"There is No Nobody” Dialogue on Caste, Gender, Labour, Art

February 21, 2023 by Kimberley Yates

JHI Artist in Residence Leena Manimekalai showed her documentary film Goddesses (42 minutes, 2007) to the Circle of Fellows on Thursday 16 February. In her discussion afterwards, she examined the themes of caste, gender, labour and art as the creator of this work.

Goddesses looks at the lives and work of three low-caste women in Tamil Nadu: Lakshmi, who is a professional singer and dancer at funeral rites; Krishnaveni, who collects and buries or burns dead bodies; and Sethuraku, who takes a small boat out to sea to catch fish and snails. The labour of all three is hard, physical, necessary, and horrifying. Lakshmi beats her chest and wails at the top of her voice to get the family of the deceased to express their grief; Krishnaveni pulls a hand cart, heaves disintegrating corpses into it and digs graves with a hand shovel; Sethuraku braves storms and sea snakes and jellyfish to handle raw fish and snails.

Krishnaveni and Sethuraku have inherited traditionally male professions after the deaths of male family members; they simply must keep working in order to live, and their jobs are the only possible source of income. Lakshmi is married to an indolent husband, and although she must pay and organize rides for the higher-caste musicians and drummers who accompany her, she hands off most of her earnings to her husband and feeds herself and her family on the scant remainders.

Caste, gender, and labour form a structure that keeps these women at the bottom of their societies, scraping for survival.  Art enters with the lens of the camera, which picks out the sunlight glinting on their hair, the determination and authority behind their occasional raucous laughter.  These women are tough. They are the goddesses of their land and the bedrock that Indian society rests on. The film is lovingly made, lingering on colours and light and the beautiful Indian landscape. The discussion that followed was engaged and interesting. Leena’s work is gorgeous and thought-provoking, rebellious and generous.

Join us for two films and discussion at the Innis College Town Hall on March 15 (entry time 6:30; start time 7:00 pm): Maadathy and Kaali.