Namdeo Dhasal and his irreplaceable grammar of social change

The anti-caste school of thought arises and evolves around a rejuvenating humanism.

The radical anti-caste movement and its philosophy have greatly influenced other social movements in various ways. The Dalit Panther Movement (DPM) is the most popular among others. This movement and its members not only helped to fundamentally change the cultural and literary space of resistance, but it also instilled a great sense of confidence among the anti-caste generations born after the 1970s. Its revolutionary character and its methods of struggle for justice continue to motivate millions of Dalits even today.

This year, on May 19, we will celebrate 50 years of DPM. Meanwhile, January 15 is marked as the death anniversary of a co-founder of Dalit Panther, Padma Shri Namdeo Dhasal. No one can deny the fact that Dhasal has had an irreplaceable influence over many generations in the articulation or realization of socio-political and literary consciousness.

It can be seen that the political sphere at present is captured by self-interest and self-centeredness. However, radical leaders and activists like Namdeo Dhasal challenged the hierarchical socio-political structures of caste through revolutionary writings. His lyrics relate to the centuries-old history of a caste-dominated society. According to Dhasal, his poetry is influenced by traditional drama, tamasha and the anti-caste thought of Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Along with this, Dhasal was also influenced by the thought of Ram Manohar Lohiya. Overall, Dhasal was influenced by Ambedkarite and socialist thought.

Looking back at his daily experiences, Dhasal says untouchability is so ingrained in village society that it persists even after he comes to town. Dhasal’s life was full of suffering; from his childhood experiences with caste discrimination to those as a taxi driver as an adult, privileged society has not given him a lifetime of respect. His life itself was the school and his experiences the program he built in calling for social struggle for change.

Dhasal imagined the role of sex workers and transgender people as radical activists and saw them as capable of leading their fight.

JV Pawar informed me of a 1971 incident where Dhasal even organized a “morcha” of people involved in sex work and transgender people – both groups were politically invisible – from Kamathipura to Chaityabhumi. If someone who knows structural social reality thinks of this action symbolically and pragmatically, it is a journey from dirt to self-respect.

In his interview with Nikhil Wagle on IBM Lokmat, Dhasal mentions that he used to write ghazals but had to give it up because he found no relational reasoning in the daily experiences of him or his community. Dhasal is said to have given new fame to the Marathi language, but one must go beyond this limited recognition. Of his Golpitha (1973) brings out the shocking social realities of Mumbai. Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi, Tuhi Iyatta? (“What Grade Are You In, What Grade?”, 1981), along with his other anthologies of poems, several prose plays and a novel gave new vocabulary and grammar to the Marathi language. Straddling established Brahmanical Marathi, Dhasal, through his poetry, offered a critical theory for a critical society.

In his poem “Kamathipura” compiled in the collection Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi, Tuhi Iyatta? he writes:

गोड किंवा खारट
विषाची चव घेण्यास जुंपल्यात इथं रांगा.
शब्दासारखे इथे मरणदेखील आले आहे भरून
बस्स, थोड्या वेळात इथे सरी कोसळू लागतील”.

(sweet or salty
there are queues here competing to taste poison
contrary to words, death also came as blocked
enough, in a while there will be heavy showers) [rough translation by author].

This stanza above describes life and social relations in Kamathipura, an area where a number of people come to see sex workers. In the crowd, no one will be visible. It’s a story of each red light zone and its narratives that have remained mostly invisible to society as a whole.

Through his social and political engagement, Dhasal introduced a new world into mainstream literary culture. Although there are few works available around Dhasal’s poetry, they have remained limited to anger, the body and the city. There is no in-depth study available that explores the critical pedagogy that Dhasal formed through his experiences and his writings. This critical pedagogy of Dhasal is poetic, political and socio-culturally rooted in humanism and the need to dismantle structural inequalities.

Prashant Ingole is a postdoctoral researcher in humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

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