Movement in Verse: Poetry as Ethnographic Dialogue


The silences around Indian women’s histories and experiences impelled my ethnography among Tamil women in Singapore. In the process, I found myself in a deluge of stories – micro histories beyond the narratives of community or nation, life stories of women, perplexities of belonging for gendered diasporic subjects, yearnings for attachments distant and near, and desires to document intimate worlds. Dissatisfied by the incompleteness of field-notes and academic papers, I resorted to writing verse to process the inchoateness of lived experiences and ethnographic fieldwork. I performed a few of the poems that arose during fieldwork at open-mic platforms, where some of my interlocutors had also gathered to share their own words and narratives. I collaborated with one of my respondents to design an event to curate conversations about Indian women’s experiences through dance, poetry, music and panel discussions. My own biography as an immigrant of over twenty years found some resonances in the life stories of Tamil women and a general sense of up-rootedness. The verse that I share here – what I call the poetry of ethnographic dialogue – arose from these interactions.

Another One About Amma


When I became aware of the environment around me and started identifying people and objects as a three-year old, I remember my Amma as always quiet, sad, and alone. Then I remember Amma visiting doctors, taking medicine, and being sent to psychiatric hospitals. The word “shock therapy” is an early English word I learned in my household in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. As I grew up to be a teenager, Amma will tell me “Pray for me! I don’t know why I am sad.” Soon she became so weak and lean that my brother and I would prop her up by her shoulders to move her from room to room for food and bathroom.

(Re)building Sexed Genres in Contemporary Nepal: Ethnographic Notes and Narratives about the Kichkannī


One of the most interesting supernatural ontologies in the pan-Nepalese narrative folklore is definitely that of the Kichkannī. An ethereal feminine spirit of elegant beauty and vampire who steals one’s life breath, the Kichkannī is at the center of an astonishingly rich narrative complex that allows us to question the realms of gender in the sexualized imaginaries of contemporary Nepal. The Kichkannī represents the dissatisfied ātmā (soul, Self) of an unmarried virgin girl (Nep. kanyā), who decided to commit suicide without having been able to satisfy her sexual desire. In other cases, the Kichkannī may also originate from the ātmā of a girl who, having been raped and, as a result of this forced and violent sexual act, having become pregnant, decided to kill herself. Alongside this supernatural being, a unique ethnographic document highlighted a folk-belief concerning her ‘othered sexed’ counterpart: the Domāse, the spirit of a hĩjaḍa, a transsexual or transgender person, who committed suicide because he could not fulfill his sexual desires. I propose to reconsider the narrative folklore around these supernatural beings, which are embedded in beliefs and narrative practices, in order to question the sociocultural processes by which gendered and sexual identities are produced.

Keywords: Kichkannī, narrative folklore, ethnography, gender, Nepal

ఎరుపు (Erupu): Reconstructing Red Dye of Kalamkari Textiles


The brilliant red hues of the dyed, painted, printed and resist-dyed cottons of the coastal belt of the Deccan—historically known as kalamkari—have invited continuous debates and scholarly interventions into the usage of dyestuff in this region. The majority of the scholars stressed the use of one specific dyestuff, the roots of chaya or oldenlandia umbellata, though historical records suggest that several kinds of red dyes were available in the Deccan region, sourced locally and beyond. Whereas elsewhere I have argued that the artisanal processes and local water sources significantly contribute to the vibrancy of red dyes of this region, here I would like to present a praxis-oriented approach with regards to utilising three different kinds of red dyes in my workspace to reflect upon this historical matter. I have chosen to work with three dyes, which were in use in southern India: manjistha or rubia cordifoila, aal or morinda citrifolia and sappanwood or caesalpinia sappan. The experiments will broaden understandings around the materiality of Deccani dyes and dyeing practices. Moreover, I will emphasise the aspect of layering and over-dyeing in the celebrated Deccani cottons, which remains mostly understudied. For the submission, I produced a photo essay as a chronicle of this practice-based research. This approach is rooted in the recent art historical scholarship that prioritises the process of making objects over the final outcome.

