Dust rises from the crowd dancing at the front of the stage. They mimic the dances of Arivu, the main performer of the night, chanting Tamil lyrics along with the performers.

Students and community members gathered at the Quarry Amphitheatre on October 7 to watch the Center for South Asian Studies’ (CSAS) inaugural Ambassa in America concert featuring frontman Arivarasu Kalainesan, known as Arivu. 

The group relies on a mixture of modern and traditional instruments to create a melange of genres, incorporating everything from hip-hop to reggae. Social justice is central to their craft, specifically shedding light on caste oppression in India. 

Songs performed by the band were reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, traditional south eastern music, and Pop Smoke, just to name a few. It was a testament to the deep music connections between South Asia and the U.S.

“His music celebrates the lives and joys and efflorescence of the life of caste-oppressed people,” said Founding Co-director of the CSAS Anjali R. Arondekar.

The CSAS was founded in 2020 with a goal of promoting the study of South Asian cultures. Social justice is central to CSAS mission, centering its work on five core areas of caste, gender and sexuality, development; growth and entrepreneurship; technology; and culture. 

Saturday’s concert shed light on caste oppression in India, with Arivu and the Ambassa Band being the first musical artists from the Dalit caste to perform in America. Although officially abolished in India’s constitution in 1950, many argue that the hierarchical system still dictates many aspects of daily life in India. The Dalits were considered “untouchable” within this system, and have a long history of economic and social discrimination

For South Asian students like Tanvi Gunasekaran, seeing that people could leave the concert better educated about her culture was meaningful to her.

“Caste is definitely a problem in India, and for [Arivu] to be so vocal about it is amazing, because usually when artists are vocal about it in India, they get threatened and there’s violence involved,” Gunasekaran said. “For him to be so brave and doing this, it’s just amazing.”

Even though the concert was mostly college students, there were a large amount of families with members ranging from young children to grandparents in attendance. The celebration of culture was truly a family affair.

The concert came at a pivotal point for discussions of caste oppression within the U.S. The  same day, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed SB 403, a bill banning caste discrimination in the state of California on the grounds that it was “unnecessary,” because caste discrimination was already prohibited based on existing legislation.

Despite the rejection of the bill, the CSAS continues to commit themselves to their mission of facilitating conversations of social justice across the Pacific Ocean and in the Indian Ocean world. CSAS plans to continue running events addressing caste oppression and social justice throughout the year, including the event “The Trauma of Caste and the US Equity Movement” set for Feb. 14. 

As his performance comes to an end, Arivu shares empowering messages in between songs, to remind the audience what the Ambassa band stands for.

“Love has no gender, no caste, no reason,” Arivu said into the microphone. “Love is for everyone, everywhere.”

Crawford Patten contributed additional reporting.