in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)
Ravidassias identify themselves as followers of the North Indian medieval Bhakti saint Guru Ravidass who spread his ideas on equality and respectful coexistence in the 15th or 16th century. Bhakti movements had been religious and partly also socio-critical reform movements which formed up in different regions of the Indian subcontinent most probably starting between the 6th and 9th centuries from the South (Burchett 2009, 115). As Burchett argues, the wide range of Bhakti movements and thoughts shared the characteristic of being at least “spiritually egalitarian in theory”(2009, 116). Many Ravidassias also describe themselves as descendants of Guru Ravidass since most of them share a similar caste-background related to the occupational field of leather working like Guru Ravidass.1
Related Ravidassia music videos are mainly known as tools for developing caste-based self-respect and for self-empowerment through creating positive representations of the self, as later sections of this article illustrate. These aspects are of great importance in a context in which the self is constantly imagined by dominant social groups inferior due to caste-based discrimination, manifesting in misrepresentations in media and cultural production. While recognizing the emancipative potential of these videos, I try to explore their relevance on a larger level, addressing the following question: Why might it be relevant to explore Ravidassia music videos and the articulations of related musicians also as imaginations and performances of respectful coexistence and solidarity beyond caste?
Taking the example of the young singer Ginni Mahi from Punjab, I seek to address this question from an actor-centered, non-media-centric media perspective that challenges the idea of a singular media logic and analysis (see for instance Krotz & Hepp 2011; Schneider 2011; Morley 2017, Hepp & Hasebrink 2018, Nizaruddin 2021). In a former publication (Kirchhof 2019), I illustrated the benefits of this perspective in more detail.2 I am drawing upon examples of Ginni Mahi’s music videos, upon examples of her interviews with different media outlets as well as upon findings from my own ethnographic research in India and Germany and content analysis. Ginni Mahi takes center stage in this article since her outreach to audiences beyond caste lines has been extraordinary and her music videos seem to differ from many earlier Ravidassia videos in terms of the range of topics and ways of speaking about and to others. Concurrently, her articulations and success also indicate a larger change of themes, imaginations and ways of speaking in the context of Ravidassia music videos and related media practitioners.3
I argue that we need to consider the broader spectrum of themes and imaginations created in these music videos, the broader context of mediated performances of related musicians as well as multiple experiences and notions of belonging in the Ravidassia context. Thereby, multiple ways of speaking become visible that seek for dialogue, solidarity and respectful coexistence beyond caste through visualizing shared aspirations and identifications within and beyond India. In this manner, related media producers revive the spirit of Guru Ravidass’ teachings amidst the 21st century.
Probably more than 500 years ago, Guru Ravidass recognized the potential of dialogue and tried to convince others of the principle of universal equality aspiring to realize his envisioned utopia Begumpura (the city without sorrow). He had experienced caste-based discrimination as a leather worker, but also became a respected poet and socio-religious reformer across the lines of caste and religion. For detailed elaborations on his hagiography, assumed lifespan, teachings and his vision of Begumpura see for instance Friedlander (1991), Omvedt (2008), Burchett (2009), Ram (2011), Friedlander (2012).4 One cannot state with certainty how Ravidass’ original teachings looked like, since his hagiography is subject to heritage-making. The authority of interpretation is deeply contested and saturated by multiple identity politics and power relations as for example Burchett (2009) and Friedlander (2012) have shown in detail.
