By Siddhesh Gautam
My identity was defined before I was born, way before my father was born, and way before my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather were born. Some say that my identity was defined when the universe was taking shape.
Being brought up in a progressive family, no one ever uttered the word Dalit until my parents lost control over my upbringing and I was allowed to go out with friends. It was during my seventh grade when I participated in my first discussion about caste with my friends the word first came up. When asked about my caste, I replied that I’m a Brahmin. No one could identify my caste-based upon my surname as my surname was misleading. My surname was also a Brahmin surname in many parts of the country.
My parents had taught me that the learned one is a Brahmin, the warrior is a Kshatriya, the businessmen are Vaishyas and the servants are Shudra.
I always thought of myself as a Brahmin, I don’t know why, maybe because I never had an urge to fight or earn a lot of money and who wants to be someone’s servant? I was in school. I scored good marks l. I could speak in English, not perfectly, but better than everyone else in my class. I had nice clothes. My skin color was fair. I smelled okay. I was definitely a Brahmin.
And so they believed me. Returning home, I realized I had made some assumptions. It could be a lie. I may or may not be Brahmin. After all, my friend Sandeep is a Kshatriya, even though I’d never seen him fight. I could be a Kshatriya too. And what if I am a Shudra? I was terrified by this thought. I waited eagerly for my father to return from his job so that I could ask my caste. That’s the day I found out.
Chamars do not belong to any of the four Castes. They are out-castes. They are untouchable. Their traditional occupation was shoe-making and leather-works. I knew nothing about repairing shoes. Or leather. For a very large part of my life, I had never discussed my caste or any one’s else caste. For that matter, I had never polished shoes, not even my own.
So for a long time thereafter I chose to call myself a Brahmin. But the truth of my life is that I will always be a Chamar: when I wake up in the morning I am a Chamar, laying in bed at night I’m a Chamar, walking down the street in the sunlight or in the rain, I am a Chamar. This is what I am. This is what defines me.
The Story Of 21st-Century Dalits
After centuries of struggle, today we can stand on grounds that were once forbidden to us. After going through many reform movements since the 15th Century, we have learned and developed ourselves through trials and errors. But, while trying to break through the shackles of Brahminical society, we have withdrawn ourselves from many arts and crafts which once were our hereditary intellectual property. On the bright side, many of us have also stopped doing menial jobs which are not just unhygienic but also hazardous.
Even today, we have modern forms of untouchability that continue to affect us: our women continue to be framed as witches; thereby ensuring that their families are socially ostracized in the village. Often, top officials who are Dalits are insulted and humiliated with caste slurs. There are consistent and systemic cases made against our people in government employment. The antagonism against us is very much prevalent in schools too. Our children are discriminated against when it comes to mid-day meals and getting access to clean toilets. Students in the higher educational institutes and universities are taunted by the upper caste for not being deserving enough to study in esteemed institutions.
Despite the laws that protect us and the reservation system which consists of a series of measures, such as reserving access to seats in the various legislatures, to government jobs, and to enrolment in higher educational institutions, perception of mis-entitlement, undeservedness, unbelonging, continues to plague us at each step
My Voice, Our Voice
My story is not just my own but of 300 million Dalit lives spread throughout the globe. It is not just my noise, it is the voice of all those underprivileged families who have only just now been allowed the opportunities of education and social mobility to get educated and are ready to choose the career of their choice.
For me, to be a Dalit in the current century is to suffer social oppression and discrimination and incessantly fight and question the same oppressive social system and order. To win this war, the only armour I can claim is education and willingness to bring about change. And even this, we must all do this in our own broken way.
My artworks are not self-centered scribbles but an aesthetic commentary of the unexpressed and suppressed thoughts of those who were oppressed.
My art is neither propaganda nor a manifesto of some ideology. It is neither an obituary nor a celebration of a community. It is neither aggressive nor submissive in nature. It is neither liberal nor conservative in ideology. It is neither complete nor incomplete. My art is a reflection of the grey areas. And, we humans all live in the grey areas, don't we?
Siddhesh Gautam is a multi-discipline, mixed-media artist, designer, His work is a personification of his personal spiritual journey.
He hopes to inspire a deeper connection between people through visual art. His work is meant to challenge preconceptions, expand mindsets, honor the sacred, and evoke feelings of adventure, exploration, and deep spiritual connection.
This article is part of our Genderlogue Series
TLP Genderlogues: Personal, Provocative. Raw. Unfiltered
The Genderlogues offer a glimpse into the lives of underrepresented communities and experiences. Take a small existential journey. Walk the paths of the world in someone else’s shoes. Consider the view. #HelloFromTheOtherSide