Tell Me More: Talking Caste and Marriage With Jyotsna Siddarth, Founder of Project Anti‑Caste Love
In The Swaddle’s interview series Tell Me More, we discuss crucial cultural topics with people whose work pushes societal boundaries.
Jyotsna Siddharth is an actor, writer and activist, who founded Project Anti-Caste Love, an initiative to promote unique narratives around inter-caste/inter-religious love and relationships. The Swaddle’s Aditi Murti spoke to Jyotsna about the evolution of arranged marriage as a tool for caste endogamy and her thoughts on Netflix’s instantly popular show, Indian Matchmaking.
The Swaddle: Fictional depictions of inter-caste and inter-religious love stories are often due to end in tragedy — from Kedarnath (2018) to Sairat (2016). Why do you think this happens?
Jyotsna Siddharth: First of all, when you look at cinema and theatre spaces, they’re largely dominated by upper caste people as characters, producers, actors, casting directors, and so on. In this case, representation is locked to a particular sort of people only. Even if people are trying to tell stories of Dalit communities or other marginalized communities, they’re also learning as they go. Plus, people from Dalit communities prefer not to be open about their identities in Bollywood, so barely anybody is talking about this identity and what it does to them in that space. So the narrative that comes out is only associated with violence, because that’s what we see in the media.
Again, when you look at the media, there’s a lot of studies been done by places like Oxfam which show that media is dominated by upper-caste people. So then, how do you bring out nuances and the wide range of experiences people embody that isn’t just violence. Of course, violence is an integral part of our lives, but we need representation that means stories come from different segments of a particular identity rather than just one experience.
TS: In comparison, why do you think arranged marriage — or marriage between people of the same communities/religions/castes — gets such positive representation in Bollywood? From Vivaah to Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to Tanu Weds Manu, depictions of arranged marriage are always either virtuous or attempting to give the traditionalist practice a modern makeover. Why is there a need to push arranged marriage as an option to the Indian audience?
JS: Let’s say I’m an individual who wants to get married, and I ask my family members to help, they will suggest arranged marriage first because that is the legitimized system of marriage in South Asia. There are always modes for finding other partners, even in India, but it’s always assumed that you can date anybody you like, but your marriage will be decided by your parents. And we see that in films, because films and society borrow from each other. Plus, there’s no clear way for many to have nuanced conversations with their families about marriages that aren’t arranged, especially when their families say things like, “Muslims are terrorists, Dalits are whatever.”
Let me also read to you something Ambedkar wrote about inter-caste marriage. He writes, “Among the Hindus, intermarriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of non-Hindus. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But when society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking caste is inter-caste intermarriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of caste.”
So he’s talking about the fact that inter-caste marriage allows different people from different backgrounds and communities to come together and form this union. Plus, the children born of such unions do not have a caste, or at best, their caste is blurred. So, intermarriage between castes and religions is the best way to sort of, hammer the caste system.
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TS: But from what we’ve seen over the past few years, there’s been an attempt to ‘remove’ caste from arranged marriages. For example, if you see classifieds advertisements or even online ads, the term ‘caste no bar’ pops up a lot. Do you think this is working at all?
JS: Many stories, literature, and experiences from people in my community show that people like to say ‘caste no bar,’ but when you do have a conversation with those people they’ll say “Oh, but we don’t want our child to get married to a Dalit family.” So even if they say ‘caste no bar,’ it still exists in the paradigm of how they understand the caste system. For example, if a Brahmin family says ‘caste no bar,’ they are not looking for someone from a lower caste community. They could probably go a sub-caste lower or within the sub-caste.
If I’m trying to arrange a marriage, I’m not going to go beyond my social and economic circles to do so. I’m still going to operate in spaces I know. We’re only trying to arrange weddings using the social and cultural capital we have. So, arranged marriage is never going to transgress caste and class so openly. Of course, there are exceptions, but as an institution, it very much operates under the framework of the caste system.
TS: What did you think of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking? There’s been so much discussion about how the show is both outright casteist and not inclusive at all. What does the conversation around it tell you about where we are as a caste-conscious society?
JS: I personally loved it! Over the years, to help critical thinking, I’ve learnt not to be reactionary to what I’m seeing. Plus, as a person interested in love and relationships, I thought both the series and the conversations around it were super interesting. A series doesn’t have to ‘say’ caste to start a conversation around it. The lens that we apply and the knowledge that we already have about caste helps zero in on it series like these. Of course the series is casteist, of course it is problematic, of course there is inherent bias in the series — completely in agreement with that.
I loved it because, well, we feel that only Dalits or people from marginalized communities have a caste. But, everybody — the billion people who belong to this country has a caste. So, why are we constantly fetishizing Dalits by saying, “Oh, let us understand their caste experience.” For me, that is a huge problem because, like, everybody has a caste experience?
Of course, there’s a bit of nuance here. Marginalized caste communities are at the forefront of bearing the brunt of the caste system and you do need to keep interrogating that. But in my own work, I’ve always tried to shift the lens back and say — Okay, what are the caste experiences of upper-caste people? What does their experience look like?” How do their homes look like? What do they do in their relationships? It is extremely important to understand that, as well!
So, what Indian Matchmaking has done is really shown us the mirror, because, I think, there is this thing of middle-class morality. Like, look how educated and progressive we are — we don’t believe in caste! We’re progressive! So, we’re just going to enjoy and form our relationships which clearly have nothing to do with caste. But, Indian Matchmaking shows us that even with the money, access and education that the families it depicted have, they’re still choosing to utilize heteronormative, Brahminical, so-called ideas of what marriage ‘should’ be. From the decor to the clothes to what is expected from young girls and boys in marriage — even in the case of Akshay and his mother — there is so much pressure to get married even though the man simply doesn’t want to get married. There’s so much pressure to perform the ideal child. You cannot upset your parents and you have to go by their wishes — all of these things are caste. We think that we’ve come a long way, but we’re still exactly where we were before. Our understanding of love and marriage hasn’t changed — it’s still about money, family honor, and finding the ideal wife to get your son married.
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TS: So, in a way, this is almost a fuck-you to the idea of inclusion, right? Putting one person from a different community in a systemic structure that isn’t set up for them is tokenism and doesn’t aid anything. How do you think we should go about creating positive representation of marginalized castes in media then?
JS: As I said, almost 90-95% of people in the industry are upper caste, cis, straight men, and women. How you diversify is via opening up these spaces. Don’t just make a story about a Dalit person — are you giving opportunities to LGBT/Dalit/tribal communities in your company? Do they get a say in the content that you’re creating? These are some of the questions we need to ask.
Plus, I always say that even if you do these things as a token — just do it! Any attempt to go out of your socio-cultural bubble is a learning experience that enriches you as a person. Of course, you have to bring parity to the work that you’re doing — you need to follow what you preach. Even if you’re a person who knows nobody from Dalit, Muslim, LGBTQIA+ and Adivasi communities, you will never be able to learn or respect their experiences unless you try. It’s so important to even diversify our own lives — only then can we diversify our work.
TS: While creating Project Anti-Caste Love, you decided to curate love letters written by people from inter-caste and inter-religious relationships. Did you particularly like one letter, and what did you like best about it?
JS: I feel like I’d do a disservice to all the letters I collected by naming one, but this particular one spoke to me. It’s a short letter by an inter-religious couple.
This is anti-caste love. This is the love that we all need — just standing together and loving one another across prejudice and bias and expectations and ideas of what that ‘right’ person is. It is just loving a person regardless of the real-life threats to this person’s life because they come from a specific community. And we stand with them, as resistance is also a revolutionary act of love.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.