Contentious spaces: caste, commemorations and production of political community in South India
MetadataShow full item record
In their struggle for equality in Tamil Nadu, Dalits (ex-untouchables) often challenge prevailing caste norms by appropriating practices and conventions of locally dominant groups. This study examines how the Dalit Pallars of Tamil Nadu engage in various forms of socio-cultural and political assertions to challenge their marginality. It looks at the performative aspects of such struggles by focusing on Guru Pujas; public performances undertaken to pay homage to late social and political icons/leaders. As annual events these pujas have enabled Thevars, the local dominant caste, to showcase their community’s strength and power through the appropriation of public space. However, the same mode of public performance, which was integral to the public production and consolidation of the dominant caste as a political community, has been replicated by historically marginalised castes. This is reflected tangibly through visual aesthetics during commemorations. Following the Thevars and Nadars, a section of the Pallars are engaged in proclaiming the historical past by asserting that they too form the royal lineage and are competing with Thevar iconography to challenge the cultural dominance of Thevars. As quotidian forms of oppression and violence mark the spatial relationship between these castes, these performances provide a micro-lens to understand the dynamics of how local power is generated and made visible through a politics inscribed in space. Recent decades have witnessed increased competition over public symbols and the strategic location of caste-specific cultural signifiers – including competition over style and performance – and a heightened contest over the occupation of public space. Thus, the study maps the Pallar assertion and the challenges posed by Thevar retaliation.