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Cast(e)ing Music

3d
Utharakalam Admin

Sruthi Herbert
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3D Stereo Caste is a short documentary on caste thoroughly rooted in reality. Short. Precise.Sharp. Hard-hitting. This documentary shows how caste operates in the field of music – a field that has not seen a lot of debates and discussions in Kerala. And for that reason, it can be expected to ruffle a few feathers. Explicitly political, it seamlesslessly interweaves several facets of caste discrimination into one coherent narrative.
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Many years ago, when we were tiny tots who were taken for dance classes on Sundays, mom would whether she could join the violin classes. The old brahmin ‘maami’ draped in silk, oozing with kindness, asked her name. ‘Mary’, said mom. The teacher replied ever so kindly, ‘but this is classical music you see. Carnatic Music is pure music – that’s what we teach here’. Mom never bothered to enquire again. She still recounts this story with bitterness.

Of course as tiny tots who were learning classical Carnatic music, our brahmin music teacher never took us for an ‘arangettam’, neither did she ever encourage us to learn music despite not being so bad at singing. One day she told us not to come. We tried learning in one brahmin sabha but the place was reeking so much with casteism that we left in less than a year, and that is where music lessons ended for me.

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Of course as tiny tots who were learning classical Carnatic music, our brahmin music teacher never took us for an ‘arangettam’, neither did she ever encourage us to learn music despite not being so bad at singing. One day she told us not to come. We tried learning in one brahmin sabha but the place was reeking so much with casteism that we left in less than a year, and that is where music lessons ended for me.

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3D Stereo Caste is a short documentary on caste thoroughly rooted in reality. Short. Precise.Sharp. Hard-hitting. This documentary shows how caste operates in the field of music – a field that has not seen a lot of debates and discussions in Kerala. And for that reason, it can be expected to ruffle a few feathers. Explicitly political, it seamlesslessly interweaves several facets of caste discrimination into one coherent narrative.

For those who have never pondered on the workings of caste in music, the documentary throws open some interesting perspectives: how the non-classical lower-caste music (what mostly goes as ‘folk’ music) is considered a special ‘sub-heading’ of music, separate and different from ‘pure’ (read upper caste) music. It also shows how dalit practitioners of ‘classical’ forms of music are systematically excluded from the domain of acceptability and respectability – by ousting them from the hallowed centres of learning of the performing arts – the kalamandalam, from the hallowed venue of performances – the state youth festival (incidentally, one that claims to be the largest in asia), and from the domain of fame and talent. It makes you wonder about what constitutes musical ‘talent’ and ‘merit’,

Suddenly, once sees violence in a different light. Suddenly the famous performers – Njeralath and Yesudas can be seen committing violence through their music and their understanding of music. And the music instructor who first forces a dalit student to drop out and later confesses that he has a family to look after and he cannot disobey the higher-ups – he seems to be one of the most violent people in the narrative. Can he be as naive? Can he claim to be just another cog in the wheel? The condemnation that the gestapo begot at the Nuremberg trials, and the dismissal of the argument that they were merely taking orders and couldnt afford to disobey superiors – will similar things ever happen with this music teacher? Will he and several other practitioners of caste who claim innocence for being merely cogs in the wheel ever be convicted?

Praseetha’s take on folk music stands in stark contrast to the take of exponents of classical music on folk music. A classical musician laments the dalits discarding their ‘naturality’ and opting for ‘unnatural’ western and african kind of dressing. Praseetha says simple powerful words that translates into a strong protest against the romanticization of dalit music and dalit bodies. Against a romanticiztion that simultaneously includes processes of assimilation and exclusion of the ‘lower- caste’ music. (In the domain outside music, Gandhi’s naming of dalits as ‘Harijan’ being another oft- cited example of assimilation while maintaining exclusion). One sees how the organic nature of music is imprisoned by caste: in two ways. Firstly, by the respectability and superiority demanded by classical forms of music that are disciplined and learnt through a disciplined process, and secondly, by discipling folk music through romanticization and exclusion.

How brilliant Ajith and team, that you have exposed so subtly and yet so starkly, the violence in the ‘understanding’ of music. And how this violence translates to violence of the right to have dignity of life – by shattering hopes, denigrating artistic worth, and denying respectability and recognition. Many oft-repeated themes in dalit articulation is clearly visible here too: the construction of a casteist merit. And suicide. Lets not forget Peringode Chandran, the percussionist for whom humiliation and being denied to perform after being invited left him with thoughts of suicide.

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