• Feature

India’s Dalit artists are shaking the age-old system of caste oppression

A new wave of Dalit artists, musicians and writers is catalyzing the movement for equality by popularizing the struggles of their communities and raising the consciousness of Indian society.
The Casteless Collective performing at the December People’s Music festival hosted by the Neelam Cultural Center on Dec. 31, 2020. (WNV/M. Palani Kumar)

Seventy five years after independence from British colonialism, Indians are still grappling with what it means to live and participate in a society where every person enjoys full freedom and security. The Indian caste system, perhaps the world’s most entrenched system of inequity rooted in deep religious and cultural traditions, is alive and well in India. However, a new wave of Dalit artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers are catalyzing the movement for equality by popularizing the struggles of their communities and raising the consciousness of Indian society.

Yashica Dutt is a Dalit author and journalist who wrote “Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir,” a book that chronicles her own journey of reclaiming her Dalit identity and connects her struggles with the larger Dalit movement for justice. In her book, Dutt rejects the argument that British colonialism created the modern day caste system and points out that this narrative is part of a “cover-up for a much deeper and older malice.”

The caste system is a millennia old rigid form of social, religious and cultural hierarchy that defines the role and work that members of a caste play in society. Dalits are people who find themselves outside of the hierarchical structure thus being characterized as “untouchable” simply by being born to a certain family or community. “Today, the narrative in India is that caste is over,” she said. “But it has always existed. Caste is the gear that turns every system in India.”

In 1947, India emerged from colonial rule and transformed into a democracy that included a constitutional ban on what was then called “untouchability.” India also established an affirmative action system that provided quotas and reservations for Dalits in civil service jobs and university admissions. However, the system of caste oppression has persisted and adapted to the new reality. While modern day India is often held up as the world’s largest democracy, Equality Labs, a U.S.-based Dalit civil rights organization, points out that “caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices including socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and experience brutal violence at the hands of the ‘upper’ castes.”

Manual scavengers in Chennai are picking through and emptying a trash bin with their bare hands. (WNV/M. Palani Kumar)

Indeed caste-based violence, which includes, rape, murder, kidnapping and robbery, has been a persistent problem in India, with women and girls suffering the most. According to the Centre for Law and Policy Research, a legal and constitutional research organization in India, rape was the primary form of violence against the Dalit community, outnumbering other crimes. Most recently a 9-year-old Dalit girl was reportedly raped, murdered and her body cremated to destroy the evidence.

However, beyond such instances of gruesome violence, Dalits face other overt and more subtle forms of discrimination and oppression on a daily basis. M. Palani Kumar, who lives in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has been documenting and photographing the work of so-called manual scavengers or sanitation workers for the past five years. Dalits are relegated to the most menial and dehumanizing work such as picking trash, cleaning toilets and clogged sewers, and moving animal carcasses from public spaces. Often this work is done by hand with little protection for the workers. And manual scavengers who do this work even face hardship and discrimination from others within the Dalit community.

Kumar has dedicated his life and work to documenting and shining a light on their lives. “Tamil Nadu is the worst state in the country for manual scavenger deaths,” he said. “Their jobs are important but they are not recognized. I will keep documenting until the world sees these people.” Kumar was the cinematographer for the documentary “Kakkoos,” a Tamil word meaning toilet.  The film documents the hardship and exposes how the caste system forcibly keeps these communities in one of the most dehumanizing work in India.

A sanitation worker in Chennai clearing a clogged sewer canal. (WNV/M. Palani Kumar)

In this context, artists are speaking out and creating ways for Indians to confront the realities of caste oppression. While a myriad of organizations and activists have long pushed for an end to the caste system, new forms of expression are shedding light on injustices and countering the narrative that caste discrimination no longer exists in India.

“In the last 10 years, there has been a sea change,” said Dutt, referring to the new artists who are finding their voices. She pinpoints that a catalyzing moment, both in her own journey and the resurgence of the movement, came in 2016 when a letter left behind by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit university student killed by suicide, went viral.        

Siddhesh Gautam, also known as Bakeryprasad on Instagram, is one Delhi-based Dalit artist, who is making waves with his illustrations. Gautam describes himself as someone who is immersed in the “Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi” movement. Bahujan is an encompassing term for Dalits and other minorities in India, while Adivasi refers to Indian tribal groups who have faced similar levels of discrimination as Dalits. Gautam’s striking illustrations aim to tell the stories of the communities and the people who often find themselves in the peripheral places of Indian society.

“I believe art’s role in the society is to document the present, reflect upon the past and conceptualize the future. Art has always been the expression of the subaltern,” Guatam in an interview with STIR World. “Art is a tool and weapon for self-expression first. When self-reflections reach an audience, the audience try to relate themselves with the expressions of the creator, and these connecting threads is the real art.” With more than 46,000 followers on Instagram, Gautam’s art is reaching a wide audience.

Previous Coverage
  • Meet the musicians challenging India’s rising inequality and untouchability
  • Independent music is also finding its footing within the Dalit movement in India. While music might have the ability to transcend certain barriers, the music that grows out of the Dalit struggle is often shunned from mainstream artistic expression. Dalit artists, particularly Gaana music performers, are often restricted from performing at popular venues that are usually reserved for Tamil classical performances. The music and the performers are seen as unclean for these prestigious platforms.

