When Dalit PhD student Koonal Duggal was thrown out mid-speech at Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU ) in April, it sparked howls of protest.
Students seethed at the supposed insult in the middle of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in a city that has been on the boil all year following the suicide of Rohith Vemula.
But his friends planned a novel protest – setting up an exhibition of Duggal’s art work titled “The everyday from the eye of a Dalit artist” in the middle of a university he was now banned from entering.
The paintings and posters proved a powerful counter argument to the administration’s actions with images of the exhibition flooding social media when the originals were taken down.
The EFLU protest is the latest in a surge of cultural assertion by Dalit Bahujan communities that takes pride in a centuries-old tradition of using poetry, music and art to push back oppression.
“Ambedkar said one cultural activist is equal to 10 political activists,” says Vruttant, a part of the Jai Bhim Kala Manch in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Historically, alternative readings of culture have been used for varied purposed spanning from resisting the erasure of Dalit Bahujan tribals in mythology to changing attitudes towards food stigmas.
Dalit Bahujan students are questioning our heroes, festivals, cultural icons and writers. Inside the university and outside, they’re challenging how caste is viewed – or invisibilised.
A two-day Asura festival at EFLU is a good example. Students painted their faces in asura forms, shared poetry and music to highlight alternative Ramayanas where Ram is the aggressor bringing violence to indigenous communities and Shoorpanakha-Ravana are mythical heroes.
“We’re asking, who is god, who is asura? We’re saying normative festivals such as Durga Puja are oppressive and symbolise violence against Dalits and adivasis,” said Duggal.
At the University of Hyderabad next door, students regularly break their protests with songs and cultural performances. Pehel, a campus-based troupe, chips in with musical nights. The epicenter of the demonstrations – Shop Com – often reverberates with poetry by fiery Dalit-Bahujan writers such as the Maharashtrian Namdeo Dhasal.
A similar assertion over beef eating at JNU sparked clashes between ABVP and Dalit groups.
Members of the Birsa-Ambedkar-Phule Student’s Association say authorities cancelled permission to screen a documentary – Caste on the Menu Card -- after ABVP objections.
“It is important we discuss caste in the university because caste is anti-social while university is a modern social institution,” said Praveen Tulasi, a doctoral student.
Literature is at the heart of such a cultural surge and Dalit Bahujan authors channel powerful narratives of trauma and bravery erased from the mainstream.
Telugu poet Gogu Shyamala said she drew her inspiration from the everyday practices of Dalit bahujan folks not conveyed in writing but in oral traditions.
“Common Dalit villagers have a beautiful aesthetics of culture – an anti-Brahmanical resistance that I realized after reading Phule and Ambedkar,” the acclaimed Dalit writer told HT.
She talks about Renuka Yellama –who is killed by her son on her husband’s orders. In oral Dalit readings, however, Yellama is not a victim but a goddess, a lower-caste mother to all.
This consciousness isn’t new, tracing its origins to the formation of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra in the 70s. Activists would go into villages to spread Ambedkar’s message using regional plays, folk songs and folk dances.
One such group was the anti-caste cultural outfit Kabir Kala Manch, formed in 2002 but disintegrating nine years later after members were booked for being Maoists.
The movement spread abroad too with groups such as Dalit Women fight in the US leaning on visual arts to drive advocacy.
They recently brought from India a troupe of activists who play the Parai drum, an instrument made from cow carcass that Dalit people are traditionally forced to scavenge.
“Caste has allowed a brahminical hegemony over art and culture where only their art is seen as clean, as valuable, as worthy,” said Valliamal Kaneeran.
This strain of rejecting mainstream cultures and subverting popular beliefs runs through Dalit Bahujan art.
“This subversion of history by caste Hindus denied the Dalit Bahujans of human dignity. It’s important to set historical facts straight,” said Dharma Teja of Dalit Camera, a popular YouTube channel.
Such assertion often comes at a cost – anti-caste literature is never stocked in mainstream bookstores, there are no promotion or newspaper articles. “We’re battling and invisible but strong,” said Shyamala.
Also read: Rohith Vemula: An unfinished portrait