Nithham ‘Vaanam’ Neela Niram: The Sky is Always Blue - A Month-long Celebration of Dalit History Month in Chennai

The Oscar-winning movie Gandhi, funded by the Indian Government in 1982 never had even a mention of Ambedkar. The amount of challenges and limitations Ambedkar faced not only while alive but also after death, in fact, till today only tells us how important of a personality he is, who can single-handedly drive a mass revolution leading to the downfall of the oppressive dominant structures.
Nithham ‘Vaanam’ Neela Niram: The Sky is Always Blue - A Month-long Celebration of Dalit History Month in Chennai

Chennai- ‘Vaanam’- The pompous celebration of Dalit History Month in Chennai organized by Neelam Books and Publications, Neelam Cultural Centre, and Neelam Productions, which began on 5th April, concluded on 30th April 2024.

In Tamil, there's a saying, “Yannai than balam ariyathu,” which means "an elephant doesn't know its strength." The idea is that once the elephant realizes its power, everything will change.

The saying suggests that once the elephant recognizes its own power, it can transform everything. This reflects how oppressors often rely on keeping the oppressed unaware of their strength, making them seem vulnerable and invisible.

In a casteist society, Dalits often have their strength and abilities overlooked, with their vulnerability and suffering being emphasized instead. An individual with his independent lonely voice stood up for them and showed them what their strength was.

Chennai woke up on the birthday month of this legendary visionary Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and celebrated Dalit History Month by not highlighting their pain and vulnerability but by celebrating their life, history, and culture.

Dalit culture, although rich in every way, has been looked down upon by the dominant Brahminical culture, establishing their cultural hegemony in society for centuries.

Gramsci’s cultural hegemony states that the ruling class frames and imposes the culture and ideology by laying down their own values, norms, and beliefs to maintain socio-cultural hegemony. This worldview is readily accepted as common sense, considered legitimate, and is institutionalized by family, religion, education, and law. Gradually this hierarchy comes to take the shape of hegemony and becomes normalized in society.

This applies to Indian casteist society, where Brahmanical ideologies have historically dominated the discourses of all institutions, and the pseudo-common sense shaped by them has become prevalent. It can be dismantled only with the rise of truth by the creation of counter-discourses and counter-culture, what Gramsci calls ‘counter-hegemony’.

‘Neelam’ as a cultural entity through its activities is creating strides of counter-culture in society. One such event is the Celebration of Dalit History Month in April, the birth month of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It is a month-long celebration of Dalit culture in the forms of cinema, art, and literature. It is the voice of counter-hegemony.

The month-long celebration is called ‘Vaanam,’ meaning ‘Sky’ (the symbol of equality). As the name suggests, Vaanam is the sky of art events advocating for liberty, equality, fraternity, and social justice.

The celebration began by finding the roots through the Dalit history exhibition, setting the tone of representation right at the PK Rosy Film Festival, archiving the Dalit emotions through the Niththam Photography Exhibition, bringing the untold oral tradition history through plays in the Dhamma Theatre Festival, displaying Dalit life and skills through Dalit Art and Aesthetics Exhibition and exhibiting the hidden truth and forgotten richness of Dalit literature through Verchol Dalit Literary Festival.

Neelam orchestrates this revolution in society under the leadership of social visionary Pa. Ranjith. This counter-cultural endeavor shakes the pseudo-common sense constructed historically and structurally.

At the inauguration of the event, Stephan Jayaseelan, a researcher, highlighted the historical neglect of Dalit lives and the glorification of Brahminical lives by hiding essential facts of early Brahminical culture of consuming meat, animal sacrifices, and so on for which Dalit culture has been degraded by them today.

Unquestionably society accepted everything written by them like the Vedic chaturvarnya system. These are shreds of evidence of pseudo-knowledge written down and percolated into society- ‘the pseudo-commonsense’. As Vasugi Bhaskar says in the context of the Black versus White binary, “constant socialization in a particular cultural context normalizes discriminatory practices.

To bring in cultural and attitudinal changes, cultural efforts are needed” he says, “like cultural movements, cultural exhibitions,” which become the arenas of change by putting out the counter-narrative. Pa. Ranjith echoed this sentiment by calling for an understanding of history and cultural roots to drive change.

