Why Sairat filmmaker Nagraj Manjule's poetry may prove to be his more powerful legacy
Nagraj Manjule may be better known as the director of Fandry and Sairat, but it is with his poetry hat he has achieved something truly phenomenal
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 column, we look at the literary legacy of Nagraj Manjule.
I am choosing
not to suffer uselessly and not to use her
I choose to love this time for once
with all my intelligence
— Adrienne Rich
Nagraj Manjule as a filmmaker/director (Fandry and Sairaat) is known to many but very few him as a poet. Fewer still have read his poetry — and the influence of his movies seems to have overpowered his literary talent in the eyes of the audience. But there is something in his poetry that arrests your attention, something in each metaphor he uses, in the way he imbues them with new meaning. There is something in his poems you cannot avoid, something which is soft and subtle yet unsettling. To read his poems is to be in a space where you can know things but not feel them — simply because we do not possess that experience.
And yet, Manjule's poems have the ability to at least make us aware of his world, the world of his people, to make you think. You might not find his poems pleasant to read, but they'll have you witness a volatile theatre of emotions. His verses will put you 'out of yourself', invite you to look into a world which is despised, yet stands on its own — fighting the rejection of a casteist society.
In 2010, Manjule’s first poetry collection in Marathi, Unhachya Kataviruddh (Against The Conspiracy of The Sun) was published and except among a few enthusiastic readers and critics, it almost went unnoticed. Fame arrived for Manjule only after the release of his first movie Fandry, a brilliant portrayal of the absurdities and brutalities of caste system. But it is his poetry collection that is no less a milestone in Marathi as well as Dalit literature.
Many of his verses seemed to have journeyed from one time space to another, a thread that could connect you to the history of frustration among Dalits due to the chaos they have been privy to in their political and social life. For Dalits, aesthetics and politics are interconnected; since the epistemic base of their lives demands larger frameworks in order to make meaning out what they are living (through), their writings do not offer you an immediate result. It is meant to make you uncomfortable, to offer you the humanness that is rejected for centuries. Love, romance, sexuality in Dalit poetry, hence, do not tend to provide you the same effect Brahminical poetry on such themes in India offer readers.
You can pronounce any sad word you wish to
through my lips defiled by my poems
You can tell the different tale of lesion over my lips
You can reject the birth of an emptiness, within me,
that is unknowingly impregnated
like a foetus of mad-woman
Impression of fingers don’t remain on the decrepit Banyan leaf
Even today I have your letters with me
But while writing, your handwriting must have changed now
You must have acquired a remorseless understanding
that, a dead foetus can not reveal the secret of rape
You can ask me my identity newly
I am the concealed meaning of open eyes of a corpse
[Translated by Yogesh Maitreya]
Manjule does not seem to romanticise romance; rather, he learns from it. He finds philosophy in unrequited love. It is only possible when you live a life where on the one hand, you're hungry, on the other, you dream of love. His metaphors brilliantly suggest that though the people in poems, in his world, are dead as bodies, they are conscious and alive as minds; they are dead, not unconscious; silent, but not existence-less — because they lately acquired the skill to write.
If I did not have a pen in my hand
It would have been a chisel
Or perhaps a canvas and brush
I would have been digging
With whatever I had
This extravagant cacophony of mind
[Translated by Yogesh Maitreya]
Often, a single book is enough to make a huge dent in the dominant literary narratives which kept people away from imagining love and more importantly, from feeling it. However, the sociology of historical materialism in India shaped Manjule differently. Manjule, in his poems, seemed to have succeeded in narrating the results of historical materialism which works differently in his imagination because, as he says, I would have been digging/ with whatever I had/ This extravagant cacophony of mind. But if you want to know the profundity with which he understands love, then you should read Eyes of Mother in which he says:
How my mother
Has grudgingly stopped maddened darkness
Through embers of her illuminating eyes
That comes upon running
If I did not look into her eyes
Then my love,
My moon and stars would have trapped
Within your persona
[Translated by Yogesh Maitreya]
More than being read, Manjule's poems are meant to be reflected on. The biggest contribution that Manjule’s poetry made to Dalit literature is creatively connecting the sociology of oppression to intimate subjects like love and sexuality. It has freshly made people aware that love can also be conducted with intelligence.
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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