‘NO-ONE will say this openly. Gandhi has done the greatest harm. he did not intend any good for the country!’ Professor Subramanian, retired scholar of South Indian classical music, a man of the highest Brahmin caste, turns in his chair back to the singers’ recital. He sniffs loudly and again turns to complain bitterly. The ‘untouchables of India’ are getting above themselves, he insists. They should know their place at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Gandhi campaigned all his life for greater tolerance for the country’s most dispossessed peoples - the Dalits - whom he called harijans or ‘children of god’. Subramanian was getting hot under his Nehru-style collar just thinking about the upstarts. ‘They say the harijans are being crushed, but in fact it is the Brahmins being crushed!’
The Dalits1 are fighting back. Born into marginal existences they increasingly assert their human rights. They are by far the largest group amongst the fifth of India’s population who live in extreme poverty and destitution. Condemned to labouring in the fields of high-caste families in return for a subsistence diet, millions are undernourished and exploited by landowners, officials and moneylenders.
The unique music of the Dalits has long been viewed by high-caste élites as a degenerate culture born of an essentially ‘impure people’. Their presence and cultural practices are viewed as polluting by people of high status.
Professor Subramanian dismisses all music not made by people of high caste. During the recital in Chennai (formerly Madras), cultural capital of the refined classical music of the Brahmins known as Carnatic, he says:
‘There is folk music and classical music. Carnatic music is scientifically organized, folk music is not so. people who are not properly trained just sing out of emotion, enthusiasm. Folk music can be sung by any child. Quacks! Carnatic is not like this, you need a talent.’
Despite the prejudice of people of high caste, those at the gutter level of the Hindu hierarchy are reclaiming their music. It is becoming a source of powerful resistance, the basis of new and revolutionary identities. As Dalit women come together to share and find solutions to their problems at meetings of self-help groups in villages throughout India, they learn that they are not to blame for their individual problems. They become ‘conscientized’ - in the term coined by Paolo Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educator - to the fact that their problems are rooted in an oppressive social structure. With this realization comes a new sense of self and community as they band together to fight for fair wages, access to clean water, electricity and land rights.
Ambu, an activist with the NGO Village Action Group, describes how Dalit women use song in their daily struggles. ‘The women are used to singing about agriculture work. on suffering, temples, gods, but sing here about problems and solutions. We sing songs about the problems of women, dowry, chastity, about who will change these problems. We sing songs at women’s meetings. The power of the songs is that they help women to pick up meanings fast.’
A thousand humiliations
Mr Arokiasamy is a Dalit. He is an intense man, whose heart burns at how untouchability is imposed upon communities such as the Pariyar through a thousand humiliations. At another nearby grassroots organization, the People’s Multipurpose Development Society, he describes the many village teashops in which Dalits are still forbidden to drink out of the same glasses used by people of high caste. In certain villages they are prevented from ‘contaminating’ entire streets by being forbidden to walk in shoes or ride bicycles.
Arokiasamy may have been born at the wrong end of the Hindu caste ladder, but like Professor Subramanian he too is critical of Gandhi’s position on caste. An intensely religious man, Gandhi believed that the caste system of the Hindu scriptures is divinely ordained and should remain in place. However, he felt that untouchability was a recent perversion of Hinduism and must be done away with.
Arokiasamy - like his hero, the great Dalit leader Dr Ambedkhar - feels that there will be no end to caste discrimination unless the entire caste system is overturned. Although Arokiasamy works with Hindus, Muslims and Christians from Dalit and other communities, the Pariyars - a caste of funeral drummers - are amongst the most downtrodden. When the British colonialists observed how severely Pariyars were exploited and excluded from the Hindu mainstream, they applied their community name to all in the world who were rejected and despised. They became known as ‘pariahs’.
The Pariyars’ low status is continually emphasized through association with one of the most impure and contaminating phenomena of all in Hinduism - death. Required in the past to clear away dead cattle from the fields of their strictly vegetarian landowners, they were forced through starvation to eat furtively the putrefying carcasses of sacred cows. This intimacy with death perhaps was the factor that compelled Pariyars to develop yet another stigmatizing cultural practice.
