Caste and Popular Culture

This debate kit explores the alternatives offered by Dalit-Bahujan discourse to the prevalent dominant Brahmanical discourses in popular culture, literature and cinema. Scholars have argued that the dominant forms of art have marginalised the caste-based cultural practices and instead focused on showing a more homogenous culture through aspects like Nationalism. The epistemic interventions by the marginalised opens up myriad ways in which one looks at the philosophical questions of self, political questions of identity and social questions of community.

Popular culture can be defined as the practices, beliefs, artefacts, conventions that we share as a society. It is a set of collective or shared meanings that masses accept as either information, art or entertainment in a society. Popular culture is that which pervades our everyday lives, and is often thought of as belonging to the masses, however, is entrenched in politics of capital gain and often regulated by those in power. Caste is still a relevant and important question in Indian society, and we see that though there is more participation from people of lower castes in producing popular culture today than it was before, yet the stigma and discrimination remains.

In a sense, popular culture in India has always been dominated by the elites because they have controlled the reins of production and have carefully surveilled what the masses have consumed. Though there has been an intervention of social media which has offered a new space for representation, yet we see that people are targeted and trolled due to their caste position. But with more anti-caste writing and cinema making it to the mainstream, there has been a rise of Dalit assertiveness, and lower castes reclaiming various spaces and marking their presence.

In this debate kit we look at the representation as well as the absence of people from the lower castes in the cinema, music, literature, news and digital media, and other cultural artefacts that we produce and consume today.

Through this debate kit, we have created a repository on caste and popular culture with over 100 articles from the archives of EPW.

Popular Culture

Music

Digital Media News

Cinema

Literature

Popular Culture

As rightly pointed out by Holt N. Parker- “A precise definition of popular culture is elusive perhaps delusive.” An important question thus to begin with is What is Popular Culture? Should we look at it as separate from the ‘culture of learned’ ( Johann Gottfried Herder), or do we look at it as what Tony Bennet would call a “melting pot of confused and contradictory meanings capable of misdirecting inquiry up any number of theoretical blind alleys." In this section we try to explore popular culture as a form of mass mediated cultural and art forms in India. It also explores other arenas which constitute an important site for understanding popular culture for instance university spaces. When we talk about mass mediated forms of popular culture we tend to ignore the caste-based cultural forms. The articles in this section critically deciphers this aspect. Scholars have argued that the dominant forms of art have marginalised the caste-based cultural practices and instead focussed on showing a more homogenous culture through aspects like Nationalism. Another thing that needs our attention is how cultural performances becomes a site of popular engagement attracting a lot of people towards it, bringing into sharp focus the social, material and political conditions. Read the following section to delve deeper into the various aspects of Popular Culture.

The Virangana in North Indian History : Myth and Popular Culture | Economic and Political Weekly, 1988

PERSPECTIVES : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1991

Popular Culture and Pop Sociology : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1992

More on Roja : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1994

Iruvar Transforming History into Commodity : | Economic and Political Weekly,1997

Conceptualising Popular Culture : 'Lavani' and 'Powada' in Maharashtra | Economic and Political Weekly, 2002

Popular Culture | Economic and Political Weekly, 2002

Rethinking Popular Culture | Economic and Political Weekly, 2002

Popular Culture and Ideology: The Phenomenon of Gaddar : | Economic and Political Weekly, 2010

Caste as Social Capital : The Tiruppur Story | Economic and Political Weekly, 2014

Tamil Cultural Elites and Cinema : Outline of An Argument | Economic and Political Weekly, 2014

From the Streets to the Web : Looking at Feminist Activism on Social Media | Economic and Political Weekly, 2015

Caste, Contemporaneity and Assertion | Economic and Political Weekly, 2016

Why Indian Universities Are Places Where Savarnas Get Affection and Dalit-Bahujans Experience Distance | Economic and Political Weekly, 2018

Caste-less Community | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Dalit Desires and the City of Surat | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Complicating the Feminist : Intellectual Legacies of Birth Control in India | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

When Labour Meets Culture | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

Kanshi Ram and the Making of Dalit Political Agency : Leadership Legacies and the Politics of Hissedari | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Pandemic in the Time of Dalit Feminism | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Music

It may appear to be the case for many that music itself is bereft of any caste markers as it is a sound technically exclusive to none. However, historically it has been the case that we often associate classical music and dance with the upper castes, and folk music with the lower castes. The fact that certain lyrics, sounds, instruments have been historically defined and delineated for Dalit musicians, is oftern overlooked. As for an example, whether it is forms of folk music in Punjab or Tamil Nadu’s Parai Attam—playing of the Parai drum, which is viewed as analogous to the Paraiyar Dalit caste. We see an emergence of the genre of Dalit or Bahujan or Ambedkarite music where musicians sing about the struggles and discrimintation based on caste. Musical genres like pop and hip-hop that have been embraced by young Dalit musicians. Dalit musicians often sing of the legendary city of “Begampura” so mentioned by Guru Ravidas, where there is no sorrow, no hierarchies, where freedom is unchallenged and all are equal, bound in a common fraternity.

