Asian Arts Initiative showcases art striving to cast out caste system

The Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia is exhibiting work by a group of Dalit, once known as “untouchables,” to protest that social hierarchy.

Equality Labs, an organization of Delit people (

Equality Labs, an organization of Delit people ("Untouchables") in the Indian caste system, stage bloody "Atrocity Nation" demonstrations wherein protestors smear themselves with fake blood for a "die-in" in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

For thousands of years, those born in India were ranked according to their family’s place in society.  Formerly known as “untouchables,” the Dalit are on the lowest rung of that caste system.

Now some of those Dalits are taking to the streets in the U.S. to eradicate the system, saying it has followed them to this country.

The Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia is aiding in that effort with an exhibit of protest art aimed at ending discrimination based on caste.

The caste system, based on ancient Hindu law, is officially banned — a Dalit was even elected Indian president in the 1990s. But discrimination persists in India, in surrounding South Asian countries, and even in the U.S., said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an American-born Dalit activist.

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“The unfortunate thing is that wherever South Asians go, they organize their communities along caste,” said Soundararajan. “There’s no institution that we don’t participate in that we haven’t seen some form of caste discrimination.”

To combat caste discrimination in the U.S., Soundararajan founded Equality Labs. One of the first things it did was identify the scope of the problem. A survey of Dalits living in the U.S. found one in four recounted verbal or physical assaults; two-thirds reported unfair treatment at work, and 40 percent said they have been rejected in their religious communities and romantic relationships.

“We felt that, in order to really have people build empathy for this issue, we had to create art, we had to do public-awareness campaigns, and do community-based research that centered our people’s stories as a platform for justice,” she said.

Soundararajan, who once worked in the technology industry, said many educated South Asian immigrants find jobs in that sector — and she urged corporate leaders to be aware of caste mindsets among employees.

The Asian Arts Initiative exhibit comprises work created by Equality Lab and Soundarajan, including protest posters and photography from demonstrations where participants smear themselves with blood and pretend to die in the street. It will be up until April 12.

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