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Cultural and Political Identities - Anecdotes, Fragments and Uncertainties of Evidence

Cultural and Political Identities



Moving out of these specific dynamics relating to subaltern identity, we are compelled to raise a broader critical question relating to the politics of identitarian choice, which compels us to confront more self-enunciated descriptions of identity, not necessarily determined by religion, community and caste. From a liberal perspective, it makes good sense to accept how communities and individuals wish to be identified. At least this is the unproblematised norm of cosmopolitan civility in Euro-American contexts: If a friend wishes to be identified as ‘black’ and ‘gay’, for instance, then it is assumed that these descriptions would be respected in social interactions. Identitarian civilities in the subcontinent, however, operate with different norms, social pressures, and codes, where, arguably, the links to one’s ‘community’ are unavoidably grafted on to one’s self-definition. Even in the most seemingly cosmopolitan of contexts, religious and communitarian identities can be thrust on individuals, including those who wish to remain unmarked, or, at best, nebulously marked.

Many secular Muslim liberals in contemporary India, for instance, may not want to be identified as ‘Muslim’, at least not in an absolutist or religious sense. Nor would they, by default, wish to be linked to the iconoclastic affinities of Salman Rushdie in denying their Muslim identity altogether. At the risk of stating a truism that is not often recognised by communitarian theorists, it is possible to be secular in different ways, with or without faith, and sometimes in between faiths. However, these arguments do not hold up to the atavistic responses provoked by secular Muslims who disidentify themselves from the religious tenets of Islam. These individuals could face opposition both from more orthodox members of their own community, as indeed from their own secular friends – ‘What’s wrong with being called Muslim? What are you ashamed of? Why don’t you speak out? Now, more than ever, you should claim your identity as a Muslim.’ And so on.

To accept or to reject an identitarian choice that is not entirely of one’s own making is not an easy matter to resolve, if, indeed, it is a matter of choice in the first place. Here one needs to draw on Mahmood Mamdani’s valuable distinction between cultural identities, which are voluntary, consensual, and multiple, as opposed to political identities, which function on the premise that, in the eyes of the law, you are recognised as one and none other.22 Admittedly, without contextual clarification, there would seem to be a reductionism both in Mamdani’s emphatic separation of the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’, as well as in the constituents of their larger definitions. While ‘cultural’ in his reading would appear to be arbitrarily annexed to the voluntarist assumptions of ‘cultures of choice’, seemingly divested of ideological and hegemonic framing,23 the ‘political’ is far too embedded within a juridical conception of community inscribed within the larger regulatory codes of governance.

Countering these emphases, it could be argued that not every ‘political’ identity needs legal verification or sanction. Indeed, identities can become ‘political’ through the very denial of legality in the first place, as represented by the agencies of the judiciary and the state. Indeed, identities can become political for any number of reasons – for instance, when they are perceived to be under threat by the state or by another community or through the invasion of foreigners. Or else, they can be fantasised as a possible solution to an internalised ‘lack’ of identity.24 But who is responsible for the ‘threat’ and who could compensate for the ‘lack’? Here the question of agency would need to be squarely addressed within the material and contextual determinants of distinct political locations, governments, legal systems, and the existing discourses of rights, freedom, and citizenship, within or against which a political identity can be enunciated.

The point I would emphasise here is that we are not always in a position to choose our political identities. More often than we would care to admit, even in the most seemingly liberal and democratic of contexts, they are thrust on us. It would be a mistake, however, to regard this imposition exclusively within the context of coercion, even though this would seem to be the case in authoritarian societies like Singapore, where the state alone assumes the right to determine the political through a tightly controlled hegemony of ‘civic society’.25 Against these constraints, it becomes obvious that artists and activists seeking a more contradictory, fluid, and transgressive politics of the self could feel oppressed by the exclusively legal and governmental sanctions of political identity and their hegemonisation by state-sponsored, community-related ‘civic society’ groups.