He emphasizes the significance of phrases like “Jai Bhim” and says, “For some people, it has always been a mockery, but for us, it's revolutionary.” He looks at the roots of Dalit culture and traces it to Buddhism and says “Our history is the history of non-violence, of equality.” Such histories have been marginalized for ages and Neelam calls one and all to learn and celebrate this hidden history through Vaanam.

Here at Vaanam, they say we derive inspiration from Black culture and resistance, from movements like #BlackLivesMatter and build on #DalitLivesMatter and also create awareness about #DalitCultureMatters.

Inauguration of ‘Curve‘ Dalit Art and Aesthetics Exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi, Greams Road, Chennai.
Inauguration of ‘Curve‘ Dalit Art and Aesthetics Exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi, Greams Road, Chennai.

Cinema and culture go hand in hand

Giving tribute to the first female Dalit heroine in vernacular languages PK Rosy, the PK Rosy film festival showcased important films and documentaries on social justice, encompassing larger themes like religion, feminism, resistance, race, caste, power dynamics, and whatnot.

The systematic ignorance of Dalit life has not just been limited to literature but films as well. Pa Ranjith speaks of how directors only show the life of Gramas where Savarnas live and ignore Cheris where Dalit culture thrives. This, he argues, perpetuates the enslavement to Brahminical hegemonic normalization.

Dr. Biju pointed out that “even when Dalit representation is present, it tends to be stereotypical,” revealing the dichotomy between Brahminical high culture and Dalit low culture.

When films questioning such casteist stereotypes are made, of course, society raises questions on why make films on caste. For which Jayakumar answers with a counter question, “Why shouldn’t I?” About 13 such films across multiple languages that broke these stereotypes like Ambanjipetta Marriage Band, Writing with Fire, etc were played at the film festival challenging the so-called dominant prejudices and preconceptions.

Art was another important element in the package of Vaanam. The Niththam Photography Exhibition and the Dalit Art and Aesthetics Exhibition celebrated the daily lives of Dalits through their art. Some artists were self-taught, emphasizing how art is inherently intertwined with Dalit life and culture.

Pa. Ranjith's statement, "Dalits are artists naturally," underscores this connection. This aligns with Gramsci’s organic intellectuals, where he says every social group naturally produces organic intellectuals, where knowledge organically comes to them and they create resistance and counter-culture using that knowledge.

Neelam is an organization of organic intellectuals who have built themselves and presented their voices through photographs, art, plays, cinema, and literature.

Bourdieu calls them the ‘new intellectuals’. Through photography and art exhibitions, the artists here are bringing the ‘taste’ of Ambedkarite ideology into the everydayness of Dalit life.

Themes like the everyday life of Dalits, folklore, folk art, ecological relationship, their nature of coexistence, the lives of Dalit women and children, Dalit labor, skills, sufferings, and resistance were all reflected. Artist Chandru, who was awarded ‘The Verkoduga Art Award 2024’ at the Dalit Art and Aesthetics festival, is an art intellectual with style and strong ideology countering the artists who do not voice out against the odds of society.

His art speaks for social justice in line with what Picasso once said, “Art won’t be serving beauty anymore. Art will serve justice and truth”.

Adding to the list of these organic intellectuals are the literary scholars whose list is never-ending. At the Verchol Dalit literary festival, Neelam honored veteran intellectual scholar Bama with the Verchol Dalit Literary Award 2024. Several important minds participated in the discussions on Dalit life, culture, literature, history, etc at the Verchol Dalit Literary Festival.

Literature has always been a one-sided narrative. Many speakers discussed the one-sided narrative of literature, highlighting how literary language has historically privileged elite communities and marginalized Dalit voices. Dalit literature, often rejected for its oral and non-traditional forms, has been sidelined from mainstream discourse.

But, knowledge in any form must be accepted, be it oral or traditional history. There was a panel discussion on Stories of Indigenous people where discussion about myths and counter myths happened where many renowned speakers like Indiran, Muthupandi, Nada. Sivakumar spoke about how Dalit deities in villages like Isakkiamma, Mariamma, Sudalaimadan all are ‘kolayil uthirtha deivangal’ meaning ‘Gods emerging out of murders’.

