“Not all, those who soar against the tide are the ones left standing in the end after all. Some perish in making a way for the others to lead, some disappear, some propel the discourse with their knowledge, light, life and struggles, some hijack and appropriate others’ legitimate long standing presence and space while a handful of them keep the fire lit until the end to tell what’s not been told, ignored and purposefully hidden and thus never seen through the lens of those whose lives have been on the line for generations after all.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a black American writer, author and educator in the year 2015, held up a mirror to America. That mirror showed America’s ‘White gaze’ towards people of colored origins. In the form of a letter to his son, and this is what Coates had to say:
“Here is what I would like for you to know:
“In America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is a heritage.”
While Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son about being black in America became a bestseller, the above lines if applied to Indian context would acquire the samespace of exclusion as is experienced by members of marginalized communities in India – especially the Dalit- Bahujan (SC, ST and OBC) and other marginalized communities.
“In India it is traditional to destroy the marginalized body- it is a heritage.”
Reminds me of tons of lives claimed under this Brahmanical gaze –HCU PhD Scholar RohithVemula, Delta Meghwal, Jisha, 8- year old Kathua girl, 22- year old Unnao girl, 4 Dalit men stripped and beaten in broad day light in Una, Gujarat, the heinous rape, murder and caste ostracization of Priyanka and RekhaBhootmange in Nagpur;perhaps the page will end but the list will continue. That’s how the mechanism of Savarna gaze operates through life, mechanism of social justice, Law&Order, media machinery, judiciary and so on in India.
This heritage of hegemony is Brahmanical and it is 3000 years old.We might have world’s finest constitution but our social reality defines the lens through which we look at life in India, that’s is essentially casteist. In thisdegraded ladder of caste, Brahmins are at the top and other three in Varna order just imitate and emulate those sitting at the top. Needless to sayDr. B. R. Ambedkarwords holds true here,
“Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.” –Bahujan ActivistAnoopKumar,wrote“Only dead Dalits make excellent Dalits.
Only dead Dalits become excellent sites where revolutionary fantasies blossom!”
In an essay titled,‘Savarna India under permanent siege,’ where Anoop and other academicians, student and activists from Ambedkar Age Collective launched a very much needed intellectual attackon writer Arundhati Roy,who wrote an introduction, titled, “The Doctor and the Saint” to Dr. B. R.Ambedkar’s seminal text, ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
Arundhati’s version conveniently ignores the magnitude of the liberating channel that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ is for the anti-caste movement in India. It wasn’t just a lecture, which was too radical to publish. The constant exchange between Dr. B R Ambedkar and Mr.Sant Ram, the Secretary of the Jat Pat TodakMandal Committee; where Sant Ram writes to Ambedkar needs to be learnt and disseminated. An excerpt from Mr.Sant Ram’s first letter.
My dear Doctor Saheb,
I am now very anxious to read the exposition of your new formula- “It is not possible to break Caste without annihilating the religious notions on which it, the Caste system is founded.” Please explain it at length at your earliest convenience, so that we may take up the idea and emphasize it from press and platform. At present, it is not fully clear to me. Our Executive Committee persists in having you as our President for our Annual Conference.
This is what Mr. Sant Ram wrote to Dr. Ambedkar on December 12, 1935. But Arundhati trivializes the matter and sort of produces a sensational piece that focuses on comparing Gandhi with Ambedkar. Her introduction does eulogize Ambedkar for sure but only to villainies Gandhi but never really touching upon the historicity of this event, intensity of this lecture, and the audacity of Ambedkar’s methodological approach for the destruction of caste during that time in history.
The sensational clash between Gandhi and Ambedkar is well to be noted and that’s a wonderful plot for a good story with national movement as the background. The strategy is smart and the market is open. Dalit politics is a hot property in India and it also has a global reach. The political economy of Navyana – a self-proclaimed anti-caste publishing house run by S Anand need to be learnt and studied for various vested interests – but sadly it only unfurls a ‘Savarana gaze’.
“Feminist scholar Andrea Smith’s analysis of white privileges tells us how the confession of privilege is often a ritual without much meaning and is eventually based on the structures of dominations it was supposed to resist. Roy’s opportunity to learn about Ambedkar and critique on Gandhi, to introduce this book to the world is, I would argue, a clear example of her upper-caste privilege and points towards a ‘savarana gaze’.”
As published in The Guardian by Stan Grant, “It takes courage for a black person to speak to a white world, a world that can render invisible people of colour, unless they begin to more closely resemble white people themselves.”
