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How Dalit stand-up comics in India are laughing caste away

“My dad told me that we have a superpower,” 25-year-old Manaal Patil says, setting the tone for his show at a packed hall in Mumbai.

The punchline comes soon after.

Aur wo hai hamari caste. Kyunki hum Scheduled Caste community se hai to agar tu pizza mangwaega usse pehle tereko admission mil jaega (And that is, we are scheduled caste. He said, if you order a pizza, you will get admission in an education institution quicker than you will get the pizza).”

It’s through such self-deprecating humour that stand-up comedian Patil offers a critique of India’s social hierarchy and also establishes his identity as a self-aware Dalit.

In the inflexible, age-old Hindu caste system, Dalits like him are at the bottom of the hierarchy, beneath Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. In order to uplift Dalits, reservation is in place for decades – a system under which a certain number of seats in government colleges and institutions are reserved for people from the so-called lower caste communities.

While there are laws to protect Dalits, caste bias remains rife in conservative Indian society.

The Mumbai-based Patil – originally hailing from the southern city of Hyderabad – is gradually altering the narrative in mainstream comedy by using humour to discuss caste and injustice from a Dalit perspective.

“I was 15 when I saw stand-up comedy for the first time and I was very much seduced by the idea of it,” Patil tells TRT World. “As a Dalit guy, I was among the first ones to get into stand-up comedy because I was privileged enough and I knew how to speak English.”

He further added that he was 17 when he went on the stage for the first time and since then it has been eight years since he has been performing stand-up comedy.

However, to imagine making stand-up comedy a full-time career is still a far-fetched dream for Manaal.

“My dream is to make stand-up comedy a full-time career but again with the kind of comedy I indulge in there is not a very big commercial market for it. No one wants to pay to listen to jokes on caste,” he added.

The situation is the same for Manjeet Sarkar, another 25-year-old Dalit stand-up comedian who is currently on an India tour performing his show ‘untouchables’.

For Sarkar, stand-up comedy became a way to get rid of the bullying that he often faced at his school and also at college.

“Throughout my life, I was an introvert. I never talked to anyone because of the fear of getting bullied. In order to pass my time I started listening to US stand-up comedians discussing racism. That was the time I decided to use the power of comedy to make people aware of the issues that Dalits go through in India,” he told TRT World.

However, Sarkar has to work as a copywriter or a social media manager in order to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian.

“Recently I had three sold outs in Delhi yet I didn’t break even. So I am not getting any corporate show or a private show because of the comedy that I do. That does somehow feel bad because I am unable to earn money just because of the fact that I chose to speak the truth,” he added.

Facing criticism

Apart from the fact that it is difficult for Dalit stand-up comedians to earn a living out of shows, they also have to face discrimination because of their caste.

Ankur Tangade, a 24-year-old Dalit stand comedian, shares her narrative while she was working for a production company. She noted that while she and other fellow comedians, mostly from a religious minority community, were auditioning for a stand-up show, it was only an upper-caste person who was selected at the end.

“Caste plays a very big role in getting a corporate gig. As a teen, I always used to feel that casteism is always there but if you have talent nobody can stop you. As I grew up I realised because of my personal experiences that caste plays a very big role,” she told TRT World.

Even for Manjeet Sarkar, criticism has been a constant thing for him. However, he tries to integrate that into his comedy shows. While sharing one of the anecdotes, Sarkar told that one time when he was performing, an upper-caste lady got offended and started shouting at him.

However, he tried to calm down the situation by saying “this is a stand-up show. Try taking my jokes in the same way your ancestors took our land.” The lady got offended and the incident became viral on social media.

After the incident, Sarkar’s photo was morphed on some rag pickers’ face and many people on social media even asked him to clean toilets.

“The only positive takeaway for me from this whole incident was that views on my videos increased and the algorithm automatically started showing my videos on top,” he added.

Even Manaal Patil acknowledges that many times people get shocked when he tells them that he is from a Dalit background.

“Usually people are of the opinion that I don’t ‘look’ like a Dalit and that is because I speak really good English. People here don’t expect fellow Dalits to be really good at English,” he told TRT World.

Open-mic access

Another challenge that the Dalit stand-up comics in India are facing is access to open-mic shows. Manaal believes that because he has been privileged it was always easy for him to get access to open-mic shows.

However, the sole reason Sarkar moved out of his hometown Orissa, and shifted to Bombay was the access to open-mic shows.

“In Orissa, there was only one place where open-mics use to happen, and that only once a month. I moved to Bombay so that I can perform more and boost my confidence,” he said.

Ankur Tangade also opined that with more and more access to open-mic shows, it is necessary that Dalit stand-up comedians make full use of it.

“When you are in a stand-up comedy show and you are on the stage, you have a mic and then you have a group of people who are ready to listen to you. Obviously, they are there to laugh because it’s a comedy show, but then they are there to listen to what you have to say. You have that power. It’s good to use that power in a manner to say what you want to say,” Tangade argued.

Karandeep Mehra, a graduate student researcher in linguistic anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, also believes that comedy as an art form is very impactful when it comes to understanding the issues of Dalits in India.

Mehra also believes that when you have a mic and you are performing you have a certain authority. However, it becomes necessary to realise the importance of that authority and perform to make your voice heard.

Keeping this in mind, Manaal and other fellow Dalit stand-up comedians have started indulging in ‘Blue material’, a genre of comedy with an all-Dalit lineup. For them, it is a way of putting out their voice with a more empowering viewpoint.

With the way more and more Dalit comedians are coming out to perform stand-up comedy, the future looks hopeful. However, it will be interesting to see how it is largely perceived by the audience, which is predominantly upper-caste.

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