Caste-ing Call

Sri Vamsi Matta at Memorial Union Terrace. Photo by Alexander Andre.

Whether on stage, behind the scenes or at home, Sri Vamsi Matta has always been acutely aware of the role he plays in the cast of life. Born into a Dalit family (formerly known as the “untouchable” caste), Matta’s work and art forms center on his lived experience as a former “untouchable” and society’s perceived importance of social hierarchies—even ones that have, in theory, long been disbanded.

With the topic of caste at the center of most of his work, Matta aims to engage a conversation that challenges the status quo. “My questions of identity [and] my understanding have come from that location,” said Matta. “The root of everything is actually caste because caste is a hierarchical order that defines where you fall in the society.”

The visual and theater artist was born in Visakhapatnam, India, and raised in Bengaluru (Bangalore), but success in either city was futile due not only to his subject matter, but also to gatekeeping within institutions, performance spaces and galleries.

Social media, however, changed that and made it possible for artists like Matta to share their work outside of the “gate-kept” institutions. His online presence would eventually draw the attention of program residency lead, Zara Chowdhary, from the UW–Madison’s Center for South Asia.

“Because my work existed on social media, through folks who knew about my work, I was able to connect with Zara and the idea of bringing me to Madison sprouted,” said Matta.

Matta, applied and was selected as one of two artists for the 2023–24 Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program (IARP) with the Division of the Arts and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.

The residency appointments highlight the importance of interdisciplinary arts, noting that they can break down barriers and silos, advance intellectual artistic diversity, and give opportunities to people who do not fit into the traditional modes of inquiry and practice.

Matta with his students. Photo by Matts, courtesy of Matta.

Along with the artists, the program brings together students and faculty from all areas of campus. As part of the position, Matta is teaching a course called, “Whose Art Is It Anyway? Explorating Folk Performance from South Asia.” In the course, he and his students examine folk performances, a form of art he notes originated in marginalized locations, from India through different lenses ranging from personal to social to spiritual.

While Matta says the focus of the course is caste, he emphasized that it also addresses a central question: “What does it mean to live in a society that is actually not equitable, not equal, not egalitarian?”

Through his course, open to all degree programs, Matta hoped to “find students who are in the margins and sort of give them a language to speak about.”

His yearlong residency, the first in IARP’s history, will continue into the spring 2024 semester as he works with Chowdhary to write and produce a musical production titled “BLUE.” The final piece will be a collaboration with First Wave Scholars as well as Indian and Indian American poets, and other artists from a multitude of backgrounds.

Though not completed yet, “BLUE” will center on the experience of a first-generation Indian American freshman student named Chandra. The production will follow her journey, touching on topics such as caste, as she “navigates through her initial year, aspiring to pursue her passion for drumming despite her academic start in soil science,” said Matta.

He hopes that those who come to see BLUE not only get to witness Chandra’s story but are also able to engage in conversation around the topic of caste.

Matta performing. Photo by Matts.

Upon the completion of BLUE and his year-long residency, Matta will return to India and prepare to share his upcoming play, “Star in the Sky.” With his cast and crew ready and the show fully written, Matta looks forward to telling the next story and continuing the conversation.

“I would like to make the umbrella bigger,” said Matta. “Education is the way to go forward in talking about caste and telling the stories of people in these communities.”

Learn more about Matta’s most recent performance, “Come Eat With Me,” that has gained attention throughout India and internationally.


Story by Jaya Larsen