The Cultural Appropriation of Dalit Music

For Dalit artists, music and performance have been tools of cultural resistance. But mainstream Indian media has glamorized and sanitized this history.

Prashant Ingole

September 17, 2021

The Cultural Appropriation of Dalit Music
Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone performing Pinga in "Bajirao Mastani" (2015)

मोठा साहेब झालास बापाला विसरलास, 

गेला असता स्मशानी भक्ष्य असता गिधाडाचा,

असता महाग तू वेड्या आता बिडी नं काडीला 

आहे कुणाचं योगदानं लाल दिव्याच्या गाडीला? 

- आनंद शिंदे

You have become the master, but you have forgotten your father, 

You could have ended in a graveyard as the target of vultures,

You would not have any power to buy your bread and butter,

It is all you got because of the struggle of Babasaheb [Ambedkar].

- Anand Shinde

Anyone born in a Maharashtrian Ambedkarite family knows what it’s like growing up listening to and singing songs about caste liberation. Written by Dalit poets, these songs are often dedicated to the work of B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution and noted crusader of anti-caste struggle.

As the birthplace of the Dalit Panthers, a Black Panthers-inspired organization that Ambedkarite activists formed in 1972, the state of Maharashtra in India has been central to the Dalit rights movement, a civil rights movement to fight for the basic rights of millions of people in the Dalit community, historically relegated as those beneath the oppressive Hindu caste system. Dalit resistance, as with many other movements, has gone hand-in-hand with literature, music, and other art.

While the philosophies of Dalit revolutionaries are buried in books — or erased from them entirely — these anthems make the history of the fight for Dalit rights more accessible, and have become a powerful tool in disseminating the idea of a casteless society far beyond Maharashtra and dismantling casteism. 

However, in recent years, mainstream Indian culture has been appropriating Dalit liberation music. But very few know that Indian music thrives on the labor of oppressed-caste communities — who have crafted instruments and contributed performances to India’s musical canon, all without due credit or representation.