The idea is to make the writing of Ambedkar accessible to everyone, rather than just his slogans or pictures
At a tahsildar office in Koppal, a family from the Gantichor community waits in line for a caste certificate – this document will give them access to basic amenities and schemes, which could change the course of their children’s futures.
When they get to the front, they are questioned about their inclusion in the Scheduled Caste category. The confusion, officials say, is because their surnames do not match those used by the Gantichor community. In response, the family pulls out a copy of a book by folklore scholar and researcher, Arun Joladakudligi. Making their case for their inclusion using the researcher’s data, the family, for the first time, is recognised and given the benefits due to them.
From survey to rediscovery to real impact on the ground, the scholar’s research has had a multi-level reach, from informing policy to redefining community identity. As a subaltern studies scholar, Joladakudligi (41) emphasises the need to let the richness of qualitative data — stories of communities, first-hand accounts and oral traditions paint the picture, rather than relying only on mainstream narratives, written by those in power.
“We were amazed to see how he went to each Gantichor home spread across North Karnataka, he listened to each of us and heard our stories,” says Godavari, a member of the community from Raibag taluk in Belagavi. The Gantichors, primarily associated with a history of thieving for a living, have been relegated to the margins due to stereotypes.
It was only through several layers and rounds of intensive research, involving stories passed down over the years, verified by documentation, that the researcher was able to uncover information about their legacy. “I found that the Gantichors were once part of the king’s army. They were in charge of collecting the loot after a conquest,” After the armies were disbanded after independence, the community lost their means of living.
The new information about their history gave the community’s struggles for rights a new life. They now knew they were an ancient tribe, having served in the king’s army, and were native to Karnataka. “If you come from a tradition where your ancestors have stood up to Nizams, what is a caste certificate in comparison?” asks the professor.
“Besides uncovering details about our past, like where we even got the name ‘Gantichor’ from, his work focuses on our present condition too,” says Anantha Kattimane, an advocate from Lakshmeshwar in Gadag. The literacy rates, lifestyles, habitations, social and economic conditions of the community were documented.
His research also uncovered that people with different surnames and castes were originally part of the Gantichor community, but changed their name due to stigma. By providing evidence to support this, he argues for their inclusion in schemes for Scheduled Caste communities.
Explaining what sets this researcher’s work apart, Kattimane adds, “He writes the truth. He has put in so much effort to meet every person possible from the community, to hear from them, and also to share with them about our history, where we came from.”
The advocate is currently waiting for a response from the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority to a letter that cites the professor’s research, along with other academics, for the inclusion of the community in education and other schemes.
The transformative power of community-centred research has not been limited to Gantichors. Typified by a commitment to being as comprehensive as possible, Joladakudligi’s work on the transgender community involved speaking to nearly 500 Jogathis. “So often, cultural studies does not include community knowledge, but the knowledge from others about the community,” he says.
Delving into the stories of transgender people and their folk traditions provided fresh perspective. “Previously, I had various opinions as an outsider. But hearing their real stories, struggles and journeys, I was able to uncover and represent the layered nature of their realities,” he adds.
Joladakudligi’s biography of Manjamma Jogathi was received with much praise. It was a first in many ways, due to its empathetic representation, says Shilok Mukkati, a writer. “I have known him and his work with minority communities for a while. The voices he brings out are very genuine, and he does not jump to conclusions,” she adds.
“In a lot of Kannada literature, you do not see a very optimistic outlook towards the transgender community, this is one of the few, making it so important,” explains the writer.
Explaining why in-depth, informed study is essential for communities to claim their rights, Joladakudligi explains, “Without data and documentation, many struggle to find a basis for their social movements.” Specifics on their realities inform policy on housing, employment, sanitation and other basic amenities.
The professor, who currently teaches at Haveri’s Karnataka Folklore University, hopes that dedicated, community-centred research can also help dispel myths and truly help them. One prime tool to uncover lived histories is folk art. “We contain folk to ancient times, and fail to see how it can be relevant today,” he says.
This was evident in his work studying Muharram traditions across Karnataka. He cites the examples of songs based on landowners, the use of pesticide, and agriculture.
Joladakudligi points out a major gap in the traditional approach to community studies— its colonial origin. “The purpose was to rule at the time. If we as researchers are using an approach that weakens and minimises our communities rather than building a foundation of truth, rooted in their traditions and art, then what is the point of our work?” he asks.
Further, the scholar critiques the tendency of documentation to highlight ‘anonymity’ within folk art. In fact, most folk songs contain a reference to its origin, including their names, villages and other details. “But anonymity has been enforced, often as a means of control, taking away due credit from the author,” he explains.
The sound foundation the professor received in subaltern studies during his Master’s degree set the tone for this nuanced approach to research. Teaching young researchers to widen their perspectives in a similar manner, the professor says, “Change will be slow. We cannot expect quick, immediate results. But if discourse continues to be focused on their voices and highlighting their realities, communities can finally claim their folklore.” His works are currently being taught as texts in 12 universities.
Central to his work is his belief that knowledge must always be exchanged. “Most often, writers and researchers only gain information from communities, and do not give back. But knowledge and information exchange is key,” he says. In an initiative to translate this principle into action, the professor started the ‘Ambedkar Odhu’ programme a few years ago.
The concept is simple — every day, a YouTube video is uploaded, featuring a reading of one of Dr B R Ambedkar’s works in an audio format. Each day features a different reader — from writers, farmers, actors, politicians, students and more.
One such YouTube comment led to Shivakumar K M, a technician at BHEL, reading for one of the episodes. “I was excited to be featured as a reader in an initiative that included narrations by Devanur Mahadeva, Hamsalekha and Anupama H S,” he recounts.
Explaining why the initiative resonated so deeply with him, Shivakumar elaborates, “A person may not have the time to read the entire depth of Ambekar’s writings. Through this audio programme, we can listen to these ideas while traveling. Even if a few things are retained in our minds, it is a great gain.”
The most important thing that reading Ambedkar does is to reshape people’s perspectives. “We live in a system where we have been oppressed, leading to many inequalities. This is why, even now, people are afraid to help others progress, and keep people oppressed using caste,” he says.
The professor hopes that more people from different professions will listen to and participate in the readings. “It is meant for all, and open to all. The idea is to make the writing of Ambedkar accessible to everyone, rather than just his slogans or pictures,” emphasises Joladakudligi.