Telugu Dalit literature's evolution is a living movement for an egalitarian society, nurturing dignity in resistance
The evolution of Telugu Dalit literature, along with the Dalit movement, led an ideological narrative against caste discrimination, and for a just and equal society with focus on self-respect and dignity.
"జీవితం నాకు ఎన్నో పాఠాలు నేర్పింది. నా గురువులు ఇద్దరు- పేదరికం, కులమత భేదం. ఒకటి నాకు సహనాన్ని నేర్పితే, రెండవది నాలో ఎదిరించే శక్తిని పెంచిందే కాని బానిసగా మాత్రం మార్చలేదు. దారిద్య్రాన్ని, కులభేదాన్ని కూడా చీల్చి నేను మనిషిగా నిరూపించుకోదలచాను. వాటిపై కత్తి కట్టాను. అయితే నా కత్తి కవిత. నా కత్తికి సంఘంపై ద్వేషం లేదు. దాని విధానంపై ద్వేషం."
“Life has taught me many lessons. There were two gurus in my life: the first was poverty and the second was caste and religious discrimination. The former taught me patience in life. The latter only gave me the strength to resist but did not turn me into a slave. However, by facing both of them I tried to prove myself as a human being. I revolted with my dagger — my dagger is my poetry; it does not hate society but its social practices.”
— Gurram Jashuva in Na Katha (My Story)
Gurram Jashuva, the first modern Telugu Dalit poet, brought revolutionary changes in Telugu literature when he wrote about the oppression and discrimination faced by Dalits. His seminal work Gabbilam (The Bat) is one of the most powerful Dalit texts questioning the roots of systematic discrimination, and asserting on the Dalit conscience that black is beautiful.
In the movement for independence, untouchability and caste-based discrimination became core issues. However, the struggles of Dalits were predominantly documented by upper-castes, evoking sympathy for the cause. Whether it was ancient Shudra poets like Potluri Veerabhramam and Vemana, or other progressive writers in the pre-independence era, Dalits were written about, rather than given access to platforms where they could talk and write about their lived experiences.
So even as Jashuva became an established scholar in Telugu and Sanskrit, it was not without struggle, both within the literary sphere and in daily life. For instance, at a poetry concert in Kakinada, which witnessed the who’s who of Telugu literature on stage and in the audience, Jashuva felt humiliated by a fellow poet (Viswanatha Satyanarayana), who referred to his caste. He declared that ‘Ee jatiki ika buddhi radu ('This race will never learn')’ and walked away from the gathering.
పామునకుఁ బాలు చీమకుఁ బంచదార
మేపు కొనుచున్న కర్మభూమిఁ జనించు
ప్రాక్తనం బైన ధర్మదేవతకుఁ గూడ
నులికిపడు జబ్బు గలదు వీఁడున్న చోట
Born in this land of Karma where
snakes are offered milk and ants are fed sugar.
Even the Goddess of Dharma
will shiver at the presence of an untouchable.
— Gurram Jashuva in Gabbilam (The Bat)
Jashuva was highly influenced by the ongoing movements in India for freedom, social reformation, anti-colonial nationalism, and the struggles which came with World War II. He, however, strongly believed in Mahatma Gandhi’s fight to abolish untouchability. While Jashuva questioned the suppression of Dalits, his contemporary Kusuma Dharmanna, a staunch Ambedkarite and critic of Gandhi and Hinduism, gave a call for Dalit liberation. His poem ‘Maa koddi nalla doranam' ('We don’t want this Brown supremacy’) written in 1921 represents the two-fold freedom struggle led by the Dalits: one against British imperialism, and another against Brahminical hegemony. Around this time, the Dalit movement moved from being written about to being written by Dalits; from following the mainstream language, to being rooted in the language spoken by them.
