Many of the peoples of India which were discriminated on the basis of birth and name were classified as the ‘Scheduled Castes‘ in the Constitution. Most Indians and outsiders tend to distinguish between the various castes on the basis of privilege, wealth and depravity. However the discriminated people of India, just like discriminated people elsewhere have their own culture, their own heroes/heroines and stories. Unfortunately, I was never made aware of this in India and I doubt many urban Indians know about it either. Unfortunately, the folk tales of the oppressed did not find even a single mention in my textbooks.
Luckily, I had the opportunity to take a class titled ‘Epics and Heroes of India’ in my university in America. The class covered an epic performed by low caste people in the Braj region of North India. The epic is called Dhola, and its contrast with the upper caste epics ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ is very interesting. But let me first very briefly outline the story of Dhola.
Dhola describes the story of Raja Nal and his wife Damayanti, who although of kingly lineage, is born in a forest and raised by members of the merchant class. As the Raja seeks to reclaim his throne, he must take on a variety of roles, acrobat. leper, oil presser and fight off his evil and scheming opponents. Of course he does do this and emerges victorious in the end. I know thats really short, but the contents of the epic are not so important to this discussion.
I would like to compare the gender aspects of society as they are covered in Dhola, and the better-known Ramayana, which has a somewhat similar storyline. Many of the readers will recall Sita, the wife of the principal protagonist, Rama. The docility and servility of Sita is well known to most, the epic has no instances of her questioning her husband’s actions. More importantly, Rama never requires Sita, she is to be won back and is the reason for him taking on Ravana, but she never participates in his battles. She comes across as a very passive and helpless character, dependent on her husband and having very little independent thought and action.
The corresponding character in Dhola, Damayanti, could not be more different. At her swayamvar, she puts her suitors through a cooking test, and she marries the leper (Nal in disguise) in her father’s court who is the only one who can cook. She rejects her father’s efforts to have her marry a divine being and marries the human Nal. In doing this, she escapes the standard notions husband-worship found frequently in the upper caste epics. Damayanti and the other female Motini, frequently come to aid Nal in battle. Indeed as Susan Wadley, director of South Asia studies at Syracuse University notes,
Nal’s woman is a force to be reckoned with. She set fire to the gate of the fort and is now holding a sword.
This basic cultural difference is reflected in contemporary India, with low caste women participating in work much more and having much more freedom of movement. As Wadley notes,
Women in the Braj region, especially those of higher status and caste, are contained within their houses and courtyards where they follow strict rules of the purdah.
which contrasts with the,
freedom of movement found among lower-caste women in rural India even today.
I will now shift to more modern cultural differences, that relate more to the Republican Indian state. In particular, this concerns the imagery of Dr. Ambedkar and Gautama Buddha. Their images can be found in the houses, schools and places of congregation across India. The picture below is the exterior wall of a temple in Uttar Pradesh, used by the Dalits,
Beyond imagery of course, there is the question of how Dalits see modern India, and how this contrasts with the upper caste view.
The higher castes, in general are influenced by either a Gandhian nationalism based on pluralism and a benign state, or the majoritarian ‘Hindu’ ‘nationalism’ of the BJP/RSS. The low castes today, though are much more influenced by Ambedkarian ideas of the state, where the state is a tool to repair injustice and ensure equality. These differences have not manifested into mainstream pop culture, as that industry is dominated by the upper castes. So while mainstream Bollywood movies reflect both the pluralistic nationalism of Gandhi (think Chak De India), there are few movies that represent the Ambedkarian view of India. One would expect to see more manifestations of Ambedkar’s views as the low castes begin to assert themselves, and in creating their own mass’ culture it is likely that they will rely more on their own epics and heroes.
The Ambedkar picture belongs to my friend Conrad Barwa. It has been used with his permission.