They spoke about how myths are created in the mainstream and how it is important to use radical and critical thought to decode these myths and also create radical counter-myths and state the true historical oral stories of Dalits. Such oral stories and deities became important in society, and the Brahminical order has tried and appropriate such deities into their Brahminical fold by Hinduizing them.

That is where Dalits lost the hold over what they owned since times immemorial. Stalin Rajangam rightly points out, “Dalits were not sidelined because they lost a war/battle, but because they lost their narrative and stories.

We need to understand the layers in the stories in discussion during current times, to understand the structural discrimination”. Dalits always had rich cultural and knowledge systems which were robbed by the dominant orders and were put to the so-called purification and later Brahminical ownership.

While quoting from her own research writer Kavitha stated how Dalits have been the skilled persons historically who indulged in various occupations. She called for research on traditional skills, technology, and knowledge of science possessed by Dalits.

Colonial science and Brahmanical knowledge have always formed the basis of research today. There is no space for Dalit’s skills and knowledge. Dalits have always been portrayed as genetically less intellectual by the brahmanically constructed pseudo-common sense. Colonial records have also done no justice for Dalits.

With the already existing discrimination, colonizers further added to the layers of discrimination for their gains. With very few leaders fighting for the rights of the Dalits, the Dalit cause always took a back seat. However, great men like Phule and Ambedkar stood their ground firm. Dr. Ambedkar has been a guiding light for Dalits. But his literature has also been structurally ignored.

While speaking at the literary festival, Asok Varthan said, “A silent conspiracy to erase Ambedkar from public memory began in 1956 onwards to the 1990s when he was conferred Bharat Ratna (very late). School books never had his name or just a name. None of his books on socio-economic justice, etc made it into an intellectual syllabus in colleges".

"When I was a student, I never had any books about Ambedkar in my school and college library. The Oscar-winning movie Gandhi, funded by the Indian Government in 1982 never had even a mention of Ambedkar. No story of Gandhi or Ambedkar would be complete without a reference to each other… In my opinion, as an intellectual Ambedkar was way above his political contemporaries” recalled Asok Varthan.

The amount of challenges and limitations Ambedkar faced not only while alive but also after death, in fact, till today only tells us how important of a personality he is, who can single-handedly drive a mass revolution leading to the downfall of the oppressive dominant structures. These situations persist and Ambedkar’s followers aim to stand strong, resist, and fight for the right cause.

While fighting for the right cause, there have always been limitations in Dalit assertions. When asked about limitations, Pa. Ranjith succinctly expresses, “A Dalit life itself is a limitation. He/she is first told what not to do”. Untouchability remains a pervasive menace, governing the lives of Dalits even today.

During the panel discussion at the Niththam photography exhibition, journalist Jeyarani said, “Every village is a war zone. When the caste crimes overlooked by mainstream media, are reported by me, people say my reporting is not neutral. How can I go ask an unresponsive upper-caste person about the caste crime? How can there be neutrality in crime reporting?” she asks.

This discussion shows us the biases existing in media when reporting caste issues. Despite facing numerous challenges, reporters like Jeyarani go ahead and report the unreported.

Indian society has always been dichotomous with Savarnas dominating the majority of the spheres of society and oppressing the Avarnas- the Dalits. But the Dalits are the resistors of time.

They own up to their identities and assert their politics and their culture. Like Pa Ranjith aptly notes, “When a voice comes from a Dalit, it's not ‘identity politics’ it's ‘cultural politics’”.

Here you see the three gems emphasized by Ambedkar time and again- ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize’ have been put to practice.

Individuals advocating for education and those educated across various fields come together under the Blue Banner of Neelam to celebrate, resist, agitate, and create a counter-culture. While some may label their debates and discourses as rebellious and deem them as rebels or deviants, they are, in fact, revolutionaries, democrats, constitutionalists, and Ambedkarites, advocating for liberty, equality, fraternity, and social justice.

- The Authors Apeksha Singegol and Sindu Deivanayagam are Research Scholars in Sociology at the Centre for Research, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore.

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