Volume 5 : Cover Topic - Contemporary Indian Cinema Society & Culture (4)




We Are Not Your Monkeys: Critical Appraisal of a Collaborative Aesthetic

Nandini Dhar

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In the Dalit Panthers Manifeto issued in Bombay in 1973, a caste and class informed analysis of the Indian society was put forward. The Manifesto clearly stated, ‘‘Because the state machinery is dominated by feudal interests, the same hands who, for thousands of years, under religious sanctions, controlled all the wealth and power, today own most of the agricultural land, industry, economic resources and all other instruments of power, therefore, in spite of independence and the democratic set-ups the problems of the Dalits remain unsolved’’. The manifesto further stated. ‘‘To eradicate untouchability, all the land will have to be redistributed. Ageold customs and scriptures will have to be destroyed and new ideas inculcated. […] We must pay attention to the objective process of social development and make an historical analysis of the power that imprisons the Dalit and which has succeeded in making him tie his own hands’’. What is interesting in this Manifesto is the attempt to forge a relationship between social transformation and the reinterpretation of the cultural ethos and texts which have justified and reinforced the caste and class oppression of the Dalits. As the Manifesto points out, one of the central tasks of such socio-cultural reconstruction is the analysis of social structures of power from a caste-informed prespective, which then leads to the creation of new forms of social knowledge. The question here is, what forms will such acts of knowledge-production assume? Can the creation of aesthetic texts be considered as acts of knowledge production?

While the answers to such questions can be complicated, it is important to remember that in the last three decades the act of creating a caste-informed system of knowledge has encompassed the creation of cultural texts. Dalit autobiographies, Dalit short-stories and novels, and Dalit testimonial writings, often produced within the orbits of activist organizations, have succeeded to a certain extent in making caste oppression in India visible, as well as its intersection with other forms of oppression, such as class, gender and religion. In the Preface to his autobiography, Joothan, Valmiki Omprakash writes, ‘‘Dalit-jeeban ki piraye asahaniya aur anubhab-dagdha hain. Aise anubhab jo sahityik abhibyaktiyon mein sthan nahin pa sakein. Ek aisi samaj-babushka mein hamne sas li hain, jo behad krur aur amanabiyo hain. Daliton ke prati asambedanshil bhi’’. For Omprakash, the violence of caste oppression and its ensuring trauma has been predominantly left out from canonical Indian literatures. Omprakash's statement underlines the fact that the social and material violence committed on Dalit bodies is reinforced by the absences of such traumas from the representational realm of literature and other cultural forms. The primary task of a Dalit aesthetic, then, is to bring the histories of these violences into the realm of representation, as well as the history of resistance to such violence.

This raises the question of whether film and visual media be considered an useful mode through which one can speak of the caste violence in India. How does one represent the history of material violences done to Dalit bodies in terms of visual images? What are the roles of the non-Dalit individuals and groups within such a process of the creation of a cinematic text? It is in this context Anand Patwabardhan's short documentary We Are Not Your Monkeys becomes especially significant in terms of answering some of the questions.

It is not that the mainstream Indian cinema has been blind to the issues of the representation of caste. Two films, released in the recent years, immediately come to mind – Lajja (2001) and Lagaan (2002). As a film, Lajja can be categorized as a ‘‘women-centered film’’, a popular genre both within and outside of Bollywood in India. As a film, Lajja foregrounds the question of women's agency and its central narrative is built upon the interconnected life-stories of four women, each of whom belongs to a different social location in terms of their class/caste identity. All the four women possess names which literally mean ‘‘Sita’’. Thus, the women within the film embody, in different ways, the gender ideologies which the character of Sita is supposed to represent within the epic. One of the four fragments is devoted RamDulari, the lower-caste woman who by her sheer resilence and hard work has succeeded to achieve some kind of an upward mobility and better living standards for her family and herself. While, one can question the act of equalizing the question of Ram Dulari's social location with that of other middle-class, upper-caste women within the film and term such a narrative strategy as a form of appropriation of the lower-caste woman's agency, that is not where the biggest problem of the film lies. RamDulari, in the last resort, gets raped and killed by the local zamindar's men because of a sexual-conjugal relationship between her son and the landlord's daughter. The sequence of the rape continues on screen for minutes, RamDulari's battered, wounded and abused body satisfies the pornographic gaze of both the director and the audience. The film, then, under the pretext of a liberatoryfeminist rhetoric reifies the stereotypes the society already harbours – the Dalit body, that can be easily abused, manhandled, tortured and ultimately dispensed off. The helpless Dalit woman who does not possess any agency and must be ultimately rescued.

