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Biennale Discussion Recounts the Intersections and Challenges of Caste and Queerness

In Kochi
March 05, 2019

At a dating website recently, independent researcher Koonal Duggal stumbled upon a profile that had the man looking for someone from the scheduled chamar caste.

Koonal contacted the man online, only to learn something that further anguished him. “On questioning, he said he was looking specifically for someone who could do dirty sex,” the speaker recalled at a discussion organised as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “Such a search is de-humanising.”

The story didn’t end there. For, the man on the portal countered Koonal by saying that he meant only “a type of sex” he associated with people from an oppressed caste. Koonal summarised the damage of the pervasive “idea that a Dalit can do all dirty things.”

The anecdote was shared at an interactive session organised at the biennale’s main Aspinwall House venue in Fort Kochi on Sunday evening. The hour-long discussion titled ‘Disidentifications: Conversations on Everyday Caste and Queerness’ at the exhibit space of artist Aryakrishnan R was addressed also by queer Dalit activist Aleena Akashamittayi.

A third panelist, intersex activist Chinju Ashwathi, could not turn up at the event following an attack by an unidentified person at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Chinju is the first intersex person to be represented on Kerala’s State Transgender Justice Board.

The Sunday event focusing on Dalit queer and transgender people was hosted as a platform for public discourse on gender fluidity and caste.

Koonal, who is working on a project awarded by Sher-Gil Sundaram Art Foundation and AsiaArt Archive Grant for histories of ideas, art writing and visual culture, said certain myths associated with caste continue to plague society. “Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, it did take a while for us to understand (the dynamics of caste and gender),” he added.

Aleena, addressing the gathering at Aryakrishnan’s exhibition space that is a tribute to queer rights activist Sweet Maria who was murdered in Kerala seven years ago, noted that Dalits have always been kept away from the mainstream in multiple ways. “When people get to know you are queer as well, the troubles get worse,” she added.

Kerala, like the rest of India, has historically suppressed Dalits. “Untouchability continues to be practised today—even in urban areas, though in forms less direct,” she said. “It is only that now they just have found new ways.”

The speaker noted that society forces one to use the caste tag. She spoke of a general trend in the fields of education and employment, where “even though you will qualify in the ‘merit’ quota, we are forced to get a seat under SC/ST category”.

To this, Koonal recalled an incident when his professor asked him why he did not apply through quota, noting that another student could have anyway enrolled in the general category. “It seemed like they want fewer Dalit students,” he added.

Delhi-based Malayali Aryakrishnan’s biennale work, ‘Sweet Maria Monument’, addresses queer and gender issues through creating a communal space for reflection. The space houses a growing and ephemeral archive that recounts the experiences and life of his friend, Maria, who was an outspoken transgender activist.