Namdeo Dhasal's poetry, and how it gave form to the Dalit experience in Maharashtra
In our ongoing series on Dalit literature from Maharashtra, we look at the literary legacy of the legendary Namdeo Dhasal.
Editor's note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits.
It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. It marked a resurrection of their experiential world, which had been appropriated by the pens of Savarnas.
Poems, stories, novels, biographies, autobiographies produced by Dalits established a new body of literature in which, for the first time, the downtrodden took centrestage. People who had been denied what humanity considers the ‘basics’, started to transform the lives of others like them, through the written word.
As this movement of literary assertion by Dalits grew stronger, the unseen side of India — the side that is brutal and inhumane — became visible to the world. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives. Almost all of the writers who shaped the early theoretical discourse of Dalit literature were from Maharashtra and in this series, we revisit the lives and works of 10 distinguished Dalit writers from the state — and their impact on the literary world.
In this fourth column, we look at the literary legacy of Namdeo Dhasal.
“Both my individual and my collective life have been through such tremendous upheavals that if my personal life did not have poetry to fall back on I would not have reached thus far. I would have become a top gangster, the owner of a brothel, or a smuggler.” — Namdeo Dhasal
Perhaps, no poet in history has bestowed as much faith and trust in the power of verse than Namdeo Dhasal. His poems are powerful songs of rebellion as much as a theory of liberation from the mental slavery imposed by caste. Namdeo Dhasal does not need any introduction when we discuss literature, at least in Maharashtra. Hailing from a village called Pur near Pune, Dhasal’s family migrated to (then) Bombay when he was in Class Five.
The time was the early 1950s. In the city of dreams and dread, the Dhasal family landed in Dhor Chawl, a residential locality predominantly populated with 'untouchables'. Located in Central Bombay, Dhor Chawl became the Dhasals' abode; it had some of the city's oldest slums in its proximity, as also the infamous red light district of Kamathipura. It was perhaps the most wretched area within the city. It was around this period that the underworld was taking root in Mumbai, and such localities became its birthplace. Dhasal is the only person to emerge from this wretched landscape as a poet.
Dhasal once describes his life thus:
“I boozed. I visited brothels. I went to mujra dancing women’s establishments and to houses of ordinary prostitutes. The whole ambience and the ethos of it was the revelation of a tremendous form of life. It was life! Then I threw all rulebooks out. No longer the rules of prosody for me. My poetry was as free as I was. I wrote what I felt like writing and how I felt like writing. I had found my weapons and I sharpened them. Nothing was going to stop me now. I went on writing, unshackled and liberated.”
His verses so poignantly describe his own emergence as a poet when he writes:
I was born/On footpath/ when the Sun was leaked/ and being dimmed/into the bosom of night. [Translated by this writer]
What happened to him when he had witnessed the reality of life at such levels and in all its hues? When he said, it was life, he meant he was more close to human beings out there and could sample all the flavours of humanity. Wretched circumstances, even if they destroy your material life, do also introduce you to the basics of humanity — a person amid such conditions always develops a sense of survival and rebellion. Dhasal could feel the horizons of (his) life; and poetry became his weapon. He writes:
All these innumerable plays/being staged in an experimental theater/ about our conditions/ why should we unnecessarily do introspection/ while being sacrificed, silently like a goat during Eid?/ One should name his life after penis/ and live happily/ I won’t live like this. [Translated by this writer]
If his poetry captured the subtleties of growing up as a Dalit, his politics as a Dalit Panther was far more clear and profound with a vision that only a few had dreamed of. Being one of the founding members of Dalit Panthers — the benchmark of rebellion within the Ambedkarite Movement — his imagination included all wretched people under the etymology of 'Dalit'. Thus 'Dalit' — as a word and political imagination — became indelibly inscribed in the minds of people. The Dalit Panthers' leaders were not only fighting against atrocities imposed on Dalits with the larger vision of annihilation of caste, they were associated with literature as the praxis of liberation. Almost all of them (including Dhasal) were brilliant poets and writers, intelligently practising the polemics, using it to expose the dire violence against Dalits by upper caste Hindus.
Dhasal wrote nine anthologies of poems and several prose writings, including one novel. All his poetry collections are significant contributions to the history of literature in India. But the most celebrated among his works was Golpitha — his first poetry collection published in 1971. Golpitha was the symbol of an inhumane reality transformed through poetic imagination. Otherwise untouched by the eyes and imagination of Brahmin Marathi writers in Maharashtra, Dhasal told through his poems of life that can be found at any level. Golpitha broke the perceptions through which poetry in Maharashtra was seen and practised. It provided Dalits the confidence with which they can now explore the language for their struggle, without being burdened by norms and oppressive tradition. With the arrival of Golpitha, Dalits in Maharashtra not only got their language but also the theory for their experiences by which they can now tell the world that they are the creators of their lives. Since then, Dhasal has inspired many poets. His influence on the form of poetry that is being practised in Maharashtra continues till today. Perhaps no other poet in the history of Maharashtra has wielded as much influence as Dhasal. His vision about life, his struggle, and his poetry were the factors that prevented his influence from waning in the public imagination. We find his clarity of action in his poems as well as his politics. And to know him more closely, we must reflect upon his words:
“Once you develop a taste for knowledge, you begin to grow fast. If you do not have a vision, you become a problem unto yourself. I never became a problem to myself. I became a socialist; but as soon as I saw the hollowness of it, I turned to communism. However, whatever I did, my foundation was Ambedkar’s vision.”
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet and translator. He is the founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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