Guru Ravidass is said to have been able to convince larger sections of society of the principle of universal equality by articulating his critique of caste-based oppression in a peaceful, respectful and devotional way. He stressed the oneness of all human beings in God and that everyone could reach to God through personal devotion (and through an honest, selfless and dedicated work- and lifestyle) in place of following (Brahmanical) rituals (cf. Ram 2009, 9-11; Singh 2017a, n.p.). Singh emphasizes: “It was this spirit of forgiveness, combined with the depth of his philosophy, which endeared him to the people” (Singh 2017a, n.p.). Nevertheless, his devotional teachings had a highly revolutionary potential. As Ram (2011) explains referring to the interpretation of Guru Ravidass’ thoughts within the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism:
In fact, his entire poetry echoed a loud protest against slavery on the one hand and boundless love and devotion to the formless God on the other. He believed that God created all human beings and resided in all of them. If the same God pervaded the entire humanity, then it is foolish to divide the society on the basis of caste. He thus condemned the division of mankind on the basis of caste. He said, Jo ham shehri so meet hamara [whoever is my fellow citizen, is my friend] (Adi Granth: 345). (Ram 2011, 36)
Therefore, his teachings are liberating for those who experience(d) (caste-based) inequalities and provide(d) both, spiritual and worldly guidance for self-help. Concurrently, they might had and have a larger relevance for other groups and for respectful coexistence as well, since Guru Ravidass suggested ways to enhance recognition and livability of everyone. He promised a direct way to reach out to God, but also suggested worldly ways to reach good life through his vision of an egalitarian society. Both aspects required to recognize and treat others equally due to the assumed dependence of God’s recognition on one’s own behavior. Schneider (2021) emphasizes the relevance of larger Bhakti thoughts on recognition for the framework of the RePLITO project with a focus on Bhakti saint Kabir and religious coexistence as follows:
In the context of RePLITO’s enquiry into concepts and global repertoires of living together, bhakti’s link to individual experience and mutual recognition - not only by and through God, but also through other humans - is of particular relevance. (Schneider 2021, n.p.)
She refers here to Fuchs’ notion of recognition in Bhakti thought as a “triangular constellation” (Fuchs 2018, 133), pointing to complex entanglements of the relationships between the self, God and other humans. Fuchs extends here his earlier ideas on the dependence of self-perceptions on the acceptance by others within the context of Dalit5 movements (especially Fuchs 1999).
For exploring the larger relevance of Ravidassia music videos and performances of related musicians beyond caste it is highly relevant to consider the illustrated notion of “oneness of all humans in God” (as proclaimed by Guru Ravidass and in larger Bhakti and related Sikh and Sufi contexts), the related triangular notion of recognition and also the basic idea that self-perceptions depend on acceptance by others. As I argue, these notions help to consider multiple experiences, aspirations and notions of belonging beyond predetermined political identity categories. I focus here on Ravidassia media producers especially originating from the Doaba region of Punjab, since they are determining the content creation within related music videos.6 This region is strongly determined by Sikh, Sufi and Bhakti thoughts and related rich musical traditions. That related musical traditions can transcend (especially physical and religious) borders, illustrate Kalra’s (2014; 2015) and Khaira’s (2020) illuminating works exploring the relevance of related music for bringing together Punjabi people from India, Pakistan and from abroad.
As outlined in the introduction, current Ravidassia music videos are mainly known as tools for developing caste-based self-respect and self-empowerment. For instance, this is visible in a YouTube video from 2017 which covers a talk with singer Ginni Mahi at the „We the Women“ conference on gender equality and frames it as “Dalit pride”.
At the beginning of the video, we see one of India’s leading journalists and TV moderators, Barkha Dutt, who introduces Ginni Mahi’s talk with the following words (while visuals from Ginni Mahi’s music video “Danger 2” are fading-in on a screen):
She is a young singer from Punjab. Her music champions Dalit pride. She did pretty much what the Afro-American bands and musicians did in the United States of America. […] She actually took a word that is illegal because it is so casteist. The word is called ‘Chamār’. It refers to a community that is literally at the bottom of our whole caste hierarchy and she converted it into a song and she wore it like a badge of honor.(MOJO STORY 12/28/2017, 0:15-1:05 [video])
In the video “Danger 2”, which has been viewed on YouTube nearly 5 million times, we see Ginni Mahi in a leather jacket in a factory hall that could be anywhere in the world next to a fire barrel, looking very strong and brave, while singing that “Chamār are more dangerous than weapons”. Here, Ginni Mahi turns the negative stereotype of the “criminal, dangerous Chamār” – a stereotype that the British had boosted according to Mishra (2011)7 – into a positive one. She is doing so by stressing that they are fearless, full of courage and powerful enough to counter injustice, but in a respectful way, while referring to Guru Ravidass as a savior (Amar Audio Official 2/4/2016 [video]).
