Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups, and why Dalit artists' contributions to culture go unrecognised

You cannot invisibilise someone if you recognise their contribution. And as a society, we have always sought to invisibilise Dalits, says author Gunjan Veda

Aarushi Agrawal September 17, 2020 10:05:05 IST
Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups, and why Dalit artists' contributions to culture go unrecognised

Before she had decided exactly what the focus of her book was going to be, author and public policy strategist Gunjan Veda knew that its title was going to allude to Rampatars – the chipped or broken tea cups and glasses left outside upper caste houses for Dalits, since they didn’t want to ‘pollute’ their own utensils by letting Dalits use them.

Veda had heard of a 2003 100-day foot-rally joined by around 200,000 people, marching across villages and sharing tea in the same cup, removing and often smashing Rampatars, and chanting the slogan ‘Ram patar chodo, Bhim patar apnao’ (abandon the Rampatar, accept the Bhimpatar).

A broken tea cup then became a movement toward equality, a breaking of stereotypes. So came the title, The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins.

The book focuses on the cultural contribution of Dalit communities to Indian society, by documenting the stories of individuals and artists “who languish in the forgotten galis (lanes) and mohallas (colonies) of our villages and towns.” From Kuntavati Sika, the sole female Sambalpuri Ikat weaver, to musician Rekha Dewar, and from the naqqara player Gangaprasad Naqqarawadak to the Lavani dancer Kaajal, these artists are an integral part of the country’s cultural fabric. She also shares stories of individuals fighting for equality and of children who are the future of the movement.

Veda records their stories as ‘postcards’ that she’s writing during her travels around the country, and then sharing with readers. Together, all these postcards are curated as a textual museum, recording each individual’s fight for equality as they go about symbolically smashing Rampatars.

In an interview with Firstpost, Veda talks about her interest in the arts, the challenges for Dalit artists, the lessons she learnt while putting together the book, and more.

Edited excerpts below:

Your previous book Beautiful Country: Stories from Another India with Sayeda Hamid also touches upon stories from India’s margins. Where did your interest in these lives and arts stem from?

To be honest I don't know. I want to say maybe it comes from being a traveller but then I wonder if I only travel to listen to stories. Everyone has a story to tell – and yet it is only a few that breach the walls of comfort, busyness and privilege that we build around ourselves. Finding these stories and voices has always been the most fascinating part of travel for me – that and how people open their lives to perfect strangers. Their generosity puts the cynic in me to great shame.

My interest in the arts is easier to explain. I have always appreciated dance and art forms and like most middle-class kids in India, I dabbled in them during my school years. But my engagement with them began when I joined the Planning Commission and suddenly found the handlooms and handicrafts sector among my responsibilities. To my utter mortification, I knew nothing about the sector and so I started to learn. To visit weavers and craftspeople, artists and artisans to understand their needs. And somewhere between listening to their stories, witnessing their pride and pain, and watching them breathe life into scraps of thread, metal or some mundane everyday material, I fell in love with the sector.

Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups and why Dalit artists contributions to culture go unrecognised

Lavani dancer Kaajal with her ghungroos

You’ve mentioned that discourse about Dalit identity generally forgoes any discussion about their contribution to India’s art and culture. Why is that?

My hypothesis is that it is because you cannot invisibilise someone if you recognise their contribution. And as a society we have always sought to invisibilise Dalits. To not see, not hear, not touch. The caste system is based on ingrained feelings of superiority and inferiority. It is a social contract that uses humiliation as a tool to disempower people.

Yet, how do you humiliate someone who makes a valuable contribution to your life and society? It is easier to not recognise their contribution.

The logical question then is why haven't the Dalits sought to remedy this and highlight their contribution. And I think this is where one begins to appreciate how complex the issue is and the legacy of pain it carries. A large section of the Dalits view these art forms as tools of discrimination and the fact is that they were indeed tools of discrimination. The Madiga men did not choose to be dappu players or the Kolhati women Lavani dancers – they were forced to do so.

