Apolitical is a luxury few can afford: Rahee and Sarah

Politically-aware online artists talk about pressing issues in today’s world and an individual’s role in addressing these problems

Image: https://www.instagram.com/sarahmodakart/

Digital artists Rahee Punyashloka and Sarah Modak have completely different approaches to their art. Punyashloka focuses on Dalit culture and the climate crisis while Modak prefers to move from one topic to the next. Yet, both art styles have one common trait – both artists inspire discourse on socio-political issues with their art.



Unlike most recent protest artists, Punyashloka who is an English literature student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) he started the page as a pandemic project for his Ambedkarite art. His interest in social issues came naturally with a special focus on topics like Dalit women movements, the climate crisis and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s legacy.

“I started my page around the time of CAA protests but I was interested in bringing up political issues in my art much before that. The two strands that I try to weave together as part of my arts practice are: an aesthetic that tends toward the abstract, and the political.”

Originally from a community in Bhubaneswar, the young artist often drew his blue-and-white artworks to illustrate past events such as the Super Cyclone of 1999.



TAPtober Day 15: Climate Change . A cousin laying out a fishing net . When the Super cyclone of 1999 hit the coasts of Orissa it, ‘naturally’ affected the seafaring communities the most. Part of my family that still depends on their caste job, in the Chilika Lake, was among those that felt it’s brunt. Fellow Odias may remember, upper castes and the mainstream provided a rather disturbing, shockingly insensitive theological justification for the cyclone. As with everything else that is post facto claimed to be “Jagannathanka maya (the maya of Jagannath)” by them, this was deemed so too. Apparently, there was a blinding light that emanated from the top of the temple in Puri, following the days of destruction from the cyclone, after which the wind and the waves mysteriously retreated at the command of the gods. My folks at the edge of the sea had a more straightforward explanation: they kept repeating the same thing-“this had to happen, because the sea levels have been rising”. I wonder how much more prepared we could have been as a state against the current cyclones that devastate our coasts with ever increasing frequency, had the testimony of those that live ‘with’ the sea been heard to, instead of insensitive theological justifications. . I thought very hard if I had anything ‘interesting’ to say about climate change. I don’t. It is a well documented fact that those who are disproportionately affected by our ridiculous push toward destruction are, and will always be, communities that interact with the natural order in the most direct ways. That these communities are also the most systemically oppressed-be it through caste or tribe affiliations, or as the general underside to “civilization”-only highlights our catastrophically misplaced priorities. . #taptober2020 #chilika #cyclone #dalithistory #fisherman #climatechange #dalitart

A post shared by Rahee Punyashloka (@artedkar) on


“People who are most affected by the climate crisis are mostly from the lower-classes. I come from a community that focuses directly with the sea so I know the kind of impact it has on them. I don’t know where this narrative of “climate crisis being an elitist issue” comes from,” said Punyashloka.

He argued that lower-caste people have a unique relationship with the environment that makes those issues much more relevant to them. As an example, he talked about the Chamar community that depended on vultures to find carcasses and make leather.

Much of his art focuses on systematic errors in society rather than focusing on any particular regime and its faults. Accordingly, when he asked about his opinion on the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, Punyashloka said, “The Bahujan community does not consider the BJP as the statue of evil. It is simply a more direct, vicious version of the upper-caste mentality. The previous government had a more Gandhian approach that sugar-coated the problem. But it does not change the inherent problem.”

He conceded that the party was responsible for the recent cut-down on free speech. Even so, he chose to use his art to pay his respect to individuals who died due to upper-caste oppression such as All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) senior activist Devji Maheshwari and the Hathras victim of the Valmiki community.



How Many Deaths, How Many Murders #2: Devji Maheshwari . Devji Maheshwari was a prominent land rights lawyer and a key BAMCEF activist. He was murdered by a Brahmin man for “anti-Brahmin” content on social media. Maheshwari’s last shared post was a speech by Waman Meshram, in which he critiques Brahmanical values and talks about how the Dalit-Adivasi population of this nation do not belong in the folds of Hinduism. Rest in Power. Jai Bhim. . The image of a hand holding a passport photo embodies the tragic state of existence today. It often accompanies news articles about marginalized people who have died or been lynched, and the only remnant they left behind was a passport photo: a photo taken, ironically, to assimilate into a nation state that caused their death, most likely to fill in some or the other document or official form. I had made this image a few months ago, and the hand is supposed to belong to Babasaheb, while also holding his own photo. I will keep using this same image over and over each time there is a murder that I feel demands documenting: because, even if mourning for the unjust deaths is a perpetual state of affair when you are Dalit, I am far more sickened by the repetitive aspect of it. #dalitlivesmatter #jaybhim #jaibhim #bamcef #justicefordevjibhaimaheshwari #justicefordevjibhai #ambedkarites

A post shared by Rahee Punyashloka (@artedkar) on


Punyashloka did not have any specific topics in mind when asked about pressing issues in the current socio-political scenario. However, he said that Indian society still needs to understand the topic of representation.