The evolution of Dalit literature forced a shift in the entire Telugu literary world in order to embrace its realism articulating the voices of the people. Post-Independence, a new generation of Dalit poets, artists, and intellectuals dictated the terms of Telugu literature. They brought literary art into the public sphere, aiding the socio-political movements in the regions of Andhra and Telangana, which have just started to witness a rise in the new political class leaning increasingly towards leftist politics. It mobilised the masses into a class struggle against existing feudal structures and oppressive forces. The call for the revolution ‘land to the tiller or Dunnevaadide bhoomi’ reverberated across student unions and mobilised the youth. Two major peasant uprisings, The Telangana Armed Struggle (1940s) and the Srikakulam Peasant Struggle (1960s), drew their forces largely from the Dalits. During this time, the Communist Party’s Jana Natya Mandali played a significant role in taking its messages to the masses drawing from the tradition of oral storytelling and folk art among Dalits. Theatre forms such as Burrakatha, Yakshaganam, Oggukatha and other street plays became key instruments. This gave rise to activist-singers such as Gaddar, Masterji, Goreti Venkanna, Suddala Hanumanthu, Bandi Yadagiri and Guda Venkaiah. Their songs gave an uncompromising call for a revolution and over time have found themselves in mainstream Telugu industry.
బండెనుక బండి గట్టి పదహారు బండ్లు గట్టి
ఏ బండ్లే బోతవ్ కొడుకో నైజాము సర్కరోడా
నాజీల మించినవురో నైజాము సర్కరోడా
పోలీసు మిల్ట్రీ రెండూ బలవంతులానుకొని
నువ్వు పల్లెలు దోస్తివి కొడుకో
మా పల్లెలు దోస్తివి కొడుకో
Cart after cart, sixteen carts in a row
Which cart will you ride (hiding), Nizam ruler
You’ve exceeded the Nazis, Nizam ruler
Both the police and military, leaning on the powerful
You looted the villages, you looted our homes
— Bandi Yadagiri's lines used in Maa Bhoomi (1979)
The turn of events in the last two decades of the 20th century shaped a major political shift with the consolidation of the Dalit movement that was lying dormant till then.
On 17 July 1985, the village of Karamchedu woke up to a shocking massacre, when an entire Madiga settlement was attacked by a mob of Kamma men (a land-owning community closely associated with the then ruling Telugu Desam Party). In broad daylight, Kamma men armed with axes and spears chased and brutally attacked the community, killing six men and three women. While the attack is a black day in the history of Andhra Pradesh, it was neither the first nor the last attack on Dalits and minorities. Even while the wounds were fresh, distinctly similar attacks took place in Chunduru, Neerukonda, Pippara, and Timmasamudram.
These incidents brought to the fore the collective conscience of the Dalits. It also brought together two Dalit intellectuals, Kathi Padma Rao and Bojja Tarakam, who led the Dalit Mahasabha in 1987.
The first Dalit Mahasabha took place in Hyderabad under the guidance of the Dr BR Ambedkar Memorial Trust, mobilising masses to fight against caste discrimination and atrocities on Dalits. Several student organisations, literary forums and volunteer forums were constituted across the state. The advent of education facilitated the growth of Dalits and led to the consequent assertion of their identity. The upper-caste Hindus, who found it impossible to stomach these developments, have periodically subjected Dalits to an unprecedented amount of humiliation and brutal violence. The proceedings which followed the incidents also helped the Dalit realise the casteist nature of the legal machinery and the state.
Thereafter, Karamchedu and 17 July became a political and cultural symbol of revolution, along with Ambedkar, Shambuka, Ekalavya and Buddha. This also became a source of inspiration for Telugu Dalit literature, which began to take its strongest form. The movement gave birth to a new generation of Dalit writers and poets whose ideas were rooted in fight for one's self-respect. Proudly adopting BR Ambedkar's principles as their foundation, they questioned the mainstream ideologies, Brahminical hegemony, and called out the hypocrisy of the communists. This gave birth to powerful Dalit poetry anthologies such as Padunekkina Pata and Chikkanaina Pata.
నేను ఎప్పుడు పుట్టానో తెలియదు గానీ
వేల ఏళ్ల క్రితం ఈ గడ్డమీదనే చంపబడ్డాను
ఒక పెనుమంటల పెనుగులాటనై
మళ్లీ మళ్లీ ఈ దేశంలోనే ప్రభవిస్తాను
I don’t know when I was born
But, for sure, I was killed
On this very soil
Thousands of years ago.
Becoming the fury of wildfires
I will take birth again and again
In this country.
— 'For a Fistful of Self-respect' by Kalekuri Prasad
Rise of the intersectional Dalit conscience
“Dandora is a movement for equal identity and social justice. It believed that rights of the weakest among weak, rights of every caste whether it is minor caste or major caste, have to be protected equally. Dandora demonstrated that monopoly is the foundation of inequality and emphasized that monopoly of any form, whether it is the monopoly of Brahmin’s or monopoly of Scheduled Castes, has to be broken for realisation of equal identity and equal justice. In a plural society every caste or group has to assert itself for protection of its identity and rights.”