Digital Media News

The question of caste in the context of news and digital media requires us to look at representation both in terms of inclusion in the creative space, as well as in terms of bringing the voices of the marginalised, to the fore. In late 1998, a dalit organisation presented a memorandum to the Press Council of India. The memorandum was titled “End Apartheid in Indian media–Democratise Nation’s Opinion” and called for the creation of a national commission for democracy in the Indian media. The reason for lack of participation and thus representation of the marginalised castes in news media is manifold: one of the biggest reasons is that the stakeholders involved are often private players who decide the content as well as the creator of the content based on their capital gains. The “diversity model” has never been actualised in mainstream media because of a structural necessity to create news purely for profit. The economic and social underpinnings have reflected in the fact that people from marginalised backgrounds were neither found within the newsroom nor in the content. However, the second decade of 2000s brought the expansion of social media as a space and opportunity for everyone with access to technology, to finally put forward their voice in their own words. After the advent of digital media, and especially after the proliferation of social media and content-sharing platforms, Dalit–Bahujan professionals and many amateur journalists started their own websites and video channels, and Dalit–Bahujan intellectuals have their footprints on social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Though over the past few years we have seen more representation and participation of people from marginalised caste communities, but that has also been laden with prejudice and bias. It is often seen that individuals from lower castes are caricatured on social media, and trolled due to their caste position. Thus, there is still a need to find ways to democratise social media and avoid the transference of upper caste suppression into this space.

Muslims and Mass Media : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1994

Durban and Dalit Discourse | Economic and Political Weekly, 2001

Contemporary Woman in Television Fiction | Economic and Political Weekly, 2003

Dalits and a Lack of Diversity in the Newsroom | Economic and Political Weekly, 2011

The Peculiar Tenacity of Caste : | Economic and Political Weekly, 2012

Caste Publications : The Space for Upper Caste Subculture Politics | Economic and Political Weekly, 2014

Does Media Exposure Affect Voting Behaviour and Political Preferences in India? | Economic and Political Weekly, 2014

Media under Siege | Economic and Political Weekly, 2016

Confronting Everyday Humiliation : Response from an Adivasi | Economic and Political Weekly, 2016

Dangerous Speech in Real Time: Social Media, Policing, and Communal Violence | Economic and Political Weekly, 2017

​Heralding the Anti-caste Aesthetic | Economic and Political Weekly, 2018

What Is Missing In the #MeToo Movement? | Economic and Political Weekly, 2018

Mapping the Power of Major Media Companies in India | Economic and Political Weekly, 2018

India Needs a Fresh Strategy to Tackle Online Extreme Speech | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Digital Disinformation and Election Integrity: Benchmarks for Regulation | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Chaiwala Chowkidar Modis Election Campaigns Online and Offline | Economic and Political Weekly/Engage, 2019

Digital Politics in India's 2019 General Elections, 2019

Online Gods Ep 2: Media as Religion and Round Table India/Dalit Online Media | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

From Objectivity to Openness: A Study of Digital Journalism in the 2019 Elections | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Gendered Dimensions of Media : Insights from Within | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Caste Atrocities and Social Media | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

Upper-caste Domination in India's Mainstream Media and Its Extension in Digital Media | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

BJP’s Twitter Experiments and Tamil Resilience | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

The Protagonist of a Tolerant Society | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

​Rethinking the Democratic Dilemma | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

The Making of Ambedkarite Public Culture : Spatiality and Expressions of Dalits' Conscientising Space in Mumbai, circa 1920s–1940s | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

News Hunters or Ad Gatherers? : Precarious Work of Rural Stringers in Print Media | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Politics and Self-representation of Online Muslim Youth, 2021

Gender Equity and COVID-19: Dalit Standpoints | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Cinema