In Lagaan, the caste-issue, although dealt with more care and skill, does not produce any different ideological impact, Kachra, the lower-caste man must be induced into the cricket team because it is a question of numbers and his token presence is important for the team and by a natural corollary, the nation. But he himself is the embodiment of deformity and as his name suggests, his presence is fairly useless and can be dispensed off at any point. True to his name, Kachra fails to achieve the goal, reiterating the popular stereotype once again that a lower-caste body is not only deformed but unproductive. And what can be more deforming than his caste identity itself ? So When we see We Are Not Your Monkeys, we have to keep in mind that it is not just the material history of caste oppression which this text sets out to resist. There is also a long history of representation of lower caste bodies which needs to be dealt with.

Produced in 1996, We Are Not Your Monkeys, can best be described as an act of collaboration between the Marathi Dalit poet Daya Pawar, the singer Sambhaji Bhagat and the filmmaker Anand Patwabardhan. In terms of its form, We Are Not Your Monkeys embarks upon a number of interesting terrains. On the one hand, the form of the music video, or, in Patwardhan's own word ‘‘activist MTV-clip’’ can lead us to a discussion of how the forms initially generated by the culture industry primarily for mass consumption can be appropriated in order to narrate a different story and to espouse a different political affiliation. On the other hand, the collaboration between two self-identified Dalit artists and Patwabardhan embodies a certain kind of aesthetic-political collaboration reminiscent of the tradition of the Latin American testimonios, or testimonials, which exhibited alliances between the Latin American activists and the First World scholars/anthropologists committed to social change. In a way, then, We Are Not Your Monkeys demonstrates an alliance between the Dalit artist-activists on the one hand, and the non-Dalit activistartist on the other, an alliance which also attempts to answer some of the questions regarding the role of the non-Dalits within a developing and emergent Dalit aesthetics.

Thematically, We Are Not Your Monkeys is a reinterpretation of the canonical narrative of Ramayana. The choice of the Ramayana as the core text for the basis of the reinterpretation is not an accident. While the music video, shot in 1996, reminds us of the loaded value which Ramayana as a text has within the contemporary political matrix of India, its sole purpose does not remain confined to a gentle reminder. Instead, it forces its spectators to confront a reinterpretative, revisionary text, which also enables a problematization and indictment of the contemporary Hindu fundamentalist deployment of the epic text. It might be useful in this context to examine the social-ideological nature of epic as a genre. According to George Lukacs, the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, ‘‘The epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual. It is traditionally thought that one of the essential characteristics of the epic is the fact that its theme is not a personal destiny but the destiny of a community. And rightly so, for the completeness, the roundness of the value system, which determines the epic cosmos creates a whole which is too organic for any part of it to become enclosed within itself, so dependent upon itself as an interiority – ie, to become a personality’’ [Theory of the Novel, 66]. The epic hero is therefore an individual who is one with his social world, who is non-alienated, and whose internal psychological world is in an one-to-one correspondence with the external social world he represents. His struggle over the narrative authority, in this case, is based upon a theoretical equalization of the epic space and the national space. The ‘epic space’ connotes an organic, interdependent community with the epic hero sharing an indissoluble bond with that community and embodying its values in a way that corroborates a complete identification of that individual with the collective destiny of its community. The epic provides a convenient allegorical model for the modern nation-state. The image of an organic epic community provides the cultural model for a homogenous national identity within the given territorial space of the nation-state. Such allegories of homogeneity do not allow the entry of any fissure within the body of community as such, and serves to naturalize any possible patterns/structures of hierarchy that might have been operative in maintaining such a symbolic homogeneity. So when the music video assumes the task of reinterpreting the epic, it is precisely that notion of homogeneity which it seeks to defamiliarize. Its primary task is to lay bare to the spectators not only the fissures within that projected national homogeneity, but to demonstrate how such homogeneities have been achieved through coercion and systemic violence.

