By Aditya Srinivasan
On 5th June, the popular Piano Man Jazz Club in Delhi scheduled a performance by a band which called itself ‘Bhangijumping’. Once posted online, the event attracted enormous outrage on social media, especially from those belonging to the Dalit community.
The term ‘bhangi’ is a highly derogatory term used to refer to members of the erstwhile sweeper sub-community within the Dalit caste. It carries with it a disturbing connotation of India’s caste-laden past and present. As the fallout continued to escalate, the Piano Man Facebook page was flooded with vitriolic comments from both sides. Those defending the venue were often resorting to aggressive, casteist jibes, while those opposed to its apparent complicity in caste privilege were calling vehemently for a flat-out boycott of the venue.
The owner’s initial response
The problem was compounded by Piano Man owner Arjun Sagar Gupta’s online response to the outrage his club faced. In an initial Facebook post, he suggested that the name-calling and aggression from those opposed to his event were completely unacceptable. He claimed that he was simply unaware of the blatant caste-charged connotations carried by the name ‘Bhangijumping’. In a somewhat dismissive tone, he suggested that the focus ought to be on the art. He further said that a change in name of the performance from ‘Bhangijumping’ to ‘Akash Kapoor’ had solved the issue. He has since taken down that Facebook post, and issued an unconditional apology, stating that it was never the club’s intention to ‘shame or oppress anyone’.
In the aftermath
The event itself was cancelled, and the band in question removed its profile from social media. Meanwhile, the Piano Man Facebook page continues to be a battleground of sorts, with arguments on both sides boiling over into abuse and libel. At present, the issue has not died down. Those opposed to the Piano Man’s handling of the issue are calling for a boycott of the club and a potential police case under the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In the modern setup of an exclusive and established jazz club, the sudden re-emergence of a casteist context has initiated some important inquiries into the nature of caste discrimination today.
A problem rooted in privilege
At the core of the issue is the question of privilege. Since overt and physical caste discrimination in Delhi is relatively rare (though not unheard of), those opposed to The Piano Man’s position argue that every development in this chain of events reflected a privilege enjoyed only by the urban, upper-caste elite. This holds whether it is the naming of a band, a dismissive plea to ‘focus on the art’, or a late but sincere apology. While the band’s name itself is unquestionably casteist, the saga in the aftermath of the event has led to two important questions: first, is The Piano Man complicit in this casteism, and second is it possible for the club to divest itself of it?
With regard to the first question, it is possible to fathom that hosting a band called ‘Bhangijumping’ is a symptom of sheer unawareness (which, indeed, Mr Gupta claims). Perhaps more importantly, the initially dismissive reaction to the event would suggest a callousness which would appear to affirm the privilege The Piano Man and its patrons enjoy.
However, Mr Gupta’s unconditional apology since has turned the focus to the second question. Several comments on social media imply that Mr Gupta and his ilk are so used to the privilege of an urban upper-caste existence that it is impossible for them to conceive of the discrimination that the historically oppressed Dalit community faces on a daily basis.
We’re all in the mood for a new lens
Despite the apology, those attacking The Piano Man continue to call for its boycott. They see it is a space reserved for the privileged, where art is also a means of continuing discrimination. Unfortunately, however, such a stand denies the ability of the privilege holder to meaningfully self-reflect and right his or her wrongs. If the lens of privilege is always fixed, apologies and corrective actions will also only be issued via that lens. This renders it impossible to meaningfully reach a state of compromise.
While Mr Gupta’s apology does not in any way absolve him completely of blame, it is, in this context, impossible to suggest that he has made no headway in correcting his misdemeanours. To that end, the question of a boycott does not guarantee any substantive outcome from either the event itself or the apology following it.
While the issue continues to simmer, the events in Delhi raise questions regarding the modern means of caste oppression, its correction, and the ability to reflect on privilege. The Piano Man has, in the last few days, come to reflect the intersection of caste, art, and privilege. The resolution of this conflict will certainly hold some interesting conclusions for the urban Indian patron of art.
Featured Image Source: Pexels
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