south asian

On the Visual Appropriation and Erasure of Lower Caste Histories with Khushboo Gulati

Hi Khushboo!! I’m so grateful to be speaking with you. How is your spirit feeling this evening?

Hello! My spirit has been ruminating this evening ~ been sitting with my thoughts, letting myself flow and create! How is your spirit? And also excited to be here and in dialogue with you! 

So glad to hear that you’ve been able to have what sounds like a fluid and restful day. I think this retrograde combined with the new moon energy has been pretty heavy for me personally, I’m looking forward to spending the next few days in rest and quiet contemplation. Can you speak a little about your practice with me – if you can even generalize. You are someone who is so multidisciplinary, multi skilled + multitalented – so maybe, how do you define the art that you create if you were to narrow it down?

I hear you! These last few days have felt chaotic energetically so I have been resting more and my dreams have been very amplified! 

Yes! Thank you for seeing me! My creations engage with my journeys of flesh and spirit, time(less-ness), flower splendor, the elements, challenging values and narratives of oppression, rewriting internal and external narratives, transformation, detangling pain, my dreams, and igniting wonder. My art practice is a reflection of my healing practice. My practice is rooted in embodiment and sensorial activation and is reflective of my own process of self-excavation and evolutions into my deepest selves. My process is shaped by ritual, elemental reverence, stillness and movement, collaborations with qtbipoc community, liberatory politics, and my intuition! Is this narrowed down enough haha?

So so so beautiful. One thing about your art practice that really drew me in is how tangibly sacred your process is. And how willing you are to offer that with the world. I also really love this notion of sensorial activation. I’ve only recently come back to my body, I’m still calling bits of myself back, and your work is so palpable while also speaking to inner healing. 

Your tattoo work is especially something that struck me – when did you get into tattooing and how did you begin to foster the process of channeling inner vibrations through the tattoos? What does that look like when you are giving someone else a tattoo?

Thank you for your affirmations! I appreciate hearing that ~ Sensorial activations in my work came from my own healing work. It brings me closer to my spirit and invites a deeper connection to my body. My art has been a sanctuary to create new worlds that reflect my visions, desires, and pleasures and invite different ways of feeling, being, and seeing from what is taught to us or socialized. The process of calling ourselves back into our bodies and spirits is definitely a nonlinear and expansive ongoing process that takes new form as we grow, unlearn and relearn and revel in the unique and magical songs of the self! My tattoo work has definitely been an expression of sensorial activation, as a somatic healing practice that bridges and expands mind, body, heart, and spirit! I started learning how to tattoo in 2016 from my friend Sookie, the night I graduated from college, which was a really symbolic moment of moving away from this academic logical world to this sensorial, intuitive, and creative world. I was dreaming a lot about tattooing myself months before this night but was not consciously acting on these visions. I feel like I have been connected to this practice in various forms (and in training) since I was a kid. I was always the kid drawing on other people in class with my inky ballpoint pen, drawn to adornment, was raised in a household that was visually stimulating with Indian wall hangings and embroideries my mom decorated the house with that I was subconsciously studying. I started to do mehndi/henna for myself and my community and felt really connected to that energy exchange and ritual. When I close my eyes I see patterns, fractals and intricate images constantly. I also feel that having a dance practice growing up shaped my understanding of the rhythms of the body and how it moves, which informs how I tattoo. Decorating the body with sacred adornment has been so powerful for me as a queer non-binary person in defining myself on my own terms and celebrating the vibrances that I feel within! I also feel that what I have learned from organizing has informed my practice of tattooing as a political act of honoring and celebrating the layers, stories, and histories that belong to the communities I tattoo! I transitioned to learning how to use the machine last year with the help of community, Mirza and Jaime. Honoring my teachers in this work is so important to me! I am self taught and community taught!

