In 2014, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) commenced its archaeological work at Keezhadi Village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivagangai District. The initial excavation was conducted in three phases. Later, for various political reasons, the Government of Tamil Nadu’s Archaeological Department stepped in and continued the excavation work. As of date seven phases of excavation work have been completed, and further work is in the pipeline.

Apart from the officials of the Archaeological Department most the labour force consists of local village folk from Keeladi and neighbouring areas. Coming from across castes and classes, the locals who are employed are the ones actively involved in every step of the excavation process. A typical day on site starts at 9am, with opening and clearing of the pits, digging, checking and cleaning artifacts, documentation and sketching, and finally closing the pits by 5pm.

All the workers will reach the excavation site every morning at 8-8.30 am. Most of the women would finish their household chores before coming here and have the breakfast only here before opening the pits covered with tarpaulin sheets, sharply at 9.00 am. Then they will clear off the foliage spread around the pits. Some women bring the tools and articles required for the work from the tent. This job is mostly done by women only.

Then the men go into the pits and dig with small and big pickaxes. With the advice of archeologists, they do the digging work slowly, evenly and with precision and neatness.

After the men come out after digging, women enter the pits and start stirring by small amounts the soil that has been dug out by the men.

The do the works such as stirring the sand in small amounts, discovering the ancient articles buried in the soil,collecting the broken pottery pieces.

After stirring, the whole of the soil is taken out and dumped at a place. The men gather the soil and hand it over to the women who carry the load and dump it at a particular place.

Digging the pit, stirring the soil, gathering the soil, carrying it to another place and dumping it- after doing two rounds of these series of work, they got to have lunch around 1 PM in the afternoon. After lunch, they take rest for sometime.

Some women wash the broken pieces of mud pots with water, clean them and dry them by placing them under the sun. Later the archaeologists examine those pot pieces. They segregate the important pot pieces that is the pieces with codes like scratches, symbols etc. Those segregated pot pieces are scheduled and separately packed on the wall.

Documentation is the very vital job in the process of excavation. Section Drawing is an important part in this. In every phase of excavation this work is undertaken. Even these works are accomplished only with the help of labourers.

The above mentioned works are stopped at 4 PM in order to photo document the depth and the quality of the pit excavated on that day. A few women get into the pit and clear the entire soil by brushing them aside with a brush. Then they assist the archaeologists in documentation by taking up the scales of various measures and based on the instructions of the archaeologist, place the scale with the appropriate measure in the place mentioned.

Photo documenting the pit excavation pit at the end of each day is a vital work. The labourers also stay along and assist in this process.

Documentation in writing is done in a note called Site Data Sheet, at the end of each day. The person in-charge of each pit in the respective sites will note this down.

Only after finishing all the work and documentation will they place the articles and tools in the tent. Then they will cover the pits with tarpaulin sheets. They follow specific methods to cover the pits. In order to prevent the rain water from eroding the wall beside the pit, they build a embankment with the soil. While leaving after finishing all these tasks, they would have already work for at least 30-40 minutes over and above the scheduled duration of work.

The Tamil Nadu State Archaeological Department pays the lowest level of workers involved in the Keeladi excavation project a daily of wage @ Rs.420/- for a male worker and Rs.380/- for a female workers. Apart from this remuneration they don’t get any other allowance. For instance, even the cost of the Tea they drink in the morning and evening is borne by themselves by sharing the expenses.

These are the tools and articles used in the archeological excavation site.

The Keeladi Portraits, of the men and women working on site were re-made as cyanotype prints on fabric, to call attention to the sunlight/vayyil which bears witness to both the subject and the image.

The scorching sun under which the labourers toil at the excavation site also becomes the medium through which their portraits come to be made using the cyanotype method.

There are many important reasons I am documenting about these labourers, under the heading Keeladi. One among them is that at the excavation site, Baring a few archaeologists, only these blue-collar workers spoke with me and shared their experiences with me. Moreover these workers were not recognized anywhere else in any manner.

About the artist

Saranraj V was born and raised in a small village called Karadippatti in Madurai, a Southern District in Tamilnadu.

For the past 8 years he has been based in Chennai and he travels with his artworks. Though specialised in Sculpting, his artworks are spread across mediums. The medium depends on the core of the work. The content and ideological traits of Tamil traditional artforms, ritualistic forms form the base of his works. And his works explore issues of caste and class structures in society from the vantage point of the self. Saranraj V focuses on individuals whom he has interacted with over a period of time. Familiar with their life story and struggles, he uses materials and techniques that resonate with their situation. He works with a range of media- photography, video, drawing, sculpture etc.- that would be most appropriate to the theme, using the media to explore and tease out nuances within it. Ultimately, his concern is to present people, who are rendered invisible by society, as individuals in their own right, capable of evolved thinking and deep feeling. Interested in traditional Tamil art forms, his works aspire towards the essence of what draws him to these arts- the sense of spirituality and humanity that cuts across all man-made boundaries.

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