Image via "Enjoy Enjaami" video

The Fetishization of Labor in Dominant Caste South Asian Art

Watching the music video for Enjoy Enjaami was a bittersweet experience for me. The initial excitement I felt to watch an independent Tamil music video wavered when I realized it was not produced by Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi artists.

What initially felt like representation turned into the realization that we were “seen” in the way one sees a phantom: a known presence without form, requiring imagination to conjure. To the savarana gaze, our laboring bodies slip through the shadows, unrecognizable. Enjoy Enjaami is full of shots of laborers, but any celebratory potential is overshadowed by Dhee’s presence: her gaze, her suit, her throne, the ensemble of darker-skinned women who flank her.  The longer I sat with it, the lush visuals and catchy beat slowly soured.

I was reminded of the immensity of South Asian art that centers wealthy savarna experience as a stand-in for all South Asian experience, and the modern more “socially conscious” turn in which savarna artists falsely position themselves in proximity to caste-oppressed people in order to gain legitimacy and praise. I was reminded of diaspora musical artists with generational wealth whose music videos suggest an identification with poverty. The visuals may be different than before, but those who write the narratives remain the same.

Constantly witnessing the commodification of our existence is an unsettling reality. After centuries of ongoing casteism, we see how caste power dynamics are reenacted in art through the savarna gaze, and how it views marginalized experience as something to be stolen, profited off of, and discarded when no longer useful. It’s a fantasy of possession and ownership, one that conceals histories of violent oppression while simultaneously claiming these histories as its own.

When Rajakumari raps about “my family” in her song “City Slums,” or when Babbu the Painter refers to fish market workers as “the homies” (“homie” itself being African American Vernacular English) in a Instagram comment, or when Dhee refers to landless laborers as “my people,” the result is tone-deaf and phony yet profitable.

It’s phony because many of us are aware of the caste-privileged background of these artists. We are more intimately familiar with the lives of the laborers, who could easily be our families and friends. We are also acutely aware of the vast social chasm that lies between the savarna artist and the communities they use as romanticized props, despite their insistence otherwise. We cringe at this lack of self-awareness, the acrid lies of their artistry that we are unable to swallow.

After being used as props for music videos and photoshoots, members of caste-oppressed communities materially gain nothing. It’s unsettling to imagine the circumstances of someone being used in this way — being selected for fitting a certain “look,” made to stand/sit/smile/frown/pose to the satisfaction of the director, and to have one’s existence objectified and diluted in order to be shown to millions of strangers. When marginalized people themselves are robbed of their agency over art and cultural production, their humanity is made to be invisible; they are erased from their own narratives.

By fabricating a false proximity to laborers and caste oppression, dominant caste artists are able to mask their participation in hierarchies of violence. They profit from the exploitation of marginalized people two-fold: through creating and maintaining the conditions of exploitation that retain their generational power and capital, and aestheticizing marginalized experience to gain social capital through their art. In addition to co-opting the struggle of caste-oppressed people, many non-Black South Asian artists also profit off of their cultural appropriation of Black music, language, and visuals.

South Asian artists like Raja Kumari embody an affluent diasporic identity that enables casteism, cultural appropriation, and Hindu nationalism. Raja Kumari’s visuals and lyrics are ridden with dominant-caste pride, and her success is inseparable from the position of social power she was born into. Despite this, she continues to obscure her class, institutional power, and diaspora privilege by repeatedly (mis)positioning herself as belonging to a dispossessed people. When Raja Kumari raps: “Got love from the soil/ Bloodline is royal/ Bloodline is loyal/ You took it from us, still nothin like me/ What you didn't build/ You will never destroy” (from Bindis and Bangles), she suggests her ancestry’s supposed connection with the land and implies that what her ancestors built was taken from them. But what did her ancestors build that wasn’t on the backs of Dalit labor, that wasn’t reliant upon the subjugation of others? What meaningful relationship to labor could Raja Kumari, a Brahmin woman of self-proclaimed “royal bloodline,” possibly have?

