Tracking caste in reporting
When I applied for a job as a reporter at a Tamil publication many years ago, the editor who hired me asked about my caste. I was not shocked by the question as I was brought up in a rural area where caste was an everyday reality, but I was embarrassed. He said, “As a journalist you must know every possible detail of a person, including his caste. Caste is a reality and knowing about it will add to your perspective as a journalist.”
He was perhaps training me to ask that very uncomfortable question to all my interviewees over the span of my career. As he said, caste informs everyday living: work, culture and eating choices, as seen in the recent report that an anganwadi worker in Tamil Nadu was transferred because caste Hindus refused to eat food prepared by a Scheduled Caste woman.
The cultural aspect has always interested me. Though Tamil Nadu is the land of Dravidian ideals, and its leaders boast of arresting the entry of Hindutva forces, casteism is as entrenched as the Dravidian movement itself. While there is an ugly side to this which most are forced to face, I have discovered as a journalist many forms of music in Tamil Nadu, each associated with a specific community, which shows what a variety of musical forms we have in a State where one ‘season’ of culture is only associated with the Brahmins and Isai Vellalas.
I didn’t know, for instance, that A.N. Sattanathan, the first chairman of the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission, belonged to the Padayachi community. It was only when I read his book, Plain Speaking a Sudra’s Story, that I realised that his father was a nagaswaram player. He details in the book the struggles that his father underwent in his career. I enjoy listening to Amabasamudram M.A. Durairaj, who is also from the same community.
The community of Dalits and barbers also have produced excellent musicians. Kambar is one community that performs poojas at the Kali temple and plays the nagaswaram and the thavil.
Kaniyaan koothu is performed by Kaniyaans, a community that is now included in the list of Scheduled Tribes. While this art form has helped them enter government service, the art is not able to get adequate performing artistes from the community. Today many of those who dance for the koothu are from other communities.
Once I asked a group of youth who were performing thappu at a temple festival their caste. “We are Dalits. But we will play only at temples, not at funeral processions,” they said, clearly telling me where the lines are drawn.
The role of caste is so paramount in politics, too, that a journalist cannot do justice to his reporting unless he is is aware of the caste structure, especially since caste organisations often masquerade as political organisations.
Caste also determines appointments. Once, when a Vice Chancellor was appointed to the Tamil University in Thanjavur, the same Tamil editor asked me whether I knew the background of the person. When I mentioned his caste along with other details, he told me, “His caste also played an important role in getting him the post.” As a journalist, one realises that it is not the use of the caste that is important, but the context within which it is used in the story.
Source : The Hindu