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Childhood, lost: What M Palanikumar's photos of children of manual scavengers reveal

There is something profoundly disconcerting about the many pairs of eyes that stare back at you from the walls of the sprawling art gallery. These are the eyes of children who do not exist for us. They’re eyes we’ve learnt to ignore. These are eyes that haunt and sear with their gaze. They ask for answers that have been denied for centuries. There is a disarming spontaneity to these gazes, some even contain the hint of a smile. And each has a story to tell.

M Palanikumar began shooting photographs of the children of manual scavengers when he was working as a cinematographer on Kakoos (a documentary on manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu by film-maker Divya Bharathi). Palanikumar’s mother, a fish-seller, had always wanted him to be an engineer but the 27-year- old had different plans. “You cannot even call it a plan,” he says. “It was more…destiny. I somehow deeply feel that I am destined to work among children.”

Children of a lesser god?

Children of a lesser god? M Palanikumar's portraits of the children of manual scavengers tell a poignant story. All images courtesy M Palanikumar

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He purchased a camera on a whim in 2013, but the lens soon became a defining part in his life. In 2015, he began working as cinematographer for Kakoos. “I began shooting the photos of (these) children even while working on the film. It was very powerful for me – their eyes and body language. They were no different than other kids, but soon they would be doing what their parents and grandparents did. They continued to haunt me long after the film’s shooting was over,” he says.

Palanikumar began travelling on his own, in search of the ‘invisible children’. Captured as monochromes in deeply layered chiaroscuro, the portraits of the children make for powerful images. On 9 November, over 100 of these images were displayed as part of an exhibition poignantly titled Naanum oru Kuzhandhai (I too am a child) at the Lalit Kala Academy in Chennai. Coordinated by artist Nataraj, the exhibition has been organised by Neelam trust – with which director Ranjith (of Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali fame) is also involved.

“It is not easy to look at these images without being deeply touched. You cannot call them good; they are too painful for that. You cannot call them aesthetic, they of course are… but the images are much more than that. When you end up looking at all the 100-odd images – and more that have been lying here [pointing to the floor] for want of space – you will most certainly feel weighed down by a sense of guilt and shame,” says Nataraj.

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For artists like Nataraj, it becomes very important to capture the travails of the oppressed in any form of art. “Art and literature has always played a very significant role in mainstreaming such issues. The web of social apathy amplifies the horrors of manual scavenging. The more we have such shows, documentaries and plays on manual scavenging, more are the chances of having it in say, a mainstream film,” Nataraj reasons.

Director Ranjith agrees. “About 10 years ago, Dalit Murasu – an alternative magazine on Dalit issues – carried manual scavengers on its cover with the title: ‘Shameless Country’. It haunted me for a long time. Since then, the issue has never left my consciousness.” He added about the Neelam Trust’s consistent attempts to highlight manual scavenging: “There are of course comrades who work even harder on this issue, but right now I have got a space. It gets noted if I speak about something and I wanted to put that space into good use.”

Neelam had earlier produced a play, Manjal (Yellow), on manual scavengers. “Caste is still deeply entrenched in our society but we believe art will help create the right kind of awareness around an issue like this. Manual scavenging is more than a Dalit/non-Dalit issue. It is a human shame,” Ranjith said.

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For Palanikumar, the photographs are his way of fulfilling his social responsibility. “I travelled over 25 districts in the state to document them, and it is evident that the children will also end up being manual scavengers. They carry the burden of caste. This exhibition is my way of urging society to prevent the children from falling into that trap. Aren’t they also children?” he asked.

Ranjith added, “There is momentum building around this issue now. People have begun talking about it. We should work both ways – in terms of struggle and art forms – and put pressure on the government to take a decisive step in ending this human shame.”

The exhibition is on till 14 November.


Updated Date: Nov 12, 2017 13:13 PM

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