The White Gaze is a phrase that resonates in black American literature. Writers from WEB Du Bois to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have struggled with it and railed against it.As Morrison – a Nobel Laureate – once said:
“Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
The White gaze: It traps black people in white imaginations. It is the eyes of a white schoolteacher who sees a black student and lowers expectations. It is the eyes of a white cop who sees a black person and looks twice – or worse, feels for a gun.
How serendipitously Morrioson’s words compliments its Eastern counterpart, the ‘Savarana/Brahamanical Gaze’ here in India cannot be ignored. Taking some creative liberty just for analogy, I replaced ‘black’ with – Dalits/marginalized and equated ‘white’ with Savarana/ Brahmanical gaze in the above definition and this is how it reads:
The Brahmanical gaze: “It traps Dalits/marginalized people in Savarana/Brahamanical imaginations. It is the eyes of a Savarana/Brahamanical schoolteacher who sees a Dalits/marginalized student and lowers expectations. It is the eyes of a Savarana/Brahamanical cop who sees a Dalit/marginalized person and looks twice – or worse, feels for a gun.”
Following the above definition I think it makes amply clear, how problems of social exclusion, caste and gender discrimination, segregation stand similar against oppression of Brahminical/Savarana supremacy. And thus they speak through the language and vocabulary of aSavarana gaze and through their privileged spaces and platforms. Then whether it is literature, visual art, cinema, media or academia, the language remains the same.
People write histories and they only tell stories. Often this privilege of having a stage, an access, and a tool from oral histories, art, and expression to current time’s media dissemination power consistently shows it gaze. And that gaze is principally ‘Savarna/ Brahmanical’. The ability to drive stories/narratives that subvert State’s hegemonic privilege and position of power are seen as a threat, a challenge, and a wicked and sinful assertion of individuality, heterogeneity and plurality as per the dominant consciousness of a Savarana gaze. While India is still reeling with the rightwing, Hindutva’s nuisance through every phase of our socio-economic, religious -spiritual, intellectual and individual lives; it doesn’t come as a surprise when the dominant ideology of State colludes with the mechanism of caste through every facet of life. In this research, it’s the story of defiance of an Ezhava woman known as Nangeli in the early nineteenth century in Travancore, whose powerful sacrifice is being refuted as an ancient legend by the BJP government in India.
It’s the act of Nangeli’s defiance that serves as an ‘agency’ to a woman’s ‘voice’ – a highly crucial and controversial position for a Shudra woman to have back in colonial days when caste oppression was the legitimate law of the land and sadly still remains a legit reality in India.Nangeli was known to be a beautiful Ezhava woman living in Cherthala, Travancore, where the evil ‘Breast Tax’ practices – a law of the land that denied lower caste women to cover their ‘upper body’ was prevalent. Nangeli was thirty-five years old and was fierce as hell. She thought independently of her ‘honor’ and ‘integrity’ and was determined to cover herself and venture outside. News of her defiant act had sent ripples across the hegemonic powers around the village of Cherthala. The tax officer, ‘pravaathiyar’ came running with leering tongue what Nangeli was due to pay as Mulakkaram aka ‘Breast tax’ for covering her upper body. It is said, Nangeli followed the rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid but instead of the money, she served her breasts and succumbed to death due to extreme blood loss. The ‘pravaathiyar’ was horrified and returned back to his king. Although Nangeli’s body was cremated later that day, her defiant sprit of a ‘marginalized assertion’ still lives on. Her husband Chirukandan, who had returned back home after day’s long work and was disheveled to discover the sight of his wife’s dead body threw himself in the funeral pyre and sacrificed his life. This was one of the first recorded instances of a man known to have committed Sati (an upper caste Hindu practice where the wife marking a deep devotion to her husband was required to burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband; in case her husband died.)
Ambedkar had recognized the problem of Sati, as the problem of a ‘surplus woman = widow’ for the upper caste Hindu system who was disposed off by hook or crook. A practice like ‘Sati’ was perpetuated through women so as to control and maintain caste hierarchy.
The next day, SreemolamThirunal, the then King of Travancore, immediately removed the existence of this evil ‘Breast tax’ after issuing a royal proclamation. Nangeli’s brave ‘act’ gave women from lower backgrounds a right to cover their breasts.
Indeed, it takes more than just courage for a person from marginalized background to speak to a Brahaminical world, a world that can render invisible people of marginalized communities, unless they begin to more closely resemble Brahmins themselves and thus perhaps speak in their language and vocabulary of hegemony.
The mere shuffling of words is not the purpose here, albeit it is reflection on the very politics of identity, representation, social justice, inequality, caste and gender discrimination and social exclusion that becomes the sole purpose. Therefore it becomes essential to study, read, understand and take a pause to assimilate all the wrongs that’s been done in the name of a Savarana gaze after all.