My tattoo practice is rooted in amplifying the autonomy of and connection to our bodies, hearts, and spirits, inviting transformation and deeper self-awareness. Each session is a sensorial ceremony to mark the flesh with symbols soaked in intentions and prayer, acting as a powerful tool to reclaim the body, challenge fear, projections, expectations and the socializations of our bodies. My client and I will talk about their meanings and what it brings up for them over email. I never share my flash sheets online to protect my work and because they are also so deeply personal and reflections of my spiritual journeys and lessons. When the client arrives at my studio, we usually check in about how we are both doing and I go through what the tattoo process will look like. I ask their body boundaries, communicate with them how I will be working on their body/where I will be placing pressure, reminding them we can move with this process in ways that support them and their comfortability with breaks and breaths. 

Once the image is placed, I ask that we take 3 deep cavernous grounding breaths and to set an intention with this tattoo. I ask what they would like to affirm, invite, celebrate, or release with this piece and I set an intention as well. After that process to invite presence we begin the process. Tattooing different parts of the body can bring up a lot of emotion and energy, so I want to make sure to hold space for this and encourage the client to listen to the messages of what is coming up! There is never any rush with my sessions, I do not like to work with that energy because it disrupts my process and channeling. Because I am a Gemini, I love to ask questions and I will usually talk with my client (to whatever extent they want to share) about their journeys, how they flow through this world, what they creating and dreaming about, what they want to transform, their ancestral histories, their favorite time of day, etc! 

Wow Khushboo, I am so moved by how deeply intentional and thoughtful your process around and within tattooing is. The reverence you have for this palpable energetic exchange, the ways that you’re making room for lineages and hundreds of years of histories – it’s such a holistic approach to embodiment and meaning making.

I know for me, I’ve had to really slow down when considering who I will approach for my next tattoo because I do want to be in a space where my body is honored and my spirit is seen. It’s so comforting and exhilarating to know that you’re really digging deep and combining gentleness and interrogation into your tattoo work. 

I want to talk to you about a recent trend that I’ve been observing that is the tattooing of markings that resemble that worn traditionally by Dalit, Adivasi and other ‘lower caste’ communities. I only have recently begun learning about the ancestral histories behind these types of markings and it’s concerning that there is this rising trend where both South Asians and non South Asians are pulling from communities that have been historically discriminated against without context. What have you been thinking about this?

The energy exchange of tattooing is so vulnerable and intimate, it makes sense to want to work with an artist that moves with community care and trauma-informed approaches. For me, this work is not just transactional or commercial, it is so process oriented and invites so many worlds of flesh and spirit. Tattoo artists must consider who is coming into their space, what they are bringing, and how to honor their clients as well as themselves. This has also meant making visual vocabularies that are outside Brahmanical and white imaginations. Tattooing, in my approach, is a form of care work of holding space, deep listening to the body, energy, and the client, and supporting the client in activating their agency through this process. 

Upper caste people have been appropriating and taking from caste oppressed communities since the inception of the caste system—from their literal labor, their cultural practices, to their humanity. This dynamic of upper caste people appropriating tattoos that come from oppressed caste communities is a very colonial dynamic and peak casteism. The ease through which upper caste people appropriate comes from caste privilege and this domination mentality/psyche of entitlement, lack of self-awareness, disconnection from the self and their positionality, and not knowing the vast histories of oppressed caste communities. This dynamic is also coupled with capitalism and patriarchy, where upper caste people reduce tattoo histories and vocabularies from oppressed caste people down to just aesthetics. This dynamic is extremely harmful and violent, and perpetuates caste supremacy. It destroys the sacred! I was reading from Akademi magazine that “Savarna history is a history of erasure.” Appropriation feeds anti-indigenous ideologies and is another form of colonization of oppressed caste communities. By appropriating these visual languages, upper caste people are erasing the contributions, intellectual+creative labor, imaginations, and agency of the original practitioners and wearers of these tattoos. Upper caste people can adorn themselves with these appropriated symbols without consequences and receive praise and adoration, while oppressed caste bodies are hurt, policed, controlled, and dehumanized. This appropriation is extremely disrespectful and harmful in a time of Hindu fascism, rampant caste violence, and ongoing labor exploitation of oppressed caste communities, when oppressed caste communities have shaped everything without receiving credit or dignity. They have created the visual expressions and cultures of South Asia and we have to honor them and their artistries. 