However, this is not the only context in which to view the desire for political identity. At a larger global level, the reality is that, for millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people living precariously on the borders of different regions, which they can call neither a ‘home’ nor a state of ‘exile’, nothing could be more comforting than a clarification of their political identity. Once granted, of course, this identity (ratified through papers or that most coveted of possessions, a passport) does not automatically clarify the opacity of a person’s identity, and may even result in a backlash of indeterminacy, with possibly violent consequences. But the desire for political identity in such volatile circumstances cannot be written off as a mere capitulation to state power, or as a mere endorsement of abstract agendas relating to population control and social engineering. To accept a political identity over whose nomenclature and definition one has almost no control could be one way to survive.

The Siddi: ‘Who Are We?’



Let me trouble some of the difficulties of political identity at a more concrete level by describing my own association with an underprivileged community of agricultural labourers from Karnataka called the Siddi. This discussion will also enable me to reinscribe the ‘self’ in this essay within the onus to define political identity. Beginning with the uncertainties of evidence relating to the very naming of the Siddi, we could question the basic social group to which they belong. As forest people, they could be described as adivasi, which is the generic Indian word for ‘indigenous people’, even though the Siddi are more frequently regarded as ‘tribal’ in everyday discourse. While ‘indigenous people’ (coined in the late 1950s in internationalist circles) would seem to be a more respectable term than the more primitivist associations of ‘tribal’, inextricably linked to backwardness, social isolation, and the pre-religious practice of animism, the words are often used synonymously, but with contradictory inflections. ‘Aborigine’, which was the category once favoured by S C Ghurye, has almost no currency in the public discourse of underprivileged communities, indicating the neat irony that what may seem like an accurate or politically correct category by academics may not be how the underprivileged wish to address themselves.

If one goes by the standard criterion of defining indigenous people as those who ‘lived in the country to which they belong before colonisation or conquest by people from outside the country or geographical region,’26 one confronts an acute contradiction of definition and fact. Indeed, some of the most established tribal communities in India, who are assumed to be the ‘original inhabitants’ of their settlements, like the Nagas, the Kuki, the Mizos, and the Santhals have, in actuality, been late settlers in the regions where they presently live. Conversely, some of the descendants of early Dravidian cultures, who are often assumed to be the original settlers of pre-Aryan India, would deny any affiliation to an ‘indigenous’ or ‘tribal’ status. Scarcely marginalised, either at economic or social levels, they are part of mainstream Indian culture.

Within this problematic, it becomes clear that there are communities who are marked as ‘tribal’, even though they are not ‘indigenous’, while the ‘indigenous’ in other contexts may be ‘urban’ citizens in their own right. The key question that could trouble the nit-picking verifications of cultural authenticity concerns ‘how far back should one go in history to determine people who are natives (i e, indigenous) and those who are immigrants.’27 Are all so-called natives not immigrants at some point in time? Today, whether the community in question is marked as ‘tribal’ or ‘indigenous’, a more viable meeting point by which their nomenclature can be meaningfully linked concerns not their pre-colonial lineage but rather their present state of marginality and absence of control over natural resources required for their subsistence.

While the Siddi cannot claim to be original settlers, insofar as their ancestors of African descent were brought to India as slaves some two centuries ago, they would nonetheless claim their customary rights on forest land. And in this sense of claiming territory on ecological rather than constitutional grounds, they are working against the norms of the existing judicial system. Seeking recognition within the volatile framework of ‘political society’,28 the Siddi could be described as the unacknowledged ‘blacks’ of the Indian subcontinent. While using ‘black’ in an affirmative sense, I should acknowledge its provocation within the acute colour consciousness of Indian society, where the denigration of ‘black’ can be traced back to its equations in the vedic terminology of ‘varna’ with the low and untouchable castes.

Despite its derogatory associations, the reality is that ‘black’ could be the one common denominator by which the Siddi are identified. Scattered as they are in different settlements of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and even parts of Gujarat, they constitute a diaspora that is not acknowledged by the Indian state. Between the Siddi of Gujarat and Karnataka, for instance, among other states, there is no language in common; they do not even know of each other’s existence. Within the Siddi community of Karnataka itself, there are Hindu Siddi, Muslim Siddi, and Christian Siddi, who live in different settlements, with different support systems.

