Telugu Dalit Literature
'Twenty years ago my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu
My birth place Keelavenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda
Now the hardened cruelty of the landlords
Tattooed on my chest with a plough’s point-Chunduru
Hence forth Chunduru is not a noun nut a pronoun
Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning
…Don’t shed tears for me
If you can
Bury me in the heart of the city
Rendering the tune of life, I will bloom like a bamboo garden
Print my corpse on the page of this country
I will diffuse into the pages of history a beautiful feature
If you can
Invoke me to your hearts
Again and again I shall take birth in this very country
By becoming a struggle of wild flames.'[i]
Kalekuri Prasad, “Pidikedu Atmagouravamkosam Talettina Vadini” (Am Raised for a Fistful of Self-respect)
Literature is a creative rational knowledge generated by an individual/author about collective/society. Indian society is a collective of heterogeneous human beings and this heterogeneity depends on a number of factors such as class, caste, gender, language, ethnicity, region, religion etc. These factors may become a source of knowledge where the individuals or authors usually reflects upon. In the case of Dalits, the problem of caste has influenced them very much. For Dalits, access to natural resources and opportunities for well being, were denied naturally or socially, because of their caste. The denial to access, restricts the Dalit individuals to a particular set of social relations for many generations and this forces them to struggle against such restrictions and change the oppressive relations. This is generally identified as a caste contradiction or the problem of caste. The conscious Dalit individuals responded to this kind of social situation and offered a creative solution to the problems. This creative ideal model takes the form of a story, a novel, a poem or a song and is introduced back into the society. Dalit struggles around him/ her influenced the Dalit writers and made them conscious of their subjective positions and in assessing the world around them objectively.
Historically, the social groups, which had acquired political and economic dominance, enjoyed the privilege over cultural production and others got silenced. Western influenced middle class, those who later played a major role in moulding the nationalist struggles, involved in the production of literary writings. It is obviously, the upper caste group’s ideals and aspirations and their worldview reflected in literature too. In the post independent India, modern State was unable to uphold the promised ideals of good life and better society to the vast number of the oppressed of this country. In the political writings of literature of this time, there emerged an upper caste middle-class man as a protagonist. He is sympathetic to the lower classes and he articulates their needs and is seen to be mobilizing the oppressed masses.
There are very few writings which talk about Dalits and their life. Those that exist come out as the sympathy of the upper caste writers towards labourers as a part of the class struggles. The protagonists in the literary writing is always from the upper caste groups. They are portrayed as shouldering the responsibility to reform/educate Dalits. This completely lacks knowledge about the authentic Dalit life and their experiences. These upper caste writers have constrains to perceive the lives of other communities. These socially sensitive upper caste writers could not mobilize the support of their communities to their imagined ideals and many of them moved towards spiritualism. Most of the writers came from Brahmin middle class families.
In latter days, the intensified struggles aspiring the communist ideals too failed to capture the Dalit imagination and the question of caste remained immune to their discourses. Till the 1980s, the entire literary discourse centred around the concept of the abstract human being, erosive of all cultural markers like caste, colour, religion, region and gender.
The radical contribution the entry of the Dalit literary movement was to bring is to foreground the Dalit cultural experiences characterized by humiliation, insult and suffering based on caste. By the 1980s, there emerged a considerable Dalit middle class which consists of small jobholders like teachers, clerks, constables, nurses, gang men, hamalies and attenders. Their exposure to education and economic security opened up new possibilities in politics and literature. In the Andhra politics, Dalit movement is known for the innovation of a new category called Dalit, making discrimination on the basis of caste explicit. In the left parlance, the amorphous landless masses, an agricultural coolie is being replaced by category Dalit. In Gandhian terms, the word harijan has been pushed aside. The conceptual innovation has opened up the new ways of articulating the Dalit cause. This is clearly visible in the field of activity from theory to art.
