The Metaphysics of Caste
Review by Natasha P.

The Berlin-based annual festival for art and digital culture, transmediale, has extended their space into the online realm with Almanac For Refusal, which features a variety of browser-based media artworks - such as films, photo essays, texts, images, sound experiments. A particular piece of work stood out to me though, and upon watching it, had me transfixed. In the video essay “Finalforest.exe”, Mumbai-born artist Sahej Rahal narrates his own metaphysical musings through a 3D-rendered beastly shamanistic creature. In nine minutes and 30 seconds, he brings you on a mystical and contemplative look into the spinal cord of Indian society - the supposed divinely-oriented caste system - using bits of folklore, urban legends, archaeological records, conspiracies and science fiction.

Though presumably rendered based on Rahal himself, the character design comes across as being very intentional. The shamanistic creature has a body of an unpolished crystal with several tentacles that extend outwards to help it walk. According to the dialogue, it can be inferred that the tentacles represent the “tentacles of state bureaucracy that slither out to revoke fundamental rights of minorities and silence all forms of dissent through police action”. Rahal is referring to India’s politicisation of caste and the mistreatment of lower caste Indian nationals, which can be seen in the distribution of basic needs, like housing, and social relations.

In the video, Rahal explains how, unlike discrimination based on physical and tangible concepts such as race and gender, the idea of caste is purely metaphysical. He uses humour to get this point across, saying it is believed there is a man central to the cosmos, and that “this man is either Manu, Brahma, Vishnu or Vishwa Purusha, depending on which Shastras of Whatsapp forwards you are reading”. The hint of comedy acts as a swift breather to the otherwise information-heavy video essay. However, his efforts to maintain relatability with his audience show that this piece of work was created with intention, for himself and other Indians that may or may not be Hindu, because the system essentially victimises everyone.

The black bipedal creature that his tentacled creature ends up meeting after roaming through a tropical forest possesses a polygonal body that continuously explodes into its immediate surroundings like a sparkler firework. This body is perpetually smoking, and the creature walks as if it is malfunctioning, which could possibly be symbolic of the state of turmoil that India is in. On the other hand, the forest itself is described as a “seemingly infinite tropical forest”. It can be deduced that the endless land is symbolic of the caste system’s unending, unyielding, and relentless grip on Indian society.

I also have to mention that the video felt hypnotic. Rahal’s calm narration style paired with his naturally soothing voice and the ambient backing track put me into a meditative state. The visuals added to this - each section of the video featured a different series of repetitive visuals. The first is the tentacled creature’s walk through a purple abyss, the next is a first-person perspective of a walk through the forest leaves, and final is the bipedal creature’s clumsy lumbering through forest grounds. I had to rewatch the video twice to be able to fully absorb the beautiful, poetic flow of words that were being spoken to me.

A lot of it was new information. While I’ve always known that the caste system was birthed from religious beliefs, I had not known that it was mapped out according to the body of God himself. It is said that the head of God births the upper castes and his feet birth the lowest. They are far divided - or in Rahal’s words, they are “in a cosmic division between mind and limb”. This mythological system of oppression subjugates individuals based on the mere foul luck of being born into a family that is on the bottom end of the pecking order - or rather, born within the ambit of Brahma’s feet. He also tells us how in the past, the spread of several diseases were thought to be the fault of the lower castes, and shares a tale in which a boy from a lower caste hides his identity to become a scholar, only to be shunned when his secret is revealed.

Through a wondrous mix of folklore, urban legends, archaeological records, conspiracies and science fiction, Rahal examines the caste system through a highly critical, yet necessary, lens. The video essay had me questioning the systems at play, leaving a strong impression on me as it shared new information on the harmful beginnings of the social divide. The class war is a universal problem, and Rahal’s take on these struggles is refreshing, informative and artistic, which made it such a captivating work of art. The system at play proves to be something that India has yet to grow out of, but perhaps never will, because it is seen as the natural order of things.

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Natasha P. is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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