We all know that cinema is a popular form of entertainment in every household. Be it the matinees of 90s or the Netflix of today, cinema has always been present with us, in our everyday lives. The important question now is that do we want to reduce cinema for mere entertainment purposes only or can it do more in terms of representation and reform? If so how? Cinema is rooted in a particular place and time. It is history and cultural specific. Therefore one needs to understand that cinema becomes a site of ‘production’ of identities and representations. Several studies have shown how Indian cinema has stereotypically represented Dalits. The darkening of faces of Savarna actors playing Dalit characters is one of the many stereotypes one finds in the Indian cinema especially bollywood. The recent controversy over Richa Chaddha playing the role of Madam(Mayawati) in Subhash Kapoor’s film ‘Madam Chief Minister’ brings forth the problematic approach of the Savarna actors. In an interview with Indian Express she had said: “ As far as who should play it (the role of madam), that’s a very convoluted question and comes from a place of extreme ignorance. It’s like when they say that only these people should play because it’s their lived experiences. As an actor, that doesn’t make sense to me because then what are we going to do about it?” She further argued that it all depended on the process of casting and if she ever produced a movie, she would caste somebody with lived experience. This clearly brings to light the problems with systemic processes like casting alongwith the saviour complex and tokenism of progressive savarna actors, when they try to deflate the question of representation into the one about the profession of actors. This comparison is foregrounded on a very problematic comparison as it fails to accept the unequal grounds on which the Indian society stands, which eventually renders their acts of progressiveness to mere tokenism. This expropriation of identity is crippling and silences the voices of the oppressed. As rightly pointed out by Fanon that if we don’t resist the silences it will produce, “individuals without anchor, without horizon, colourless, stateless, rootless - a race of angels". (Wretched of the Earth, p176). Read the following section on the question of representation vs presence and the role of Dalit-filmamkers in challenging the stereotypical regime of cinema.

Literature

How has popular literature dealt with the question of caste? Many scholars have argued that dalit-bahujan literature has been ignored by the dominant discourses.One needs to see the alternative vision embedded in literature coming from the margins. Merely rendering this literature as ‘polemical’ is yet another way of subjugation. The epistemic alternative and assertiveness emerging from the dalit literature also brings to light the heterogeneity of culture which has been shadowed by the dominant discourses of Nationalism, Democracy and Religion, producing a picture of homogenous India. With the introduction of Dalit-Bahujan writings, on the one hand one can see the assertiveness of their respective identity while on the other we can see a quest for Dalit Self. In the quest for self the literature from the margins engages with the creation of modern identity, and knowledge production in public sphere which has been dominated by the brahmanical discourses. In doing so there happens to be a constant engagement and questioning of their marginalised status. Alongwith offering an alternative to existing discourses, scholars from the marginalised sections must be able to contribute freely to other studies apart from the exclusionary studies only. This would definitely require grounding oneself in the theoretical debates alongwith their respective lived experiences. In this section we bring to you the evolution of Dalit-Bahujan literature as an alternative to discourses dominated by the Brahmanical forces.

Dialectics of Defeat-Some Reflections on Literature, Theatre and Music in Colonial India : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1987

Caste of Indian English Novel : | Economic and Political Weekly, 1991

Heroes, Histories and Booklets | Economic and Political Weekly, 2001

Short Story in Gujarati Dalit Literature | Economic and Political Weekly, 2001

Resources on Non-Brahmin Movement | Economic and Political Weekly, 2002

Gender, Caste and Fiction | Economic and Political Weekly, 2006

Reading Devadasi Practice through Popular Marathi Literature | Economic and Political Weekly, 2009

The Last and the First | Economic and Political Weekly, 2009

Evolution of Telugu Dalit Literature : | Economic and Political Weekly, 2010

Caste in a Casteless Language? : English as a Language of 'Dalit' Expression | Economic and Political Weekly, 2013

Caste in Indian English Fiction : Footnotes to a Post-Mandal Debate | Economic and Political Weekly, 2015

Subaltern Historiography to Dalit Historiography : Tracing Heterogeneity in Dalit 'Subalternity' | Economic and Political Weekly, 2015

Notes on a Literary Death : | Economic and Political Weekly, 2015

A Dalit Body in a Brahminical World | Economic and Political Weekly, 2016

Baby Kamble to Bama : Dalit Women Write Differently | Economic and Political Weekly, 2016

History of Dalit Literature | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

The Impossibility of 'Dalit Studies' | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

'English-ing' Anti-caste Literature in Maharashtra | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

Indian State, Land Politics, and the Dalit Political Imagination of Gurdial Singh | Economic and Political Weekly, 2019

The Birth of the Dalit Protagonist | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

Dalit Journals in Colonial Madras (1869–1943) | Economic and Political Weekly, 2020

Theory and the Possibility of 'Dalit Studies' | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

English Language Education in India: How Aspirations for Social Mobility Shape Pedagogy | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Roars of Dalit Audacity | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Night of the Murdered Poets | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

The Self in Dalit Literature | Economic and Political Weekly, 2021

Namdeo Dhasal's New Language- A reflection of the conscience of the oppressed | Economic and Political Weekly, 2022

Curated by: Divya Jyoti and Priyam Mathur

Illustrated & Designed by: Akankshya Padhi

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