Looking at images of young, strong muscular men in T-Shirts and Jeans that appear in between, it seems an obvious choice that Barkha Dutt’s YouTube channel “MOJO STORY” presents Ginni Mahi’s talk with the headline ‘The Swag Of Ginni’: The Teenage Singer From Punjab Who Sings For Dalit Pride”. Accordingly, also other English-language media label this emerging media phenomenon in the framework of caste-based categories. Example headlines are: “Ginni Mahi: The New Voice of ‘Chamar Pop’, Dalit Assertion via Punjabi Music” (Chhabra 2016), “Punjab’s protest pop: How the Dalits are telling the world they’ve arrived” (Kohli 2016), or “A Generation of Dalit Singers Breaks the Mould of Caste” (AFP 2017).
In “Fan Baba Sahib Di”, another music video which has been the subject of media coverage and has been viewed more than 4.7 million times, we see Ginni Mahi in a very different setting and style.
In a bluish8 purple Punjabi outfit, she is singing in front of a small group of men to Punjabi folk beats, while paying tribute to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956, respectfully referred to as Babasaheb) – one of the most popular leaders in the history of anti-caste movements and the first law minister of independent India and main contributor to the Indian constitution. Ambedkar, who himself experienced caste-based oppression, provided legal mechanisms to provide equal rights to every Indian and quotas to enhance opportunities for certain minority groups and women to access education and jobs within the public sector and the arena of politics. Ginni Mahi emphasizes her gratitude for his legacy with the following powerful words:
I am the daughter of Babasaheb Ji who wrote the constitution. We are enjoying the results of his writings. That is why the world praises him. I am a fan of this kind of thinking. He sacrificed for us. […] He sacrificed himself for the world. He acquired special success. To the great thoughts of Bhimrao [Ambedkar], everyone salutes by taking a bow. No knight like him will be born again. No scholar like him will be born again. He was such a lion, who made arrows out of his pen. The one who fought for truth and justice, who changed our destiny. He became our messiah. The world also knows that. He makes the respect of suffering women equal to the crown of the head. By looking at the miserable condition of the community, he raised his voice for the community. Only a few mothers gave birth to great sons like him. By studying in the lamplight, he lightened our life. He faced many challenges, but he didn’t care about them […]. (Amar Audio 2/5/2017 [video], translated from Punjabi)9
That also academic literature reads Ginni Mahi’s songs and her references to Guru Ravidass’ and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s legacies primarily as articulations of community awareness and “Dalit pride” can be seen for instance reading the headlines „Dalit Culture and Identity. “Valorisation and Reconstruction of Tradition among the Chamars in Punjab” (Judge 2015) or “The Caste Question and Songs of Protest in Punjab” (Singh 2017b). Singh argues in this article also related to other young related singers: “Most of these songs are directed at Dalits, exhorting them to remain fearless […] and to be proud of their qaum (community).” (Singh 2017b, 36). He describes in another very insightful publication the emergence of imageries of Ambedkar and Guru Ravidass in related music videos as follows:
The merger of Ambedkar14 and Guru Ravidas signify a new turn, where the community draws its spiritual and cultural resources from one of its own (Guru Ravidas came from the same community) while being grounded in the material and pragmatic framework of modern politics, as envisioned by Ambedkar. This has clearly made the Ravidassia more assertive, of its history and caste identity. The generous use of the word Chamar in the CDs and videos, and even in everyday conversation, reflect that attitude of assertion, of owning its past, and of owning the self. (Singh 2020, 159)
I fully agree that the aspects of caste-based self-assertion, owning the self and developing self-respect that saturates Indian English language media coverage and academic literature are deeply relevant. But beyond that, do not the facts that Ginni Mahi speaks on a large congress on gender equality, that she refers to Guru Ravidass and addresses the relevance and recognition of Ambedkar beyond caste and regional lines also point to a larger meaning and relevance of related music videos beyond “Chamār” or “Dalit” pride?