So, what is Siddi? I posed this question to the Siddi participants in a workshop on Land and Memory that I had conducted at the Ninasam Theatre Institute in Heggodu.29 I focused on land, because the Siddi live on forest land, which is, from the government’s point of view, illegal. I highlighted memory, because the Siddi come from Africa of which they are oblivious. Nor, I should add, are they traumatised by this absence of memory. From the Siddi, I learn that cultural identity does not have to be authenticated through an ancient memory; it is sufficient to go back a 100 years, or even 30 years, or yesterday. Memory is not a storehouse of the past; it is more like a processual agency in dealing with the present.

At no point in the workshop did the immediacy of memory come through more suggestively than through the shared experience of one of the Siddi women, following the ‘mirror’ exercise. For almost any theatre worker, the mirror has become something of a cliché, the obligatory exercise for ‘beginning acting’ classes, in which actors have to mirror each other’s movements, gestures and expressions. And yet, having participated in and conducted this exercise for more than 30 years now, I would say that it is probably one of the most potentially charged explorations of the self and the other (a relationship that has specific bearing to the larger problematic of this essay). In the mirror, the participants have the opportunity to explore a flow of unconscious and random movements and reflexes, where, after a point, it is no longer clear who is leading whom. Who is the mirror, who is the reflection: this interplay becomes enigmatic as the participants learn to incorporate the ‘body-mind’ of the other in themselves.

I began the Siddi workshop with the mirror, thinking that it would be a mere warm-up and a good way of confronting the usual embarrassment of eye-contact faced by non-actors. While the exercise was going on, with all the usual awkwardness of first encounters, I noticed that one of the women, Lakshmi, was steadily entering an almost trance-like state. With calm, matter-of-fact movements, she began to transform the exercise into a meditative composition, maintaining eye-contact with her partner, even as she changed the very levels and planes of the movement. She was not mirroring him so much as she was mirroring herself. In my considerable experience of this exercise as a director, I have never seen it so deeply internalised. Barely after the exercise was over, Lakshmi began to talk aloud, more to herself but also wanting to share her experience with the entire group. This is the gist of what she said: ‘When I was doing this – whatever you call it – I felt that I was crossing the fields in the evening after a day’s work. The sun was setting, and I felt very relaxed in my body.’

In acting terminology, this could be described as an articulation of sense-memory, but within the boundaries of the workshop (which had barely begun), where there was no specific agenda of ‘acting’ as such, Lakshmi’s statement is perhaps best read as a self-reflection. In its tentative, yet crystalline clarity, I sensed a psychophysical tuning to the productive bases of everyday life, which ‘theatre’ enables us to ‘re-live’ in a more heightened state. Significantly, none of the other Siddi participants had gone through anything resembling what she had experienced, even though they have all worked in the fields since their childhood. Lakshmi was drawing on a common experience, a shared history of labour, but her subjectivity was sparked by the exercise in a manner that was uniquely her own.

I have consciously described this experience at some length to emphasise that such noumenal expositions of the ‘self’ matter, even though their evidence is hard to theorise in a systematic way. However, as the workshop proceeded through songs and improvisations, drawing on the everyday life experiences of the Siddi in Manchikere, it became increasingly clear that issues relating to identity – and more specifically, political identity – were of deeper concern to the participants than their self-explorations. Working through numerous improvisations of birth, marriage, and death, the Siddi began to grapple with the exigencies of their own identity, not in cultural terms, but more specifically in relation to where they stand in relation to the state. ‘Who are we?’ ‘What are we?’: these questions were not subjected to existential anguish, but rather to the categories of the state’s nomenclature in classifying underprivileged communities.

On the concluding day of the workshop, the Siddi composed a public statement demanding clarification of their status: ‘SC? ST? OBC?’ The Siddi had no love for the state, but they needed its categories – scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, other backward castes – in order to define their political identity. Today, almost two years after the workshop, the Siddi – or more specifically, the Hindu Siddi – have been granted the ST status. But has this resolved their identity crisis? Hardly. They are more ‘othered’ than ever before through their inability to mobilise the benefits of their legitimised marginality within – and against – the system. As in many other instances of downtrodden communities receiving ‘reservations’ from the state, the Siddi are now subjected to a new envy from their less privileged Muslim and Christian counterparts. Significantly, in the absence of any sustained secular intervention by NGOs or voluntary association for their social development, the Siddi are now being patronised by the extremist Hindu organisation of the RSS, which is beginning to conduct cultural classes for their edification. Classical Hindu mythology, gods and goddesses, and bhajans (devotional songs) are part of the curriculum.