“We as a community would like to accelerate the argument on representation,” he said.

Specific to reservation in education, he said that the creamy layer posed a problem to the spirit of reservation since it misunderstood the intention of the process. He argued that reservation is not a poverty alleviation system but an inclusive application of democracy that aims to insert the marginalised sections into the public sphere.

When asked about the urban upper-caste assumption that casteism isn’t a problem in metropolitan cities, he said, “Just go out and see what kind of surnames are there in your society. You will realise there is a caste ghetto in urban areas. In rural areas, casteism is more obvious but in urban areas the problem goes unchecked.”

To correct these misgivings, he said society should focus on Dalit culture to understand how and where conversations differ as per class hierarchy. He also recommended that people focus on the achievements of Dalit women and folk, their movements rather than their suffering.

The Valmiki community compelled the mainstream narrative in this direction following the Hathras crime.

“A reason why protests like the Valmiki protests have gained attention is because they have started mobilising on ground. But this is not sudden. People have worked for it over many years although they shouldn’t have had to,” he said.

Despite recent events, some people continue to call themselves ‘apolitical.’ When asked about this label, Punyashloka said that apolitical people end up supporting the status quo. He reminded them that while they have the luxury of living in a bubble, most of the marginalised communities cannot afford to be apolitical because of the existing social system.

Regarding an artist’s role in starting political discourse, he said, “Art inspires people to consider topics. It is a great tool for mobilisation. My minimalist method that tends towards the abstract saves me from active online trolling.”

Luckily, neither Punyashloka nor Modak have had to suffer from trolling. The visual art student and freelancer Modak, said her artworks have always been supported by her family and peers.

Just like the literature student, Modak took an interest in Indian socio-economic politics much before the CAA protests. However, following December 2019, her artworks became much more critical and outspoken.



“I feel political discourse is increasing in India. As an artist, there is not much a person can do to change laws and policies but they cannot be totally devoid of political ideology,” she said.

Modak is a firm believer of the notion that art should reflect the times we live in that have nowadays become “stressful and violent times.” She resolved to take up political art to educate people and hopefully, curb the bigotry and ignorance among people. She pointed out that many people of late do not know what the real issues are.

“I didn’t feel I would be doing any justice if I didn’t use my art to talk about everything that is happening right now. Social unrest had reached the pinnacle during CAA protests,” said Modak.

The digital artist even started an Inquilab alphabet series listing all the injustices that the country had witnessed so far. However, she broke the alphabetical order and chose to talk about activist Umar Khalid’s arrest since she felt it was a pressing issue that needed immediate attention.



In the same vein, she considered the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a potential tool against people where anything said by a person could be misconstrued. The law twists your own words against you.

Regarding people who tend to disregard online activism as ineffective, she said, “I totally disagree with the idea that online activism doesn’t amount to anything. Activism isn’t only about what a politician or activist has done. It’s also about informing people. Perhaps it cannot be compared to on-ground activism but it is not worthless.”

While Modak does not focus on a particular social issue for her artworks, she believes that society should discuss certain social issues like caste and religious divide.

“One of the most important issues right now is caste. It is coming up in mainstream social consciousness now which is good. Another important issue, we should focus on right now would be the religious divide. We need to address the bigotry in society,” said Modak.

During the interview, she squarely blamed two entities for the current status of India – mainstream media and the current regime. Modak pointed out that the current government had fallen short on its promises. The economy has not improved and the government has instead added fuel to the fire of religious divide.

“If they actually kept their promises, their supporters would have some argument but I don’t understand why they are still backed by people despite failing to make true on their assurances. “I think they are comparatively worse than other parties,” she said.

Similarly, she criticised mainstream media for journalists who propagate their own biased opinion and distract people from real issues. She said that regular people were doing a much better job online. However, she had no sympathy for people who continue to remain apolitical.

“To the people who insist on being apolitical, I want to remind them that if we keep going down this road, sooner or later it will affect you. Then it will be too late to dissent,” said Modak.


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