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On caste, these comics have the last laugh | India News – Times of India

Growing up in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, Manjeet Sarkar realised that school meant three things — he didn’t have to work as a child labourer unlike many around him, he got to eat a mid-day meal and casteism was all around him. “Lots of incidents happened; even teachers would always remind me of my caste. By the time I went to study in Odisha in Class XI, I had it in my mind that people will judge, bully and make fun of you. ”
Today, the tables have turned. As part of a new collective of Dalit comedians called Blue Material that performs across the country, he makes anti-caste jokes, and talks about issues like anganwadis and child labour rather than the strict parents-Tinder/engineer woes that have come to typify much of Indian comedy.
Founding member Manaal Patil began performing when he was 17, but his comedy has changed a lot over the years. “One of my first jokes was about me being SC. My jokes then relied on the idea that I have some kind of economic, urban privilege. I felt guilty about that, and my jokes were kind of anti-reservation,” he says. It wasn’t until he started engaging with anti-caste discourse online and reading Ambedkarite literature that his perspective evolved. “I realised reservations are not about economic privilege, but a representational right. My jokes now are not anti-reservation or punching down, but are anti-caste. ” In one of his jokes, he narrates a conversation he had with his father about reservations, asking him if the quota is not unfair to others. His dad told him, “English mat jhad, mujhe reservation mila isiliye tujhe aati hai (Don’t show off your English, you only know it because I had reservation)”.
His impetus for starting Blue Material, which has five members at the moment, was the utter lack of stage time he was getting in the upper-caste dominated comedy world, despite having been at it since he was a teen. “These gatekeepers of stand-up would limit me to a five-minute spot or sometimes even ban me, saying you’re not presentable on stage. No one outrightly says, ‘you’re Dalit, don’t come’ but they find reasonsto keep you away. ” The othering can take several forms — he knows of a seemingly progressive upper caste comic who stole a Dalit comedian’s joke about caste. Other comics TOI spoke with mentioned tasteless jokes like wiping the mic after a Dalit comic performs.
Plus, Mumbai open mics require budding comics to pay to perform — Rs 200 for four minutes of stage time. So, Blue Material became a solution to this problem — the group can hone their material while also fostering other Dalit talent, offering them a go-to place to find their voice.
Ankur Tangade, another comic and member, has transitioned out of doing ‘relatable’ material that didn’t feel true to her into talking about herself — being queer, being Dalit, being from a rural area. “I was initially worried whether people would understand, but it’s okay if they don’t relate. I should just let people know who I am,” says the 25-year-old who lives in Beed,Maharashtra and travels for comedy shows. She has been told by people that casteism no longer exists in 2023. “They say you are taking advantage of who you are and creating issues to get attention. Other people talk about their lives all the time — how annoying their wife is or whatever — but when I’m talking about my life, there is a problem. ”
Growing up with supportive parents who are human rights activists, she didn’t grow up aware of caste biases. “But I began to realise that even if I don’t think this way, other people see me as Dalit and they treat me like that. There have been times they ask me my name and I can see their faces change,” she says. It’s not just strangers — she was in a relationship with someone who didn’t know her caste. “One day he was talking about reservations and said, ‘my mother has said bring anyone home but a Muslim or a Dalit’. He saw my facial expression changed and askedif I was Dalit,” she adds. Needless to say, they broke up.
Ravi Gaikwad, who started the group with Patil, says he likes performing as a member of Blue Material. “In a Blue Material show, I go all out because I know I can say things and people will understand the context. But right now, half the shows are great, and the other half are filled with PhD, journo-types. They are not there to laugh, but to tick boxes or do their research. That is slowly changing, thankfully,” he says, adding that college shows are particularly fun. Patil adds that they tend to link up with the local Ambedkarite group on campus and give away free tickets to their members.
Comedy can be a rather expensive art form to fall in love with, especially when the avenues to make money — corporate shows, for instance — are often gatekept, points out Sarkar, who recently toured the country with his show ‘Untouchable’ (“As in, I’m so good, your favourite comic can’t even touch me,” he laughs). Tangade agrees. “People in the entertainment industry end up hiring people from their own caste or religion. ”
The long-term goal is not only to get more opportunities, but to build a culture of Dalit comedy. Sarkar says, “If Black comedy can be a thing, why not Dalit comedy?”

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