Even as the RSS intervention is an obvious manifestation of its nationwide grass roots propaganda, it is necessary to acknowledge that any process of social conscientisation is contestatory. While the RSS has well-established tools and rituals of indoctrination, what are the means by which secular theatre workers and cultural activists can question – and hopefully, dismantle – the dominant technologies of otherness, by which communities are marked and divided from each other? Can theatre illuminate other possibilities of self-definition and critical insight outside of hegemonic and traditionalist identificatory classifications? In some of my earlier writings,30 I have elaborated on some of these possibilities, but here let me focus on the harder facts of political change.

During the Siddi workshop, I realised at a physical level that while their participation was vigorous, many of the Siddi could not raise their hands, or straighten their elbows, which were permanently bent. Their shoulders were knotted. This evidence indicated that their musculature had been conditioned – and in the process, ‘de-formed’ – through an arduous process of labour over which they had no control. This, I realised, was the actual consequence of being ‘othered’, as the body is enslaved within a quasi-feudal agricultural system, where race, caste, and capital continue to be the determining factors of neo-slavery. Within this system, the enigmas of the ‘self’ are subsumed within the larger necessities of survival, substantiated through labour.

Faced with this reality, I would acknowledge that at no point in my theatre experience have I felt more distanced from the intercultural illusion of ‘breaking’ the conditioned reflexes of colonised bodies through the hermetically conditioned categories of ‘pre-expressivity’, ‘restoration of behaviour’, and ‘energy’. If the bodies of the Siddi had to be ‘freed’, I realised that one would need nothing less than an alteration in their conditions of labour, for which other interventions and mediations would be needed in the political domain, outside the civil limits of a theatre workshop. In other words, it was not sufficient to work on the ‘self’ of the actors; one needed to confront their conditions of life and work.

On a more positive note, I observed that by the fourth or fifth day of the workshop that the Siddi were being lifted by the students of the Ninasam Theatre Institute on their backs and rocked. I had consciously inserted such interactive sessions into the workshop to displace the segregationist possibilities of doing a workshop exclusively with the Siddi. In these sessions, I found the Siddi and the Ninasam actors (from a spectrum of caste groups) doing all the things that actors love to do in warm-ups, including stretching, hopping, jumping, running, and giving each other shoulder massages. At one level, this intimacy was beautiful because the taboos of touch and social interaction, so seemingly irrevocable and non-negotiable in everyday life, were being effortlessly broken. But, at the same time, it would be euphoric, if not irresponsible, to fetishise this communitas in cutting across differences within the larger metaphysics of intercultural ‘universality’.

If, in intercultural practice, the interrelationship of ethnicity with the realities of class and labour tends to be elided, the problem with intracultural Indian theatre practice could be the ‘invisibilising’ of differences, built on secular illusions of ‘oneness’ and ‘unity in diversity’. I remember, in this regard, listening to actors of a professional repertory company in Mysore, who reassured me that they didn’t have any caste problems in their group. ‘We’re all outcasts,’ they declared humorously. However, when I began to cast the production, I realised how the very process of casting precipitated critical caste differences that were far from being resolved in their imagined community. When I brought this to the attention of the artistic director, a legendary figure of the Indian theatre with a rich apprenticeship in the touring company theatre tradition, he expressed profound dismay: ‘In my time, it was not like this. We all lived together like one big family.’ Inadvertently, a question popped out of my mouth: ‘Did you eat together?’ And, unthinkingly, the director responded: ‘No, we had two kitchens – one upper caste, one lower caste.’ I realised that he had normalised this difference within an assumption of Indian secularity – living together, eating separately.

2014-07-19 18:44
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