Keywords: Practice-based Research, Red Dyes, Textiles, Deccan, Art History

Uncovering the silences: Environmental knowledges in the floodplains of Yamuna, Delhi


Actions to control nature and people often involve the centralisation of knowledge and erasure of different and opposing views. This way, a singular ordered and homogenous nature takes the place of a highly complex and multidimensional one, hiding all historical, cultural, and regional issues. As a result, the understanding of nature needs to break the silo of the environmental and be understood as a complex assemblage of emotions, worldviews, knowledges, practices, and processes. Ethnography then becomes epistemologically important to the investigation of crucial aspects of the continuous reproduction of ecologies. Here the situated local actors are viewed as knowledgeable; not limiting the focus to a single dimension makes the ontology rich and complex. These field notes represent a qualitative methodology, making use of methods such as semi-structured conversations and exploring different landscapes with the actors. I examine how a government employee and a land-claiming farmer describe their surroundings and their role while situating themselves within the larger socio-political structures. Using field notes makes it possible to share a microscopic view of the larger picture. The intention is not to romanticise the knowledges of farmers as a key to bringing equitable outcomes; rather, the intention is to untangle the complex socio-ecological reality of the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi.

Keywords: Ethnography, multiple knowledges, small-scale farming, river rejuvenation, eviction, biodiversity parks

Buddhist Conversion and Marginalised Communities: An Overview of Ambedkarite Activism among non-Mahar Castes in the Marathwada Region


Since individual attitudes about caste practices continued to rule daily life despite constitutional protections, Dr. Ambedkar, the Constitution maker, and leader of oppressed people in India, converted to Buddhism as an alternative approach to addressing the oppressive caste system. Buddhist discourse in Maharashtra, India, is seen primarily as an expression of protest and emancipation of the Mahars because Dr.Ambedkar himself was a Mahar—a former untouchable caste—and hence Buddhism is viewed as a Mahar religion, despite its theoretically universal value system. Over time, non-Mahar Dalits and other castes in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region also converted to Buddhism, making Buddhist conversion an emancipatory route out of the repressive caste system more broadly. This paper argues that the emergence of new autonomous activist leaders among non-Mahars in the post-Ambedkar era led to the anti-caste missionary movements that culminated in Buddhist conversion among non-Mahar castes in the Marathwada region. The paper first discusses the Ambedkarite perspective on caste and religious conversion. It then illustrates non-Mahars’ engagement with Buddhism and explores the post-Ambedkar anti-caste movement in the Marathwada region. It further demonstrates the changing consciousness among non-Mahar communities with the help of case studies of activist missionaries who took up religious conversion as a mode of resistance against caste discrimination.

Keywords: Caste, conversion, Buddhism, Ambedkar, non-Mahar, Dalits

Translation of the Short Story ఒక ముద్దు (“One Kiss”) by Tādī Nāgamma with Introduction


Dalit women’s writing has been vital for our understanding of how gender and caste are intersecting and inextricably linked structures of power and domination. It adds nuance to the labels we give such people and their writings like “Dalit literature” or a “Dalit feminist.” While much of the discussion around these identity and political markers has been on contemporary writers, we will focus on one of the first Dalit women to publish in Telugu, Tāḍi Nāgammā (1908 - 1990). Nāgamma was a native of the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh and dedicated her life to social service, education, and writing. We translate one of her short stories, entitled “One Kiss” (Oka Muddu). In the introduction, we discuss the supposed discordance in Tāḍi Nāgammā’s life and her writing: even though in her life Nāgamma spent much energy to support social reform movements for caste-oppressed people, caste itself is not a prominent theme in her writing, especially in “One Kiss.” Instead, we argue, Nāgamma draws on caste Hindu ideals to depict her feminist heroine. We conclude by asking whether Tāḍi Nāgamma can accurately be labeled the kind of Dalit feminist writer her biographers often hail her as.

Keywords: Dalit Literature, Women Authors, Translation, Dalit Studies, Tamil, Telugu

Gendering Disabled Vernaculars: A Study of the Works of Parijat


This essay explores the intersections between ‘gendered vernaculars’ and disabled embodiments in South Asia, specifically within the Nepali literary sphere. Gendered vernaculars enable us to imagine social realities of embodying gender and disabilities by introducing the lived experiences of women in the Global South. Thus, the vernacular becomes a subversive site that privileges the stories and lives of lesser-known people, reshaping how we view bodies that have been marginalized in languages considered dominant. To explore the potential of the vernacular for those who reside at the margins, I look at the literary works of Parijat, a Tamang woman belonging to the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy who lived with a disability. Her writings are rife with the experiences of living in a body that is different and, therefore, difficult to inhabit. Parijat's works provide an alternative way of understanding embodiment as her works talk about her pain, desires, and wishes to escape the confines of not only her body but, also, the cultural value of being in a disabled body. Throughout Parijat's work, the gendered vernacular is used not just to fight the dominance of English, language of Western imperialism, but, also, the patriarchal and ableist language that infiltrates the Global South. Despite being widely read in Nepali curricula, not many know of Parijat's disability. Using gender and disability as primary lenses for examining Parijat’s work, I argue that we can envision new perspectives on vernacular literature, gendered embodiment, disabled experiences, and the question of agency within the South Asian context, all of which represent a break from the continued dependency on Western and colonial knowledge.

