Cultural Practices in the Dalit Movement
Author : Shabana Ali

Babasaheb Ambedkar and the many lives he inspired, an artwork by Malvika Raj

Mai, by Malvika Raj, a portrait of Savitribai Phule, one of the pioneers of modern education in India.

The Dalit community being one of the most marginalised communities in India, has been kept on the margins of various professional fields. In the world of professional art too, the contribution of the Dalit community remains largely underrepresented. In recent times, there has been growing interest in ‘Dalit art’. However, being a newly emerging category in academia, Dalit art has not received its due recognition.

There have been many attempts at understanding what comprises Dalit art and whether or not there is need for further categorization of the art world and works of Dalit artists. It is the identity location that makes a work of art, Dalit art, and thus the categorization of Dalit art should be internally evaluated within the Dalit community instead of it being imposed upon the community. Whether or not a work of art talks about the question of caste, the mere presence of a Dalit artist coming from Dalit community in the art world becomes an act of assertion.

There is a need to deconstruct the meaning of art and culture, and their juxtapositions. For the Dalit community, art, cultural practices and livelihood were never segregated. Art as we understand in the institutionalised setting is very different from how art and culture is experienced within Dalit lives.

Historically the Dalit community has been forced into menial work like scavenging, cleaning of filth, disposing dead animals, being messengers, barbers, cobblers and so on. For the Dalit community, art has remained a part of their lives, not disconnected from the daily lives and bodies. Whether it is by creating songs while working in fields, finding efficient manners of carrying out productive activities such as cutting of hair, skinning an animal, washing clothes, using art on floors and walls such as rangoli or godna art, etc. This has helped the community to be much closer to the production process, and engage with activities in an active creative way.
Many of these practices evolved into classical art forms when they were studied and written about by anthropologists, writers, and poets from privileged castes. Performance arts such as Bharatnatyam, which originated from the oppression of lower caste women in the hands of Brahmin priests became a classical art form to which Dalits have been denied access. Thus, there is a hierarchy and clear cut distinction between the creativity of Dalits and upper castes. While creations of Dalits become craft and folk culture, the upper caste creates art and high culture.

The Dalit community has historically engaged in cultural practices of art, music and theatre. These have been modes of expression, a manner of building communities, and maintaining a togetherness through the same. Thus, it can be observed that there is cultural influence of Dalit cultural practices within the larger anti-caste struggle. For instance, the Ambedkarite community actively engages within the Dalit movement through cultural practices of songs, poems and art works upon caste issue. Further, the anti-caste movement has influenced the traditional cultural practices of the Dalit community as well. This can be seen within the evolving nature of traditional art forms like Tamsha and Lavni, which have been historically practiced by Dalit communities to entertain the upper caste audience. But with the influence of Ambedkarite tradition, the content of these art forms have shifted from mythological and religious topics to performances about the lives and struggles of Dr. Ambedkar and other anti-caste leaders.
The anti-caste movement lead by Dr. Ambedkar, and with the influence of leaders like Phule, Periyar, Ayothi Dass as well as the saints like Ravidas, Kabeer and Chokhamela for instance, makes the process of the movement social and political as well as that of religious transformation. Further, Ambedkar’s emphasis on education as a necessity for emancipation of all the oppressed opened avenues in the field of literature for the many newly emerging politically conscious Dalits. In the post-Ambedkar era many educated Dalits left their caste occupations, got into government services, and a culture of little magazines boomed, especially owing to the intellectual contributions of the Dalit panthers and the accessibility of print press to common people. Many local magazines such as Shabda, Vacha, Asmitadarsha, Abhiruchi (to name a few) were printed. These writings would often be accompanied by small Buddhist iconographic imageries. The logo of the Dalit Panthers was another conscious attempt at visually representing the anti-caste movement, reflecting the ferocious power of the Dalit community and the influence of Buddhism and the conception of achieving emancipation through peace, reflected through the use of the image of a panther and a blue dhamma chakka. This marks the beginning of creation of a Dalit iconography.

With the rise in the Ambedkarite movement across India in the late 90s, the role of BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) and DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Sammiti) as cultural organizations and BSP as the political wing of the same, helped in amalgamating politics and cultural practices within the Ambedkarite tradition. The celebration of Ambedkar Jayanti in the form of fairs and processions, and building of numerous Ambedkar statues at smaller villages and towns and organised social, cultural, and political actions. By mid 90s, Ambedkar statues had become a phenomenon that was getting noticed by the mainstream public and media.

The question of gender was never considered as one separate from the larger anti-caste struggle, as many leaders from the anti-caste tradition have spoken at length about the important role of women in a society. Leaders like Savitri Bai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Jyotirao Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar vehemently fought for equal rights for women, their education as well as ownership of property. The Ambedkarite movement recognises the many women leaders who have emerged from marginalised communities, by representing their works in mediums of art, academics and politics. Artist Savi Sawarkar in his works gives a strong critique of the caste structure and Brahminical hegemony. Photographer Sudharak Olwe has worked intensively upon manual scavengers, and Dalit women in the slums and red light districts of Mumbai. Being the first few to have openly created a Dalit assertion in the institutional setting of the visual world, they faced backlash not only from the public but from the professional art world as well.
However today there are many more artists coming from Dalit communities and working with an Ambedkarite and Buddhist perspective. Artists like Jaya Daronde, Malvika Raj are some women artists who have created a name for themselves not only within the Ambedkarite circle, but in the art world in general. Jaya Daronde attempts to humanise the otherwise sexualised bodies of Dalit women. Malvika Raj is an artist using the style of Madhubani painting to represent lives of Buddha and Ambedkar, inverting a Brahminical art form by using it to critique the Brahmanical structures of caste society. Her work draws from her experience as an Ambedkarite woman, engaging in an art form that her community was made to remain excluded from.
There is still a hostile environment for all such artists, since they are deliberately breaking the comfort of the art field by talking up matters that create unrest and question the privilege of the dominant few. However, it has definitely helped in creating a starting point for asserting for a Dalit culture in the mainstream society. Such art works and cultural practices have given a new language to read aesthetic concepts within an Ambedkarite community, breaking the normative and institutional definitions of art and replacing Brahminical narratives with one’s own imaginations and narratives.