These observations as well as the aforementioned aspect that self-respect is also about recognition already imply some reasons why it might be relevant to explore Ravidassia music videos also as imaginations and performances of respectful coexistence and solidarity beyond caste. In this regard, the next section illustrates tensions arising from the need of identity assertion on the one hand, and the disillusionment with divisive identity politics and divisive tendencies in digital and mobile communication environments on the other hand. Concurrently, it emphasizes the need for new ways of speaking in order to reach out to broader audiences.
Many Ravidassias were and are still involved in anti-caste politics and “Dalit” assertion due to persisting caste-based inequalities, discrimination and violence. For instance, Singh’s (2017b, 2020) and Ram’s (2009, 2011) publications illustrate these separative and assertive tendencies in the context of Punjab. They especially refer here to calls for a separate religion based on the teachings of Guru Ravidass by anti-caste mobilization in Punjab since the 1920s and especially the proclamation of a separate Ravidassia religion and the split from Sikhism by a central religious organization called Dera Sachkhand Ballan in 2010. This separate religious identity emerged in the aftermath of the assassination of one important religious leader at a Ravidassia place of worship in Vienna (supposedly by Sikhs of another sect) in 2009. Of great relevance for this article is Singh’s insightful work (2020) which emphasizes the syncretic potential for religious coexistence of Guru Ravidass’ thoughts, embedded in the fluid religious and cultural traditions of Punjab. He points out that especially several Ravidassias in Punjab countered the call for separation (see especially Singh 2020, 163). Hence, he reads the emergence of Ravidassia music videos as strongly related to the “Dera’s efforts for self-respect and identity” (Singh 2020, 159). Therefore, he does not discuss their larger potential as imaginations or performances of solidarity and respectful coexistence. Others even accuse Ravidassia media practitioners of fostering exclusive caste-based pride which would even increase social polarization (examples are: Judge 2015, 60 and Desraj Kali cit. in: NDTV 2016 [video], 13:00-13:35).
I agree that the emergence of this media phenomenon during the late 2000s is connected to efforts of this globally networked organization and that some songs mainly focus on (caste-based) self-pride and setting the self against others. This applies especially to the initial phase of the emerging media phenomenon and to some songs produced for political rallies. The style of speech in these contexts can be assertive and polarizing.10 However, those assertive articulations are just one side of the coin.
Ravidassias witnessed that strategies and political means aiming at social upward mobility did not (fully) lead to equal opportunities, less caste-based violence and not to equal recognition on an individual level. Neither strategies of self-reform, disguising one’s own caste-based background and related promises of inclusion in the name of vote-bank politics nor divisive identity politics where able to change that.
The rapidly developing digital and mobile communication environments in India provided (at least for some) new possibilities for self-presentation beyond party politics. Some Ravidassia musicians already started uploading their music videos by the end of the 2000s, shortly after YouTube entered the Indian market. These productions spread across Ravidassias around the globe through multiple ways of distribution, as I have illustrated elsewhere (Kirchhof 2019, 129-30). Nevertheless, early Ravidassia music videos were not able to evoke the same kind of attention of so-called mainstream media and academic knowledge production like Ginni Mahi from 2016/2017 onwards.11 In addition, several musicians who produced also more polarizing music videos expressed in our conversations in Doaba region in 201812 and in interviews with media outlets the experience of hate, not only through YouTube comments or other social media, but also offline, especially in the initial years (cf. Nigar 2013, n.p.; Singh 2017, 35). Despite new hopes in social media, Ravidassia media producers therefore had to experience that the mere existence of new communicative environments does not automatically lead to more participation and recognition. As for instance Chaudhuri has pointed out, it would be mistaken to assume that “in a world of instant access […] older distances, hierarchies and misrepresentations have been done away with” (Chaudhuri 2015, 34). Or as Kumar puts it in the context of YouTube in India:
The still emerging scene of online video production in India has a codependent relationship with the hegemonic cultural institutions by being both in competition with it but also gaining from the technical, cultural labor as well as its archive of readily available content to be used and reused. (Kumar 2016, 5609).
