Give them a round of... uproar: Dhrubo Jyoti talks to India’s young Dalit stand-up comics - Hindustan Times
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Give them a round of... uproar: Dhrubo Jyoti talks to India’s young Dalit stand-up comics

ByDhrubo Jyoti
May 10, 2024 03:34 PM IST

They’re looking to punch back (yes, they hear the quota jokes), tell some truths, be seen. They want their sets to be light fun too; maybe in the next stage.

Manjeet Sarkar straddles two worlds: Home is a remote village on the border between Odisha and Chhattisgarh; work is spread out across the grimy comedy-club stages of Mumbai.

Ankur Tangade, 25, draws from real life. One story she tells is about a friend who visited her home but refused to drink any tea, ‘because I’m a pure vegetarian’. “Do you think we eat mutton out of our cups?” Tangade asked. PREMIUM
Ankur Tangade, 25, draws from real life. One story she tells is about a friend who visited her home but refused to drink any tea, ‘because I’m a pure vegetarian’. “Do you think we eat mutton out of our cups?” Tangade asked.

He’s an unusual voice in both places, mining experiences from his childhood in the Maoist region of Bastar to inform his comedy, and his view of the world.

His roots, traced further back, are even more troubled. Sarkar, 26, is from a village of Dalit refugees who fled across what was then the border with East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), amid the violence of Partition.

Understandably, comedy didn’t start out being Sarkar’s dream. He wanted to be a bus driver; then an auto mechanic; or a school teacher. “Growing up, I faced abuse on the basis of my caste, but I thought that was normal. I was conditioned to accept it,” he says.

After school, he moved to at Berhampur College in Odisha. On his first day, he remembers, what most excited him were the benches and chairs; he’d spent years studying on the floor.

But he had a different problem now; for one thing, he often had the bench to himself. No one wanted to sit with him, socialise with him. There were no other Dalits in his class. This time, the discrimination registered.

“Earlier, all of us Dalit kids would face abuse together. I didn’t feel alone. Now, I started developing this thing called self-respect,” he says. “It made me feel alienated. I barely attended classes at all.”

Manjeet Sarkar, 26, was tired of people coming up to him after a show and saying: ‘But Dalit people are getting better, aren’t they?’ “It’s not a disease!” he says. “So now I do a bit about how I used to be too Dalit, but I’m getting better.”
Manjeet Sarkar, 26, was tired of people coming up to him after a show and saying: ‘But Dalit people are getting better, aren’t they?’ “It’s not a disease!” he says. “So now I do a bit about how I used to be too Dalit, but I’m getting better.”

Almost overnight, resignation grew wings and became anger.

He was 19 when his frustration with the way the world is, found an outlet in comedy. As stand-up nights in a caste-ridden country continue to feature jokes about the perils of “quotas” (or caste-based reservations in education and employment), Sarkar is part of a new clutch of young comedians using humour and the stage to challenge such bias.

Four years ago, he really found his voice. “During the pandemic, I started to do bits where I embraced how my lived experience was different from that of other comics and the audience,” Sarkar says. “I switched from jokes about dating and Tinder and Zomato — all features of upper-caste city life, which I had never experienced — to jokes about how some people still practice untouchability.”

He is determined to never walk on eggshells again. “I was tired of people coming up to me after a show and saying: ‘But Dalit people are getting better, aren’t they?’,” he says, by way of example. “It’s not a disease…! So now I do a bit about how I used to be too Dalit, but I’m getting better.”

Not just for laughs

Ankur Tangade, a 25-year-old queer Dalit woman, grew up in the city of Beed in central Maharashtra. Her journey was very different from Sarkar’s, though their destinations have somewhat aligned.

Born to activists, Tangade was raised with a keen awareness of the injustices of the world.

As she embraced her evolving identity in college, she faced the gasps of surprise from new acquaintances that are often the first insult hurled at young Dalits in urban India: “Oh my God, you’re Dalit? You don’t look it!”

In comedy circles, she would see the hesitation grow, as she talked to booking agents and venue managers about herself. “When people see a queer Dalit person, the thought that she will talk about caste and sexuality unsettles them. Why? Upper-caste comedians don’t have this problem.”

Like Sarkar, she uses the stand-up stage to channel, and challenge, this othering. “I often talk about the people who come up to me and ‘joke’: ‘Are there now reservations in comedy?’ Or, ‘Can I be gay for one night?’”

She also draws from real life, and tells the story of a friend who visited her home but refused to drink any tea, “because she was a pure vegetarian”. “Do you think we eat mutton out of our cups?” Tangade asked.

Blue streak

Some barriers can’t be laughed away. For the overwhelming majority of comedians, stand-up is, at best, a profession that offers slim and uncertain returns. Being on the margins here can feel like defeat.

Manaal Patil, 26, is founder of the Blue Material comedy platform. His aim is to capture more stage time, and expand the group, he says.
Manaal Patil, 26, is founder of the Blue Material comedy platform. His aim is to capture more stage time, and expand the group, he says.

Which is why Manaal Patil, 26, started Blue Material, a platform for anti-caste comics, in 2022. Together, the collective (the numbers and members vary) lobbies for space and curates line-ups.

Born in Nagpur, Patil began to really think about caste in college, when he faced harassment from peers over the fact that he was admitted as part of the caste reservation system. “The mission with Blue Material is to get more stage time. We are Dalit comics and blue is the colour of our movement, hence the name,” he says.

What’s next? Tangade wants to feel less pressure as a Dalit queer woman, and have more fun with her sets. Patil wants to occupy more stage hours and expand the group. Sarkar is doing the rounds of festivals with a documentary about his life, titled Untouchable.

“There is this sense that anything about Dalit people is always sad. I want to break the mould, make something funny, edgy and adventurous,” he says. “My film is gangtsa and super cool. Because Manjeet Sarkar is super cool.”

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