The Piano Man outrage: Calling out casteist mentality in elite circles


Jyotsna Siddharth

jyotsna 3Them and Us

I, me, mine, we, us, ours
You, them, they, theirs, those people.

"It's just a band name" is what the tombstone should read when the Calgary post-punk band, Viet Cong, finally decides to put the offensive and self-confessed dumb band name to rest. It was those exact words from lead singer and bassist Matt Flegel that revealed their flippant attitude towards the Vietnamese community and their complaints that detail how the name is a reminder of the atrocities committed by the real VC. It also convinced a concert promoter to cancel their show at Oberlin College earlier this year."1

This piece is centred around an event at The Piano Man, a popular jazz club in Delhi. For those who are unaware, the club hosted a music band's event called Bhangijumping. Bhangi is a lower caste engaged in manual scavenging practice in India. When brought to the notice, the owner of the club shushed it as unintentional and covered it as "art and supporters of artistic expression." The issue escalated into a series of exchanges via social media arguing that this was a casteist slur with serious connotations, causing humiliation to the dalit community.2

The history of apartheid is not new to us. Passing lewd comments and racist slurs has been around as an historic evidence of racial discrimination in United States. India not so different in that fashion has a population of lower caste groups that are considered 'untouchable' because of their historicity of doing 'dirty' 'unclean' jobs like manual scavenging, tannery so on. Categories after categories, people are divided in fixed and immutable structures. People in India have a need- a need to conform to their caste identities. Indeed the country thrives and flourishes on manifestations of caste discrimination and division. It works for the upper caste hindus, for the privilege and benefits that is routed through upper caste strictures. It does not however work for others- lower castes, muslims, tribals, queer and women. Us and them are intrinsically chained together to form an oppressive system of discrimination.

the piano man

Caste surnames of low caste groups- Bhangi and Chamar have been used as slurs in common parlance for several years. As a matter of joke, upper caste hindus consider it amusing to call themselves and their friends as bhangi and chamar. What does it mean in a larger socio-political context, when upper caste individuals use words like bhangi and chamar to amuse themselves, apart from displaying a bad sense of humour?

There are ample evidences in United States, for instance, where 'white' 'men' have inflicted racial slurs on people. For instance, Bill Maher, an American comedian and political commentator, upon calling himself a 'house slave' was criticized for using a racial slur on his talk show on HBO3; recently an official from West Virgina who made the comment 'ape in heels' about Michelle Obama4; Carl Paladino, co-chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, denied that his comments about Michelle Obama "being a male" who should be "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe" to live "in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla" were racist.5

So this isn't the first time a casteist slur is inflicted on dalits. The event Bhangijumping is a timely reminder that caste is manifested deeply in minds of people. The upper caste has no qualms in name calling merely for the matter of "artistic expression." This act (that can be booked under the Prevention of Atrocities Act) is celebrated as the "club owner at least apologised for his mistake."

It's always a win-win situation for upper caste Hindus in this country where casteist slurs are often followed by an apology. Often, they are martyred for make believing others that they were ignorant, did not realise it could hurt the sentiments of others. And once they have apologized, should be forgiven. Humiliation for dalits in this country is not new. Sheer innocence masqueraded in such incidences is laughable. Coming from comfortable, sheltered and privileged positions and acting unaware of how actions and words have connotations and possible repercussions is a matter of convenience. Does an upper caste hindu expect to be sat down to have caste dynamics explained to him? They know it all, have used it for their advantage for centuries. Besides it is not an obligation for discriminated groups to mollycoddle them into reorienting about 'caste'. You won't visit a foreign country without knowing their rules because you will be put behind bars for doing objectionable acts. You cannot act innocent and say, "I didn't know it was wrong." Then why take such liberty in your own country? Why assume you can pass derogatory comments and get away with it? Why does it make an upper caste group feel uncomfortable, insecure and threatened when dalits demand their rights?

There is an immense fear; fear of losing privilege and ground they have set for themselves, through operationalizing their oppressive caste mentality. Whenever upper caste privileged hindus visit the West, they complain about ill treatment by Westerners, write poetry about racial attitudes of white people. They feel deeply, understanding white privilege over a glass of wine. Those same people in India fail to see their own caste privilege, why? They accuse and degrade dalits for being party poopers, destroying their happy privileged, sanitized space by bringing the issue of caste on the table, because it only has space for their expensive wines.

Yes we, I, us have resentment; resentment against upper caste privileged people for having more caste privilege than dalits will ever have. That they can get away with casteist, racial, homophobic, sexist slurs and whenever offered, their apologies will be duly accepted. It is time to be aware however that comments loaded with caste/queer/sexist connotations are not acceptable in the country, anywhere in the world and importantly not by marginalised sections anymore. Yes of course I feel angry that you can walk confidently on the road, in people's homes, in temples, shops, educational institutions or clubs because nobody will make jokes about your 'caste.' You will never have to explain to anyone which caste you belong to. Spaces, accolades, victories, politics, privileges and resources- everything is yours. You don't want to share it with others- with those people. When those people—we, demand our legit rights, rights to be treated like you- like humans, to not be judged constantly, on parameters of 'merit'- you accuse us for spoiling your happiness and caste sanitised spaces, why?

When we retaliate, fight back and combat your casteist mindset, you persecute us for bringing up caste, inciting hatred and breaking the society. We haven't won, not for once succeeded in breaking this society. Ambedkar tried. Apart from small victories, he did not survive long enough to 'break' the strictures of manuvadi, hindu casteist society of India. The constitution he wrote originally was not accepted by the upper caste hindus because it demanded human rights- rights for dalits and women. Today, sitting in your santisised, bubble of privilege, accuse him for inherent fallacies with vested interests of your own.

We do not still have many musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, professors, and doctors from our caste communities, as much as you do. We don't have spaces free of caste bias, that don't humiliate on the basis of caste, you do. We haven't been able to assimilate in this society yet to call it our own because you divide, categorise and discriminate amongst different sections of society. You have reservations against women, muslims, queers, tribals and other minority groups. Upper caste hindus practice untouchability against us and when we try to negotiate with the oppressive system of yours, you shame us again for sanskritisation.

Wallowing in your false sense of pride, knowledge and high art, you are conveniently forgetful about cultural appropriation you've caused by imbibing knowledge from our communities. Textiles that you wear, home décor and posh articles that beautify your casteist homes are mugged for several decades from low caste artisans. The food that you eat and the art you exhibit in posh galleries of Europe are not objects for your own gratification and all that you so feel entitled to - they reek of your oppressive nature. So no we haven't won, not yet.



1. Extract taken from https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/its-just-a-band-name-why-i-protested-at-a-viet-cong-concert

2. After the arguments back and forth on social media, this event was later cancelled and the owner of the Piano Man club in Delhi offered apology.

3. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/03/arts/television/bill-maher-n-word.html

4. http://time.com/4573554/michelle-obama-racism-first-lady/

5. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/23/donald-trump-carl-paladino-michelle-obama



Jyotsna Siddharth recently completed her second masters in Social Anthropology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London. At present she is working in food and her interests include writing, reading, poetry and food.

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