On Page and on Stage: Celebrating Dalit and Adivasi Literatures and Performing Arts

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: Sch of Arts and Humanities


The Network 'Writing, Translating, Analysing Dalit Literature' was created in 2014 by Dr Nicole Thiara, Centre for Postcolonial Studies at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), UK, and Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak, research centre EMMA at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (UPVM), France, following the award of an AHRC grant. The research conducted during the 2014-16 grant period explored and analysed Dalit literature in international, multi-disciplinary contexts for the first time since Dalit literature, produced by artists formerly labelled 'Untouchables', emerged as the most significant, prolific and controversial literary movement in India in the last 30 years. Despite the quality, vibrancy and experimental nature of this burgeoning literary tradition, it had received scant attention from the general public or in academia. To raise its profile, in Europe and globally, and to stimulate academic research and public interest, Thiara and Misrahi-Barak organised six academic and public-facing events in the UK (at Nottingham Trent University, University of Leicester, University of East Anglia), France (at UPVM) and India (at Savitribai Phule Pune University and Delhi University). They were a resounding success (450 participants in total) and the network produced a website, a digital communications channel and several publications.
Follow-on funding will allow a series of festival events to be organised that focus on Dalit and Adivasi literatures and the performing arts in India, France and the UK. During the period of network funding, it became apparent that further collaboration is needed to ensure that work by socially precarious, economically challenged, and culturally marginalized artists becomes visible and is valued in both national and global contexts. It emerged that drama and poetry were among the most marginalised of genres, and received the least attention from scholars, even though these genres are among the most significant in Dalit and Adivasi activist circles and the most prominent in voicing resistance to continued caste discrimination and social exclusion. Even more significant was the insight we gained into the widespread perception amongst Dalit and Adivasi writers and performing artists that their literary and artistic output requires larger and more varied audiences in order to sustain its creative and experimental development. Dalit and Adivasi folk art forms are in danger of disappearing if they do not receive more support from a pan-Indian Dalit and Adivasi audience, and from cultural and state organisations, and can be both supported and enriched by new 'mainstream' audiences and international recognition.

Planned Impact

The festivals will enable the sustainable development of marginalised Dalit and Adivasi arts by raising their prestige and international profile through performances in well-connected venues in India where, in the spheres of politics and culture, the continued existence of caste discrimination is still largely denied and Dalit and Adivasi artistic production is sometimes appropriated but nurtured or funded only rarely. The festivals will create new audiences for neglected genres of Dalit and Adivasi artistic production, notably poetry and drama, by hosting performances in a range of prestigious international venues, to stimulate the commercial viability of Dalit and Adivasi performance arts, both in India and internationally. A manifesto based on our research will be created collaboratively with participating artists, cultural and Indian government organisations to include cultural policy guidelines on how these cultural practices should be supported in the future.
One of the principal outcomes of this project will be the creation of a readership for Dalit and Adivasi literatures and more diverse audiences for their performance arts to ensure that these establishing and emergent art forms do not continue to suffer neglect as the result of discrimination and repression. The project intervenes in this situation to co-create change with artists and to support endangered artistic forms that could otherwise sustain communities that remain marginalised, not only in India but also internationally.
Festivals in Nottingham, Pune, Bangalore and Paris, co-hosted with high-profile cultural organisations, will create a positive and transformative impact on Dalit and Adivasi folk art and theatre troupes, writers and performers.
This project supports the wider Dalit and Adivasi activist movements in their fight against caste discrimination and for equality and dignity by enhancing recognition of their cultures more widely by providing spaces where creative and critical responses to caste discrimination can be shared and artistic responses seen to be valued in India and Europe. It will demonstrate to Dalit and Adivasi artists and audiences that their cultural heritage is widely respected to enhance self-esteem and support social agency.
Third and cultural sector organisations, including IAPAR, NAE, the state-funded theatre Ravindra Kalakshetra and the Alliance Française will benefit from hosting important international festival events, developing activities with societal impact and forging new networks of cultural practitioners and researchers.
A key objective is to maximise community engagement and interrogate social exclusion by reaching four specific audience groups: an ethnically diverse European audience to include South Asian communities at NAE and the Paris libraries; a majority non-Dalit Indian audience at IAPAR; and a majority Dalit and Adivasi audience in Bangalore. Changes in audience attitudes will be measured by questionnaires and qualitative interviews following performances.
In the UK, South Asian communities, in particular Dalit communities, will develop a better understanding of the practice of caste discrimination in India in order to address its continuation in the wider diaspora, through specifically designed workshops, becoming better equipped to challenge it.
The wider public will benefit from engaging with this rich and revolutionary body of literature. The extensive marketing expertise of our external partners will draw in a range of communities who will experience and learn from art inspired by the battle against caste discrimination and designed to foster solidarity across communities. As impact-focused workshops held in Nottingham in April 2018 demonstrated, audience members from all walks of life are empowered by tapping into affirmative, activist-oriented literatures and artistic practices, when they are supported by workshop activities and informative supplementary materials which we intend to provide.


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