De-casting carnatic

Swapnik Sanagavarapu makes the case for cultural resistance

Artwork by Nischeta Velu

Prolific Indian writer Arundhati Roy once noted that post-independence India is a corporate, uppercaste state. However in recent years, T.M. Krishna has emerged as a dissenting voice within the upper caste cultural establishment of India. In a somewhat surprising move for an established Carnatic musician, he has attempted to undermine the Brahmin establishment who hold a vice-like grip on many aspects of In-dian culture. Against the backdrop of an ethno-nationalist, reactionary and uppercaste BJP government – Krishna conceptualises an innovative, modern form of resistance to caste oppression. Indeed, cultural resistance is the future of dissent.

Arguably, there is no element of Indian culture which can be distilled to a singular understandingit is always heterogeneous and fraught with numerous contradictions. Even amongst those in the same state, there are linguistic differences. Be-tween those who speak the same language, there are religious differences. Between those who share a religion, there is sectarianism. It seems that these contradictions are irreconcilable. But in the age of Hindu ethno-nationalism, these points of differ-ence have been masked under the veil of a normative, monolithic Indian identity which is imposed upon citizens. Today, the issue of what it means to be Indian is fundamentally rooted in unconditional loyalty and patriotism to the State. To be Indi-an is to feel pride towards India’s status as an economic powerhouse and its legacy of supreme cultural influence within South Asia. To be Indian is to oppose the ‘for-eign’ influence of Islam; it is to be a Hindu.

In reality, the notion of a ‘Hindu’ is a relatively new construction. Being a ‘Hin-du’ merely constitutes adherence to the system of Varna, better known as Caste. Caste is a profoundly complex logic which has historically structured virtually all realms of Indian society. At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmin (the Priest) and the Kshatriya (the Warrior). Below them are the Vaishya (the Trader) and the Shudra (the labourer). Four Varnas form the basis of Hindu jurisprudence and religious practice.

Whilst there is marginalisation of the lower castes, a particularly brutal form of discrimination is reserved for those outside the boundaries of the four Varnas. Dalits (untouchables) and Adivasis (aboriginals) have been relegated to subhuman status and are consistently subject to brutal violence, exclusion and economic disenfranchisement. Nearly 80 per cent of Adivasi and Dalit households are categorised in the most deprived among rural households in India. Western media often lauds India as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, yet caste hierarchies thrive in the liberal-democratic institutions of Indian society. Elites dominate all spheres of public life, and have near-ly unchecked power in political parties and the Indian state apparatus.

There has undoubtedly been a mobilisation against the overt forms of caste hierarchy in India. Initiatives such as the reservation system of affirmative action for Dalits and Adivasis have sought to redress inequality of opportunity. Anticaste social movements such as the Dalit Panthers (inspired by the Black Panther Party) have sought to chip away at the political hegemony held by the upper castes. In the forests of Chhattisgarh in Eastern India, the Maoist insurgency has mobilised the Adivasi masses against corporate land grabs and the consistent unwillingness of the Indian government to address their concerns.

But the fight against caste discrimination must operate on two fronts. Caste must be confronted culturally, as well as materially. Every form of social violence is a cultural, as well as material phenomenon.

In Southern India, Carnatic music remains one of the last vestiges of the cultural power of the upper castes. Seen as the bastion of high art, the distinctly Brahmin identity has become inextricable from the music. Alongside virtuosity, the mark of a good Carnatic musician is their religiosity, their devotion to deities and their self-image as priests and Vedic scholars. Inevitably, the music has attained a religious significance. It is no longer simply a particularly skilful artform worthy of aesthetic appreciation, but a body of knowledge which many believe hold the key to spiritual enlightenment. Arguably, the cultural power of the upper castes arises from their ex-clusive ownership of this religious knowledge – the artistic creations of all other castes, as well as those outside the boundaries of caste lack this transcendent spirituality.

T.M. Krishna represents a spectre that the gatekeepers of cultural knowledge are reluctant to confront. As a classically-trained, Brahmin musician, he contests the limited boundaries of Carnatic music by performing in churches and playing in fishing villages, with the overarching aim of divorcing the music from its religious roots. In effect, he seeks to undermine the structures of cultural ownership that legitimise caste oppression. Similarly, he performs alongside those with India’s historically marginalised hijra (third gender) community, who are also excluded from the annals of Hindu religious knowledge.

Ultimately, the end of caste oppression is conditional on the initial step of era-dicating Brahmin claims to exclusive knowledge. Whilst the upper-caste monopoly on political power has been challenged, the cultural foundations of their power have largely been left intact. As Gandhi (often lauded as a great reformer by the West) once said, “if Varna is an integral part of the Shastras which define Hinduism, I do not know how a person who rejects Caste, i.e. Varna, can call himself a Hindu.” Perhaps, the end of caste will spell the end of Hinduism, or at the very least, there will be a great reformation and the development for inclusivity. One thing is for certain.

Before we democratise India, we have to democratise culture

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.