Image via Rajendra Puli

Dalit Aesthetics and the Pursuit of Happiness

Even though I grew up in a mixed-caste family in which we knew about our father’s Dalit identity, I came to fully embrace and celebrate my identity during graduate theological education. Still, I am a Dalit who was not steeped in Dalit culture and tradition. So, the question of Dalit aesthetics — the cultural symbols, patterns, impulses, stories, and memories — has become quite personal for me in the larger collective pursuit of Dalit happiness.

There are published Dalit writings that positively describe Dalit cultural roots and material realities. I've enjoyed reading books like Roja Singh’s Spotted Goddesses and Joshua Samuel’s Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, and Liberation . Therefore, my intention in raising the question of Dalit aesthetics is not to note the lack thereof. Rather, my intention is to name something that some of us Dalits might be exploring in our own personal lives as we seek to celebrate ourselves, our people, and our culture.

When so many of our symbols have been sidelined by casteist, mainstream representations, excavating their beauty is not a straightforward process. Such excavation, nevertheless, can be part of the pursuit of happiness for Dalits.

My sense of happiness arising from Dalit aesthetics stems from a childhood memory that has to do with a Dalit beat — the sound made by a Dalit drum, which is called by many names. We call it parai in the Tamil language. The beat of the parai — one that I love making — makes me move joyfully.

I must have been in elementary school when I was in the kitchen with my Dalit grandmother, Devasitham, in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. I began to drum a beat on the metal door that led to the backyard. It was the Dalit beat. I vividly remember my grandmother smiling because it made her happy as well. As I was talking to my brother about this recently, we reminisced about how the Dalit beat must have reminded my grandmother about her son (our uncle) who also could drum a good Dalit rhythm. There was so much happiness in that one moment.

A joyful Dalit drumming scene that I keep returning to is one at a Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney, Australia, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. A Dalit drummer comes into a circle at the site of the protest, starts drumming, and a joyful dance erupts. The joy in this moment reminded me of the joy that I have when hearing the Dalit beat and watching how it unites others.

But this moment was such a sharp contrast to what Dalit drumming is often associated with in India. You see, while my grandmother was happy and proud of me in that moment when I was drumming, there was also some embarrassment. While Dalits have historically used the parai in festivals and celebrations, in the dominant caste imagination, the parai is often associated with death; Dalit drummers are often called upon by dominant caste persons to play at their funerals. In other words, the parai's place in the dominant imagination is one that has to do with grief and death, not joy and life. I am not introducing a rigid binary here — grief and death are part of the cycle of life and musical often accompanies such human experiences. If the parai, however, is associated more with death and less with life, then there is a problem.

When I hear the beat of the parai, I might choose to remember death, but I should also be free to remember life. Smiles, dancing that unites people across differences, and shouts of joy are impulses generated by the parai. Dalits can reclaim such Dalit symbols and aesthetics. Such reclamation gains strength by channeling what’s already present. In Dalit cinematic representations, for example, Dalit drumming and dancing are often portrayed as life-giving.

Other efforts have also centered Dalit aesthetics. Theologian James Theophilus Appavoo, affectionately called Parattai, incorporated the parai, among other things, in Christian singing. Until then, Christian songs did not centrally feature Dalit symbols. Zoe Sherinian’s book, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology, is a tribute to Appavoo’s field-changing work with Dalit aesthetics.

While good work has been done in this regard, I am simultaneously interested in the ways in which Dalit aesthetics might be reclaimed in our own personal lives. Reclamation of Dalit aesthetics in our personal lives is generative in the pursuit of happiness.

Dalit critic Sharankumar Limbale, in his book, Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature, argued rightly that “there cannot be a general concept of beauty.” Part of my pursuit of happiness lies in reclaiming symbols and memories. They are often scattered or fragmentary but still powerful and moving. Celebrating Dalit aesthetics might begin with Dalits simply asking, what are things that make us happy and who and what are we connecting with? For me, it is my memory of me drumming a Dalit beat and seeing my grandmother smile. What is it for you?