Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tamil Dalit Poetry

The State of Tamil Nadu in South India is ubiquitous in many ways- perhaps the most important being that in the 1920s it gave rise to a powerful non- Brahmin movement called the Self- Respect Movement led by social reformer Periyar. It later led to the formation of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) party.

Tamil Nadu politics is today dominated by two Dravidian parties- the DMK that morphed out of the DK and its off- shoot, the AIADMK, the former led by Karunanidhi and his family, the latter, by the temperamental Jayalalitha.

Periyar's social reform movement was largely rationalist and is perhaps without parallel in its expanse and intensity. Periyar's oft- quoted statement is:
"He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian."
Unlike elsewhere in India, Tamil social structure is not in the form of a pyramid- instead it has a caste system with a very small Brahmin (less than 2%) population, a large chunk of the backward castes and a substantial Dalit population (about 20% of the total state population) - the "other upper castes" like the Kshatriyas are absent. 90% of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu own no land.

Tamil politics is dominated by some of the backward castes many of which are no longer "backward" in most ways. Periyar's movement produced a powerful assertion of the Tamil backward castes but left little or no space for the Dalits.

Even serious Dalit literature arrived only in the early 1990s.

But it is in this state that the Dalit intelligentsia can emerge as a powerful voice. Over the years, a literacy culture has taken strong roots in the state- literacy is far higher than in all states except Kerala. There is also an immediate tradition of protest and assertion albeit of the backward castes.

The fervour, the controlled but intense anger and the intellectual restlessness to understand society in order to change it among some of the young Dalit professionals and students in the state is like the one that one earlier used to observe only among the Marxist inclined youth in the sixties and seventies.

The Sep- Oct issue of Muse India, edited by the young and talented Meena Kandasamy, containing a selection of some of the Dalit poetry emerging out of Tamil Nadu offers a poignant window into these undercurrents of protest.

Rajkumar ND in the poem 'A Wish' gives an inkling of the mood:
He who desires peace
Under oppression
Is a fraud.

It is human tendency to disturb
And attain clarity in the fight
For liberation.
In "Infection", Devadevan sarcastically comments on the sacred thread that is the privilege only of the Brahmin men:
The chief doctor came,
Examined my friend
And raised his head.
In the direction of the ears
That were throbbing with worry
And concern and questions
He bent his head
And from his white-gloved hand
Held a dirty sacred thread
And said,
"This could have caused
The infection."
There are 15 poems in this issue of the magazine, most of them translated by Meena Kandasamy who also provides a short and cogent backgroud to the emergence of Dalit literature in Tamil Nadu.
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.
Link to Muse via Whitejasmine

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Bhaswati said...

Excellent and informative post as usual. Thanks for those poem excerpts; they are powerful. It's indeed a revelation to see such a train of thought still finding poetic expression. A hopeful sign.

The magazine looks brilliant. Thanks for the link.

bhupinder singh said...

I agree... socially committed writing is inspiring, but is less visible in the din of the over communicating 21st century. Hopefully, it will recover its ability to reach out to those sensitive to social inequities and instill confidence in those seeking change.

rc said...

Good one.

Take care while attempting to analyze Tamilnadu though. It does have a kshatriya base - quite a big one at that. The Thevars and Naickers are dominant Kshatriyase. It does have a very sizable vaishya base of Mudaliars, Pillais, Chettis.

In the 20's Tamilnadu had a 16-18% Brahmin population as evidenced by the communal quota at that time. There are no solid figures available after that other than the fact that only 12% of the population is outside the 'backward classes umbrella'. If the population has slid down to 2% from 16%, a study needs to be done why that happened. It cannot be harmonious if social programs result in a massive exodus. If might work in a limited geographical area such as a state or district, it wont work nationwide.

Whatever the positive aspects of Periyars movements - its impact on Dalits is debatable. TN does not have any independent Dalit political voice. You cant find many Dalits owning big industries, hotels, estates, educational institutions and the like.

bhupinder said...

Thanks for the background data, I dont think that the Brahmin exodus from Tamil Nadu has been analysed at all. It almost sounds like an ethnic cleansing.

I feel that Periyar's movement has actually retarded the growth of a Dalit movement. Partially it is because it was a reform movement "from below" which articulated, at least in its rhetoric, the interests of a large section of population including Dalits.

But in general, social reform movements- even those initiated and controlled "from above"- in Punjab by the Khatris and in Bengal by the Brahmins/ Kayastas has tended to blunt the caste antagonism and therefore emergence of a Dalit movement.

In tamil Nadu, Dalit unease has been articulated by other means- by conversion to Islam for example. Let us not forget the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981 that led to the VHP's anti- Muslim campaign.

Anonymous said...

You are mistaken on the point of Tamil Nadu's literacy. Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh both have higher literacy rates than Tamil Nadu. (2001 Census)Furthermore, the Dalit movement in Maharashtra also threw up new writers: Laxman Mane, Namdeo Dhasal, Ratanlal Sonagraha. These are not known because of the lack of translation. Like in TN, while there are parties that claim to represent Dalits, the truth is that they have little power. Dalits are among the poorest in Maharashtra. The recent conversion in Nagpur is also an indication of how alienated they feel.

bhupinder said...

Anonymous: You are probably right on the literacy figures. I should have done a better homework in this regard.
You are absolutely right on the other Dalit poets that you mention- the reason I started writing this post is because I found very little work on Dalits and Dalit literatures specially on the blogosphere. Much of the Indian content on the internet (as outside) is so heavily one sided.

It needs, like Indian society, to be corrected.