In India, Dalit people’s condition is the same cutting across the regions. There is not much difference in their social suffering and economic status. At the ground level, the forms of untouchability practiced by the upper castes are same. They have to face humiliations, insults and discrimination in everyday life. In case of the Dalits, intervention by the State is minimal, weather it is police or judiciary, in protecting the rights of the Dalits. They have to struggle even for constitutionally guaranteed rights. There is no option left for them other than fighting against caste hegemony. From their struggles, a literature came into existence. In late eighties, the issue of caste came to the forefront in Andhra Pradesh. This can be seen symbolically in the massacre at Karamchedu. As a consequence of the conscious mobilization of Dalits, the issue related to caste got articulated in literature in late nineties. Many anthologies of poetry in the form of poetry came into the limelight. The quest for the search of their own Dalit identity makes them broaden the literary horizons. Dalit writers questioned not only the basic premises of literature but also the epistemological positions of the existing writers. They supplied a new prism to perceive the crude reality of casteist society. With the well-debated question of representation and subjectivity, the upper caste writers were either silenced or sidelined.
Song is the medium for Dalit literary and cultural movements from so many generations. Their folk forms centred on songs. There exists a general opinion that Dalit literature came into existence in late eighties. It is true that Dalit literature or culture is there in the lives of Dalits. In history, there are struggles of Dalits in various forms. Dalit literature is very much enriched in oral forms and transmitted from one generation to other. It is in the form of social memory and collective memories. The written culture or literature of Dalits may owe its existence to recent times. The pre-requisite for written culture is education. Most of the Dalits are illiterate even today. This is not their fault. They are not allowed to learn for generations. However, with limited opportunities, they have managed to enter educational institutions and have managed to get at least some small jobs. In post-independent India, a considerable Dalit middle class has emerged, though the number is small but it is significant in Indian history. This has paved the way for Dalit literature in the print word. Dalit writers have jolted the literary world. They raised many questions about the basic assumptions of literature on the question of authenticity and representation. Their entry, dismantled all the literary canons. They declared that we will write about ourselves. Telugu literary society has witnessed the silence of the existing upper caste writer, weather it is Brahminical or progressive writer. Any new struggle or literature, brings new symbols and new language. It is same with the Dalit movement and Dalit literature. It is in Andhra that Dalit writers are confronted with the ideologies of alternative struggles in the issue of caste. Here serious debates, confrontations and negotiations in civil society are taking place among different literary and political camps.
Mostly, the questions centred on who are Dalits? What is Dalit literature? What is the ideology of the Dalit movement and Dalit literature? One Dalit anthology of poetry named Chikkanavutunna Pata(1995)[ii]came with a proposition that SC, ST, BC and Minorities are also called Dalits. At the same time, another anthology named Dalit Manifesto (1995)[iii] proposed that, the labourers who are suppressed culturally, politically and economically are called Dalits. They didn't include Muslim writers in their anthology by justifying that though Muslims are victims of Hindu religion as Dalits, they cannot be considered under the category of Dalits. Secondly, whatever is written by the Dalits are considered as Dalit literature. Dalit Manifesto argued that, whatever was written with Dalit consciousness could only be considered as Dalit literature, but not the other way. The Dalit Manifesto become controversial by considering the latter and for inclusion of progressive upper caste writers who are conscious of Dalit problems. In course of time, this controversy resolved itself by considering whatever is written by the Dalits with their social experience is only qualified to be Dalit literature. The non-Dalits writings about Dalits may be treated as sympathetic for the cause of Dalits, but not considered as Dalit literature. For the liberation of Dalits, Dalits will have to achieve political power only through the struggle but not by appealing to the State. Some others consider that it is not necessarily through the means adopted by radical left parties but also through various other means like capturing power through parliamentary means. On the question of ideology, there are different opinions. Desiya Marxism is one such dominant opinion, the Marxist philosophy that is internalised thinking of Ambedkar and Phule.
