On Friday, January 20, 2023, Williams College Associate Professor of Anthropology Joel Lee visited U-M’s Center for South Asian Studies to discuss his latest work on concealing caste in the Indian music industry. Lee discussed a series of interviews with two brothers who are professional musicians.
“I want to focus more on the narrative rather than analysis in this talk,” said Lee. “Partly because it shows the complexity of this work and partly because I’d like to hear the questions it might elicit before I offer analysis.”
Lee teaches and researches religion, language, caste, and the state in South Asia. In particular, his work concerns how Dalits – those communities historically stigmatized as ‘untouchable’ – combat structural deprivation, navigate the politics of religious majoritarianism, and contend with the sensory and environmental entailments of sanitation labor in colonial and postcolonial India. His research and teaching interests include linguistic anthropology, semiotics, popular Hinduism and Islam, and Urdu and Hindi literature.
Lee started his talk with stories of Aziz Varsi (an alias). Aziz is a lead singer for one of Lucknow’s qawwali singing troops. Lee met him through his family, so he was immediately made aware of Aziz’s brotherhood and Dalit caste. The culture of “untouchability” in India had taken a toll on Aziz’s life. He was taught early on to hide his identity in certain situations, like in the city and school.
When recalling his stories to Lee, Aziz mentions, “Muslims didn’t bother us as much. They would eat with us. Of course, not on the same plates as they ate off of, but they would at least sit with us.”
Aziz went to school with money secretly given to him by his mom, but he was forced to stop in 8th grade. At fifteen, Aziz was married and started his singing career after being discovered by a local qawwali guru or teacher. Being a quick study, he soon started his own troop and began receiving bookings.
“I realized I needed to convert and become a Muslim at this point,” adds Aziz. “Other troops were exposing us to get our jobs, and I felt comfortable with Islam, and they had always accepted me.”
Once the group was considered Muslim-led, they received much more work from local organizers. The fear of being “exposed” never went away, though, and it posed a constant threat.
When Lee asked Aziz to speak with other musicians hiding their caste, he led him to his brother, Kashinath. Kashinath started performing as a member of a brass band that played at weddings, but he later grew into leading a Hindu music devotional band.
Lee asked him if he also had to change his name.
Kashinath answered, “Yes, I changed my name to Kher. It let everyone think I was a Punjabi, and I had to gauge situations before to see what name I should say. Now, I’m just known as Kher, though, and it makes it easier for me, especially in Brahmin homes.”
Kashinath also worked as a sanitation worker in case he might be recognized and kicked out of jobs. He eventually enjoyed quite a bit of success with two released albums and Bollywood work, but the fear of being recognized remained.
Lee summarized, “There is an understanding that both brothers were able to achieve more success by using Muslim and Punjabi names. Their Dalitness affected them at every turn in this discriminatory market.”
The story of these brothers is part of a broader ethnographic project on caste concealment in urban north India done by Lee. He has a bachelor's degree from Kenyon College and a master's and PhD from Columbia. A complete list of Lee’s published work can be found on his Williams College faculty page.