I sometimes slap myself (or my thumb) in annoyance for opening Instagram’s Reels section. I try my best to not open it, but still end up there. One of the main reasons for my resentment with the new Reels culture is the crude display of privilege and the mono-cultural world of the so-called upper castes or Savarnas. Be it someone playing an out-of-tune ukulele in mood lighting, or showing off their ‘struggles’ of not being able to visit Goa this year with some trending song playing in the background. What all these diverse videos have in common are hyper-perfect Savarna aesthetics.
In 2020, Chinese app TikTok was banned by the Narendra Modi government. This rendered many creators and influencers from marginalised backgrounds digitally homeless. These ‘digital refugees’ have since been trying to find refuge in different apps. During this time, Instagram Reels has emerged as one of the biggest platforms that promise fame and reach.
From celebrities to common people, everyone wants to try their luck on Reels to become successful, or as Andy Warhol apparently said, “get their 15 minutes of fame”. However, after many years social media, the influencer market has become a very important source of employment. For many, social media fame can even earn them their livelihoods. Sadly, this domain, like any other economic domain, is also the stronghold of Savarnas.
Casteism of Instagram Reels
Instagram Reels are designed in such a way that you feel like you’re entering an expensive restaurant where you can be judged and mocked for your clothes, accent, and your pronunciation. There is a very subtle and sophisticated form of casteism that plays out in this digital corner.
Instagram Reels seems to have an algorithm that prefers particular Savarna aesthetics. Most of the trends and trending songs are copies of what’s popular in the West. Be it “Put your head on my shoulders (Silhouette challenge)” or the “My back is aching song” challenge. All one sees are Savarnas expressing the joy and melancholy of living a life full of privileges. Instagram actively promotes the most ‘beautiful’ looking Reels on these trends. Anyone who opens the Reels tab on their app can always see that it’s the Savarna influencers who are trending.
It’s very difficult for non-Savarna users, who lack the same cultural and social capital of looks, clothes, and clean, picture-perfect backgrounds to succeed in this culture of making ‘aesthetic’ Reels. This is why you will only find similar kinds of faces known as ‘content creators ’ or social media ‘influencers’ in this overtly market-driven economy.
Appropriation of Dalit art forms
The irony is that historically dance and music have been the domain of lower-caste communities in India. Music and dance were frowned upon by upper-caste families and there were many Dalit communities who were humiliated and ostracised for their occupations of singing and dancing.
The dance and music of these communities have now been taken over by socially dominant caste practitioners who ritually cleanse the music and dance of their original style and folk elements and Westernise them into being something that is ‘pure’, ‘urbane’ and ‘cool’. Today, the grandchildren of those who once directly discriminated against lower-castes are now singing and dancing on Insta Reels. They are now doing the same activities that made lower-castes ‘impure’, ‘brash’ and ‘loud’, but in perfect lighting and aesthetic settings.
Often, they end up appropriating the art-forms belonging historically to lower castes, further alienating the Dalits and Bahujans who don’t have similar capital to fit into the same aesthetics and settings. In the Insta Reels ecosystem, creators who dance or create videos outside of these aesthetics and songs are labeled ‘cringe’. As is often said online, ‘modern problems require modern solutions’ thus modern Savarnas, too, have come up with modern casteism. Personally, I would call it ‘castiesm with a good vibe’.
These Savarna mono-cultures persist in more open and crude forms in beauty and lifestyle-centric Reels. Here, Savarna fashion influencers are busy dictating how successful and cool women should dress and look like. It isn’t a coincidence that all these videos are only aimed to cater to the elite and upwardly mobile female Savarna crowd. Parading the idea of ‘girlboss’ and ‘beauty sleep’ is just the tip of the iceberg that hides the behemoth iceberg of labour done by Bahujan women who serve as domestic workers in upper-caste households — these visuals show the girlboss, just not the girls over whom she is supposed to be the boss of.
Only for Savarnas
There isn’t any Dalit account that features on ‘top- influencer’ lists. This doesn’t mean that Dalits are not creating great content on Instagram. There is a strong underground culture where many Dalit accounts are trying to express themselves by making use of modern digital vocabulary.
Many Dalit accounts face the wrath of angry Savarnas on Instagram who are unhappy that they have explored the question of caste on the social media platform. They try to shun the question itself by the use of choicest abuses that they seem to have inherited. Sometimes gaslighting is done in more subtle and softer forms — “But there ain’t any caste bro. It’s the 21st century for god’s sake,” or “We are all equals. Indian first!”.
The same Savarna social media users then move on to their newfound love for dance and post a feel-good Reel based on Western trends (let’s say, the “Don’t rush” challenge). Here, I would like to take the liberty of rewriting the quote by playwright Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times there will be singing and dancing… but only by Savarnas.”
The author is a filmmaker and author of the book Love in the time of Pokemon. Views are personal.
[Edited by Fiza Ranalvi Jha]
This article is part of the Dalit History Month 2021 series. Read all the articles here.