The need for studies on Dalit musical traditions


Dr. Chandraiah Gopani

cgopaniDalits are creators of music. They not only produced many musical instruments and performed them but also generated rich knowledge on music. The studies of art and cultural production are important to understand human expression, taste, beauty and emotions etc. Within cultural production, music plays a unique role to express human emotions and ideas. Dalits are involved in creating a variety of musical forms -- from traditional to modern musical genres. But most of the musical traditions among Dalits have survived/are surviving in oral and informal ways. This lack of textualizing and institutionalizing these traditions deeply underlines the urgent need for documentation and critical studies.   


Dalit musical traditions are historical, they spread and influenced individuals, groups and generations. Further, they continue to be passed on from one generation to another with change and continuity. In this process, individuals and groups contribute in advancing, modifying, making them relevant to contemporary society. The music traditions like Dappu in the Telugu region, Parai in Tamil Nadu, Ambedkar Jalsa and Sahirs in Maharashtra are cases in point. The emergence of autonomous Dalit movements across India led to significant contributions in the literary domain and social science analysis (there is still a long way to go).


But the studies on Dalit musical traditions are minimal, and that too within the activist and artiste circles, mostly published on online platforms and popular magazines. However, the attempts to document and understand the musical instruments of Dalits in particular, Bahujans in general are minimal. The life histories of composers, singers and the forms of music traditions are yet to be deeply engaged with. This vacuum gave rise and scope for the continuation of Brahmanical art forms in the institutions and the public domain. This calls for institutions and scholars, activists (at least within the Phule-Ambedkarite Movements) to pay attention and take interest for critical engagement.  


In the absence of Dalit musical traditions in documentation and institutionalization, the Brahmanical art forms and music traditions continue to be projected as having national and classical status. The performers of these Brahmanical music genres benefited from state resources for generation to generation and advanced their musical art forms. The subaltern Bahujan artistes are pushed to merely some pensions, that too for a few individuals, nothing else.


In a way, in the government's view, recognizing these art forms entails giving some pensions to artistes. It doesn't mean real appreciation of the value and contribution of their labor and knowledge to the art and musical traditions. A few liberal upper caste individuals are trying to say that there is a need for diversity within classical music, but they fail to critique the very structure of these musical forms and the way they get historical privileges in legitimizing these art forms. All the reality shows on music/singing competitions on various TV shows clearly present it. The Brahmanical aesthetics is always about hierarchization and gradation of art forms. This hierarchization inherently excludes and stigmatizes the Dalit musical traditions.   


Majority of the fine arts and music departments in universities and colleges focus on and study so-called classical music, and faculty members come from upper castes. Even if there are courses on subaltern music they are relegated to folk music, meaning there is not much interest in institutionalizing these musical forms, and encouraging and supporting Dalits and subaltern music forms. The cultural institutions and academies are investing time and resources in producing books, archives, documentaries on classical and Brahmanical musical forms. The consequence is that the research, teaching and discussions in the departments have become one sided stories on musical knowledge. 


There are many Dalit music troupes who are training next generation of musicians, performers and singes as per changing trends. In Tamil Naidu, the Dalit music festival called ‘Vannam Arts Festival’, under Pa. Ranjith's guidance, has been started. The Vannam festival brings Dalit and other music and art forms to foster social awareness and present to the public that there are various other rich musical traditions and artforms. There are traditional singers and musicians’ tropes in the name of Dalit Kala Mandali, Bahujana Kala Mandali, Dappu artistes' associations, Bheem Geete troupes, Gaana Singers etc. Along with many existing old musical troupes and groups, there are new emerging music bands like The Casteless Collective, Dhamma Wings, Willuwandi, RAP TOLI, Bheem Drum, Bahujan Rythm etc. which are all contributing towards anti-caste consciousness.  


Dalits are engaged in performing different music in different states, but their interaction, communication and dialogue is limited to the specific regional languages. So, there is a need to build networks, music troupes and create common platforms for artistes across India, it will have greater impact on productive dialogue and solidarities. It will create a momentum for new generation of artistes. The journey of Black artistes and musicians and the Harlem Renaissance in America can inspire us.  In America every year they celebrate Black Music Honors in order to honor people who contributed to black music. They also celebrate Black Music Month to remember great black musicians. This remarkable journey of black musicians can inspire Dalit musicians to contribute in their unique way and help in democratizing Indian music.  


Dalits are also modernizing their traditional music with available cultural and technological changes in the globalization process. Bhim Geete, hip-hop, rap, pop, rock and other forms have also been created and are being performed by Dalit artistes. The recent Dalit rappers like Arivu, Isaivani (Tamil Nadu), Sumit Sumos, Rapper Dule Rocker (Orissa), Sethu Willuwandi, Vedan (Kerala), Ginni Mahi (Punjab) have created many songs which attracted music lovers across the globe. These rappers, in their songs and performances, talk on various social issues aimed at creating an anti-caste consciousness. They are all first-generation educated individuals who have become musicians, singers and performers.


In America, black scholars are seriously engaged in, and initiated, studies on black music and its aesthetics. Many centers, academies have taken interest in documenting Afro-American composers and singers' life histories and contributions, and their instruments. The Harlem Renaissance created a new beginning of black cultural and musical movements. The musical traditions like Jazz, blues, hip-hop, rap, rock and roll and other forms created a new history in the global music world. Music is one of the most effective forms for anti-caste mobilization. The emerging musicians, singers, lyricists are coming witha Phule-Ambedkar, Bahujan consciousness. This is a new beginning of Bahujan phase in the world of art and music. This can be productive, effective and sustainable only with constant documentation, critical studies and engagement.



Dr. Chandraiah Gopani is an Assistant Professor in G.B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad Central University. He has been teaching and doing research on Caste, Dalit Studies, Anti-Caste Intellectual Traditions, Dalit Youth and Bahujan Musical Traditions and literatures. He regularly writes in English and Telugu.   




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