Dalit comedians fighting discrimination one joke at a time
Manjeet Sarkar, Manaal Patil, and Ankur Tangade are three “untouchable” stand-up comedians who use comedy to eviscerate the caste system in which they grew up. While crowds laugh, some feel a little guilty at times. In India's big cities, discrimination is more subtle, but even here, when Dalits climb the ladder of success they have fewer footholds than their upper caste colleagues.
Milan (AsiaNews) – One Saturday evening, in a small bar in a large Indian city, the crowd welcomes Manjeet Sarkar with a roar of applause as he arrives on stage. The stand-up comedian is a Dalit, a caste once deemed “untouchable” by upper-caste Hindus.
As soon as the applause dies down, says the Christian Science Monitor, Manjeet starts the show. "If anyone does not laugh at my lines, I touch them.” The crowd loves it. As the show goes on, the humorous quips reflect the discrimination Dalits face.
Officially abolished by the Indian government after the country's independence, the caste system continues to permeate Indian society. But for someone like Manjeet Sarkar, 24, everything changes on stage.
“I can convey my thoughts without thinking twice whether I will be mob-lynched or beaten up by someone,” he says. “Being on the stage gives me a sense of liberty and equality.”
In the following weeks, the comedian began his first countrywide tour of his show, titled "Untouchables".
Thanks to social media, a handful of Dalits can use humour to slam the caste system. Another one is Manaal Patil. The 25-year-old from Hyderabad jokes about government quotas for lower castes in university and the public service.
“Dad, doesn’t it sound unfair to the rest of the population? My dad was like: ‘Don’t show off your English. You know the language because I had a reservation’,” and the crowd erupts in laughter.
When he started working as a stand-p comedian in 2015, he was the only Dalit on the scene.
"Reservation then and now was joked about, as if the person availing it is incompetent,” Manaal explained. “The memory of discrimination I faced for availing quota for my college admissions was still fresh because my friends made me feel guilty about it,” he added.
From that he realised that the key to winning over the public was self-irony. But every now and then some spectators tell him they were shocked by some of his stories, like when he said a woman washed a public hand pump with water from the Ganges after he drank from it.
For Manjeet, “In most cities, the audiences are privileged and upper caste. … When they laugh at my jokes, they are in a dilemma whether they should laugh or feel guilty,” he notes.
Discrimination in cities is less visible, but it exists. “Once I was performing in Mumbai and the owner of the space came up to me and said I should wash the plates when he found out I was Dalit. This despite me not saying any caste related jokes that day,” Manaal says.
Stand-up comedy shows have boomed in India after 2010, mainly thanks to videos uploaded to YouTube.
Manjeet was inspired by African American comedians, who “talk about how their people faced generational oppression.” Thus, “I realised comedy is an art form where you can talk about things which are taboo.”
Manaal created a show called "Blue Material", bringing together many Dalit comedians. His dream is to turn it into something like the Def Comedy Jam, a 1990s series that launched many comedians of colour in the United States.
But some comedians represent minorities within minorities. Ankur Tangade is a woman, Dalit and queer. “I’m allowed to make fun of anyone," she jokes.
At the start of her career, she did not think that she could make people laugh with jokes about her identity, and so stuck to traditional subjects like the upper castes.
Now she wants “to tell people that you cannot ignore us and that we are equal. Everyone talks about their own life, but no one talks about minorities.”
In her shows she often tells the story of a production company that picked only Brahmin artists for big productions, even though it also worked with many Dalits.
“People want to help their own,” she adds. “Dalits don’t have anyone to pull them up. As a Dalit, you have to carve your way up.”
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