This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“Neither are we scared, nor do we worry / For Sant Guru Ravidass is our savior,” sings Ginni Mahi in a music video styled along the lines of Punjabi-pop songs. She stands tall and fierce and looks directly into the camera. “Not scared of sacrifice, we are forever ready / Because Chamars are more dangerous than weapons,” she continues, reclaiming ‘chamar,’ a slur against Dalits, as a badge of honor.
The song, “Danger Chamar,” propelled Mahi into the limelight when it went viral on social media in 2017, amassing over 4 million views on YouTube. She now has 10,800 subscribers to her YouTube channel. Mahi is one of several emerging Dalit artists and bands who are gaining increasing prominence. The Dalit community forms the lowest rung of the Hindu caste (or varna) system, the “untouchables” who are, historically, India’s most oppressed peoples. These artists are fighting back.
Mahi’s songs praise Dr. BR Ambedkar (father of the Indian Constitution and champion of Dalit rights) and Saint Ravidass, founder of Ravidassia community, the Dalit breakaway group in Sikhism to which Mahi belongs. Her newest song, “Mard Daler,” lionizes Ambedkar as the perfect man, pairing folk lyrics with pop beats. The video of her singing about Ambedkar from urban, construction-site rooftops has been viewed over 388,271 times since February.
Meanwhile in south India, The Casteless Collective, a band put together by Tamil film director Pa.Ranjith, fuses the genres of rap, gana (Tamil folk music), and rock. The 19-member, almost all-male band writes and composes its own music under music director Tenma and sings about socio-economic injustice, marginalization, and other mistreatments that have troubled Dalits.
The Casteless Collective has about 40,000 followers on YouTube. Dalit rapper Sumeet Samos, has seen his music reach international shores, while a group called Dhamma Wings, a Buddhist Rock band that sings about Dalit pride, has attracted 11,000 followers on Facebook.
Through their music, these artists protest the ways Dalits have been maltreated and marginalized. For eons, Dalits have been employed as crematorium keepers, sweepers, toilet cleaners and manual scavengers – occupations that are looked upon as “dirty”. They face discrimination in jobs and housing and are often denied entry to places of worship, their presence considered “polluting” in holy places. And now that an “upper-caste” Brahmanical government is in place, it is working to reverse for the Constitutional safeguards assuring Dalits equal opportunities to educational and governmental programs.
Initially, The Casteless Collective had trouble securing gigs due to their Dalit status and the “controversial” nature of their songs. “People were terrified to curate us,” Tenma said. “We kept going despite the conditions but now things are opening up.” Festival curators have become more willing to showcase The Casteless Collective now, Tenma suggested, because they “seem to be uncomfortable with the current political climate,”in which, under a Hindu nationalist government, crimes against Dalits have jumped nearly 99 percent – to 16,654 cases in 2016 – according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Activists, journalists, and lawyers who oppose government policies have also faced increasing violence. “When we first performed, there were various controversies,” Tenma said. “News channels and the press were questioning whether there is discrimination in music. Eventually the idea was welcomed by the masses and these stories started reflecting in the mainstream consciousness.” Recently, the band took home the Behindwoods Gold Mic Award for The Best Socially Responsible Musical Band.
Yashica Dutt, author of the recently published memoir, Coming Out as Dalit, attributes the rise of these artists in part to social media. “It has taken the power out of upper caste hands,” she said. “Who are the opinion makers, change and newsmakers? They were all upper caste.” So, is social media an ally? “A platform cannot be an ally or an enemy. But it is democratic and allows our voice to reach out to people. It has helped us organize. Dalit Twitter exists, and it is powerful because of Twitter,” she replied.
According to Professor Gary Tartakov of Iowa State University College of Design, who has extensively studied Dalit visual art, Dalit voices need to be heard, not just by the general public, but by Dalits themselves. “There will be no useful change in the situation of Dalits without Dalits themselves expressing their understanding of their situation and how they want to change it,” he said.
Temna is optimistic. “Acceptance of yourself as an individual will enable songs to flow through,” he said. “The world can be against you, but you have the power to decide what you want to do.”