Editor’s Note: This month, that is April 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Dalit History, where we invite various articles about historical moments in Dalit movements as well as Dalits (Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule) in history who have been part of the anti-caste movement in India. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
There’s a regular call for appreciation for musicians, writers, singers, filmmakers, artists and other practitioners of various forms of art. The lockdown and numerous social media posts took a moment to remember that it was artists and art, people turned to, during trying times. Their work is an escape from reality, or they’ve created an alternate reality to engage with to forget the one we’re living in.
Being Dalit artists in an industry predominantly casteist is a challenge. Dalit filmmakers are still compared to Brahmin or upper-caste filmmakers or their style. Despite many odds and a systematically casteist industry, here are some Dalit artists from across the nation you should know.
1. Pa Ranjith
Director, producer, activist and filmmaker Pa Ranjith, wears many hats to bring the conversation on caste to Indian households. Ranjith has directed four movies, all in Tamil: Kaala, Kabali, Madras and Attakathi. His next directorial venture is a biopic on Birsa Munda in Hindi. He entered film production under his banner ‘Neelam Productions’ and released two documentaries titled Dr. Shoe Maker and Beware of Castes: Mirchpur. He also produced Mari Selvaraj’s feature film Pariyerum Perumal. Ranjith also established the Neelam Cultural Centre that holds and runs socio-cultural events. Vaanam, a three-day arts festival, Koogai Film Movement, a bridge between cinema and literature, The Castless Collective, a collaborative band and other events or programs.
His movies have received praise from across the globe and he brings both subtle and strong references to caste in his cinema that is often popular, mass and hero-centric. He has shown immense potential and this is too early to judge his bodywork or style, which is still evolving and in its path of self-discovery. He’s a young Dalit filmmaker to keep your eyes on.
2. Kadubai Kharat
Kadubai Devadas Kharat is a Bhim geet and Ambedkari shahiri singer living in Aurangabad. Bhim geet are songs about Babasaheb Dr. B R Ambedkar and other anti-caste leaders. After her videos of singing about Babasaheb went viral, she’s a recognised face in the anti-caste struggle. “I started singing Bhim geet and playing ektara since when I was eight years old. I used to go with my father to Ambedkar bhajans, and we used to perform together. Now, I devote my life to spreading Ambedkar’s thoughts and message through my songs and my voice,” said Kadubai Kharat in an interview to Live Mint.
Kadubai Kharat is a forty-year-old single mother who earns a living from singing. Her singing, anti-caste struggle isn’t an extra-curricular activity, but her means to livelihood. Her neighbourhood was bulldozed in 2019 at 5:30 am, without a notice or a warning. Her struggles to earn a livelihood and to take care of her children haven’t changed after her social media fame. The Nijaat Collective is working on a documentary film on her life.
3. Ginni Mahi
Ginni Mahi is a Punjabi folk, Dalit music, rap, and hip-hop singer from Jalandhar, Punjab. Her songs Fan Baba Sahib Di and Danger Chamar went viral on social media and took her music career to a new height.
She attended the Global Media Forum (GMF 2018) in Germany, where she was dubbed as a Young Voice in Equality and Freedom, for speaking up against flogging. Ginni Mahi’s family has always been Ambedkarite, and growing up with his politics and philosophy has shaped her music. She’s a postgraduate student in music and travels around the world to perform. Her family has been extensively supportive of her music career and her decisions to perform and travel. She’s currently in lockdown near Italy because she was travelling through Europe for her music tour.
4. The Casteless Collective
The Casteless Collective is a Tamil indie band of Dalit Musicians based in Chennai and born out of a collaboration between Neelam Cultural Centre and Madras Talkies. The band started in 2017 with a blend of Gaana, hip-hop, rock, rap, and folk musicians. They’ve been performing songs about eating beef, quota, Dalit experience and unjust experiences and inequality perpetrated by the Brahminical patriarchy.
The band members are Tenma, leader and music producer, singers Muthu, Bala Chandar, Isaivani, Arivu and Chellamuthu, Dharani (dholak), Sarath (satti), Gautham (Katta molam), Nandan (parai and tavil), Manu (drums) and Sahir (guitar). The band is political in its core and origin, with individual politics of the band members, founders and the identity politics thrust on them. Their music is both individual/personal fight against oppression and their collective support for the anti-caste struggle.
5. Panther’s Paw Publication
Panther’s Paw Publication was founded by Yogesh Maitreya in 2016 and has published seven titles. Yogesh Maitreya was born in a Buddhist, Ambedkarite household, and as a child in a basti, with other Mahar and Dalit individuals, he never came across intra-group caste discrimination. His childhood was influenced by stories, songs, and even cradle songs, (Bhim palana) about Ambedkar shaped his outlook.
He set up Panther’s Paw to publish his work and translate works by Dalit writers/poets into English for the world to access. “The publishing business relies heavily on the agent. But the agent is not free of his or her social and caste location. What they may consider ‘palatable’ will come from their conditioning, we have a Dalit publisher only looking to publish Dalit narratives,” he said in an interview with the Indian Express.
You can also read about another Dalit rapper Sumit Samos here. Listen, watch and read Dalit artists and their art, and actively engage with their work. This is their journey against caste-based oppression, which is only one of the many they deal with. Art can’t impact you if you don’t engage with it, so fight the lockdown blues with some powerful Dalit artists who’ve been fighting all their lives.