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Dissolving Caste Blues With a Dose of Laughter: The Rising of All Dalit Stand-Up

In experiencing comedy, it is important to understand who are we laughing at, punching down, and for what reasons.

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Recently, I was listening to a podcast where a female comic spoke about her experiences of doing comedy in situations where it is tough to tickle most men's laughter nerves while speaking honestly from a female perspective.

What she meant was most men don't relate to women's experiences either in terms of lived familiarity or the one that comes with an empathetic acquaintance.

It made me recall my experience of being an audience of The Blue Material in New Delhi and how that experience unfolded for me. A line from Ravi's comic piece stayed with me: "ab ye PhD wale ghar jakar yaha ke jokes ke sath XYZ theory match karenge." Brief context for whosoever it matters to, my battle for PhD admission is far from over!

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My Tryst With Cringeworthy Comedy Culture

While I follow comic videos online and call myself a comedy and pop-culture enthusiast, only once have I had the chance to experience a live comedy show prior to Blue Comedy. Let me walk you through it.

North Campus Delhi University students can be categorised into three sections using Hudson Lane as a constant parameter: a) those who are regular to Hudson cafes, the rich kids b) those who are once in a while visitors to cafes to mark special days like dates, birthdays, etc c) those who are intimidated by the cafe culture and can't relate to the aesthetics to a level that they graduate without being able to bring themselves to a single visit.

Then, people like me, who can afford cafes once in a while and are too low esteemed to be intimidated any further, however, they prefer to be absent from the Hudson Lane. The only time I was in one was to watch this free comedy show with my friend as he was too excited to consume that free content.

The cringy experience that I was exposed to was hard to contain and would give way to rants that even manifested in an Instagram live. Even the comics would spot me from the stage and ask if I had a tedious equation with the action of laughter.
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Casual Sexism Under Humour Pitch

My sensitivity to the topic of comedy and comics goes far back as a philosophy student who embarked on a journalistic career by writing for a feminist platform. Little did I know my faith in the integrity of words matching action would soon be ruptured by a sexist tweet by the CEO of the media outlet I was contributing to.

What followed was exhausting personally and professionally. During that time, older tweets of many Indian comics mocking affirmative action/reservation and individuals availing such schemes(doctors and other professionals), OBC and SC political leaders like Mayawati, Lalu Yadav, Rabri Devi under the garb of humour, surfaced.

These tweets were made by comics from the social groups of those comics whose shows are streamed on OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime.

There was a series of jokes on Ms. Mayawati which were outrightly sexist and casteist. Is such humor on Ms Mayawati not similar to comics like Varun Grover or Munawar Faruqui sending their punchlines Mr Modi's way?
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Ethical Jokes: An Oxymoron 

To answer the first question, ignoring the history of a leader and a historically marginalised community is not humorous. In experiencing comedy, it is important to understand who are we laughing at,punching down, and for what reasons. Obviously, the jokes won't target leaders from the current dispensation for fear of fateful repercussions.

Also interesting to note that the comics choosing such distasteful humour possess modern, woke, personality-confirming traits, the suited-booted gentlemen/women, earning in green-pink-digi coins, with the exposure to grand educational institutions, and who reek of entitlement and privilege.

In fact, searching for ethics in jokes feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. Or am I being funny even expecting that?

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According to a 2013 study, after hearing sexist jokes, men report higher rape proclivity, a self-reported measurement reflecting a man’s willingness to rape a woman assuming he would not be caught. Interestingly, hearing the same joke by a woman, men report even higher rape proclivity.

It makes me wonder in what ways do Upper caste and Bahujan audience relate to the casteist-sexist comedy in India? how different is their relation to such humour?
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India's Anti-caste Comedy Scene

It is not surprising that in the West images of "little black Sambo" and "the drunken Irishman" contributed to strengthening the practice of ridiculing marginalised groups. Racial jokes have played an important role in the development of American race relations.

I draw this parallel only to demonstrate that when the privileged are anxious of their position they begin to (re)birth a breed of discriminatory jokes. Philosopher and Theorist Hobbes in his superiority theory of humor noted that social and power hierarchies could be (re)constructed through the use of hostile humor. By definition, humor appears to be about non- serious themes, however, it is not always the case.

Amidst this situation, Blue Material arrives as a necessary and much-needed intervention. A stand-up comedy show with an All-Dalit lineup, it challenges the direction of the flow of humor as it always has been in mainstream stand-ups. The introduction of Blue Comedy reads, "Blue comedy is a style of comedy…off color.. indecent or profane, largely about sex…" and a surplus of "blue color is also associated with anti-caste movement signifying the color of the sky, a representation of non-discrimination…" I wonder, was that a surplus, or was that the very foundational element of the material?

The magic of Blue Material revealed itself when I witnessed two people entering the cafe late. Ravi, the comic, looked at them and pronounced, "apko seat milega ye daliton ka show hai, yahan sabko seat milega". This sums up the experience of good fart jokes, better sex jokes, and the subtle expression of egalitarianism, about equality that people only dream of.

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Decoding The Audience 

The audience who either have online or live access to comedy shows are commonly exposed to anti-reservation jokes, jokes written from the upper-class-caste gaze, and jokes that punch down and corner the experiences of marginalised individuals. The audience is expected to laugh together at such marginalisation while there is no awareness of the broader social setup of those individuals.

Are all of those audiences upper caste? How does it impact those individuals who avail(ed) reservation? Are they expected to laugh as well? Do they laugh as well?

It is time that one wondered about the relationship between Indian mainstream comedy and the people who come from historical and family backgrounds where brahmanical codes are either not followed, or/and resisted against. Has one reflected upon the relationship of depressed caste individuals with mainstream comedy material?

Amid the slew of pressing questions, Blue Comedy is like an artistic rebellion against such socio-political situations where one is reminded of their caste marginalisation every day, even at a corporate or weekend comedy show.
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It is not worried about fitting the humor aesthetic and sensibilities of the oppressor caste-class. It doesn't intend to, rather interestingly comes with a consumption warning: don't come if this kind of humor is not your cup of tea.

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"Laughter is an effect resulting from the sudden transformation of a heightened expectation into nothing," wrote Immanuel Kant, the philosopher. While the comics performing the Blue Material do not announce a rhetorical claim to deliver something packaged and performed as progressive as shows like 'Two Indian' does.

Casually assertive and ranging from sexuality to dating Savarna males and 'Jai Bhim' to 'Radhe Radhe', the diversions are funny, unforced, and simply on point. While it implores you to think about the shared power dynamics, the quality that distinguishes them is the ability to laugh at oneself rather than at others and all this, whilst maintaining their politics.

It also makes one renew focus on the response of Other Backward Classes (OBC) towards mainstream comedy, especially when certain dominant OBC caste groups seem to replicate the same brahminical order that seeks to oppress them in the first place, once they gain upward social mobility.

I will refrain from giving any more spoilers by quoting any more of the punch lines and highly recommend others to keep track and catch them performing next time!

(Aishwarya Raj is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and writes on gender, caste, culture, and philosophy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Comedy   Caste Politics   Casual Sexism 

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