During funeral celebrations for other castes Pariyars are expected to play the distinctive pari drum of their caste community from which their name derives - its skin of dead cow is ritually impure. Pariyars are required at funerals of all castes to play for hours on end as part of a mourning process that involves processions and public dancing.
‘I think it’s a punishment for our caste. We have been forced to play this drum for other communities. That is why I consider it a punishment. Though they looked down upon us we had to help them with the funeral process. We had to or no-one would dance.’
At a meeting on the grounds of the People’s Multipurpose Development Society, Savera, a master pari drummer, holds and beats the instrument to provide a stirring virtuoso performance. The rhythm builds in intensity as the listeners break into a spontaneous dance of Dalit pride as they celebrate the drum’s message - that theirs is a culture and a political force to be reckoned with. Once a symbol of the degradation of the Pariyar, the pari drum has become a potent weapon in the struggle against casteism. Savera stops and wipes the sweat from his face. ‘In the olden days we were ashamed of performing music in their houses and also our wages were very low. but now our situation has changed. Because they wanted us to play the drum for their funerals we thought badly about our culture but now we are proud. It’s not funeral music any more. It’s a music of our own.’
Many young Pariyar, however, prefer to play modern brass band drums covered with synthetic skins. The deeply internalized shame about the degradation associated with cow skin still remains.
‘There has been hesitation amongst young people to use traditional drums. They use modern drums, but now Dalit leaders make propaganda: ” This is our culture, our music; young people should come forward to play the pari drum.”’ Pariyars still use their traditional drums at funerals - a key means for them of earning a living. However, the drums are increasingly used to lead processions of villagers campaigning to win local elections for their own candidates.
Dance of defiance
Sagamarie is a vital woman with a ready laugh. A Dalit and leader of the Liberation Movement for Women, she works closely with Arokiasamy in assisting women through self-help savings groups so that they can start small businesses. Through collective action they attain credit from bank managers, develop small businesses, petition government officials for access to services and even run for local office.
She describes how she mobilized Dalit voters through staging a procession led by Pariyar drummers. Gathering crowds as they travelled through dusty streets and laneways, the procession united Hindu, Muslim and Christian Dalit villagers on the way to the voting booth. As the procession passed by the well-built or ‘pukka’ houses of the rich, upper-caste families of the more salubrious quarters of the village, the musicians, men and boys threw themselves into wild, spontaneous dances in front of the ever-growing crowds. The frenetic dance of defiance was a display of Dalit identity, pride and strength. Excitedly she recounts the triumphal march: ‘A big procession. house to house to collect the votes, then vote time! I have a feeling inside me that I will win!’
The challenges are great and opposition to Dalit culture and rights means that activists like Arokiasamy, Sagamarie and Savera have a long struggle. For there are many others like Professor Subramanian who resent and inhibit any advances made by Dalits. Many who would agree when the Professor complains: ‘The other castes have taken the upper hand everywhere. Pariyar have got position. they are brought up in immoral ways, illiterate! They don’t know what morals are! Like that, the lower communities want to become leaders!’
‘It’s not funeral music any more. It’s a music of our own’
Lakshmi, a young Brahmin woman studying singing at the prestigious Music Academy of Madras embodies hope for an India of the next generation where caste and cultural difference is celebrated rather than despised. Standing outside the Academy’s auditorium, her eyes sparkling with pleasure at the music escaping from within, she murmurs: ‘They say this classical music is a divine music.’
I challenge Lakshmi, asking her if classical music is divine for Dalits as well as Brahmins. She laughs in embarrassment.
‘India is like that. Some things we can’t say openly. The people have to change mentalities and get a broader mind. Otherwise we can’t save India. Brahmins have to. we must allow them near us. Brahmins will not accept them to come near… I can’t explain. My parents think they are all backward classes. I am Brahmin but I am not like that.’
I ask her if she can imagine a concert with Dalits and Brahmins playing together. Wistfully she answers: ‘It would be nice.’
- The word Dalit can be interpreted to mean 'oppressed' but also contains within itself the possibility of an identity based on a drive for liberation. It is therefore the name the people themselves prefer.