In addition, the current political scenario in India, determined by the increasing influence of right-wing Hindu-nationalist (Hindutva) forces, poses particular challenges to Ravidassia media producers. As Nizaruddin’s (2021) insightful article illustrates, “the quick adoption of new and emerging forms of communication has allowed the Hindutva ecosystem of hate to widen its sphere of influence” (Nizaruddin 2021, 1115).13 In turn, this increasing influence makes it even more and more dangerous to articulate opposing and assertive voices. Therefore, as Schneider points out, “the search for new visual forms and aesthetic means to counter increasing divisiveness and conflict has acquired exceptional urgency” (Schneider 2020, 3).
Taking the example of Ginni Mahi, the following section exemplifies ways of speaking which imply aspirations for solidarity, dialogue and “living in oneness”, while still addressing the need to fight together against persisting (caste-based) violence and discrimination, against social evils and for a better world.
That Ginni Mahi’s aim seems not to divide the society and that her notions of belonging and equality as well as her addressed audiences go beyond caste illustrates for example an interview with an Indian English language news platform. The manner in which Ginni Mahi is introduced here through a mix of translations of direct and indirect quotes and context information, differs very much from the predetermining representations of her in media coverage and academic literature.
‘I’m just doing my duty. It is our responsibility to ensure that discrimination is ended, and we live with oneness.’ […] [H]er choice of songs has often led to her being described as a “Dalit singer". […] This is not an identity, Ginni says, that she has chosen, or will ever choose, for herself; such a discrete identity, she feels, would go against her belief in the oneness of humanity. […] ‘I have never ever said I am a Dalit singer. […] It’s not necessary that if I sing about Guru Ravidas, I am a Dalit singer, and this should remain my identity. […] I want to transcend the community and connect with everyone across the world, become like a daughter to them’. (Ginni Mahi cit. in: Kuruvilla 2016, n.p.)
In a related video interview (see video below) with the same news platform she further articulates:
My songs shouldn’t offend anyone. We want that there should be equality so that people listen to and like our music. […] I want to be a daughter of the world, not just of my own community. (Ginni Mahi cit. in: Mint 2016, 01:52-02:31 [video], cf. English subtitles)
These examples illustrate the aspiration for not only being classified and categorized by others on the basis of a specific caste background, but instead being recognized as fellow human being or using Ginni Mahi’s words as “daughter of the world”. Although Ginni Mahi imagines her work to be a duty, aiming for an egalitarian society, she imagines this ideal society as one in which all are living in the spirit of oneness. Further, she doesn’t primarily depict her music as a medium of protest or mobilization related to party politics, but also as a medium that can transcend borders if all the audiences like what they are listening to or at least do not feel offended. She states in the video interview that she herself listens “to all styles of music and songs” (Ginni Mahi cit. in: Mint 2016, 1:42-1:47 [video], cf. English subtitles). This in turn implies that she also recognizes what others have to say, but also that her life world experiences comprise more than anti-caste activism.
These multiple experiences and aspirations also manifest in her music videos as well as a way of speaking that tries to produce empathy and identification and to convince everyone of the necessity and benefits of recognizing universal equality. A large variety of overlaps with larger discourses as well as with experiences and aspirations of other social groups become evident. First, we can witness them if looking closer at the imaginations of the self which are predominantly regarded as caste-pride. Second, these overlaps are even more visible within less recognized music videos which speak about broader social issues, the benefits of human rights, dignity, equality and Guru Ravidass’ and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s legacies for all human beings or which relate in a devotional way to the teachings of Guru Ravidass.14
Images of the “Ravidassia” self are mainly illustrating one’s own imaginations of belonging, “arrival” and ethical principles, while emphasizing the emancipative power of Guru Ravidass’ and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s legacies. Besides the video “Danger 2”, referred to at the beginning of this article, Ginni Mahi’s song “Success” from 2020 serves here as another example.
