Subaltern culture: The culture of the outcasts

Subaltern culture: The culture of the outcasts

The gripping storyline of the legend of a mystical forest, set in the deeper roots of Karnataka, Kantara has sparked a controversial wave for its depiction of bootha kola, a subaltern culture of Tulu Nadu. The whole saga revolves around the ownership of land, focussing more on the demigods protecting the land. Bootha kola is an animistic worship of demigods, wherein the demi-god descends on the person who performs the ritual. The person who temporarily becomes god provides justice to the people and also answers their queries.

Now comes the controversy about the ritual, the maker of the film Rishab Shetty has portrayed the kola from the lens of Hinduism, however, people disagree with the inclination of the kola with Hinduism and claim it to be a subaltern Adivasi culture.

Now you might wonder what is a subaltern culture. The culture of India is divided into two: Vedic and Subaltern. The Vedic culture involves celebrations of the brahmins and the upper caste people whereas the culture and rituals of the so-called outcasts (Dalits and Adivasis) are put together as a subaltern culture. Mostly entertaining the forward castes, subaltern artists live in severe poverty and are subjected to constant discrimination. Any form of interaction between these cultures has seen a huge wave of backlash. More often, subaltern communities find solace in creating a religion and custom of their own amidst the growing hegemony. 

Unlike pompous ceremonies and exquisitely decorated idols of the classic Vedic worship, the subaltern way of the ritual involves demi-gods made of stones and cost-effective offerings. With rapid Sanskritization, the regional cultures started to gain momentum refusing to give up their method of worship and culture.

Karagattam, Bommalattam, Seethakali, Boota kola, and Thappattam are some of the subaltern art forms of the southern part of India. Over time, these flamboyant art forms have undergone a metamorphosis into entertainment at rave parties. Forcing female artists to make sexual moves and subjecting them to derogatory acts, these regional art forms are on the verge of extinction. More often female dancers are forced to wear glamorous clothes and touched inappropriately. Forgetting the sole purpose of such rich heritage the dancers are compelled to perform for cinema songs and dress up like stars to keep the troupe running. Failing to meet the demands of the male spectators often attracts cancellation of their contract which severely hits them financially. These arts of invoking the blessings of their almighty are now ridiculed and boycotted due to an increase in vulgarity.

The idea of Dalit culture is driven by resistance and liberation from elitists. The creation of a pragmatic and naturalistic culture that is also cost-efficient is the basic ethos of a subaltern’s rituals and that is why we see less usage of costly offerings and elaborate rituals in them. Dalits’ religiosity is often traced to non-institutionalized worship of their demi-god. Cultures and rituals which are deemed inauspicious and impure are amalgamated into the Dalit’s style of ritual as a sign of resistance, one such instrument is Thappu, a circular drum made of cowhide is an integral part of Thappattam. Thappu meaning “a mistake” in Tamil reflects the mainstream marginalization of the Dalit communities who play it. Since it’s made out of cowhide and mostly performed during funerals the thappu artists are subjected to humiliation and lynching considering it an unauspicious rite. The very essence of Dalits consciousness: self-assertion and liberation led to making thappu a symbol of resistance and empowerment. Ironically the community that keeps the environment clean is looked down and their achievements are camouflaged in the name of inferior status.

Seethakali a folk art of Kerala which enacts the journey of Seetha from Ramayana is performed by pulayar and vedar communities. It is often seen as a resistance to the tyranny of the upper caste hegemony wherein The main female characters of the play are fully clothed when the women weren’t allowed to cover their breasts.  Burrakatha of Andhra and Telangana has nativized the sufferings of Dalits through their unique way of storytelling.  

The subaltern and various other regional folk artists can be seen as a way of self-assertion and liberation from Brahmanical dominance and a significant attempt to demolish the institution of varna which no longer has any relevance. Prejudice of the dominant class over the lower class has always been a matter of concern which has now been inclined to various films to sensitize about the issue.

Movies like Pariyerum Perumal pull off the plight of subaltern artists where Pariyan’s father, a gender non-conforming folk artist, is molested and stripped by transphobic casteist thugs. Pa . Ranjith a Tamil filmmaker has challenged caste discrimination in all his movies. His movie Kaala starring Rajinikanth revolves around the slum dwellers of Dharavi. Ambedkarite and periyarism are the main themes of his films which have been critically acclaimed by reviewers. Breaking the stigma of Dalit arts as folk art, Gen Z has taken up hip-hop rap to create political awareness and express their agitation towards their step-motherly treatment.   

Though we see the empowerment of folk arts in various movies and films the lives of artists remain the same. Since it’s their means of living the folk artists have to endure humiliation and atrocities committed against them. Due to their inclination to menial jobs, they are exposed to boycotts which eventually push them into poverty. The discrimination faced by subaltern arts is a matter of concern that erodes the struggles and endeavors of various people involved in creating a casteless society by sensitizing the people about their plight.

As a community completely deprived of equal status and dehumanized for their profession, Dalits’ religiosity is based on gratitude and idolizing earth and earth deities. With their rich heritage being eroded and criminalized it is high time to protect them from the verge of extinction. Demeaning subaltern artists and vulgarizing the art form has led to the extinction of the art form itself and the thriving residue of humanity.


Harini is an undergrad student pursuing BA triple major in History, Economics, and Political Science in Bangalore. A film buff who loves to eat and pen on regional delicacies.

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