“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s oft-quoted question no longer holds true in the political climate we live in.
South Delhi’s The Piano Man Jazz Club recently courted controversy after it announced an event on its Facebook page. The event in question was a performance by a band named ‘Bhangijumping’, scheduled for 5 June.
Cloaks of Privilege
‘Bhangi' is a caste group in India, which is relegated to the role of cleaning toilets and excreta. They are also known by the term ‘manual scavengers’ due to the nature of their work. While manual scavenging was outlawed in 2013, it is still prevalent in many parts of the country as is seen through documentaries like Divya Bharathi’s Kakkoos (2017).
Unfortunately, the term ‘Bhangi’ has come to be used loosely as an insult, and in many cases, those using it do not realise it is a caste slur, which no doubt speaks of upper caste privilege.
This ignorance, which landed the jazz club’s owner Arjun Sagar Gupta and the band in trouble, is symptomatic of a larger problem. Within the bubble of privilege, many of us often become blind to the very existence of caste – possibly never having personally faced or witnessed caste-violence.
Moreover, the school system, especially of the elite, urban variety, teaches caste in an overly-simplistic manner. Children are taught about the Savarna system and beyond that, they know the term “untouchable” without truly understanding its nuances. What’s more, because we don’t generally meet these “untouchables” in our daily lives, we seem to forget they exist at all.
This brings to mind Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony – it is the ruling class that controls the society. What gets accepted as the status quo are the beliefs and conventions of the dominant class, peddled as that which is beneficial to all, when in reality, it only serves to further disempower the marginalised.
The caste system is quite complex. Eminent sociologist Vivek Kumar, who specialises in Dalit studies, clarifies that sub-castes exist within the Bhangi community. The community, which is categorised as a Scheduled Caste, is known by different names across the country. For example, in Punjab, they are called Chuhras.
Institutionalising and Internalising Caste-Violence
These issues are often ignored owing to the complex nature of caste, and a lack of understanding of caste among the privileged. Further, certain caste slurs like “Chamar” and “Bhangi” are so normalised that in many cases we don’t even question their origin or true meaning.
Akshay Kapoor, the 25-year-old frontman of ‘Bhangijumping’, told The Quint that he was clueless about the origin of the term “Bhangi”, and that he did not know that it was a caste slur.
When I was 12, I owned a t-shirt from Tantra, and I first came across the word ‘Bhangijumping’ there. The tee depicted an unkempt guy, who looked a bit like a hippie, jumping off a cliff. The word, as I understood it, was related to bungee-jumpers – it was a pun. I did not think anything more of the word because it was never pointed out to me that this word has casteist connotations. Of course, I understand the seriousness of the issue now and I deeply regret the name I gave my band.
Kapoor also claimed that his music has nothing to do with caste. He told The Quint that his songs were personal and that some of them dealt with themes like mental illness.
The Piano Man Jazz Club (TPM) was criticised for being complicit in this act of casteism – albeit an unintentional one, as has been claimed by both Kapoor and Gupta. “The bands or artistes that are to perform at TPM are not chosen by me, to avoid my personal music preferences coming into play during selection. I have a dedicated team that picks the musicians based on their music,” TPM proprietor Arjun Sagar Gupta said.
We should have been more aware and taken note of the band’s name. We are genuinely sorry for hurting people by not understanding the significance of the name, and are working to educate ourselves and learn from our mistakes.Arjun Sagar Gupta, Proprietor, The Piano Man Jazz Club
Casual Casteism, and How to Negate It
After the event sparked outcry online, Gupta issued a clarification of sorts. His response was slammed for being insensitive and served to make the “boycott TPM” calls grow louder.
Gupta told The Quint that he regretted his first online clarification.
Acknowledging his first clarification as “insensitive,” Gupta admitted that it stemmed largely from ignorance. "I didn’t intend to club my thoughts about artistic freedom with that of the offensive name of the band,” he said.
It is unfortunate I wrote it in a way that it came across as bearing a connection. In reality, if we did believe artistic freedom to be greater than the cause of the oppressed then we wouldn’t have immediately taken steps to change the band’s name, nor would we have cancelled the event.
Recognising the issue as a serious one, Gupta said he and his team intended to create a forum for people to understand caste, while keeping their privilege in check.
It is because of our privilege that we do not know what it is like to be oppressed, but we are learning and understanding its significance. The aim is to understand their voice, their perspective and create a space for sharing this education so that others also understand the gravity of the situation.
Sebanti Chatterjee, a PhD student at the Delhi School of Economics’ Department of Sociology, visited the jazz club after the social media protests began, in an effort to start a dialogue with Gupta.
In an email to The Quint, Chatterjee expressed surprise at the fact that until this incident, no one had bothered to tell the band that they had an offensive name. “The fact that TPM was hosting them shows ignorance on their part. The matter came to my notice when fragments of a conversation appeared on my news feed. A few friends decided to visit the club to request them to not host the band; I joined them,” she said.
“Upon our arrival, we learnt that Arjun had already changed the name of the band when the artiste couldn’t justify why he chose the name in the first place,” Chatterjee said.
“The first clarification on TPM’s part came across as weakly worded, but the second seemed genuine and apologetic,” Chatterjee said. The scholar also added:
Oblivion and privilege blinds us to bigger realities. It is definitely not acceptable but there is hope when one is keen to learn from one’s mistakes... Such incidents show that there should be proper research before endorsing or taking on a name for a band.
To What Degree Can Ignorance Be Excused?
Some did not buy Gupta’s narrative and demanded that the club be shut down and that legal action be taken against him. In an email to The Quint, 24-year-old Raya Sarkar, a Singapore-based lawyer who participated in the online protest, said that those involved in the alleged act of casteism should be brought to book and penalised under The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
“The biggest problem is that they have done criminal acts and can be penalised by statute and that people are being abused for wanting to uphold the law,” she said.
The problem is that Dalit trauma is being gaslighted, trivialised and people are denying that casteism exists in society and are somehow justifying the use of the slur. Another problem is that people are trying to justify things that are illegal.
Benefit of Doubt
Professor Vivek Kumar begs to differ. “While ignorance is no excuse, one thing is for sure, we should give them (the accused) the benefit of doubt. Going by TPM’s arguments, it seems that they genuinely are clueless, which exposes how unaware many people are of caste slurs,” he said.
“Many a time, we live in our own worlds and can’t seem to look beyond it,” he said, as he lashed out at those who joined the online protest without understanding the issue. “Dalits are raped, assaulted and discriminated against everyday. What legal action has been taken against the several lynchings that have taken place? So why crucify these musicians?” Kumar asked.
Who are these protesters anyway? Where were they when Saharanpur was burning? Where are the Dalit scholars in this situation? The leader should be of the people. Everyone shouldn’t simply jump on board and hijack the Dalit cause. You cannot appropriate others’ space.