Later came the Padunekkina Pata(1996)[iv] an anthology of poetry. It declared that Ambedkarism is the only ideology for the liberation of Dalits. In all these controversies, one can see the confrontation or negotiation with the then existing alternative political struggles. One of the responses was that Dalit literature was saying that it is a part of revolutionary literature[v]. Some of the scholars of the Marxist camp considered the problem of caste as a class problem. There is another argument that both are different literary movements. “Dalit writers consider the caste as an economical, social and political system. Where as revolutionary writers consider caste as a social problem.”[vi] Dalit literary movement is autonomous and is no way related to Marxism. “The aim of revolutionary literature is economic equality and it is a casteless society for Dalit literature. For the emergence of Dalit literature, revolutionary literature may have facilitated; but it is improper to say that both are the same.”[vii] There emerged another opinion that though both of them are not related, there is a need to struggle in a united way against oppression.[viii]
The literary expression of Dalit writers started with poetry, which has enjoyed power over other forms. To suit the authentic expression of their lives they also selected the other forms like ‘short story’ and ‘novel’. The inner urge or struggle within them has propelled them to write short stories and novels. This is a significant transformation of Dalit writers. At least, it creates confusion in locating history. Novel and short story not only broadened the canvas of the writers and made them accountable to history. The Dalit writers probed the history and brought into the literary world many things, which were not touched earlier by other the upper caste writers. In fact, Dalit writers narrated the submerged culture, philosophy and histories of the Dalits. The political discourses of Marxian revolutionary and feminist movements also influenced the Dalit novelists. It made them sensitive to other struggles, while writing about Dalits. Wherever it is necessary, they differed with Marxian revolutionary politics and its practices. The rise of sub caste consciousness among the Dalits helped the writers to speak about the concrete lifestyles of Dalit’s sub-castes rather than political rhetoric and language of the given time. Dalit novel may be said to be the culminating point of all the political movements since Dalit novelist has internalised the essence of all these struggles.
However, in the decade of the nineties, a good number of Dalit writers have come to the forefront. Most of them are of the age group of 25-35 years. They have touched all the spheres of life from a caste point of view. For example, early writings in Telugu consider the life of riksha pullers and prostitutes and treated them sympathetically for their low economic status. Dalit literature depicted the same from a Dalit point of view. Through literature, Dalit writers gave attention to concrete life experiences of Dalit lives that had so far not been touched by any one in Telugu literature. Some of the newspapers have encouraged Dalit literature. Where the Dalit movement is at a low profile, there the Dalit writers kept the Dalit issue alive. Dalit literature introduced fresh tones to Telugu literature. The idiom and expression is new to Telugu literature. They brought the respect to native Dalit dialect. The Dalit writers shattered the constructed myths in literature both in form and content. Literature came close to their life. It occupied the political space and even tried to articulate all the problems.
The Madiga Dandora movement for the categorization of SC reservation proportionate to the population of sub caste triggered a new kind of articulation in the Dalit movement as well as in Dalit literature. The logic of representing one’s own self led tofragmentation in Dalit literature. It is understood that writing about one’s caste experience is the only authentic representation. Dalit writers were forced to write/represent their own caste. In one way, this atmosphere enriched Dalit literature by representing themselves. On the other, it weakened the force of Dalit writings. Most of the Dalit writers of Mala community become silent within no time. Some time, the madiga writers were on the centre-stage when they wrote about their life struggles. Chandala Chatimpu, Madigodu (The Stories of Madiga’s life) of Nagappagari Sundar Raju and Mallemoggala Godugu (The Umbrella of Jasmines) of Yendluri Sudhakar are worth mentioning. Writers, who belong to backward castes too got separated from the earlier Dalit identity and became confined to their own community life. They brought an anthology of poems with a name of Ventade Kalalu (Haunting Pens). Muslim writers also made a conscious attempt to assert their own identity. They came with a poetry collection named Jaljala. Dalit women too started questioning the oppression of caste and patriarchy of Dalit males and this got articulated in literature. Nallapoddu (The Black Dawn) is an exclusive collection of Dalit women’s writings.
At end of the decade of nineties, Dalit writers who are active in writing poetry are slowly disappearing from Telugu literary scene. There are other reasons for the silence of Dalit literature. One is that, there is no significant Dalit movement and political leadership. The Dalit writers, who mostly came from the middle class, are limited to their urban life and somewhere lost their roots. There is competition among Dalit writers and their career orientation is also responsible in diluting Dalit literarure. There is no political or public check on Dalit writers since there is no political struggle. Thirdly, Dalit writers, are mostly confined to poetry and they didn’t take effort in other forms like story, novel, song and autobiography forms. They succeeded in tapping their rich literature from oral traditions. Finally, the upper caste media was not showing interest like earlier days in encouraging Dalit literature.
