Republished from The Fuschia Tree (www.thefuschiatree.com)
It is when I look at Olivia’s photographs of the Ramnami tribe that this tension between my mind and my skin grows deeper and more etched. The ink itches, almost as if to break out from under coetaneous layers.
Olivia first started shooting the Ramnamis, a dalit tribe in Chhatisgarh, three years ago. Members of the tribe aren’t allowed inside temples because of the caste-system. In defiance of the archaic, oppressive system, the tribe decided to tattoo the name ‘Ram’ all over their faces and bodies: a voiceless declaration of faith and its reclamation. There is no sound to the Ramnamis’ rebellion, but it isn’t a quiet one. It’s written across their faces, in bold strides, lending them an alternate identity, fighting, as well as declaring, a history of caste-based discrimination.
The mutation of skin for the Ramnamis is “likhita jaap”: simultaneous belief and defiance. It is an overwhelming declaration of self, a written identity, so to speak.
Kalavati Kumari is a Delhi-based journalist.
Olivia Arthur was born in 1980 and is a Magnum photographer living in London.