It is often observed that literature of an era is marked by the overwhelming dominance of those in power. In other words, there is a void or gap in literature on account of those who have been less fortunate. That is why, for a larger share of time between the late 16th century and 19th century, black authors were more or less invisible in American literature. And in the times they did appear, it was an act of resistance, an effort to not let their voices drown out.
Oppression, we can say, overshadows expression. Imagine the amount of oppression in this scenario then. Being a person of colour on an international level, hence oppressed on one level already. And then within your nation, being a person of the backward caste. That is the level of overshadowing Dalit writers have had to face for the greater share of our history. Maybe that’s why it was only in the 20th century that Dalit literature first came into light.
Saying that Dalit writers were missing from our literature does not mean that Dalit characters were also absent. Gitanjali (1913) by Rabindranath Tagore, talks about how the ‘untouchables’ have been subjected to humiliation in our country. Sadgati (1931) by Premchand revolved around Dukhi, a lower caste character and his plight. There are countless other examples of famous writings representing the Dalit population. However, majority of these writers belonged to the upper caste themselves. This is where the debate of sympathy and empathy comes into play. Yes, Dalit characters were represented, but by upper caste writers. Several Dalit activists argue that only a person belonging to the community can truely depict the lives of its people. In the words of Ramnika Gupta, “Only ash knows the experience of burning”. So, does literature about Dalits count as Dalit Literature if it is penned down by a non-Dalit person? And even if it does, how authentic is it?
Children of God (1976) is a novel by Shanta Rameshwar Rao, a non-Dalit, upper caste woman. The story is narrated by Lakshmi, an ‘untouchable’ woman whose son is burnt alive when he tries to enter a Hindu temple. Upon analysis, the portrayal of Lakshmi’s sufferings come across as superficial to many, though honest in their efforts. Regardless of whether such writings count as Dalit literature, it was a little later in the 20th century that the country witnessed an uprising of Dalit writers.
Origins of Dalit Literature
Madara Chennaiah, a cobbler-saint from the 11th century, is among the earliest known Dalit writers. He is often referred to as “the father of Vachana poetry”, a form of writing with ryhmes in Kannada. There were also Dalit bhakti poets in that era like Guru Ravidas (15th-16th century), Chokhamela (14th century) etc, not to mention several Tamil Siddhas from the 6th to 13th century. However, it was later, primarily in the 19th century that literature became an instrument of resistance.
With the arrival of strong egalitarian thinkers in the 19th century, Dalit literature began to slowly shape itself into a different, distinguished genre altogether. Narayana Guru, for instance, was a social activist born in Kerala (1854). Throughout his lifetime, he wrote several pieces in Malyalam, Tamil, and even Sankrit, many of which talked about the oppression Dalit people face. Jyotirao Phule is another name that one is bound to remember, both for Dalit activism and Dalit literature. Born in 1827 in Maharashtra, Phule saw caste-based oppression from a first person perspective, having lived in it. He produced several works in the later half of the 19th century, highlighting the core problems of our caste oppression. B.R. Ambedkar, often considered the father of our Constitution, wrote several notable works in his lifetime, including the highly famous Annihilation of caste (1936). Modern Dalit Literature, as a genre like we know it today, came into shape in the wake of the 20th century.
Modern Dalit Literature
The term “Dalit Literature” began to be used in the year 1958, at the first meeting of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangh. Many people see the 1960s, and 1970s as the decades of Dalit Literature emergence. However, the 1920s marked the arrival of Dalit pamphlet literature. It happened at roughly the same time when B.R. Ambedkar had started his own revlolution of Dalit people being allowed inside Hindu temples.
A full-fledged Dalit representation emerged first in the Marathi literature. The iconic work Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli (When I had concealed my caste), was written by Baburao Bagul in the year 1963. It was among the initial modern Dalit Literature works from the 20th century. Namdeo Laxman Dhasal was another Marathi activist, inspired greatly by Bagul’s works. He gave the Dalit literary world numerous gems, starting from the 1970s. It was Dhasal, along with J.V. Pawar, and Arun Kamble who founded the Dalit Panthers in 1972. The organisation is considered one of the major change bringers in the Dalit revolution. It advocated for the ideologies of Jyotirao Phule, Ambedkar etc, as well as the Black Panthers Movement (an organisation that fought for African-American rights). Dalit Panthers revolutionised Marathi literature. In another corner of the country, writer-activists like Bama (Tamil Nadu) were creating a wave of change. She was a Dalit feminist who wrote an autobiography titled Karukku (1992). The book explored the joys and sorrows in the lives of Dalit Christian women of her state. The Uttar Pradesh-based writer, Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan (1997), is a strong piece that movingly talks about caste-based discrimination.
In 1993, the first Akhil Bharatiya Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan was organized in Maharashtra. The aim was to promote and transform Dalit Literature. A few other notable Dalit writers from that era are Shantabai Kamble, Urmila Pawar, Laxman Mane etc.
Dalit literature and Dalit activism have become strongly integrated in the modern world. Literature is quite a powerful weapon, after all. The literary world has seen an emergence of new Dalit writers, transforming the space with their powerful writings. P. Sivakami, for example, is one of the most prominent Dalit writers today. Her book The grip of change is a very powerful piece of writing, considered one of the finest by many people. Vijila Chirrappad, another Dalit women writer is based in Kerala and has published three collections till date. Her writings generally explore the problems in the lives of women. Dev Kumar, born in 1972, is a Dalit writer as well as dramatist. He founded a theatre group (Apna Theatre) in 1992, and has produced several plays arousing Dalit consciousness. Meena Kandasamy is among the most famous feminist writers of our country. Based in Tamil Nadu, her writings are deeply linked to the anti-caste movement.
As Dalit writers slowly take their rightful place in the literary world, there is a clear transition to be seen. While earlier, the literary sphere was dominated by Dalit characters that didn’t have a very strong voice (for example, Lakshmi from Children of God), the modern day characters are penned down boldly. Young, Dalit writers are making their presence felt, telling their own story for a change.