At this historical juncture, some of Dalit writers shifted to the other genres like story, song and novel to construct their cultural past and struggles of the community. They too realized that nothing is available about them in government documents and literary, cultural works. To win the political struggles Dalits need to be armed culturally. Kalyana Rao’s novel Antarani Vasantham(2000)[ix] is a landmark in Dalit literary and cultural history from the Dalit point of view. The novel recorded the collective social experiences and struggles of Dalit community. The social memory of a community, transmitted over generations, has been put in a written form. The novel is a written social document of Dalit culture, which is predominantly in oral tradition. This novel is an attempt to search a collective identity of the Dalit community. It is the chronicle of life of six generations of Dalits. This records a hundred years’ struggle of the Dalit communities. In the context where the elite scholars do not consider lower caste peoples’ struggles, culture, philosophy, life styles and history, this novel becomes the source book for culture, history, politics and philosophy of Dalits. Kalyana Rao explained how the Dalit culture is born from the lower caste peoples’ involvement in labor. They spontaneously and naturally composed the songs from their life. Apart from the value of entertainment, the Dalits used cultural performance symbolically as a social protest against the dominance of hegemony of upper caste social groups. It explains Dalit struggles in various forms in a given social conditions. The novel depicts not only the sufferings of Dalits but also joyful moments in their life. This novel is an attempt towards writing history, philosophy, politics and culture of Dalits in a a comprehensive form. In Antarani Vasantham, constraints to freedom of Dalits, comes from an enemy who is an upper caste. The idea of freedom itself indicates for Kalyana Rao, a perpetual flow of resistance by Dalit community to an upper caste community. Dalit community has been described as a focal point of creativity, resistance to oppression and a character of purity.
Yendluri Sudhakar’s Malle Moggala Godugu is a collection of autobiographical stories from the Dalit community. It is the Dalit poet Sudhakar’s search for his community roots where a rich cultural tradition and indigenous knowledge systems were enlivened. To write these stories he went to his native village and recorded the social and cultural experiences of older generations. Vemula Yellaih’s novel Kakka is a Dalit boy’s struggle for madigization. He learns to play Dappu from the community’s head as a symbol of pride of the community. This novel, not only discuss the Dalit struggle against the upper caste hegemony but also finds the problems within Dalit community. In the Telugu literary world, the Dalit novel is the culmination point of all the alternative struggles. It internalized the struggles of Dalit sub castes, women and naxalite movements.
The Dalit writers may have failed to take the literary, cultural movement further. But, the questions raised through literature are fresh and haunts the political movements of our contemporary times in all possible ways. All the upper caste writers ranging from Brahminical to progressive writers has compelled to take note of it.
[i] Prasad, Kalekuri. ”Pidikedu Atmagauravam Kosam Talettina Vadini.” (Am Raised for a Fistful of Self-respect) In Kesava Kumar & K. Satyanarayana (Eds.) Dalit Manifesto. Hyderabad: Vishphotana, 1995.
[ii] Laxmi Narasaiah, G. and Tripuraneni Sreenivas (Eds.) Chikkanavutunna Pata(Thickening Song), Vijayawada: Kavitvam ,1995.
[iii] Kesava Kumar and K.Satyanarayana (Eds.) Dalit Manifesto, Hyderabad: Vishpotana, 1995.
[iv] Laxminarasaih, G. (Ed.) Padunekkina Pata(Sharpened Song), Vijayawada: Dalita Sana, 1996.
[v] Satyanarayana ,K. Eee Potee Venaka Vunnadi Kutra ,Andhrajothy Daily, Sunday, January 28, 1996.
[vi] Laxminarasaiah, G. Dalita Sahityanikee Viplava Sahityanikee Ddrukpadhallo Tedavundi, Andhrajyothy Sunday, December 17, 1995.
[vii] Je.Sree. Potee Anadam Vidduram – Kutra Anadam Kruram, Andhrajyothy Daily, Sunday, February 18, 1996.
[viii] Danee, Usha S. Mudu Sangha Samskaranalu- Aru Dalita Srenulu, Andhrajothy Daily, Sunday, August 13, 1995.
[ix] Kalyana Rao, G. Antarani Vasantham(Untouchable Spring), Hyderabad: Virasam, 2000.