So, for many Dalits, disassociating themselves from these art forms or denouncing them was an act of rebellion against an oppressive system that sought to impose these on them. Even those who embraced the art and felt pride in their work admit that the very art that gave meaning to their lives and brought joy into the lives of others also became a caste identifier. Also, the fact is that many of these art forms are now dying. They no longer enjoy the popularity and the value that was once associated with them. So there is little incentive to continue to nurture them or to seek recognition for them.

When outlining the scope of the book, why did you decide to focus on performing artists more than, say, painters or writers? Could you talk briefly about some other arts not mentioned in the book?

It wasn't a conscious decision to focus on the performing artists. But one must recognise that it was in the case of the performing arts where the art unfortunately also became a conduit for discrimination. People were forced to practice the art forms because they were Dalits and they were then systematically subjected to violence – physical, emotional, and sexual – because they practiced these art forms.

I don't believe this was the case with painters (though this is mere speculation on my part – I do not know the stories of Dalit painters yet). The weavers, the cobblers, the kolhapuri chappal makers all did face discrimination because of the work they did, just like the performing artists. And I did go to Kolhapur and speak to the families that make the chappals just as I spoke to tattoo artists in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Perhaps their stories will become another book.

As far as writers go, one has to remember that for the longest time, Dalits were not allowed to read and write. Instead they relied heavily on oral storytelling traditions and folk theatre. I have tried to capture some of them in the book. Having said that, the 1960s did see the emergence of the Dalit Literary Movement, particularly in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, and the book does not document their work or stories.

Some art forms not covered – the Theyyam dance from Kerala (performed by male Dalit artists), Godna paintings from Bihar (Dalit Foundation works with them), the kolhapuri chappal makers from Maharashtra, the mochis from Punjab who made the jootistamasha artists from Maharashtra, acrobatics and jugglery by the Bajania Nat, acrobatics by the Bazigar community in Punjab, Karinga from Awadh, Karagam from Tamil Nadu... I am sure there are many more that I am not aware of.

The dream with which I wrote this book was that it would serve as a starting point for these conversations and that we would all be able to curate and add to this body of knowledge.

Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups and why Dalit artists contributions to culture go unrecognised

Gangaprasad playing his naqqara

How did it come to be that when such art forms are performed on Indian stages, there’s no recognition given to the original practitioners?

I think the bridge often happened through that one individual who perhaps loved the art too much to care about caste restrictions or who defied them, because he or she did not believe in them. Or perhaps it was born of necessity. I don't think it was a conscious decision to take the art away from the communities who practiced them – but that is what happened. Again, all this is mere speculation on my part, trying to piece together different scraps of information that came my way. And that is why I don't mention it in the book.

In the case of the Sadir dance and Bharatanatyam, this appropriation was linked to the anti-nautch movement by the British and the response of people like Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi who sought to save the dance. Was the resultant sanitisation and dissociation with devadasis a systematic attempt to invisibilise their contribution or just a desperate move to preserve an art form? Views differ depending on which side of the spectrum one stands on.

You talk about how the advent of technology means that the demand for folk performances is dwindling. There’s also changing mindsets, as in the instance of Chesta Chhatriya who weaves the kapta saree, which was once considered practical but is now seen as immodest, and as a result, such weavers are relegated to lesser jobs. For those who take the discrimination in their stride and are still interested in being practitioners of an art form, what challenges lie ahead?

I think the first and foremost challenge is of recognition. How can an art form that is considered immodest or vulgar or any other such epithet survive? And this is where technology can be an enabler as much as it is a challenge. It is so much easier today to document this work, to document the artists and communities who do it and to preserve and share their stories. In documenting, one recognises value. And only when this value is recognised will we seek to preserve it. Why or how will I choose to learn a dance form or instrument I have never heard of? But if I hear an instrument and it moves me, if I hear the story of a tradition and it speaks to me, I may begin to look for people who will teach me this form.

The challenge is that for the people who practice them, time is running out. In many cases, it has run out. Not even their families respect their work right now. As one artist told me, his biggest dream is for his grandchildren to recognise him as an artist. But if the world sees their work as demeaning then that is how his grandkids with access to technology and societal opinions will also view him. Change and evolution are constant. And many of these art forms have the potential to evolve, to once again become relevant – but that fermentation requires a meeting of the new and the old. Right now, the new view it with disdain and the old no longer have the energy to fight the stereotypes.

Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups and why Dalit artists contributions to culture go unrecognised

Ninety-five-year-old Shatrughan Chhatriya outside his house in Balangir

You often mention how younger generations, where they have an option, do not want to carry forward these artistic traditions, riddled as they are in caste-based discrimination. If India as a society can’t dispel its casteism and respect such practitioners as artists, is losing these ancient art forms perhaps what we deserve?

Partially yes, but I also believe it is unfair to thrust the responsibility of carrying forward these art forms on Dalit communities. In an ideal world, a naqqarchi should be regarded as a guru, and children from all communities should be able to learn from him, if they are interested in the art form. This is happening in a few pockets, particularly in Tamil Nadu with the parai or the dappu. For my book launch we flew in a parai artist (Jeyakumar) who now teaches the drums to children from all communities in villages around Madurai. But such instances are few and far between. This is the only way to preserve and nurture these art forms. Art is important, but to me, the artist is more important.

We cannot seek to preserve an art at the cost of the artist. So yes, if we cannot respect them, we do not deserve them.

In your quest for learning about the origins of the Rai dance, you talk about the hostility of Pathariya village’s residents and the ambiguity of your conversation with Umedi Bai. Besides this instance, could you tell us about the challenges you faced when putting together this book?

I think the biggest challenge for me was the personal journey. Recognising how blind I had been to the reality around me. In terms of information, I was amazed at how open and generous people were. It is not easy to revisit the darkest corners of your life. To do it for a stranger takes incredible courage. But one has to remember that these stories are people's reflection of their own lives and of very painful times. To expect them to do it objectively is not just foolish but insensitive.

In the beginning I attempted to don my journalist hat and fact check. I worried that timelines didn't match, that an art form that was attributed to a community was actually not born in that community. Or that a proponent was perhaps not the first proponent as claimed by people. I actually mention this dilemma in the book. It took me a while to realise that somehow whether the incident happened in August 1988 or September 1987 was irrelevant. It took me a while to stop my frantic search for resources to confirm and verify every word that was uttered. Some of it was not verifiable and some did not need to be verified. I think shedding my own biases, my own need to safeguard myself by citing a wide array of sources to justify anything that anyone said was my biggest challenge.

And of course, the decision to not probe. As a writer, I wanted the full story, but as a human being, how could I force someone to talk about something that was causing them immense pain? At the end of the day, the people whose stories are being told are the ones who decide how much can and should be told. But remembering and respecting that was not always easy.

Gunjan Veda on her book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups and why Dalit artists contributions to culture go unrecognised

Umedi Bai

You’ve written about how caste-based violence is not a freak incident as made out to be by the mainstream media, but rather still an integral part of society. Can you elaborate on this?

The truth is we only see what we want to see or what we are looking for. And so it is easy to ignore how deeply woven caste-based violence is in our lives. How many of us keep separate utensils for the help? How many of us don't allow the sweeper or the garbage collector to cross the threshold of our houses? Would you let them have tea with you at your table? To sit on the chair and not the floor in your house? Do we even know how many Dalits continue to die as they clean sewers in our cities? How is it that we don't talk about it? Or the statistics for violence against Dalit women? And as far as rural India is concerned, one only needs to look at the organisation of houses in a village – the spatial location shows how real the caste system is. The rampatars still exist. Quietly go to a village school and observe the mid-day meals. Children from upper caste households still refuse to eat with children from other communities. Doctors refuse to operate on women from some castes. The devadasi system continues. People continue to be killed for drinking water from wells of the "upper caste" or lynched for trying to marry across caste lines. These are not stray instances. They are in fact so much of an everyday occurrence that one does not even find them report-worthy.

The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins by Gunjan Veda is jointly published by YODA-SAGE Select. 

The photos included in this article were originally published in The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins, Copyright 2020 © Gunjan Veda. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder and the publishers, SAGE Publications India and Yoda Press, New Delhi.

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