KMF and cultural re-appropriation of tribal communities in Visual Mediatext_fields
On 31st December 2020, KMF (Kochi Music Foundation) led by film celebrities like Ashique Abu, Rima Kallingal, and Bijipal launched a music concert named PARA-HIP-HOP FESTIVAL 2020. Para can carry two meanings: to speak or the name of a traditional musical instrument used especially by Tamil people called Parai/Para. The Concert logo and performance floor carried the fluorescent-colored images of Madhu, a tribal victim of mob lynching from Palakkad district of Kerala, dogs barking and jumping towards him, a tribal family in their traditional attire where the child seems to be affected by Inflammatory Bowel Disease leading to the inflated abdomen. There is also an image of Tribal huntsmen with their lances. The program was meant to bring together several bands performing hip hop/rap songs on a common platform.
Black Ink Blots, the Facebook community which has been actively bringing out the experience of marginalized people posted on the same:
Imagine a scenario where Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift held a concert with its logo containing the image of the cop kneeling on George Floyd's neck. Something about it doesn't feel fair, right? A picture of Madhu, a tribal youngster beaten to death accused of thievery, taken minutes before his death is used here as a colourful 'object' to be looked at. His final moment of shame and trauma froze up into a poster of high commercial value.
KMF on their Facebook page states that: One of the main initial goals of KMF will be to conduct the Kochi International Music Festival every year starting 2020, a festival that reflects and resonates international standards and finesse and that which will feature all genres of music beyond all borders and boundaries.
A music concert in Kochi is not a space that welcomes Tribal people. Kochi is an elite hub of shopping malls, branded shops, beach tourism, and pubs. It is a highly developed metro city in Kerala. And a place where the Dalit-Bahujan communities were ruthlessly sidelined into their ghettos away from the urban spaces when their lands were grabbed by land mafias.
Here we can see how the KMF has been trying to configure itself as an international platform and moulding its cultural 'products' in global standards which can attract obviously an elite crowd. We have to rethink if the people organizing the concert are really trying to speak for Madhu or the tribal community he represents.
Madhu Chintaki(27) was attacked by a group of 16 men on February 22, 2018, by accusing him of stealing rice from a grocery shop. He belonged to the Scheduled tribe of Attapadi. The group tied him up and was cruelly beaten with sticks and handed over to police. He died en route to the nearby hospital. Even in 2019, a year after the incident, the hearing of the case was pending as the government delayed in appointing a public prosecutor. The case is still awaiting the verdict and the accused are not punished till the day.
The statistics of crimes against Dalit and Tribal communities are high in Kerala. And it's a fact that these cases are ignored after the media cools down. Except for a few action councils, no one is bothered about the justice denied to them.
Madhu's incident attained much attention on social media. Hashtag campaigns were created, numerous cartoons and caricatures popped up, several poems and stories were written, and channel discussions held. Political figures like Kummanam Rajashekharan tried pathetic re-enactment of Madhu by tying themselves up like him. Madhu was reduced into that single image, that tied up a moment of helplessness where his life, identity, and everything else was pushed into total oblivion.
But when turning back to media/film/art representations of the tribal community in Kerala, we can see that they always have been appropriated. When Tourism exploited their images as an equation for the forest flavor and adventure, advertisements used them as props for their products. Films like Nadodikaatt (1987) Chithram (1988) Bamboo Boys (2002) and Mazhathullikilukkam (2002) used the characters of tribal people for adding comic scenes to the film. Apart from harmless humor, these included discrimination and blind stereotyping of tribal community as foolish and vulgar people. One scene from Bamboo boys shows Kalabhavan Mani playing a tribal who applies toothpaste in bread instead of Jam. A scene from Mazhathullikilukkam shows Salim Kumar playing a tribal who is accidentally dragged by a cow and his backside is awfully hurt. The laughter evoked in the theatre is manufactured at their cost. It never occurs to these filmmakers that as a community, their dignity must be preserved both off-screen and onscreen.
Be-Live, a not much popular youtube channel had put up a troll/parody to the hit song Freak-Penne from Oru Adaar Love(2019) where the lyrics go like this: "Njan Attapadi girl, a pattikattil girl, pande njan blackaa, ellarum freakaa.." (I am an Attapadi girl, a remote village girl, I always have been dark-skinned, and everyone here is a freak.)
This reveals the popular connotations carried even by words like Aadivasi or Attappadi in the Malayalam language which is often equated with ugly, remote, uneducated, and uncivilized.
Divya Kandukuri, the founder of The Blue Dawns, a support group for Bahujan communities had observed how disparities exist even in public domains like google where upper-caste women's images are often dignified and tribal women's images are demeaned.
Thus Tribal the community had always served the media's purpose like a template to which they could do any kind of manipulation. They could caricature them, make them subjects of vulgar comedy or sell their images as art.
But as Black Ink Blots has noted, the upward mobility of Tribal-Dalit-Bahujan artists had attracted the culture industry in a novel form. They try to patronize the resistance and protest of the marginalized people who had already created a signature of their own. Through this re-appropriation, the market politics of these patrons are seldom questioned.
The first song in Para Hip-hop Festival was performed by Hirandas Murali, known as VEDAN, who through his Malayalam rap song titled 'the Voice of the Voiceless' had gained much attention in social media. His lyrics are explicit and unapologetic, carrying the rage and protest of ages of Dalit exploitation and caste discrimination.
He recounts in The News Minute an incident at the time of the flood where a person refused to rescue him due to his lower caste identity.
He states that his colony and its people who were discriminated against for a long for their caste and colour, who are living without basic facilities, proper nutrition or a safe house has shaped his music.
Thus when Vedan, Madhu, and Tribal protest intersect at a space like Kochi Music Foundation, when the performance takes place covered in fluorescent lights, over the 'colourful' images of a person who was lynched, the silence of Madhu is transfigured into an urban spectacle, to an elite audience who had otherized him.
One of the performers from the Para Hip-hop fest who doesn't want to reveal his identity states his disagreement:
"We have to perform inside the performing space which was already configured and defined by them. The Fluorescent Warli Art which depicts Madhu and Tribal culture is divorced from its real politics. We were asked to be the audience standing near the luxury cars while others were performing. They were just projecting the Dalit image."
Recently a song by Sreenadh Bhasi and Sekhar Menon named Kozhipunk included the image of a bleeding Madhu alongside Gowri Lankesh, Anti-CAA protests, and Dadri mob lynching. The forest with psychedelic images resembling the visions of some hallucinogenic dreams are lightyears away from the experiences of Madhu who lived in fear of the so-called civilized world.
The image of Madhu, tribal people, their music, even their voice, and protests are re-appropriated as a cultural product or commodity to be sold in the culture industry. The whole concert turns into an urban spectacle that dates back to the colonial period where the white elites of Europe used to exhibit aboriginal people in cities like London and Paris for the sake of curiosity and entertainment. Their appearance, their ways of life, and even the objects used by them evoked awe and pity in them. They were projected in intellectual debates about civilization and human rights, their attire inspired the latest fashion trends, their paintings decorated the wealthiest mansions. Their images were reproduced endlessly as the legacy of the empire.
The same othering can be found in this concert which chose to use Madhu's image as the floor décor and his victimhood to politicize the celebrity urban venture. The traumatized lives of Madhu and the countless Tribal people were driven out of their lands and exploited through forced labour, still suffering from false charges of allegiance with militant groups, suffering from malnutrition and diseases, are not icons and logos to be reproduced and re-appropriated according to the market demands.