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Comedy and caste: Editorial on Swati Sachdeva's attempts to poke fun at reservation

Is the burgeoning business of metropolitan comedy which, at times, panders to casteist, sexist and bigoted humour, a testament to the robustness of India’s free speech edifice?

The Editorial Board Published 10.09.23, 07:48 AM
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Modern comedy can be serious business. Indeed, stand-up co­medy shows, a relatively recent form of entertainment in a country with rich and diverse traditions of humour, have become, according to several estimates, quite popular — and profitable — in urban and rural India. But comedy can also be decidedly unfunny at times. Consider its complex, evolving relationship with casteist sentiments. Recently, a comedian, Swati Sachdeva, was criticised for poking fun at reservation in a decidedly insensitive manner. This incident was by no means without precedence. Several episodes pertaining to what has been christened as savarna, metropoli­tan humour are on rec­ord and there is a line of thought, especially among Ambedkarite and bahujan fraternities, that comedy’s cosy relationship with caste demands a closer examination of the demography of its performers: a disproportionate segment of the performers are said to belong to the upper castes that have traditionally had an easier access to social capital such as education, English — the predominant language of such performances — and employment. But then humour, as always, is a double-edged weapon. India’s anti-caste coalitions have been quick to discover the potential of new-age comedy and its ecosystem. The infusion of technology — social media is replete with anti-caste memes and pages — has been instrumental in amplifying voices from the margins couched in satire. For inst­ance, several channels and handles on such platforms as YouTube and In­stagram bring forth issues of caste repression and forge counter-narratives using humour in an imaginative way.

These cross-currents only underline some old truths about comedy. That prejudice, sometimes in its crudest form, is comedy’s fodder. Or that comedy is seldom benign; more often than not, it is politically-charged. It is thus a pity that India’s public discourse remains indifferent to the need for an intelligent assessment — lay and scholarly — of the sociology of humour. But such an endeavour, if there is to be one, would have to be representative. This is because humour — comedy is merely one manifestation — is a turf marked by tectonic shifts. Consider one such ongoing battle. Most consumers of stand-up comedy are seldom aware of older, indigenous templates, such as the once popular hasya kavi sammelans in northern India. Their insular stage has space only for the stand-up comedian.


This brings us to a broader — relevant — query. Is the burgeoning business of metropolitan comedy which, at times, allegedly panders to casteist, sexist and even bigoted humour, a testament to the robustness of India’s free speech edifice? That is a bit of a joke. A scrutiny of the capaciousness of free speech and democracy must be accompanied by a scrutiny of who the joke is on. That may reveal metropolitan comedy’s catchment area to be women, the working class, domestic helps, the unsophisticated town man — in other words, India’s vast and underappreciated margins remain the butt of jokes. Insularity cannot be a measure of true comedy. Reflection is a far more reliable measuring rod. Can urbane upper caste India crack a few jokes on its own vanities and follies?

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