Upper caste tattoo artists and non-South Asian artists have a responsibility to practice integrity by honoring and respecting the boundaries and practices of oppressed caste communities. Tattoo artists must incorporate deep research into their practices and integrate anti-caste work into our practices. To be transparent, I am caste privileged, making it an even greater responsibility to challenge this casteist appropriation and actively listen to and support Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi liberation movements. 

Something I have noticed is that a lot of upper caste people in the diaspora will look to aesthetics as an entry point into understanding their identities, but will not think about the artisans and makers behind these crafts, textiles, embroideries, etc. It is in this process that the meanings, intentions, and histories of oppressed caste people get commodified and decontextualized. The irony is that I will see upper caste tattoo artists and people talk about appropriation of their ~culture~ by white people but will not even mention how they are replicating the same dynamic through casteism. Another layer to this is that many upper caste people’s perception of their culture has been shaped by Brahmanism and North Indian Hindu upper caste hegemony, which is inherently violent and problematic. Additionally, while simultaneously taking from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi visual practices, upper caste people and non-South Asians are romanticizing Southasianness and Hindu imageries with tattoos. This is deeply dangerous as well because of how Hinduism is also appropriated from oppressed caste people and has caste supremacy and brahmanical patriarchy written into its scriptures. The construction of Hindusim as a peaceful, romanticized religion comes from upper caste Hindu elites utiltizing European historiography of India as this mystical peaceful land. Hinduism has been used as a tool for nationalism, fascism, and upholding upper caste ideals. Brahmanism/Hinduism & caste supremacy is a construction by upper caste elites to create systems that subordinate, exploit, and control oppressed caste communities and represent Indian society as a monolith. It was framed as a holy and sacred structure to justify its existence and to maintain its power so deep, deep in the psyche of South Asia and South Asian diasporas. The gravity of this appropriation of tattoo languages by upper caste people is manipulative, immense and wrong by how much trauma and damage casteism has caused and continues to create. These acts are a form of spiritual and political warfare. Nothing is separate from history. Tattoos are political, the body is political, it is the site of imagination and possibilities. It is a reflection of the social, political, emotional, spiritual, psychological and historical ecosystems, circumstances, and journeys they come from. One cannot detach tattoos from history and dynamics of power. 

This is such an in depth interrogation of the violence that exists within so much of South Asian caste culture. Even within the system of yoga, there’s so much space made to critique the west’s appropriation of the practice, and yet so many South Asians are unwilling to address how the practice itself has its roots in violence against lower caste communities. 

Now especially as we are experiencing the peak of Hindu fascism, it’s so interesting how platforms like Instagram get used to proliferate these images of South Asianness funnelled through ~experimental village-esque~ tattoos. It’s so crucial for us to really think about how we are playing into the mass spiritual, institutional and physical erasure of lower caste and historically marginalized South Asian communities. We absolutely need to start interrogating the ways we perform our identities – even more so if we feel like we don’t have a connection to caste dynamics, because that is usually how and why we become so complacent with the romanticization of ‘South Asianness!’ I want to delve so much deeper but I want to be mindful of your time, to end – do you have any resources that you might want to share for folks who are interested in learning more about the caste histories and visual languages of tattooing? And what advice would you give for those who maybe already have markings on their bodies that they weren’t super intentional about? 

Yes caste is everywhere and engrained in every facet of life, making it even more important to constantly be interrogating everything we have learned about South Asia and South Asianness. I want to give thanks to the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim activists, scholars, artists, paradigm shifters that I have learned all this information from.

