4 min read

Cover art: Bao (2024)

Jai Bhim!

There is a lot to be spoken about when it comes to casteism within Indian visual design. So much so that it would take multiple designers from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and Vimukta communities doing their PhDs in this field to even scratch the surface! I intentionally choose to write about this topic rather than simply write about myself as an artist because, as a country, we severely lack the acknowledgment of certain facts about Indian design. This topic goes beyond my identity and profession and I strongly believe it is a necessity that we address the elephant in the room.

Visual design is a powerful medium that not only reflects India’s casteist ideologies but also shapes them. Unfortunately, throughout the entirety of Indian history, visual design has often been used as a tool to perpetuate casteism and reinforce casteist biases. Whether it is the age old illustrations of the Upanishads or the Shastras or the modern-day minimalist vector illustrations that are used on digital apps and websites, these visually crafted narratives are used to illustrate the dynamics of social power and the casteist ideology to establish meaning structures and maintain hierarchy. As a visual designer, I wish for every individual to truly see and not just look at art and visual design. You, dear reader, must examine the historical precedents, contemporary examples, and the implications such visuals have on social justice.

To understand the roots of casteism in visual design, we must first acknowledge that all creative production and the related tacit knowledges historically stem from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and Vimukta communities. The appropriation and bastardization of our arts, crafts, and other creative practices were key drivers in the development of a casteist visual language. Of the many examples, a prominent one would be the appropriation of Warli art, traditionally practiced by the Warli community. However, brahmanical hegemony conveniently appropriates and utilizes Warli art to symbolize a homogenized representation of Maharashtra. From depicting brahmanical festivals like Diwali and Holi, Warli as an art form has been extensively exploited by the oppressor castes to represent the traditional practices of Hindu culture.

The brahmanical powers utilize visual imagery not only to justify the subjugation and exploitation of oppressed communities through the illustrated versions of Bhagwad Gita and the Vedas but also to completely erase our histories, knowledges, and lived experiences in the process of creating these visuals. For instance, the colour orange has been associated with Hinduism only in the past few decades (now invoking fear in most people). However, the significance and meaning of this colour has been appropriated from Buddhism in which the orange color represents the highest state of illumination. The oppressor caste artists like Raja Ravi Varma have depicted Hindu gods and brahmins wearing orange to signify “holiness” and “enlightenment,” thereby reinforcing casteist hierarchies and justifying casteism. Similarly, the use of bright colors and “ugly/demonic” forms to represent mythical kings like Mahishasura or Maveli as sub-human, monstrous, and inherently inferior beings perpetuates the stereotype of savagery and pollution. These images not only justify the brutal exploitation of Dalits and Adivasis, but also serve to reinforce casteist attitudes. The appropriation of Buddhist principles of non-violence and peace in addition to incorporating Buddha as one of the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu is the most disturbing example of how Brahmanical hegemony functions in order to maintain casteist narratives.

From equating Hinduism to nationalism during India’s freedom struggle to the present day fascism, Indian visual design has been exploited as a tool for propaganda to promote casteist ideologies and discriminatory political agendas. From print to digital media, Hinduism continues to utilize visual propaganda to manipulate public opinion by demonizing Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians through illustrations in children’s books, school text-book illustrations, posters, flags, and every possible visual media, depicting them as enemies of the state. It is extensively used to segregate and oppress Dalits and Muslims in urban spaces, depicting Dalit vastis and chawls as dirty, inferior, ghettoized, and uncivilized.

Despite Babasaheb’s continued protection in the form of our Constitution, casteist visual design persists to this day. One prominent example is the severe under-representation of Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, and Vimukta community individuals in media and advertising. The mainstream media almost always perpetuates stereotypes of oppressed communities as criminals, thugs, or terrorists, while thin, able-bodied, fair skinned oppressor caste individuals are portrayed as the normative standard of beauty, success, and culture. This biased representation not only further marginalizes oppressed communities but also reinforces casteist hierarchies and implicit biases among viewers. Moreover, digital technologies and social media have facilitated the uncontrolled spread of casteist imagery and memes, further perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices. Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter are criticized for allowing the proliferation of casteist content, including blackface, casteist slurs, and caricatures. These images not only dehumanize marginalized people but also contribute to a toxic online environment where hate speech and discrimination thrive unchecked.

The prevalence of casteism in visual design has profound implications when we think of liberty, equality, and fraternity. By perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing caste-based hierarchies, visual media perpetuates systemic violence and inhibits efforts towards inclusivity and diversity. Moreover, exposure to casteist imagery can have detrimental effects on an individual’s mental health and well-being, particularly for those from marginalized communities who are disproportionately targeted by such imagery. The accessibility to media, art, and art education, is largely limited to oppressor caste individuals since they are the ones who not only create these spaces but gatekeep everything in order to prevent marginalized caste folks from creating a visual language for and of themselves. Furthermore, the normalization of casteist visual tropes in popular culture perpetuates implicit biases and stereotypes, shaping attitudes and behaviours towards people from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Vimukta, Muslim, and Christian communities. These biases manifest in various forms of discrimination, including hiring practices, housing policies, and law enforcement practices, perpetuating cycles of inequality and injustice.

Now more than ever, as consumers and creators of art and visual design, I urge you to not only challenge and oppose visuals that perpetuate casteism but to encourage, facilitate, demand, and make provisions for appropriate visual representation of people and cultures from the marginalized communities. We have educated ourselves enough to be caste-sensitive and politically correct in our daily lives. However, what is seriously lacking are the efforts in organizing ourselves and agitating consistently till we transform India’s visual language to one that is rooted in the socio-political emancipation of every citizen. By recognizing the power of visual design in shaping perceptions and attitudes, we can strive towards a casteless society.

Bao (they/she) is a Mumbai-based Ambedkarite, visual designer, illustrator, and design researcher whose work focuses on the impact of caste on design, food, gender, and ecology and the propagation of casteist cultural narratives through them. Through their work, they challenge the Brahmanical roots of Indian design by creating vibrant visuals that provoke dialogue and inspire change. Rooted in anti-caste values, their illustrations and research serve as a catalyst for breaking the Brahmanical roots of Indian design and for reimagining more inclusive and pluriversal futures. You can learn more about the artist and their work on Instagram @thebigfatbao.

* The email will not be published on the website.