    In 2017, a music group based in Chennai called The Casteless Collective, or TCC, began mixing traditional Gaana music with modern-day rock and hip-hop in order to challenge the existing system. Gaana, a percussion-based musical form, comes out of the neighborhoods of North Chennai in Tamil Nadu, which are largely poor Dalit communities that have long lived on the margins of a bustling metropolis. Gaana was originally performed only at funerals and funeral processions and the performers are often stigmatized because of their assigned roles. Moreover, even the percussion instruments that they use are stigmatized, considered unclean and not appropriate for mainstream use.

    “I believe Gaana is the song of liberation and freedom sung by the oppressed community. They have been pushed to the edge of society and the music is hence marginalized,” said Tenma, TCC’s co-founder, in an interview with The Hindu.

    Tenma, who is himself from North Chennai, partnered with Pa. Ranjith to form The Casteless Collective. Ranjith is a Tamil filmmaker, known for films that often center the stories of marginalized communities. His 2014 critically acclaimed film “Madras” was about the lives and political aspirations of people in North Chennai. For Ranjith, film and music is his means for raising questions about the age-old system and his success as a filmmaker has provided the platform to do just that.

    In a caste-based society, where music from marginalized communities is appropriated, pushed aside or silenced, TCC provided a platform for artists, which turned their performances into acts of resistance. When TCC was formed the group included an ensemble of 19 artists. Tenma’s and Ranjith’s vision were to bring independent artists together to form one unit to have a deeper impact. “We are demanding the destruction of the caste system and the band is enabling this idea,” Tenma explained.

    The music of The Casteless Collective with its connection to traditional forms and the mixing with rock and hip-hop speaks to a broad audience both young and old. Since its founding, Ranjith’s production company provided the needed publicity for the band to break through to large audiences. They have since performed at venues both big and small forging a path for Dalit voices in music. The Hindu described them in 2019 as “the most talked about independent music band in Chennai.” And their videos and performances receive millions of views on YouTube. For example, their performance at the Behindwoods Gold Mic Awards in 2019 has been viewed nearly 10 million times on YouTube.

    As popular as they are, the band’s message is unapologetically political and counter-cultural, often invoking and praising B.R. Ambedkar, who is widely considered to be the father of the modern-day anti-caste movement. Ambedkar was also the primary author of India’s constitution in the post-colonial period and is credited with ensuring the legal rights of Dalits and other minorities.

    “We want to make a casteless generation here,” Arivu, a Tamil rapper and a principal member of the group, said in a documentary for Vice Asia. “If this generation also follows the caste [system], then nobody can save the next generations.” And for Arivu artistic expression is the best tool at his disposal to influence the broader society to dismantle the caste system.

    Since launching, Arivu and music producer Rohith Abraham, known professionally as ofRo, have worked to create spaces and platforms to empower other Dalit artists to find their voices and tell their stories through what they call #Therukural. Therukural is a movement-building space where artists gather, discuss, share lyrics, and perform in public parks. This provides a space to discover new, politically minded talent that they hope will create an “ecosystem of independent artists.” Therukural is a Tamil word that roughly translates to “street poetry.” The vision, as they describe it, is to center the voices of the marginalized groups and to change the narrative on caste-based oppression in India.

    When artists gather in parks to collaborate and perform, the events are often live streamed on Facebook to expand their audience and reach. Arivu and ofRo also co-released an album titled Therukural with seven socially and politically charged tracks that directly takes on the caste-system and other social injustices faced by marginalized communities. Rolling Stone India included the album in its “10 Best Indian Albums of 2019” list.

    An important feature of the people who are challenging the caste system is that the artists themselves are from the community and can speak to the system’s effect in a very personal way. And they are creating new spaces and platforms for those who otherwise would remain in the margins. While TCC primarily speaks to Tamil speakers, other artists in northern India are also breaking through. For example, Ginni Mahi is a Punjabi Dalit singer, who turned her personal experience of discrimination into a viral sensation through her hit song, “Danger Chamar.” Chamar is the name for Mahi’s community and it is also used as an insult against members of the community. While she was in college, a classmate discovered her caste and reportedly said, “Oh! I should be careful. Chamars are danger, they say.”

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    Yashica Dutt speaks about these artistic forms of resistance to the caste system as a budding movement. “[It’s] putting fear in the minds of casteists,” she said, “We have no playbook, we are learning as we move forward.”

    Dalit artists in India are certainly making waves and shaking up the age-old system of caste oppression. While Dalits and other marginalized groups have gained a number of crucial legal rights such as affirmative action in work and education, and protection against hate crimes and atrocities, casteism is an everyday reality for tens of millions of people in India. The rise of artists who are gaining in popularity and are creating platforms for new voices is perhaps an indication of the progress that has been made, particularly in shaping the conversation and raising the consciousness of Indian society.

    As it grows, a question that the movement faces is how it will have tangible effects on people’s lives. What will changing narratives mean for the millions of Dalits who continue to face economic hardship because of their caste identity? And, will the movement be able to effect political change and bring greater representation in the political arena? But for now, the growing Dalit movement is beginning to shatter the narrative that caste is no longer a problem in India and therefore does not need to be addressed, which is a critical first step on the road to justice.

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