I remember when I was first researching tattoo history in India it was hard to find comprehensive information and now I realize this is because of Brahmanism. I have been learning from Dalit feminists, that this is the savarna washing of history with casteism denying and erasing oppressed communities and their histories and the resources to wholly document their vastness. When I did find articles there was barely mention of caste dynamics and written in condescending or voyeuristic tones. My learning has come from caste oppressed activists, artists, and culture workers on instagrams and thru online articles. B.R. Ambedkar, brilliant Dalit visionary and leader talked about building a counter culture to Hinduism & caste supremacy. This means making sure our tattoo practice feeds a culture that is working towards liberation of oppressed caste communities. Our tattoo practice must nourish a counter culture that honors and encourages healing, transformation, harmony, inner work, accountability, action, communication, research, pleasure, joy and authenticity. 

As I have learned from Ambedkar and other Dalit activists, true allyship means to abolish caste and divest from Hinduism. There is nothing to salvage or reform about institutionalized injustice! 

For deeper learning, there are so many resources online you can find through the Equality Labs page—they have a list of book recs. I would recommend reading The Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, Debrahmanising History by Braj Ranjan Mani, books by Kancha Ililah, articles by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, to name a few. Follow the pages of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi artists+ activists. Some wonderful pages to follow– @artedkar, @bakeryprasad, @partyofficehq, @coolie.women, @sharminultra, @gracebanu, @ranaayuub, Huma Dar, Yalini Dream, @ManishaMashaal, @kirubamunusamy, @artwhoring, @akademimag and sooo many more. 

Upper caste people must challenge casteism in their families and caste network! As Dalit feminists have stated, the burden should not fall on Dalit people to fight Brahmanical patriarchy and caste apartheid—this is an upper caste creation and upper caste problem. Upper caste people must listen and surrender to Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi leadership, liberation and communities. Organize with folks committed to caste liberation, find an Ambedkarite organization! Upper caste people must engage in deep inner work by taking responsibility for the harm our ancestors have caused and were complicit in. This is healing the conscious, subconscious, and conscious where casteism resides. This is healing and taking responsibility for your bloodline, of reprogramming, dismantling, and interrupting toxic and violent belief systems and behaviors. Because caste is so embedded in our relationships and psyches, it is critical to heal how we build with one another. 

Creating a connection to the self outside of caste supremacy requires us to be creative and open our hearts. We must remember that we have the capacity to grow into other forms of knowing and connection, especially knowings that center liberation. We must remember that we can shapeshift and transform. We can create new worlds, traditions and rituals that affirm life. We have to build relationships outside of assigned illusions of caste supremacy and invite a deeper more radical loving. To the folks who have markings on their bodies that were not very intentional, I would say let this be a learning moment to move with deeper intention, self-interrogation, and research. Let this be a reminder to interrupt casteism and caste apartheid everywhere. May this be a reminder to commit to a lifelong journey of undoing the violent legacies of Brahmanism. May this be a reminder to bring forth the worlds envisioned by caste oppressed communities. May this be a wake up call to fight for the dignity, humanity, autonomy, justice and healing for oppressed caste communities. May this be a reminder of the reparations upper caste people owe oppressed caste people. May this invite you to rewrite history so that the same cycles of history and hatred are not repeated.

Khushboo is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer born and raised on Tongva Land (Los Angeles). Their creations engage with the journeys of their flesh/spirit, time/less-ness, ritual, flower splendor, the elements, challenging values of oppression, embodiment, rewriting internal & external narratives, detangling pain, dreams, and igniting wonder. They channel through painting, tattooing, graphic design, sensation activation + curation, textiles, installations, and dance, creating lush worlds around saturated loving, healing and existing… new ways of flowing, being, seeing, connecting. Their work is guided by shifting paradigms, transformation, metaphysical spiritual exploration, intuition, creating autonomous affirming spaces that center justice, liberation, love.

Their practice has been an ever flowing journey of constant learning, flowering since 2010. They are interested in reflecting the deep connections between the personal, political, and spiritual. Their work has been and is shaped + informed by decolonization and debrahmanization, anti-capitalist anti-racist organizing, abolition, ending caste apartheid & Islamophobia, Black liberation, queer and trans liberation work, disability justice frameworks, & healing+spiritual justice work~