“Artist OrijitSen’s depiction of Nangeli in his graphic series on Facebook, presents an opportunity to inquire into the broader question of Savarana male gaze consumption and production in visual art practices, along with the machinery of appropriation reproducing hegemony.The story is told through an aged Ezhava woman. In the first frame we can see an exoticized ‘poor’ Ezhava woman in a pale sari in a public chowk memorizing Nangeli. Through Sen’s own words, “I believe my ancestor Nangeli knew what would happen if she continued to cover her breasts like the Nair woman and she was prepared for it.”This framing was questioned: “the first frame itself situates Nangeli as an isolated rebellion, an agent of free will, detached from the enriched narrative of resistance of the anti caste struggle of the larger Avarna community of which she was part of and sidelines the revolutionary leadership of ArattupuzhaVelayudhaPanicker in that region, later mass movements led by Ayyankali, PadmanabhanPalpu, Sri Narayana Guru, SahodaranAyyappan, etc. Also how could it be possible that Nanegli alone took such assertive action of covering upper part of her body but none other around her did so? There must be various ways in which Dalit Bahujan men and women were resisting this dehumanizing supervision of their lives, within the constraints of an oppressed society.(PinakBanik)
OrijitSen representation of Nangeli in a uniform light minus its legitimate representation in visual art as well as history is a classic example of a Savarana gaze. Taking a stand on it Dr. P.D Satya Pal, Professor of Anthropology, Andhra University, and Vishakhapatnam, shared, “Back in those days the Nadar women used to cover their breasts by wearing stone necklaces. Ayyankali was a ferocious voice of Dalit social movements way back in 1906 in Travancore. He motivated and mobilized Nadar women and publically made a protest where women tore apart their stone necklaces and took to wearing blouses just like the upper caste Nair’s women. This defiant act was deeply resented by the local upper castes Nair people and as result they were brutally attacked for asserting their rights and several lives were lost.”
Satya Pal further adds, ‘Although upper caste women and men were also not allowed to wear upper body clothes, there is no record in history which goes on to establish that ‘upper caste Nair women’ were taxed for their breasts, the evil scheme known as ‘Mulakkaram tax’ was devised only for ‘lower caste women.’
Nonetheless Nangeli’s story cannot be separated from her location as a ‘gender and also that she belonged to a ‘lower caste’ which intertwines to expose a system of caste perpetuation through gender domination. In the year 1916 at Columbia University in an Anthropological seminar, Dr. BhimRaoAmbedkar, had defined in his paper, ‘Caste in India: Their mechanism, Genesis and Development,’ ‘the origin and the mechanism to perpetuate caste has been due to the imposition of woman’s sexual relations.’
Admonishing the hypocrisy of ‘Indian Feminist Movement’, Dr. AvatthiRamaiah, who teaches at ‘Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies’ at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai shared, “Indian Feminists are willing to argue against patriarchy but they don’t touch upon caste. They conveniently ignore that the foundation of patriarchy is caste. Unless you uproot caste, this perpetuation of gender control will continue and also removal of marginalized history as well agency.”
This ‘seduction’ of marginalized majority, to delight their own intellectual quest, loaded with vile Brahmin Savarana interests, in whatever innovative marketable methodology possible, is nothing but continuation of the same blatant mechanism of reproducing their empire of cultural and caste capitals. This adventurous, orientalist formula of divine art is simple; explore, hunt down, take ownership, distort, appropriate, repackage, theorize, auction and booze! At the end it’s your free will whether to become a rescuer and save yourself or the ‘subject’ and add glory to this atrocious burglary. (PinakBanik)
Now turning to cinema in India and the representation of Dalit-Bahujan characters, their issues, stories and narratives.
“Sometime back, the English newspaper ‘The Hindu’ had published a report on ‘Hindi Cinema and Dalit Representation.’ As per this reportbetween the years 2013 to 2015, 300 films were made, but only 5 of them had Dalit heroes or heroines in them. Another report published by ‘Birmingham City University United Kingdom’ in 2017 raised important questions regarding the representation of backward classes in the Indian film industry by pointing out that the share of Dalit andBahujan (SC,ST,OBC) population in India is 85%, but their representation in the film is only 0.1%,” wrote, SomnathWaghmare, an independent documentary film-maker from Dalit background.
One would wonder, why such small representation? Well, the answer is fairly simple. It’s the materiality of caste consciousness in visual medium as well. When the social reality of our countryhas systematically kept the oppressed and underprivileged under seize by blocking access to knowledge by the dictates’ of Hindu religion for thousand of years;there couldn’t by any chance of fair representation perhaps. Not that one is saying that caste wasn’t the subject of visual medium or that Dalits characters weren’t portrayed.
