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Case #659

Dalits (Hindu Untouchables) Use Traditional Music to Subvert The Caste System


Dalits (Untouchables in the Hindu caste system) in India are using traditional music to subvert the caste system. Born into marginal existences, they increasingly assert their human rights. They are by far the largest group amongst the fifth of India's population who live in extreme poverty and destitution. Condemned to laboring in the fields of high-caste families in return for a subsistence diet, millions are undernourished and exploited by landowners, officials and moneylenders. Gandhi campaigned all his life for greater tolerance for this country's most dispossessed peoples, people whom he called harijans or 'children of god'.

The unique music of the Dalits has long been viewed by high-caste elites as a degenerate culture born of an essentially 'impure people'. Their presence and cultural practices are viewed as polluting by people of high status. Their music is considered to be untalented and untrained folk music sung out of emotion and enthusiasm (as opposed to educational classical training).

Pariyars - a caste of funeral drummers - are amongst the most downtrodden. They have been forced to play their drum for other communities, in order to get people to dance at funeral processions as required by religious custom. Additionally, their traditional drums are covered by skin of the (sacred to Hindus) cow - customarily obtained when clearing the fields of cow carcasses (another task required by the low-caste Pariyars).

Despite the prejudice of people of high caste, those at the gutter level of the Hindu hierarchy are reclaiming their music. It is becoming a source and symbol of powerful resistance, the basis of new and revolutionary identities.

Because the higher castes always wanted Pariyars to play the drum for their funerals, the Pariyars thought badly about their death-associated culture. Now, however, things have turned around. Now they are proud. It's not funeral music any more - it's a unique music of their own.' Pariyars still use their traditional drums at funerals - a key means for them of earning a living. However, the drums are increasingly used to lead processions of villagers campaigning to win local elections for their own candidates.

As Dalit women come together to share and find solutions to their problems at meetings of self-help groups in villages throughout India, they learn that they are not to blame for their individual problems. They become 'conscientized' - in the term coined by Paolo Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educator - to the fact that their problems are rooted in an oppressive social structure. With this realization comes a new sense of self and community as they band together to fight for fair wages, access to clean water, electricity and land rights.

An activist with the NGO Village Action Group, describes how Dalit women use song in their daily struggles. . 'The women are used to singing about agriculture work... on suffering, temples, gods, but sing here about problems and solutions. We sing songs about the problems of women, dowry, chastity, about who will change these problems. We sing songs at women's meetings. The power of the songs is that they help women to pick up meanings fast.'


The Dalit caste in India utilized one of Gandhi's greatest principles: Take what appears to be your greatest liability and turn it around into your greatest asset. These traditional "untouchables" are taking their highest, most visible, and culturally valuable symbol - their music - and are doing just that.. Other cultures can learn by their example, taking highly visible symbols familiar to both the oppressed and the oppressors and making them badges of pride, strength, and nonviolent demands for social change.

As the article points out, "The power of the (women's) group songs is that they help women to pick up meanings fast." This is especially true in illiterate populations, where songs, theater, and art serve as messaging and organizing tools.

A hopeful sign for the future is the quote (please see the Full Text section below) from the young woman Brahmin (upper class) music student: "Some things we can't say openly. The people have to change mentalities and get a broader mind. Otherwise we can't save India. Brahmins have to... we must allow them near us... Brahmins will not accept them to come near... I can't explain. My parents think they are all backward classes. I am Brahmin but I am not like that."

As the author notes, this "embodies hope for an India of the next generation where caste and cultural difference is celebrated rather than despised." What better way to lead the change than with a parade led by Dalit drummers.

Note: The word Dalit can be interpreted to mean 'oppressed' but also contains within itself the possibility of an identity based on a drive for liberation. It is therefore the name the people themselves prefer.
Location: India
Action: Political, Demonstration/Protest, Organizing
Setting: Semi-Developed
Extent of Action: National
Issues: Human Rights
Year(s): 2003
Outcome successful for now
Source: New Internationalist 359, Aug 2003, p. 20


Prepared By: sl, 12/04
Rating: 1
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