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In Oakland, 'Dalit Dreamlands' Envisions an Anti-Caste Future

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Side by side photos of a man in a red shirt and white hat against of wall and floor covered in black writing.
Portraits of Dalit artist Aravind Chedayan, based in Delhi, India. (Manan Rai)

In 2022, Manu Kaur experienced severe hopelessness and depression, to the point of being hospitalized. Kaur, who is Punjabi and Dalit – the latter being a term used to describe the most oppressed people in India’s caste system — comes from a family with a lot of intergenerational trauma. “And as a result, there’s just a lot of mental health issues,” Kaur says. “Depression runs deep.”

After Kaur recovered, they decided to host a birthday party to celebrate their life. “It was very queer. It was very trans. It was very rooted in joy and celebration,” Kaur says. “It gave me so much more purpose. And it kind of just showed me like, if I can do that for myself, then I can also do it for [the] community.”

A painting of a man wearing glasses with raised fists around him.
A painting titled ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar with Ambedkarites raising their voices’ by artist Jay Sagathia. (Jay Sagathia)

And so they did. Through an Emerging Curators Program with the Asian American Women Artists Association, Kaur curated Dalit Dreamlands: Towards an Anti-Caste Future, a multimedia exhibition spotlighting over 30 artists from Dalit, Adivasi (tribes indigenous to South Asia), Afro-Indian, Indo-Fijian, Indo-Caribbean and Muslim communities.

A profile shot of a non-binary person with their eyes closed wearing a light blue turban.
Portrait of ‘Dalit Dreamlands’ curator Manu Kaur. (Simrah Farrukh)

Opening April 6 during Dalit History Month, the exhibition showcases artists working in digital art, painting, fashion design, film and more. Kaur is featured in the exhibition, as well, in family photographs by photographer Simrah Farrukh.

“It was the first time that my family and I had professional photos taken of us, like, ever. And so that was so meaningful to me because my family doesn’t often get to be celebrated,” Kaur says. “And now to have them exhibited in a gallery space feels so incredible to me.”

An elder man wearing a turban sits in front of a wall with two paintings on it.
A portrait of Manu Kaur’s maternal grandfather, who they call Papi ji. (Simrah Farrukh)

Kaur hopes the exhibition will educate people on what being Dalit means; “There’s no one ‘look’ to being Dalit,” Kaur says. They also hope it represents the community’s reclamation of the term – which literally translates to “broken” in Sanskrit – and how the community is advocating for a more just future. Kaur says that’s why calling the exhibition Dalit Dreamlands felt right.


“The way I would say it in Punjabi is ‘Begampura,’ which is supposed to be this utopian land, free of caste, free of discrimination,” Kaur says. The term was coined by Guru Ravidas, the ancient Indian poet, centuries ago. “And so I’m taking that and making it this big umbrella, which is like queer and trans and Dalit and pro-Black, pro-Palestine – all of those things. And so the name stuck because it feels like it’s a dream that I’m making reality.”

A profile shot of a person draped in a decorative gold top against a blue background.
A self-portrait of Seema Hari. In addition to being in the exhibition, Hari is one of the DJs at the opening night dance party. (Seema Hari)

‘Dalit Dreamlands: Towards an Anti-Caste Future’ is on view April 6–June 10 at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (388 9th St. Suite 290, Oakland) and ARTogether (1200 Harrison St., Oakland). A Zindagi Dance Party follows the opening receptions on April 6 at 7th West (1255 7th St, Oakland). All exhibition and party details here.

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