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Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy: Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature

A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature 

Today's Dalit Literature that occupies a pride of place is actually born out of the heinous system of untouchability and caste discrimination that have been practiced in India for the past millennia. Outside the caste-Hindu chaturvarna-order came the ‘untouchables,’ or the Panchamas, who are the present-day Dalits. The concepts of purity and pollution, dreamed to their logical extremes, made life a living hell for some people of the same land. This religiously sanctioned inequality called the caste system, in the words of Ambedkar, was "not just a division of labour, it was a division of labourers." And for ages, they have been peddling a complacent justification of the caste system through the belief in karma and sins of the previous births. In fact, the Hindu tale of the creation of human beings and castes, shows the oppressive workings of the system. The gods are not only content with creating a society, but they create a wretched social order too. 

Because the caste system denied education to Shudras and Panchamas, anti-caste writing was a way in which the oppressed were retaliating against the oppressors. It was a psychological liberation for a people who believed that they were there "not to break ourselves, but to break the system." In fact, the first systematic exploration of anti-caste ideas is included in Buddhist works. Later, the Bhakti poetry of the 14th century, attemped an amalgamation of the castes and the outcastes. The Bhakti poetry was anti-orthodox, mostly inclusive and highly radical. While this was the story of the mainstream, the outcastes (or ex-untouchables) always had their own folk forms of expression like kooththu, but these works were anonymous and denied literary respectability. 

Mahatma Jotirao Phule was the first to use the word Dalit in connection with caste. However, the word Dalit came into popular currency with the advent of the militant Dalit Panthers. In Marathi, the word Dalit means ground crushed, broken down and reduced to pieces. This name was chosen by the group itself, and it contained in it an inherent denial of pollution, karma and caste hierarchy. The Dalit Panther movement, was a self-conscious movement among the ‘Depressed Classes’ who sought to follow the militant and revolutionary Black Panthers of America. Dalit literature grew out of the Dalit Panther movement which was established by two writers Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale in April 1972. Like Black Literature, Dalit writing was characterized by a new level of pride, militancy, sophisticated creativity and above all sought to use writing as a weapon. 

Dalit writers were quick to point out that the 2000 year old history of oppression has not been documented at all: it is a literal holocaust that has slipped by without being put into words! 

Marathi Dalit literature is the forerunner of all modern Dalit literature. It was essentially against exploitation, and made use of writing as a method of propaganda for the movement. It was not immediately recognized by the mainstream which was obsessed with middle class issues. 

Tamil Dalit literature blossomed only in the early 1990s when the birth centenary of revolutionary Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar was celebrated. That period saw political awakening of the Dalits and the creation of Tamil Dalit literature. Bama's crossword book winning Karukku was written at this time, as well as Sivakami's Pazhaiyana Kazhithalam (which has now been translated into English as the Grip of Change and published by Orient Longman). 

Like all other Dalit literature, Tamil Dalit literature too has an excess of autobiographies. Critics condemn these literatures of lament, but they too have a central place within the creative core. Tamil Dalit literature is characterized by the call for self-identity and assertion. It tramples all conventions with its intensely personal expression; is concerned with the life of the subaltern, and deals out a stark brutality. This literature should be viewed not as a literature of vengeance or a literature of hatred, but a literature of freedom and greatness. 

In this selection we have published 15 poets, both well-established as well as a few emerging ones. Why did we choose poetry, instead of autobiography or short-stories? It is because we wanted to carry the essence of a thing, which is what art is all about. The poems are raw, powerful and honest; and in a strange way they convey what thousands of words of prose would attempt to do. The poets come from diverse backgrounds, one of them is an MLA (elected representative), another is a professor of mathematics, yet another a postman, but then, here, only their poems speak. Most of these poems have been performed on stage in political meetings and public gatherings (which is a Tamil tradition, despite ‘performance poetry’ being touted only now in the West) and have become part of the Tamil Dalit consciousness. 

Like all other literature, Tamil Dalit poetry too seeks to transcend all barriers, it aims to break all shackles, it promises liberation.


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