Keywords: Gendered Vernacular, Disability, Third World Women, Women’s Writing, Nepali Literature

Gender Relations in Telugu Films


Telugu Film Industry, or Tollywood, is the second largest of its kind in India after Bollywood, producing around 150 films a year. Alongside mainstream Hindi cinema exist Bengali, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada cinema; these parallel cinema industries often deal with social issues and produce the films that represent India at international film festivals. Significantly, barring some rare exceptions, the latter stream of non-mainstream films is mostly absent in Telugu cinema. Whether on-screen or off-screen, Telugu cinema is primarily male-dominated, obscene double-meanings never seem to be enough and sexy item-numbers have become a prerequisite for any Tollywood hit movie. In the early stages of Telugu cinema some films dealt with sensitive social issues such as untouchability, the dowry system, child marriage and widow remarriage. But soon Telugu films gave in to the pressures of feudal lords and got trapped in fantasy genres where women’s only duty is to remain virtuous ladies and, at the same time, be glamorous. In this article I shall discuss in detail the presentation/representation of women in Telugu cinema and related issues citing specific examples from run-away hits and rare but memorable parallel movies.

Keywords: Telugu Cinema, Gender, Patriarchy, Regional Cinema

Reading Caste Histories through Biographies: A Case Study of Dalit Women of Telangana, India


In this essay, I explore the biographies of five Dalit women—Rajavva, Hajamma, Sadalakshmi, Eashwari Bai, and Chindu Yellamma. In particular, I capture the life experiences of these women through their specific identities as Mehtar, Chindu, Madiga, and Mala communities from the South Indian state of Telangana. This study emerged as an academic pursuit out of my prolonged and deep engagement with these women during literary research projects of various kinds. I revise existing writings and interviews with these women, their family members, followers, and persons of their respective parties and communities in order to understand their confrontations, negotiations, successes, and failures with existing power structures, such as caste hierarchies and gender inequalities. I illustrate how each of them had to find a path within the constraints and limitations of their locations and show that they never stopped their struggle till death.

Keywords: caste system, patriarchy, jogini system, graded inequality, anti-caste culture and politics

వంటిల్లు (Kitchen)


There are many things that go into making women, ‘women’. The kitchen plays a major role in making women. While food is a human necessity, its making involves politics and history of oppression of women woven around it. In my poem ‘Kitchen’, my objective is to express the angst of the women alienated from both production and reproduction. I write about the suffocation that women are subjected to and about the unchanged nature of patriarchy, even as it changes its forms across generations.

Keywords: Kitchen, Women, Patriarchy, Food, Family

Performing Art, Performing History: Community Genealogies and Representations in Telangana Scroll Painting Traditions


As we travel to the interior villages of Telangana, South India, our gaze is captivated by the vibrant paintings on the walls of shrines dedicated to gramadevatas (village/folk guardian deities) and dargas (Sufi shrines). The colours and the thematic flow of these paintings draw the viewers' attention to the sphere of imaginative narration of a particular deity and of a tribe’s genealogy. This unique style of narrating stories through pictures is an artistic expression of Telangana dating back hundreds of years which, nowadays, is expressed chiefly in scroll painting traditions. The work of Nakashi painters, traditional scroll artists, presents sophisticated accounts of genealogies, expressing metaphors, rural wisdom and local visions across thematic frames. Similarly, the Koyas, one of the earliest tribes of the Deccan area in Telangana, have been depicting the origins of their lineages in colourful patchwork scrolls for centuries. Both the Nakashi’s and the Koya’s patchwork scrolls, in recording community genealogies from generation to generation through unique symbols, show the cultural values and ethos that shape the distinctive aesthetic vocabulary of the Telangana region. These bright, colourful scrolls are showcased by the “picture showman” during performances, in a way that supplements songs that also celebrate a tribe’s genealogy. The aim of this paper is to trace the history and evolution of the Nakashi artistic representations and to compare them with the pictorial symbols and narrative strategies of the Koya patchwork scrolls.

Keywords: Scroll painting, Telangana, Deccan, Pictorial narrations, community genealogies