Culture and caste in CIEFL
-By Samata Biswas
I want to talk about culture. I mean what I used to and now think/ not think of as culture. My entry point in this discussion is what has been happening on the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad (CIEFL) mess notice board over the last couple of days.
Till Friday, the mess notice board flaunted a yellow coloured, expensively printed poster about a Veena recital; to be held in the Gokak auditorium, on Saturday. On the day of the recital, another poster appeared right next to the earlier one.
This one, handmade, was put up by the DBMSA (Dalit, Bahujan, Minorities Students Association) and carried a quote from a ‘great’ Dappu player (like most of the non-Dalit participants I did not know what is a Dappu or who are the Madigas.): “If I booze and play Dappu, I swear! Even Saraswathi has to throw away her Veena, and dance in front of me.”
The next hour or so saw by and large three kinds of experience from the non-Dalit/ minority participants. There were the likes of me who said: “Hmm. So there is such a thing as the Dappu and the Madiga community. I think it is really interesting that mess notice board has managed to create the space for a dialogue. They have done a good thing by putting up the poster, it is important to know that there are other cultural markers in the various strata of the supposed homogenous hindu society, that are as important as the Veena is to some one as upper caste as I am.”
The second kind of response was one primarily of disgust. Why is the DBMSA reacting to anything and everything? By putting up posters every once in a while are they not undermining the more “serious” and “legitimate” grievances? (I want to come back to this later on.)
But these two kinds of responses were primarily articulated by a remarkably small group of people. Almost every one else, who was concerned enough to respond, responded with anger. They said why do they have to make every thing an issue? The Veena after all is just an instrument, and what is the meaning of attaching religious and caste connotations to music? One must understand that there are some things that do not subscribe to class/ caste boundaries, and surely music is one of them?
I could not get the text of the original recital poster. But that mentioned how the performer is trained in the ‘classical’ tradition of so and so, and how the Veena is the ‘ancient’ ‘Indian’ instrument truly representing the rich cultural heritage that ‘we’ have inherited. I had to ask questions about what is ‘cultural’ and ‘classical’, why are the two, almost always in the Indian context, conflated, and who are these ‘we’ that have inherited this tradition? Is it not apparent from the DBMSA poster that there is at least one group of people who are consciously declining the claims of any such inheritance? Is it not even more remarkable that both these groups, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, inhabit the same, national/ geographical, and in this case, institutional space?
But we tend to forget that ‘culture’ (here taking the term to mean “…the independent and abstract noun which describes the works and practices of the intellectual and especially artistic activity…” as referred to by Raymond Williams), which is apparently the field we are arguing within, is not non-coercive. The relationship between the Veena and the Dappu is one of domination, and even though now, the participants in the institution are supposed to be in more or less an equal footing, it does not make the entire history of subjugation and oppression go away. It is not possible for ‘us’ to read the Veena poster in the same way that the DBMSA has read it. Not merely because the two groups use different “dictionaries”, but also because our experiences have been widely different, the institutional framework attempts to homogenize the student community, but that, thankfully is not possible.
Looking into the way in which one poster frames the other perhaps best shows this. Before the Dappu poster, the Veena recital one was thought of as essentially ‘secular’, here ‘cultural’ and ‘secular’ acting as almost synonymous. But the Dappu poster did not merely foreground the hegemonic structure within which the Veena operates; it also brought to focus the religious and castist connotations that the Veena invariably carries.
The Dappu poster was made to bring these and many more issues up to the front. Placed right next to the Veena one, it was also yellow in colour, and contrasted the painting of a red Veena with a black and white rendering if a dancing man in a loincloth. It also spoke for and about an entirely different mode of being, an experience that includes alcohol and swearing- an experience that has systematically been marginalized over the years, when the majorities were busy forging a nationalist cultural identity.
I think now I understand why and how only a Dalit student could/would have read the poster the way (now, I feel) it needed to be read. I myself had noticed the Saraswathi statue in the Library innumerable times, but it needed another DBMSA intervention and a bit of an action to make me realize that I, after all, belong to a majority community. Even while believing the institutional administration has no job practicing any religion, I hardly ever noticed it was doing so; perhaps because it was my religion that was being celebrated.
