“Know truth as truth and untruth as untruth.”— Buddha
“He that will not reason is a bigot. He that cannot reason is a fool. He that dare not reason is a slave.” — H Drummond
[From the title page of the second edition of Annihilation Caste by Dr BR Ambedkar]
I am a woman born in a savarna household. Centuries of casteist hegemony over every institution in the society maintained by my ancestors have rendered caste invisible to me. Growing up, I never thought about the caste system. I have thought about patriarchy, and proudly raged against it. I have also participated in conversations with my mostly savarna friends, agreeing that caste reservation is redundant, that economic background should be the only criterion. Blinded by my caste privileges I remained comfortably ignorant and peddled the lie called the great Brahminic meritocracy.
However, despite our history textbooks whitewashing over this unique dehumanising social system of Hinduism, caste exists.
It exists in and around us — in the separate utensils for domestic workers at our houses, in matrimonial ads, in the “vegetarians only” caveat for prospective tenants, in the casual casteist slurs and jokes that we have normalised. It thrives when we learn about Raja Ram Mohan Roy in our schools, but never even come across names like Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur. It thrives when we study pages after pages about Mohandas Gandhi, but Dr BR Ambedkar is tucked away in one sentence, and Periyar is not even mentioned. Our caste pride ensures that we study a Europe-centric history of Feminism rather than studying Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule’s work against the Brahminical patriarchy.
We perpetuate the caste system by negating the existence of caste, trivialising the experience of people from marginalised castes, unseeing the absence of a large part of the country’s population from institutions. Casteism flourishes when we denounce reservation, which is the only reparative policy the state offers to the people who were denied agency for centuries. Then we spew casteist vitriol at them when they gain entry in these exclusive institutions.
The first time casteism hit me hard was at a prestigious cultural institution in our country. I was, at that time, a second-year student in that premiere college of ‘classical’ arts. On this campus there are very specific codes as to what attire students should wear (and in what manner; additionally, how the girls must tie and arrange their hair), how students should walk, talk, stand, sit, eat, think. These are implemented in the name of imparting Brahminic Indian culture and aesthetics. Students are expected to follow unquestioningly.
The perverse Brahminic patriarchy thrives in an imposed aura of silence.
Unsurprisingly, Sanskrit is a part of the first two years of the curriculum at this place. (We get to study Tamil and Telugu each only for a year, though they are more relevant for our art form!) Our Sanskrit teacher was an elderly man. Besides regaling us with incomprehensible ‘jokes’ during his class hours, once or twice every week he used to talk about the Bhagavad Gita after the morning assembly all students had to sit through. Our teachers and the institution director also attended these sessions.
I used to, intentionally, engage my mind elsewhere during these sessions. But one day, his words broke this self-created bubble to reach my consciousness, searing through my blinkers of complacency. I do not now recall which verse of the Gita he was sermonising over that day, but he was expressing vehement exasperation about the youth not obeying their elders. He was in the middle of an indignant rant about how traditions exist for a reason, and young people must obey them. With increasing incredulity, I heard him saying that young citizens should respect ‘traditions’ and marry partners of their parents’ choice — which is another way of preaching that caste boundaries should be maintained. He went on to regret that young people make mistakes and when things take a nasty turn everyone blames the parents.
According to a Firstpost report, 80 cases of honour killing had been reported in Tamil Nadu between 2014 and 2016 alone. This was the number of reported cases. And here, this Brahmin man was justifying caste violence on a microphone in the presence of an entire college of students and teachers, standing inside this cultural haven of international repute in 2016. And we listened silently. Not a single student or teacher found it objectionable. We, dismissing caste as some distant rural phenomenon, listened.
This was not a one-off incident. We were made to study extremely problematic verses preaching the desired type of body for a dancer, hand gestures denoting different jatis (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, Rakshasa!) from Sanskrit texts. We had to attend Brahminic religious functions irrespective of individual faith or beliefs. After Gauri Lankesh’s murder, a respected guest lecturer at the institution said that she got what she was asking for. The institution’s latest creative production celebrates ‘ahimsa’ by shaming fellow citizens whose diet includes cow meat, and venerates the cow as the nation’s mother. This production has been performed time and again on national and international platforms.
This kind of casteist Brahminic environment prevails not only in one institution but in the realm of Indian classical arts at large. One cannot but notice the overwhelming presence of savarnas and the glaring absence of people from SC, ST, OBC, and other religious communities. It is, in fact, easier to come across foreign performers than Indians from marginalised and oppressed communities; Brahmin gatekeepers presiding over the patron bodies take care of that. The dance academies manufacture bodies subservient to the gaze of Brahminical patriarchy and function as one of the nodes of savarna networking. The pedagogy is replete with Brahminical dogma. The training of the body and its movements is controlled by a casteist notion of purity — angashuddhi, which translates as purification of limbs.
The notion of purification/sterilisation was consciously attached to the discourse of Indian ‘classical’ dance by Brahmin prevaricators as part of formulating a Brahminic patriarchal narrative of a nation. The very project of canonisation of some art forms as ‘classical’ (touted as pure and spiritual) during the formation of the nation, have a violent casteist history of deliberate erasure of the bodies of the women professional dancers belonging to hereditary communities, like Isai Vellalar in Tamil Nadu and Kalavanthulu in Andhra Pradesh, from the nation’s history.
Nrithya Pillai, an artist from the Isai Vellalar community, has been a strong voice in exposing this shameful history of the Brahmin men and women usurping livelihood and the right to perform from the disenfranchised hereditary practitioners. Books and articles dealing with this subject have been written by scholars like Davesh Soneji and are available if one wishes to engage with them. Yet a curious mix of the fabricated narrative glorifying Brahmins as saviours of Indian culture, mythology from ancient Sanskrit texts, and far-fetched orientalist imaginations based on temple sculptures are taught in the name of the history of Indian dance in the academies. We would rather look at sculptured female bodies in temples built 1,000 years ago than listen to the women very much present today.
This is caste pride. This pride would not have existed if caste was a relic from the past as we claim. And Brahminic patriarchy sustains itself through the caste system. Honour killing, atrocities against people from Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities, denial of agency to women, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia in India — all serve to uphold Brahminic patriarchy.
It is not a crime to be born as one of the oppressor castes, but it is a crime when we perpetuate the oppression by maintaining the status quo.
It is high time for us to look into the mirror and question the narratives that we take for granted because they afford us a comfortable privileged existence. It is time to listen, read, and to be honest with ourselves. It is time to question our assumptions and analyse our discomfiture with narratives that do not match ours. Deep down, we all know that we are guilty: We are guilty of being conspirators in keeping caste alive and our comfort is the least that we should give up.
We cannot let ourselves forget that we have blood on our hands.
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