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Have ‘Indian’ Artforms Been Appropriated By Brahminism To Keep Out Dalits?

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The concept of art is one that is often alien to most people. It is viewed as a niche something only exceptionally talented or skilled people pursue. In truth, the arts cover a wide variety of skills and they encompass a wide range of human expression.

Some well known examples would be literary arts like fiction, drama, poetry and prose, performing arts like dance, music and theatre, visual arts like filmmaking, drawing, painting, photography and sculpting.

Representational image.

Indian Art Or ‘Upper Caste’ Art?

A scarcely talked about aspect of art in India is how it is actively gate kept from marginalized communities. Most of what counts as the face of Indian art has been defined by Brahmin ideologies, making it harder for Dalit artists to enter the world of so called ‘elite’ art.

In fact, the evolution of contemporary art after independence when people began going to art schools outside the country, allowing them to engage in western artistic discourse, completely cut off artists from marginalized communities that didn’t have access to these academic discussions.

This is a direct function of caste privilege, which also has the added consequence of producing art which is often bland and does not engage in politics or any social conversations due to its ‘upper caste’ perspective.

It doesn’t critique the government and because it dominates the mainstream it leaves no place for the voices of marginalized people who are using the tool of art to its full potential, to spread awareness and engage in discussions that affect change.

We see this in all areas of what is traditionally considered art. For example, in film and television it is a rule of thumb to have an ‘upper caste’, Savarna or Brahmin actor play lead roles. Bollywood exclusively showcases the stories of ‘upper caste’ families with no Dalit characters even when these stories are set in a rural background.

Despite Dalits and OBCs outnumbering the  ‘upper caste’ Hindu population by 4:1, they are virtually non-existent on the screen and even behind the scenes where Dalit filmmakers and directors are few and virtually unknown to mainstream audiences.

Appropriation of Dalit stories is also a common occurrence in Bollywood. One example would be the 2018 film Dhadak, a remake of the Marathi movie Sairat. In the process of remaking it, it also took the Dalit – ‘upper caste’ couple and tweaked it into two ‘upper caste’ people falling in love.

Even if Dalit actors are represented on screen their roles are generally diminished to impaired, alcoholic and poor characters that work for their upper class employers.

Classical music has also seen a constant erasure of any sounds that aren’t traditionally ‘Brahmin’. This ‘aesthetic erasure’ is where sounds which do not conform to the classical Carnatic style are declared common and therefore not deserving of recognition.

In reality, Dalit communities have a history of rich contribution to Indian music and dance. What is now considered Carnatic classical music and what is now called Bharatanatyam classical dance were both originally the provenance of women, especially temple dancers and courtesans, and of non-Brahmin communities like the Isai Vellalars which has now been appropriated by Brahmins.

Classical theatre too is based on the Aryan caste system and predominantly showcases stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Dr. Ambedkar however, elaborated on the casteist notion of Dharma in the Mahabharata, saying that, “It offers a philosophic basis to the theory of Chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men.

The fixing of the Varna of man is not an arbitrary act, says the Bhagvat Gita, but it is fixed according to his innate, inborn qualities. In short, a Shudra however great he may be as a devotee will not get salvation if he has transgressed the duty of the Shudra—namely to live and die in the service of the higher classes.

Making Art More Accessible

In what ways then can we make art more accessible to audiences, not just ‘upper caste’ ones? The selective gatekeeping of stories and art forms and the exclusion of communities who have contributed to these art forms prevents marginalized communities from viewing and partaking in forms of art which they rightfully have a share in.

One way to do that in film and television is to first start actively documenting the percentage of actors, directors and producers who are working in Bollywood and are from ‘upper castes’ versus those that are from ‘lower castes’.

Once this glaring inequality is evident in irrefutable facts and figures and this information is available not only to people who are thinking critically about these subjects but to everyone, we can make steps to include more representation, diversity and inclusion.

Having more online platforms as well that allow students from any background to engage and be exposed to different forms of art will help students realise that art is not exclusively painting and showcases a wide variety of skills from a diverse set of communities.

A Bengaluru based private museum called Museum of Art and Photography is doing exactly that. Recognizing the lack of online platforms where you can freely access Indian art history, their aim is to help connect the arts with different communities and have this art be diverse ranging from neglected work of craft and design to folk and tribal art.

Slam out Loud is another non-profit platform which works to use the transformative power of performance and visual arts to help build skills like communication, critical thinking and empathy in children from disadvantaged communities.

In the performing arts it is important to have discourse about who is allowed to define what is classical music? Questions must be raised as to why most teachers are Brahmin men and why ‘lower caste’ dancers are often labelled as ‘bad’ dancers or not allowed to perform.

With something like classical art forms where caste is so deeply entrenched and where the preservation of the art form as we know it depends on the exclusion of marginalized communities, to start the process of inclusion we must first examine and inform ourselves about how and why this art form has been gatekept.

Only then will it be possible to make space for people from communities that have been left out.

Making art accessible is a need that must be fulfilled. Art has always been used as a form of socio-political commentary, self expression and social activism and has the ability to empower people and affect change.

The exposure of art must not be limited to a certain group of people and must be made available to people everywhere in order for communities to reclaim the legacies they have attached to these art forms.

This allows more people to engage in art and allows people to express, criticize and examine the structures around them in creative ways thus dismantling them and making way for more voices and stories.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program
Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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