The horrific massacre of a Dalit family two months ago at Kherlanji. The excruciating social boycott of Dalits in Kadakol for the past four months because they ‘dared’ to take water directly from the village tank (rather than have two intermediate caste representatives pouring water for them, as they have done for centuries). Neither story made the front pages of our national newspapers.
In the midst of it all, Karnataka celebrated its Suvarna Karnataka Rajyothsava (as I’ve said elsewhere, the State’s golden jubilee celebrations), and over this weekend, I finally managed to read The Hindu’s special issue for the occasion. In it, the first article was by Gangubai Hangal, one of the most extraordinary musicians I have ever had the privilege to hear. In a concert we organised in college, over ten years ago, I remember her voice exploding within and without me, making my fanciful imagination feel that it was capable of bringing the house down, in many more ways than one. What power, I had thought then. What unbridled, untrammeled, ecstatic power.
And yet, the story she told in ‘The Golden Song’ (Gangubai Hangal, The Hindu’s Suvarna Karnataka special issue, Pp 4-8, November 1, 2006) moved me beyond the music. Two stories. One of her mother’s, and the other, of her own.
I was born in pre-Independent India, a period when caste discrimination was rampant. Shukravarapete in Dharwad was a locality full of Brahmins. Even now it’s an area dominated by them. My mother, Ambabai, a devout woman, was conscious of this caste factor, and lived a low profile, quiet life. I still remember how one afternoon an old Brahmin mendicant came to our house asking for water. My mother was in a dilemma. She explained the predicament to him and he remarked, “Does water have a caste? Please give me water to drink…” and my mother duly gave him water and a piece of jaggery. He blessed my mother and left. But my mother reeled under the shock of having given water to an upper caste man and was gripped by fears of social ostracisation for many days to come.
The incident reminds me of another from my own life. I was a young girl and faced a similar predicament right under the nose of the iconic figure who strived to abolish untouchability from this country. It was the Belgaum Congress of 1924 and the Mahatma was to grace the occasion. I was thrilled that I was going to sing before Gandhiji, but also scared stiff that I would be asked to clear all the plantain leaves after lunch, as I belonged to one of the lower castes. I sang. Gandhiji came up to me and blessed me. Pandit Sawai Gandharva was impressed too. On the one hand I was overjoyed by their appreciation, but on the other, I was paralysed by the worst fears. I quietly walked up to my teacher and asked him if I had to sit separately for lunch and clear the leaves. He held me close, and said: “Nothing of the kind, don’t worry…”
They were difficult times. But I’m grateful to music in more than one way. It gave me a unique identity and pushed all other identities to the background.
I wonder what Amartya Sen might say about that; perhaps he needs ‘Identity and Violence - Part 2. What I surprisingly missed out in Part 1‘. There’s much to be grateful for, in that Gangubai Hangal could survive the inherent pain of her genealogy through the genius of her music, but others of more mundane identities and lives continue to struggle with the violence implicitly - and very much explicitly - still alive in the caste system. Caste… untouched?