The narrative of the music video is clearly divided into two sections – ‘‘The Other Sotry’’ and the second part called ‘‘We Are Not Your Monkeys’’. The first part attempts to provide a reinterpretation of the narrative of Ramayana through a critical-analytical lens, which seeks to place at its center the category of caste and thus provides a narrative which is a sharp vindication of the ideologies which justify and reinforce caste oppression throughout the entire gamut of the epic narrative. The video opens with a shot of the listening crowd and then swiftly moves towards Shambhji Bhagat, the singer who sits in the community courtyard with his fellow singers and musicians. While this sequence will remind the majority of the Indian aiduence of the folkloric forms of orature and music, for an audience more attuned to the practices of the conventional mass cultural music videos, it provides a sense of non-familiarity. The song is being performed communally, within a collective community space and thus associates the imperative of a politically revisionist narrative to be placed within a social-collective arena rather than being sung in the isolation of one's living room or the safety of a recording studio. Shambhaji's lead voice begins to sing in Marathi ‘‘The rulers who controlled all knowledge/ and claimed the Ramayana to be India's history/ and called us many names: ‘‘Demons’’, ‘‘Low-castes’’, ‘‘Untouchables’’. The lyrics of the song therefore, puts forward a number of important claims. One, the status of ‘‘history’’ accorded to Ramayana by the Hindu supremacy in India, two, the act of naming s an act of power and three, the relationship between material-social power and the power to produce knowledge and representations. Caste, as a category, therefore, does not remain a simplistic, uni-dimensional, unilinear phenomenon which can be erased and done away with a little bit of our goodwill. Rather, ‘‘caste’’ becomes a category which is complex and is often intermeshed in complex ways with the social-political hegemony in India and therefore, needs systemic attention in order to be eradicated or abolished. Almost simultaneously, the narrative of the lyric asserts, ‘‘Today we call ourselves ‘‘the Dalits’’, the oppressed’’ – the act of counter-naming as a market or selfempowerment.

The audience, then, is made to confront a narrative which is not as much a revision as it is an inversion of the standard narrative of the Ramayana. The lyricist, the singers and the musicians embark upon an act of explanation and explication. Explicating how Ram is not the hero as it has been claimed by the standard epic narrative. Rather, he is the conqueror, the imposter who imposes his presence on the indigenous, aboriginal communities who were living in the forests long before the Aryans came.

A careful listening to the lyrics of the song manifests the fact that the song is, after all, addressed to Ram, the protagonist of the epic himself. The pronouns ‘‘you’’ and ‘‘us’’ within the song, thus, breaks open the narrative of objectivity which almost always is an inherent element of any dominant historiography and social hegemony. Thus, if the song is an attempt to rewrite the history of India from a Dalit standpoint, then the cannonical Ramayana and the social institutions which legitimize such cannons are also indicative of an upper-caste, male historiography. The song explains that the much-vilified word for demon in the Ramayana, ‘‘rakshasha’’, is only a derivative of the word ‘‘rakshak’’ which means the protectors of the forest.

The attempt to explain the word-play becomes another attempt to explain the power inherent in the act of naming. As the song says, ‘‘Once the Aryans, on their horses invaded the land/then we, who were the natives/became the displaced/You became the God and we the Demons’’. Thus, the material act of land-acquisition is never enough, but always has to be accompanied by the cultural acts of representation. Within the narrative of the music-video, the song actually being sung by Shambhaji is interspersed with the images from the Ramayana.

The video narrative never spells out for us the sources of the images. But they are uniquitous in nature – they could have been from anywhere beginning from school textbooks to wall-caledars to the pages of the popular comic books. I will argue, it is this specific ubiquitous nature of the images which helps the audience to understand the pervasive nature of the dominant narrative of the epic and thus communicates to its audience the necessity of alternative knowledge production. This becomes especially compelling when the song says. ‘‘When Shambuka, the untouchable tried to gain knowledge/you beheaded him, Rama Re/ Thus did you crush those who tried to rise above their caste’’.

Knowledge and representation become extremely contested sites within the song. But what is to be remembered here is that the song narrative does not claim that caste oppression and violence rest purely on problematic representations. Rather, what the song tries to communicate to the audience is that the material acts of conquest and enslavement are always accompanied by representations which justify such material acts of violence and oppression. Thus, while the narrative finds the epic's representation of Hanuman as a monkey problematic, it does not claim that the representational act accompanied the material act of enslavement. ‘‘You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey/ Rama Re, you representative of Aryans/ You enslaved us to form a monkey army.’’