— Excerpt from Dandora: The Triple Identity Movement by P Mutaiah
As modern Telugu literature has evolved, writers have used the medium to assert the nuances of intersectionality, and at times conflicting or overlapping identities, such as sub-caste, gender, religion and region. The Dandora Movement launched in the 1990s by Madigas protested against unequal treatment by Malas. Similar sentiments were also raised by other sub-caste communities such as Dakkali, Relli, Jambavas, among others. Women writers such as Gogu Shyamala, Joopaka Subhadra, Jajula Gowri, and Challapalli Swaroopa Rani ensured that the voice of the Dalit woman is heard. Their work is far more distinct than that of both upper-caste women and Dalit men. As Challapalli Swaroopa Rani notes: "She (a Dalit woman) is a Dalit among Dalits", oppressed by both patriarchy and the caste system. These concerns also gave rise to nuances within the feminist movement, which was largely being led from a Savarna perspective till then.
'ఇంట్లో పురుషహంకారం చెంప ఛెళ్లుమనిపిస్తే
వీధిలో కులాధిపత్యం రెండో చెంప పగలగొడుతుంది
In the home male arrogance
Sets my cheek stinging
While in the street caste arrogance
Splits the other cheek open
— Excerpt from 'Mankena Puvvu' by Challapalli Swaroopa Rani
Even though Dalits converted to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism over generations, caste-based discrimination against them prevails. For instance, Dudekula Muslims who converted to Islam many generations ago still face caste discrimination, derived from Hinduism. Their struggles and experiences are ignored in comparison to their upper-class/caste counterparts. In a powerful poem titled 'Avval Kalma', Telugu poet Yakoob questions hierarchy and caste discrimination among Muslims, and simultaneously asserts their identity and linguistic uniqueness.
నిజానికి నవాబు, ముస్లీము, సాయిబు, తురక-
ఎవరెవరు ఏ పేర్లతో పిలవబడుతున్నారో అదే వాళ్ల వర్గం -
చేజారిన రాజరికం, జాగీరు, నవాబీ, పటేల్ దర్పాల్లో
బతికిన వాళ్లకు కోల్పోయిన సుఖాల ఆనవాళ్లయినా మిగిలాయి
రెక్కకూ డొక్కకూ బతుకు బంధిఖానా అయినవాళ్లం.
ఎప్పుడూ మిగుల్చుకోవడానికి ఏమీ లేనివాళ్లం.
చెప్పుకోవడానికి మాకేం మిగుల్తుంది
Infact- Nizam, Nawab, Muslim, Turaka
The terms they are referred with, is their caste/ class.
Among those who lost their pride of having once been rulers, jagirdars, nawabs, and patels
Retained traces of those lost luxuries.
We, with our existence caught between the hand and mouth, never had anything to save.
What’s left for us to talk about?
— Excerpt from 'Avval Kalma' by Kavi Yakoob
The evolution of Telugu Dalit literature, along with the Dalit movement, led an ideological narrative against caste discrimination and for an egalitarian social order with focus on self-respect and dignity. As old as the spoken word, it is rich in heritage and has remained accessible to the masses. A living and breathing movement, it continues to shape itself and the larger movement at every step, creating a vibrant culture of resistance and debate.
Gabbilam by Gurram Jashuva
Boyi Bheemanna interview with All India Radio
Oka Dashabdanni kudipivesina Dalita Kavitvam by Dr. Prasadmurti
Antarani Prema by Kalekuri Prasad
Sarihaddu Rekha by Kavi Yakoob
Telugu Dalit Poetry Today by Thummapudi Bharathi
The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing by L Purushotham, Gita Ramaswamy and Gogu Shyamala
The train will visit key sites associated with Dr BR Ambedkar including his birthplace of Mhow, London, the place he lived and studied, Nagpur, where he also studied, Delhi, where he passed away, and finally Mumbai, where he was cremated
Social entrepreneur Shefali Khanna launches a new experiential space for creators, musicians, and artisans; the workspace-cum-studio is a uniquely curated space that aims at creating a conducive environment for nurturing art and craft.