What use is it being educated, if I cannot help my community get basic requirements?
In Dindagur, Hassan district, some of Santosh D D’s neighbours turn their faces away as he passes by. This social boycott extends to the others from the Holeya community who entered a village temple last September.
Before the temple entry, Vokkaligas (privileged community) in the village appreciated and were even proud of Santosh’s accomplishments in education and theatre. But now, many blame him for disturbing harmony in the village. “I realised that we could maintain peace only when we fell in line with all the instructions that privileged castes were dictating,” he says.
The spark of resistance came in 2021, when a canteen adjoining the Keshavaswamy temple asked Santosh (35) to leave, refusing to serve him due to his caste. “I was deeply disturbed by what happened. I understood that personal accomplishments would not matter and this foul practice would continue,” he says.
For his entire life, he had believed that education would help him overcome the narrow walls of caste. Even after he earned his master’s degree, however, caste-based discrimination continued to haunt him. The 2021 incident laid the foundation for Santosh and his friends to persuade the Holeya community to claim their fundamental right to equality and to enter the temple.
Many Dalit rights groups deprioritise temple entry. Some leaders in the village, too, dismissed temple entries saying religion promoted superstition. Yet, Santosh finds significance in it, as temples remain active sites of exclusion. “For centuries, upper castes have claimed that if Dalits entered temples, they would face the wrath of gods and that the village as a whole would suffer,” he says. By entering temples and breaking this perceived cause-and-effect relationship, the hegemony of these superstitions could be challenged, he says.
To persuade and unite the community against discrimination that has haunted generations, Santosh organised a chain of performances, discussions and conversations with villagers.
Jayamma, a resident of the village and one of many who stepped into the temple in September, explains what the assertion meant to the community despite the backlash they faced right after. “Why should we not enter the temple? Are they not humans, are we not humans?” she asks. After being on the receiving end of dehumanising treatment, entering the temple was a declaration of equality and an announcement of the pursuit of justice, she says.
The lifeblood of the assertion came from the writings of Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution — and for the Dalit community a symbol of hope, dignity, perseverance and resistance. Santosh encountered Ambedkar’s writings while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and right after, at a course at Ninasam Theatre Institute. “I could immediately relate to his experiences with discrimination. He analysed social structures and criticised them thoroughly,” Santosh says.
Adding to Santosh’s growing awareness was the work of literary stalwarts like P Lankesh and K B Siddaiah, which motivated him to take a deeper look at Dalit culture and history.
Art and literature motivated him to put up a one-man show on Ambedkar’s life. “When I am in character, I feel like I can draw from his strength,” says Santosh.
The expressions and reactions of the audience towards a portrayal also go a long way in kindling a fighting spirit, says Nataraja D N, a member of the theatre troupe.
Songs and shows about Ambedkar’s life are particularly popular among the Holeya community. Even when shows are staged in Channarayapatna, about 10 km from the village, most people from the community show up in solidarity.
Another show that became a hit in the village was ‘keri haadu’. In the show, the community comes together to showcase instances of discrimination from contemporary life and history. A rich discussion follows, where people are able to reflect on the nature of society and the need to confront prejudices.
Seventy-year-old Thimmaiah, for instance, witnessed a recreation of the jeeta system in one segment of keri haadu. When he was young, Thimmaiah was forced to work in a privileged caste family’s home as a bonded labourer.
Calling the practice slavery, Thimmaiah recounts how he was made to sleep in the barn with cattle as he was not allowed inside the house. “I worked there for years and was not given a penny,” he says.
Introducing younger generations to these stories can go a long way in teaching them about the different forms that prejudice and bigotry have taken over the years. “Children also understand that they are not alone when they encounter such attitudes,” says Santosh.
Another admired effort was the door-to-door story-reading sessions that he conducted. The main aim of the stories was to facilitate discussions in the community about injustice and view social practices with a critical eye, Santosh explains.
Put together, the plays, stories, songs and discussions helped build resolve in the community to enter the temple. Nataraj explains why the performances were so effective, “Theatre can be very powerful. It is able to hold up a mirror to society by giving voice to the voiceless.”
Despite its positive messages and the motivation that the troupe was able to evoke through the plays, Santosh acknowledges that a career in theatre comes with financial insecurities. “Even my batch mates in my Masters in Theatre Studies and Ninasam course who came from financially stable households found it difficult to make ends meet,” explains Santosh. This, he says, ends up inhibiting a lot of talented people from poor socio-economic and caste backgrounds from performing in the long run.
A lot of his peers in the village also discontinued their education due to financial constraints. Most are either manual or agricultural labourers. To encourage diversity in theatre and to make it more inclusive, Santosh knew that change was in order. Telling the stories of marginalised people required a more sustainable solution.
“We have long been attached to agriculture as labourers and farmers,” says Santosh. It made sense to practice agriculture and theatre in parallel. What he and his troupe did not expect was how much theatre and agriculture would feed off of each other. “It adds authenticity to the stories we are telling,” he adds.
Many agricultural labourers lost their sole source of income after the Holeya community was socially boycotted, leading to greater economic instability. While men were able to find work in neighbouring villages, women found themselves without any way to support their families. Jayamma, for instance, used to find work as an agricultural labourer in ginger fields. “Now, I have nothing to do,” she says.
To find a way to help, Santosh and Nandini, his wife, looked for short-term training courses for women. Having zeroed down on mushroom farming as space requirements were minimal, equipment was bought and women were trained. “The first harvest was successful but we need investment for the second round,” explains Jayamma.
Bureaucratic delays have also made it next to impossible for Santosh to get a loan through a government programme. It has been several months since he applied. “It takes years for our people to get any help through government schemes,” says Nandini. While illiteracy is a major deterrent, slow processing times also discourage potential beneficiaries. This is why Santosh and Nandini intervene in the application process for Aadhar, ration cards and pension programmes when people are unable to understand procedures.
“What use is it being educated, if I cannot help my community get basic requirements?” Santosh asks.