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The makers of these Dushad paintings are unknown. Nevertheless, we include them here and as exhibited at the SAA-JNU exhibition, all canaries bear watching, in tribute to all unknown creators whose work has inspired and informed other more known artists in the contemporary era.

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Dushadhs are a peasant class of people from eastern India who are categorised as Scheduled Castes. Traditionally, Dushad paintings are made by marginalised Dalits such as Chamars, Mali and Nata who share common grounds with Dushadh people. 

Dusadh imagery often portrays the community’s oral, cosmological and aesthetic traditions. These paintings also refer to the tattoos they have on their hands. According to Meena Singh: ‘the popularity of tattooing amongst the lower caste has been the primary reason for adoption of its form and style by Dushadh artists. It is in the paintings reflecting the social life that the close relationship between artists and their environment can be discerned.’

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These artworks depict the sun, flora, fauna, festivities, everyday life, human figures and spirits, rituals and local myths. Those that are composed of concentric circles or rows of flowers, marine creatures, animals, and mythical figures are emblematic of Dusadh paintings.

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The images are painted with bamboo brushes and a range of colors made from flowers, leaves, barks, berries among other natural sources. The surface of the paper is covered with gobar (cowdung) wash. 


While categories of art and craft are in flux, they have been reconfigured to suit specific ideologies and institutions where the former is given more significance  and investment than the latter. In the process, subaltern artists are discriminated, and their works either misinterpreted or ignored. The  anonymity of these subaltern artists is also because of the lack of access that allows them to recast their identity and lift themselves out of obscurity. Anonymity is a condition that is imposed on these practitioners as they are excluded from the circuits of more privileged circles. Contextual social research on their histories and artistic practices is only now beginning to emerge.

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While framing the paintings for an art gallery appears to elevate their status as art, they also raise a number of other issues. The frames around the Dushad paintings are both about their inclusion and exclusion, interest and disinterested pleasure. They provide an ambivalent commentary on artistic conventions that highlight individual works under the umbrella of ownership, individuality and asociality in the circuits of the art market from which certain kinds of works and artmakers are excluded. As the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, has stated, the ‘artworld frame’ (parergon) provides a ‘thickness’ that creates not only material lines but invisible ones between the meaning(s) of the work and the contexts of its surroundings. 


We thank Meena Singh for lending us Dushadh Madhubani paintings from her collection. She is the author of ‘Subalternism in the Studies in Indian Art: An Argument

concerning Dushadh “Madhubani” Paintings’ in Towards a New Art History: Studies in Indian Art edited by Shivaji Panikkar, Parul Dave Mukherji and Deeptha Achar.

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