The colourless, odourless, tasteless substance we call water easily takes on attributes of other substances mixed into it. Add salt, it becomes salty; mix sugar, and it tastes sweet. Changes to the character of water also occur beyond the chemical, making it a fascinating tool to study socio-political structures that govern our lives. For instance, laced with religion, water becomes holy; stirred by politics, it becomes contentious; and spiked with caste privilege, water too acquires a caste.
This last aspect forms the key ideological question that propels artist Rajyashri Goody’s most recent exhibition, Is the Water Chavdar?, held at GallerySke, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, from August 30 to October 1, 2022. The exhibition paid homage to the Mahad Satyagraha undertaken by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and thousands of ‘untouchable’ men and women on March 20, 1927, during which they assembled to defy age-old caste prohibition and drink water from the Chavdar (‘tasty’ in Marathi) tank in Mahad, Maharashtra.
The Mahad Satyagraha is regarded as a revolutionary event in Indian history, birthing an “immortal” idea whose resonance is felt to this day.  In his speech at the time, Ambedkar had asserted, “It is not as if drinking the water of the Chavadar Lake will make us immortal…. We are not going to the Chavadar Lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the Lake to assert that we too are human beings like others.” 
This seemingly simple act of drinking water from the Chavdar tank would transform the meaning and significance of this place from there on, endowing upon it an almost sacral aura of resistance, an inheritance that continues to be venerated almost a century later. The water of that tank can be regarded as the spring from where the Dalit movement burst forth, bearing witness to the struggles and triumphs of the community.
This spirit of defiance forms the core of Goody’s exhibition -- it informs the artist’s methodology and is manifest in individual artworks. And yet, an uncanny calm permeates the spartan gallery space which counteracts the militant anger that flows beneath. The sentiment is muted at first, but as the viewer is drawn deeper -- like a person descending the steps of a water tank -- whirls of emotion take over with increasing intensity. The show is structured around four intertwining elements, each capturing in succession complex passions, from veneration to rage.
We first encounter a swathe of small ceramic mounds or stupas representing, what Goody tells us, are the undocumented thousands who followed Ambedkar in his journey to the Chavdar tank. 10,000 in number and coloured in watery shades of blue, green, grey and auburn, the stupas’ gradational arrangement successfully conjures up the space within and near the tank. As one walks through the gallery space, circumambulating solemnly around this imagined tank, one feels a sensation of being transported to the original site and event. More powerfully, looking on at the stupas provokes one to imagine the individuals who journeyed to Mahad as a multitude, showing great courage and determination -- men and women who have been and continue to be elbowed out of the national imaginary.
In an attempt to counter that erasure, Goody mobilizes scores of prints of photographs and selfies taken by people visiting the site today. These images, of people paying obeisance to the towering statue of Dr Ambedkar overlooking the tank or looking on with pride at the hallowed water, have been collated by Goody from images posted on Google Maps. Interestingly, they exhibit a ‘leaking’ effect, as if washed with water, foregrounding the thematic pervasiveness of water running through the show.
The presence of these visitors is predicated on intentionality, which not only anchors them in this historical site and event but also provides narratives of the self, which are then left as emphatic traces in mediated archives. These geo-specific public archives play a crucial role in fashioning a visual culture that centres around the Mahad Satyagraha, which was largely overlooked by the national and regional press in 1927. While these emphatically evidence the engendering of a Dalit agency through the act of self-representation, the central quandary of the exhibition remains, since water continues to perpetuate caste.
The grimmest reminder of this was the murder of a 9-year-old Dalit boy named Indra Meghwal, who was beaten to death by his Savarna teacher for touching a water pitcher meant for ‘upper castes’ in Rajasthan’s Jalore on July 20, 2022. News about similar crimes against Dalits have been spotlighted in the aftermath of Meghwal’s death -- another Dalit boy brutally beaten by his teacher in Barmer, a female Dalit teacher burnt alive in Jaipur district, a Dalit vegetable vendor lynched by a mob on suspicion of theft in Alwar district, and most recently, the gruesome rape and murder of two minor Dalit sisters in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri. These, and many more such hauntings, undercut the optimism represented in Goody’s works discussed so far.
However, the artist herself crowbars a new layer of slow-burning despair by incorporating free verse from Dalit autobiographies, calling them “a set of ‘recipes’ for water”. True to the name, these ‘recipes’ instruct the Dalit reader on how to ‘taste’ water through the use of gut-wrenching, damning words, stirred by caution and despondency. A section from Laxman Mane’s “Upara: An Outsider” is example of this:
As the water falls on you,
you might step back
and lose your balance.
If your hand falls on the
a woman might see it
and curse you.
What are we going to drink
The vivid imagery and acerbic words seem to bracket millennia of injustices and atrocities that culminated in the killing of Indra Meghwal. Barbarity was also meted out to most of the Mahad Satyagrahis who were attacked and beaten upon their return from the Chavdar tank in March 1927. Thousands were injured simply for attempting to claim their rights as human beings. Such instances of injustice were not the first, and they surely will not be the last.
Perhaps to stymie chances of such happenings, Sharankumar Limbale gives cautionary instructions to his readers in his autobiography, Akkarmashi: The Outcaste, which is also quoted in this exhibition:
Make sure no one sees you.
Otherwise you might be badly
Quench your thirst
Touch the water.
Gather it in your cupped
Ripples might form
on the surface.
The water inside the earth
Churning this anxiety with unbridled defiance and rage, Goody escalates the tenor of the show in its fourth segment -- a pole that surrounds the stupas. Inconspicuous at first, this pole is covered with pulp paper made from pages of the Manusmriti, theancient Hindu scripture at the heart of centuries of subjugation of Dalits and women. The scripture is inextricably tied to the ideological defiance of the Mahad Satyagraha, not only in terms of upending its tenets, but also in its instigation of performative action.
While the Satyagraha of March 1927 has been recounted, its second phase was carried out in December 1927. Following the ‘re-purification’ of the Chavdar tank by Brahmins using, ironically, cow-dung and urine, Ambedkar returned with a large assembly to Mahad to draw water from the tank once again. However, as the matter was taken to court and the tank declared a private property, the strategy of agitation shifted to the burning of the Manusmriti. This took place on December 25, 1927, which has since then been celebrated as Manusmriti Dahan Diwas (trans. Manusmriti Burning Day).
Goody’s artwork resonates with the dissension produced by this historical, and historic, event. In fact, she has used this methodology in the past, most notably in her 2020 performance video, Power & Pulp (available on her website and YouTube). In the three-part and over 7-hours-long video, she tears pages from the Manusmriti, turns them into pulp and then into paper-pulp laddoos. In the latest show, she decimates these scriptural prescriptions, plasters them on the central pillar and surrounds this with 10,000 stand-ins for the ‘untouchables’ who participated in the Mahad Satyagraha. Right here, Manu would die 10,000 deaths.
The proud heritage of Mahad that Goody recreates in the gallery space is curious, not least because both spaces end up framing the other. While we ‘see’ Chavdar in the exhibition space, the gallery itself transforms into an experiential space within which the promise of an unyielding, uncompromising and sacral equality may exist.
 Soumyabrata Choudhury, Ambedkar and Other Immortals: An Untouchable Research Programme (New Delhi, Navayana, 2018), 18.
 “Dr Ambedkar’s Speech at Mahad,” in Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, edited by Arjuna Dangale (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1992), 225.
 Rajyashri Goody, Power & Pulp, https://powerandpulp2020.wordpress.com/rajyashri-goody/.