There are people asking why is it always the Dalits who raise questions? There were friends of mine who refused to take any notice what so ever of any of the two posters. They said these are merely a group of people with nothing better to do in life, people who do not study. This reaction seems almost relevant and justifiable when raised by a group of bright students inside an educational institution. Their insistence on the importance of not encouraging ‘segregationist’ actions which may lead to ‘violence on campus’, speaks volumes about the lives they have led, a life that never needed any mode of violence to achieve anything.
Uniyal quoted from Namdeo Dhasal, “one day I cursed that mother-fucker god”.
It would have been very remarkable to find out how I would have reacted had this been put up on the notice board one day. The atheist in me would have been happy perhaps, but the secularist in me who tries not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments, would in all possibilities have been righteously indignant.
This refers to what happened on Sunday. Another poster appeared on the space of the now absent Veena one. “You have no right to insult a god, no matter what religion. The very fact that you did proves that you are nothing but rude, coarse, incompetent, arrogant, fundamentalists who do not know anything.” It is important to know that this was the response of an upper class brahmin from Kolkata, one of those (like me) to whom caste does not exist. For us, class divisions are the primary and sole markers of oppression in our society, and as a result we can hardly understand how the comparative analysis of the cultural markers can lay bare coercive practices in the civil society. For us, oppression is almost always economic, and here since the Dappu player talks about drinking, the economic inequality must be not so prominent. (After all, if you have money enough to drink, why complain, or for that matter if you can waste your time thinking about things that do not matter then is it a wonder that your results are not good?).
For us, cultural markers are abstract and therefore of not much significance, unlike religious markers though, as it is interesting to note that indignation of this section of the student community was engendered only when the ‘religious’ connotation of the Veena was brought to the front.
Note the departure from the initial reactions, earlier there was indignant voices claiming the sanctity of the ‘secular’ space that music (read culture) inhabits. In this case the stress was on the “Veena” while later on it shifted to “Saraswathi”.
Culture to me is also something that lays bare such hegemonic practices. It needed the evocation of the Dappu to bring my attention to the identity of the Veena as something that has systematically and historically marginalized the Dappu and millions of other such instruments, literature, religion, and ways of life.
There is another aspect to the debate, which it is taking place within an educational institution, and all of us, after all, are students. Why is the sanctity of the institutional space being repeatedly evoked? Why is it being assumed that the educational institution is and has to be beyond and above “identity” and other politics? It is not as if, discriminations do not take place inside an educational institution, especially one like CIEFL, imparting higher education, itself a very elite formation. Arguing for the sacrality of the institution’s space will be a step backwards, and then we will no longer be able to view the private/ home as sites of domination and subjugation either.
The “high standards” (and here the secular/ culturally neutral aspirations) maintained by the institutions become suspect when the caste/ class/ gender distinctions of the students have never allowed them equal opportunity. (Looking at it in this light, the indifference to the importance of the questions raised makes a lot more sense.) The ideology implicit in the working of an institution also frames its own minorities in more ways than one. These minorities, and among them the women students, also have to make their voices and demands heard, and how can that be exclusively outside of the campus.
Coming back to what is started with: culture. Raymond Williams in Keywords traces the way in which the modern term culture arrived at its present meaning- I can try and do the same to my understanding of culture. Around one year ago, my position as an educated Bengali, urban middle class youth automatically provided me access to everything I then deemed “cultural”. (Note that to me then, the word was essentially an adjective). Certain kinds of literature, music and films etc only were cultural, every thing else was not. But in the beginning of this semester, I wanted the noun to mean “the whole social process”. But as of now, I really do not know. I know how something can be made into cultural and something else undermined. I know by paying attention to culture I can unveil innumerable power relations that my earlier methodological affiliations always obscured. I tend to believe that domination is not merely economic and that culture plays a very important part in uncovering them. But as to what is it exactly that I understand by culture, I really am no longer sure.
[Samata Biswas has just completed her MA in Cultural Studies from CIEFL, Hyderabad]
Editors’ note: The debate in CIEFL also possessed an interesting intervention from the feminist students of the campus. We hope to bring out that angle in our next issue on Caste and Gender due in October.