The video starts with a zoom on the skyline of Manhattan and the words “#SUCCESS” and “#GINNI MAHI” emerging in the front of the Statue of Liberty. Next, we see Ginni Mahi in a Punjabi setting, dancing in a warehouse, in a shopping mall in Jalandhar city (Punjab), in a village in front of an opulent house (with the flags of the USA, Canada and India on the top), in front of an expensive car or working in a business suit while presenting next to her a MacBook and iPhone and a picture of Guru Ravidass. The English translation of the lyrics reads as follows:
We had the dreams of good days. We earned money with hard work. We have achieved the heights. Guru Jī’s [Guru Ravidass’] children have progressed in foreign countries – have progressed everywhere. The loan we borrowed for coming there, we paid back with interest in the first year. Everyone was calling us Sir when we first time visited the village after coming there. Those who were having jealousy in their hearts were admiring/serving us. […] Look, we have built bungalows of top quality. We drive in Audis, Ferraris. We always live cheerful and positive. We never lose our courage in tough times. We always keep high courage. […] We have started businesses abroad. We fulfill all our wishes of our hearts. Mani from Phagwara is telling the truth. Now we’re living fearless. Now we’re never going to be afraid of anyone. (Loyal Music 1/28/2020 [video], translated from Punjabi)
On the one hand, these visuals and words imagine the self as educated, economically and physically mobile – aspirations that many others with differing caste-backgrounds might share. The lyrics of the song read as tools for self-help and motivation for enhancing livability and developing self-respect. On the other hand, these images point to the aspiration of not only being recognized as equal human beings in India, but also by the world as global citizens in accordance with the aforementioned quote by Ginni Mahi: “I want to be a daughter of the world” (Ginni Mahi cit. in: Mint 2016, 00:27-02:30 [video], cf. English subtitles). This ambition and related visuals in the video, such as cross-fading between settings in Punjab and settings in Manhattan, also reflect and might intensify the increasing multilocal15 experience of many more economically and educationally mobile Ravidassias originating from the Doaba region of Punjab who themselves stay(ed) abroad or are often in frequent contact with family members and friends around the globe. As Judge pointed out with regard to earlier Ravidassia music videos, those music videos seem to blur distinctions between Ravidassias living in Doaba and those abroad while using the terms “native Dalits” and “Dalit diaspora” (Judge 2015, 56-57). I would argue further that those representations might also blur lines between a larger set of groups, based on shared aspirations and experiences. Achieving good live abroad is a shared aspiration and multilocality a shared experience that many people share across caste-lines and regions, especially those who experienced upward educational and economical mobility.
Furthermore, imageries of personal success within that video are not just about the self, although personal upward educational and economical mobility seem important factors to develop self-respect, especially in a context where many are “first generation learners”. Education and prosperity are imagined as tools for being able to provide Sevā (selfless service as one principle of Sikhism and within Guru Ravidass’ teachings) to others – especially to less privileged people.16 Another more devotional music video titled “Guru Ravidas Guran Di Baani” (Satrang Entertainers 2/21/2021 [video]) dedicated to Guru Ravidass illustrates these entanglements very vividly and also that various people across caste-lines are addressed.
The video starts with zooming into a Punjabi village, showing Ginni Mahi playing a school-aged girl that prays in front of the images of Guru Ravidass and of the Sikh Gurus Guru Nanak and Guru Har Gobind. Her violent stepmother keeps her from going to school and forces her to do housework, while sending her own son to school. The girl keeps praying and aspires to go to school. In other scenes, we see how she helps a respected man of the village who suddenly suffers from health issues or how she helps her father in his bicycle repair shop. In a later scene, her stepmother becomes violent to her in the public and the respected men of the village calls the police. Even in this moment, the girl protects her stepmother. Finally, her stepmother seems to change her mindset and the girl’s life seems to become livable again. The translation of the lyrics reads as follows:
Oh, my heart, say ‘Satnām’. Oh, my heart, say ‘Waheguru’. The sayings of Guru Ravidass are the painkiller of the distressed. Nothing remains unfulfilled if we read the ‘Bāni’ [holy scriptures] with heart and intention. Those who serve the distressed, those who help everyone in need, […] those who have colored their hearts in your name, get everything they wished. The time is getting out of your hand, save it to Sevā, serve with body, heart, wealth. Oh man! This wealth is going to be with you after the death. Deep Allachauria [the writer of the lyrics] is saying we should be thankful to God. We should earn with our own hard work. We should serve this life to good actions, to God. (Satrang Entertainers 2/21/2021 [video], translated from Punjabi)