For example: ShyamBenegal’sfilm, ‘Ankur’ where Lakshmi and Kishtayya; (Dalit characters) are sent to serve for Surya, son of an upper caste man. Surya who was forced into a child marriage with Saru; is sexually frustrated and constantly makes effort to sleep with Lakshmi, a Dalit woman, which he eventually does. A few things stand out in this film, the atrocious practice of child marriage in an upper casteHindu society, the access to bodies of lower caste women by the upper caste men andlast caste consciousness where the place of a lower caste person is always at the periphery minus dignity of a hero.
Thanks to ‘reservation’, which again the privileged class cries of having it on economic basis; amply articulating the ‘savarna gaze’ loud and clear; that access to knowledge became possible for the marginalized communities; thus some knowledge production in art, academia and cinema now. Today we have filmmakers, such as NagrajManjule (from Marathi industry), Pa. Ranjith from Tamil industry, NeerajGhaywan of Hindi film industry that have carved a legit space/ vocabulary of not only Dalit characters but Dalit characters with an ideological bent of Phle-Ambedkarite-Periyar; who lead like heroes do, unlike the suffering Harijan characters who hide behind Gandhi’s casteist lens of ‘Savarna gaze’ – keeping the lowly always low.
Last but not the least, making a parallel analysis of the ‘White/ Savarana gaze’ with respect to people of colored origins in USA and the marginalized in India.
Devonte Hart became the quintessential poster boyof reconciliation between Black people, the police, and white society at largein 2014. Hewas photographed hugging a police officer with tears in his eyes. Hart was a black kid who was hugging a white police officer amidst a highly charged racial environment in Oregon, especially during the times when black lives were repeatedly attacked, murdered and tried and tested by a prejudiced white society in America. During such racially and politically charged environment,
Devonte’s “heartwarming” hug became the most viral picture in media circulation. Others looked on this as a propaganda. Later on it was learnt that the officer Hart huggedwas a supporter of Darren Wilson, the cop who murdered Michael Brown, another unarmed Black boy and was subjected to an untimely death due to a racial prejudice by a white police officer, who admitted in court to using the ‘N’word. The circumstances surrounding Devonte Hart’s viral photo (and the general response to it) is a classic example of the white gaze and how it filters and interprets reality.
Yes, the origin of the white gaze is de facto sinister because from the beginning and at its core, whiteness was created as a tool with which to bludgeon non-white peoples and force them into submission. Whiteness was created to supersede various ethnic and religious differences among Europeans and unite them in the goal of enslavement, colonization, white supremacy, and world domination. There’s no there there, as the saying goes. (Deep Green Philly)
Back home, on 1st January 2018,India woke up to fundamentalist Hindutva organizations planned conspiracy and perpetuated violence against the Dalit-Bahujans who had come to commemorate the 200 years of Mahar and other untouchable castes’ bravery in the battle against the Peshwain BhimaKoregaon.Following day’s headlines were something like this:
TOI: How Dalit resistance gained momentum in Maharashtra?
HT: Violence in Maharashtra as Dalits protest death of 28-year-old in BhimaKoregaon clashes, bandh called in state.
Indian Express: BhimaKoregaon violence: Conspiracy meeting or press conference? Probe on
The Hindu: Understanding BhimaKoregaon
India Today: #BhimaKoregaonViolence The question that is still baffling people is, why are the protesters and Dalits clashing over a battle won/lost 200 years ago.
Wire: The Myth of BhimaKoregaon Reinforces the Identities It Seeks to Transcend by AnandTeltubde
Hashtags such as #MahaCasteWar, #MaharashtraClasteClash, #DalitViolence, among others were used.
What’s appaling is the language of this reportage. The Savaranagazenotices violence instead of caste atrocity oblivious and also purposefully ignoring the caste reality, politics and its connotations applicable in India. From calling ‘Bhima Koregaon Violence’ instead of ‘Bhima Koregaon caste atrocity or caste violence’; from equating history to myth; from passing a hard earned battle during an atrocious Brahmanical regime of Peshwa to passing it as an anti-national act while siding with the British; the Savarna gaze speaks in volume; perhaps not as a direct word from one caste to another but moreas an ideological lens.
Thus from the above analogy between a ‘White gaze’ and ‘Savarana gaze’ it makes amply clear how identities are attached to politics and narratives to privilege; spanning across oceans and cultures,thus subverting everything that falls under the ambit of humanity and sanctions power to play and play dirty as hell.
Jyotinisha is an independent Writer/Film-maker/Illustrator and Scholar based in Mumbai, India. She is an alumnus of the prestigious, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Currently she is pursuing MA in Media and Cultural Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and making a feature length documentary film on Dr. B. R Ambedkar.
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