However, the materiality of the caste oppression becomes especially compelling as the video narrative begins to juxtapose images of labor along with the song. The images of laboring bodies enables the authors of the video to communicate to the audience the intersections of caste and class oppression in India. What is even more pertinent is the fact that the visual narrative encompasses several fragmented shots of contemporary urban India and locates the laboring bodies against such a contemporary urban landscape. This is especially significant in terms of the political message of the video, since it forces the spectator to confront the narrative claim that caste in India is neither a problem located in the past nor did the formal laws abolishing casteism succeed to eradicate the continuity of the caste oppression. Such a political message then easily facilitates the viewers’ transition to the second part of the video entitled ‘‘We Are Not Your Monkeys’’.

As the name suggests, the second part of the video is more specifically an attempt to chart out a history and trajectory of Dalit resistance. For the trio – the poet, the singer and the filmmaker, the history of the presence of the monkeys within the narrative of the epic is ideologically loaded. Not just does it suggest the attempt on the part of the Brahmanic and uppercaste supremacies to dehumanize the dalits within the representational realm, but it also suggests a history of submission and Dalit complicity within the project of the consolidation of the upper caste hierarchy and hegemony. As the song communicates in the earlier part of the essay, ‘‘Those you could not subjugate you deemed Rakshasas – demons’’. The narrative of the video, thus, tries to suggest that Dalit History must not be understood only as one of systemic oppression and victimization. There is also simultaneously a long history of resistance which then forms the basis of the contemporary Dalit movements.

In terms of its political content, the narrative of the video in this segment takes an important turn. The singer's voice says, ‘‘But poverty grew/ And to divert the poor from their real enemy/ a new enemy was found/ Muslims were caught/ in the pincers of Ayodhya/ and ‘were taught a lesson’’’. And as we hear these words the voice of Shambhaji Bhagat is once again juxtaposed with collages of newspaper coverages of the communal riots during the demolition of the Babri Masjid as well as the visuals of the demolitions itself. The singer's voice now informs the spectators, ‘‘To destroy Lanka, Rama Re, you formed us into a monkey army/ And today you want us – the working majority/ to form a new monkey army and attack the Muslims’’. While the political analysis presented here represents a standard Marxist interpretation in lots of ways, what is more interesting is the persistence of the narrator-singer's direct address to Ram. The Ramayanic upper-caste, male hegemony criticized earlier in the song is thus not just a representation, but becomes a persistent phenomenon of the material social reality.

The epic space becomes a metaphorical national space. In order for the process of the cultural defamiliarization of the national space to begin, one must also embark upon a process of the ideological problematization of the canonical epic social world. At the same time, the song presents an important ideological-political vantage point. Not only does the narrative now offer a critique of the upper-caste social hegemony, it also provides an important indictment of the Hindu social hegemony in India. At the same time, the narrative of the lyric creates an important statement of political agency. The reluctance and the refusal to be a ‘‘monkey’’ denotes a refusal to be a mercenary and thus, a refusal to be a part of a state-sponsored project. Such an act of refusal inherently makes the subject of the act a warrior committed towards social transformation and change. It is this important difference between a soldier and a warrior which the narrative forces its audience to confront as it says, ‘‘But remember and be warned,/ We will be monkeys no more/ We will sing songs of humanity/ And we will make you humans as well’’.

Simultaneously significant is the narrative's attempt to extend the meaning and significance of the term ‘‘Dalit’’. Earlier, in the first segment, the song refers to the instances of violence the upper-caste, male social world of the epic commits on the bodies of women. According to the lyrics of the song, ‘‘Through your Laws of Manu you trampled on the rights of women/ You made your wife, Sita, undergo the ordeal of fire to prove her chastity/ Such was your male law, Rama Re’’. This is in, lots of ways, a continuation of the defining acts embarked upon by the Dalit Panthers manifesto. In an answer to the question, ‘‘Who is a Dalit?’’, the Manifesto clearly states, ‘‘Members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion’’. Thus, it is important to note in this context, that while predominantly focusing on caste, the narratives of both the song and the Manifesto, attempts to understand systemic oppression as intersections of multiple social categories.

“We Are Not Your Monkeys”, thus, I will argue, provides an important starting point in terms of its attempt to reinterpret the history of Dalit oppression and resistance. While it might pave the way for the representation of the histories hitherto marginalized within an independent cinema, the crucial question is, whether the collaborative work done within the scope of this music video will open up a path for independent Dalit cinema.


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