On the one hand, this music video stresses the relevance of girls’ education and of treating daughters and sons equally. As also Ginni Mahi’s performances on conferences on gender issues imply, addressing these issues, combined with ideas of universal equality, seem to facilitate the participation in larger debates beyond caste issues, based on shared concerns. On the other hand, worldly and spiritual aspects come together for highlighting the benefits of following Guru Ravidass teachings, living the principle of Sevā and practicing universal equality within everyday life. Those imageries seem to bring the idea of Guru Ravidass to the 21st century that honest and dedicated work could help everyone to get recognized by God and by other humans, to reach good life and to fulfill Guru Ravidass’ vision of Begumpura. Referring to the idea of Guru Ravidass and other Bhakti saints that everyone is equal in the eyes of God provides a deeper spiritual legitimization of the idea of universal equality. In addition, the reference to Sikh Gurus and to the word “Waheguru” (a common form of address for God in Sikhism), illustrates the manifestations of spiritual fluidities and aspirations for living in oneness, in place of separation. While not every Indian might be familiar with Guru Ravidass, referring to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as well, such as in the earlier mentioned song “Fan Baba Sahib Di”, provides a basis for identification for larger sections of society. Illustrating Ambedkar’s legacy here also legitimizes the idea of universal equality legally and might also facilitate connections to larger discourses on human rights and equality.
Omvedt (2008) concludes her book “Seeking Begumpura. The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals” with the words “Begumpura remains to be translated into a vision appropriate to the new era [meaning the era of globalization]” (Omvedt 2008, 275). Ginni Mahi’s interviews and related music videos seem interesting sights to analyze how certain actors are trying to do so – not only in the era of globalization, but also in times of steadily changing communication environments.
As the broader spectrum of themes and imaginations created through Ginni Mahi’s words in interviews and through related music videos have shown, she addresses also larger audiences beyond caste within and beyond India. Reaching out to “new” target groups and realizing dialogue, solidarity, respectful coexistence and living in oneness requires a way of speaking beyond opposing the “oppressed we” and the “oppressive others”. She is doing so through visualizing shared aspirations, identifications and values beyond caste within and beyond India and through translating Guru Ravidass’ teachings to the 21st century. She emphasizes the notion of living in oneness, but concurrently also underlines persisting inequalities and the necessity of universal equality. Concurrently, these articulations imply notions of respectful coexistence and solidarity in oneness that transcend imagined differences attached to political identity categories and to the credo of “living in diversity”.
It is beyond the scope of this article to reveal the extent of influence of Ginni Mahi’s articulations and performances. Nevertheless, her involvement in broader discourses on gender issues or human rights as well as the reception of this emerging media phenomenon by the news coverage of broader media already imply that she doesn’t only create visibility, but partly also creates dialogue.
However, as shown before, a respectful way of speaking is not simply a matter of choice, since the current political setting and divisive tendencies in digital environments make it even dangerous for Ravidassia media practitioners to articulate opposing and assertive voices. In this context, we also need to raise the question, who exactly can be reached through strategies applied by Ginni Mahi. The logic of content bubbles and echo chambers in the digital space might boost visibility in content bubbles of like-minded people beyond caste in terms of universal equality and living in oneness, who might like to reflect their own behavior in order to act in compliance with these principles. However, it might be more difficult to reach out to persons who are unwilling to recognize and respect all humans equally. This aspect requires further research with a different research approach. Anyhow, it is of great importance if we also want to develop strategies to create dialogue between different minded groups in order to decrease divisive politics and societal polarization. This concerns not only the Indian context, but any (trans)regional or (multi)local context in this globalizing, polarizing and increasingly mediatized world.
Dhanya Fee Kirchhof is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Gender and Media Studies for the South Asian Region at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research explores the interrelatedness of media communicative change, mobilities and subjectification in the Ravidassia context. Her broader research interests concern non-media-centric media studies, mobility studies, discourses on digital inclusion, anti-caste movements, intersectionality approaches, multilocal (media) ethnography and postcolonial theory.