Screenshot via "Bindis and Bangles" video

In her book Land and Caste, Dharma Kumar details how “Brahmins could not cultivate [their own] lands (and indeed probably could not even supervise the work of the 'slaves', who were not only untouchable but practically unseeable.)” According to Kumar, to many savarnas, caste-oppressed people constitute a labor force that they would never recognize, interact, or associate themselves with, and are therefore unknowable and “unseeable.”

If non-dominant caste people are indeed unseeable for many dominant caste artists, how then can they construct our realities in art? What it ultimately looks like is a disrespectful guessing game of what our culture is and how it operates.

Take for example the “Enjoy Enjami” video.

In zir article unpacking the aesthetics of “Enjoy Enjaami,” Rachelle Bharathi Chandran questions the choice to depict Arivu, a Dalit singer, holding (what seems to be) an African sceptre. Chandran asks, “why is the symbolism of African tradition associated with Arivu when Dhee sports a modern South Indian aesthetic? If the intention was to show him as a king, then the symbol for Tamil kings has always been the keeridam (crown), not sceptre or val (sword).”

Image via "Enjoy Enjaami" video

For me, Arivu’s depiction, heavily contrasted to Dhee’s, is the failed attempt of savarnas trying to portray what they imagine caste-oppressed existence to look like: something distinctly exotic, unfamiliar, something “not Indian.”  To them, caste-oppressed existence is something so un-relatable it is more readily imagined as foreign than it is Indigenous. The conflation of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi aesthetics with African aesthetics reflect their un-seeability through the savarna gaze, which will never recognize the unique humanity and cultures of outcaste groups.

This conflation is also part of a larger rhetorical trend of creating false parallels between the oppression of non-Black caste-oppressed people and the oppression faced by Black people globally and in South Asia. This type of rhetoric is harmful and anti-Black, especially as Siddi (or Sheedi) and other Afro-Asian people continue to face severe discrimination in South Asia at the hands of non-Black South Asians, including caste-oppressed South Asians. Recognizing the different ways our identities are made invisible makes these lyrics from “Enjoy Enjami” even more disturbing:

“Across the river banks and on the fertile fields, our forefathers have sung through their life. The lakes and ponds belong to the dogs, foxes, and cats too.”

Whose forefathers? By blurring the social distinction between land-owning dominant caste savarna existence and that of caste-oppressed laborers, savarnas stand to gain greater legitimacy over their ownership and belonging to the land. It’s frustrating to me that Dhee, a Brahmin woman belonging to the diaspora, is able to sing about the land belonging to foxes, cats, and other animals while conveniently omitting the social reality of how the laborers who cultivate the land remain landless and continue to be exploited. Ultimately, Arivu’s narrative of caste oppression and dispossession is sidelined to make room for Dhee’s message of “coming together” with nature.

Dhee’s role in the video is further emblematic of savarna fantasies of cultural and material possession. Towards the end of the music video, she sings “my sea, (my) river bank, (my) forest, (my) people, (my) lands, (my) pond, (my) place, and (my) path” as her hand looms over the hand of a unnamed, faceless laborer. Her light-skinned, manicured gold-ringed fingers are contrasted against his. We know nothing of the laborer whose hand she covers with her own, and soon the scene pans to Dhee sitting on a throne.

The lack of self-awareness in dominant-caste South Asian artists is evident in how they co-opt marginalized existence to build their careers. They will never understand how our grandmothers’ spines twist from the weight of labor, why their calloused hands are marked with scars, the decades of aches settled in their hips and knees, or how their health conditions go undiagnosed and untreated until they die on average 14 years sooner than dominant-caste women.

How could they possibly understand? Those who proudly declare they are twice-born, royal, too spiritually pristine to do the “dirty” labor of working the land will also praise the lush abundance of the land they continue to desecrate. They will fetishize back-breaking labor while lavishing in the profits it brings them. While doing all this, they will claim these struggles as their own, this land as their own, these people as their own.