This quote rings particularly true when you read Dalit history and the powerful literature that was born out of centuries of oppression. For many generations, Dalit identity had been caged in the interpretations of upper-class misrepresentation. We know that the art of articulating language belongs to the powerful and that for eons, cultural power has been misused to demonize the figure of the Dalit. But the sheer beauty of Dalit political literature lies in the fact that they have been able to subvert the power of language that was stolen by their oppressors and wield it to carve out their own identity and paint a true depiction of their societal resistance and lived experiences.
Here’s a list of phenomenal Dalit writers that have armed the Dalit struggle with their literary brilliance.
I. Bama Faustina Soosairaj
Bama Faustina Soosairaj is a Tamil Dalit feminist teacher and writer whose works are situated at the intersection of caste and gender. She was born into a family of agricultural laborers and had many vocations before she could pursue writing professionally. Her seminal work Karukku (Here Comes Super Bus), published in 1992, is a semi-fictional autobiographical novel that focuses on casteism in Catholic institutions.
The novel caused her quite a backlash and she was not allowed to enter her village for seven months. It was originally written in Tamil, the language she spoke since childhood. It was later translated into English and many other languages and Bama went on to win a Crossword Book Award in 2000 for her work. Her work is bold and originates from a sensitive and honest place. She also published three other novels, Vanmam (Vendetta), Sangati (Happenings), and Kissumbukaaran (Mischief-maker).
II. Namdeo Dhasal
Namdeo Dhasal is arguably the most renowned Marathi Dalit poet. He was also one of the founders of the politically charged Dalit Panthers organization in 1972. The Dalit Panthers are a social movement, inspired by America’s Black Panther movement. Their aim is to smash caste hierarchies in Indian society. Dhasal has won several accolades such as the Padma Shri, Golden Jubilee, and more for his writings. His first poetry collection, Golpitha (1972) is a widely-read book that is a dynamic piece of literary and political genius, that represents the power of Dalit identity and directly challenges the social evils and casteist superstitions that still haunt Indian society.
Arundhathi Subramaniam, renowned Indian poet describing Namdeo Dhasal's poetry
III. Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy is one of the most influential Dalit writers of the 21st century. When you read a Meena Kandasamy poem, its empathetic and visual grammar is shocking with its gruesome and true portrayal of Dalit reality. Her works are at the intersection of caste annihilation and feminism and she explicitly and powerfully speaks of sexual transgressions against the Dalit community meted out by upper-class men. Her works have been translated into 18 languages, and besides being a writer she is also an activist and translator. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, the critically acclaimed novel The Gypsy Goddess, and most recently A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.
IV. Babytai Kamble
Babytai Kamble, affectionately called Baby Kamble by her peers and supporters, was born in the caste known as Mahar. She spent a lifetime being a Dalit rights activist and was immensely inspired by B.R. Ambedkar’s teachings. Baby Kamble wrote her famous autobiography Jina Amaucha (The Prisons We Broke), in the little spare time she got while running a roadside shop with her husband. She studied the newspapers that were used for packing goods in the shop. When she was not attending to things in the shop, she spent her time in the local library.
Her autobiography was an instant success and over the years has been translated into several languages. She shares her story through a self-aware commentary that provides a renewed perspective on the systemic caste and patriarchal injustices experienced by Dalits. Her voice resonated with tens of thousands of Dalit women and their lived experiences. Baby Kamble largely worked with the Dalit community in Maharashtra and was responsible for the large involvement as well as the contribution of women to the Dalit struggle.
V. B.R. Ambedkar
You might say we saved the best for the last, but that is not entirely true. Each of the writers we spoke of earlier may come under the umbrella of Dalit writers but their approach and voice to the various facets of the Dalit struggle are unique and powerful in their own way.
What makes Ambedkar special is his symbolic stature in the Dalit struggle — a beacon of light shining brightly through and through that has inspired thousands of young Dalit writers and activists. Ambedkar inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and launched the crusade against caste annihilation. An accomplished intellectual, jurist, social advocate, and economist, Ambedkar is an iconic figure not just in Dalit history but in the history of our nation. Some of his seminal texts include Annihilation of Caste (1936), The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables (1948), and several volumes containing his famous speeches.
This is not an exhaustive list.
Just some of the other Dalit writers that deserve special mention are Baburau Bagul, Urmila Pawar, Mulk Raj Anand, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, Manoranjan Byapari, Raja Dhale, P Sivakami, and Vijila Chirappad.
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