Radical Aesthetics in Dalit Tamil Poetry

By Dr Pramila Venkateswaran
Pramila Venkateswaran
The burgeoning of Dalit writing in post-independent India and its dissemination through literary festivals, newspaper articles, curricula, and scholarship makes it necessary for scholars to look at this writing and determine its contribution to literature. In the last part of the 20th century critics debated if Dalit and tribal novels, poems, and plays could be termed literature, since they were autobiographical reports of witnessing the violation of human rights. Since ‘witness literature’ is something we see all over the globe from oppressed groups, now the focus is more on how to ‘read’ Dalit and tribal writing. Are they merely seen as palimpsests of history, social critique, religious diatribe, journalistic reportage, or are they various enough to defy the labeling of authors and their works?  Dalit Tamil poetry follows a radical aesthetic which not only disrupts language, form, and content of modern Tamil poetry but the standards by which Dalit poetry is judged. Of course, no standard is set in stone; there will always enter new works that displace existing ways of writing or reviewing a work. Dalit poetry, both because of the life experiences of the poets and the kind of poetry that is produced because of the historical situatedness of the poets, is radical.
In Dalit Tamil poetry, we can hear the echo of Ambedkar’s call “not to break ourselves but to break the system.” As Meena Kandasamy writes in her introduction to the special issue on Dalit Tamil poetry in Muse India, “Mahatma Jotirao Phule was the first to use the word Dalit in connection with caste. However, the word Dalit came into popular currency with the advent of the militant Dalit Panthers. In Marathi, the word Dalit means ground, crushed, broken down and reduced to pieces. This name was chosen by the group itself, and it contained in it an inherent denial of pollution, karma and caste hierarchy. The Dalit Panther movement, was a self-conscious movement among the ‘Depressed Classes’ who sought to follow the militant and revolutionary Black Panthers of America. Dalit literature grew out of the Dalit Panther movement which was established by two writers Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale in April 1972. Like Black Literature, Dalit writing was characterized by a new level of pride, militancy, sophisticated creativity and above all sought to use writing as a weapon” (Meena Kandasamy, museindia.com, 2006).
As Meena Kandasamy observes, “[Dalit poetry] 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” (Kandasamy, museindia.com).
Wrested from a consciousness of struggle, Dalit poetry takes on a potent aesthetic that sets its own standards. Particularly in Dalit Tamil poetry, meter and rhyme are not predominant; high classical Tamil or sen tamizh is not embraced; in its place the local language that is looked down upon by “high culture” becomes the language for poetry; imagery that embraces the vestiges of struggle is placed front and center; basic religious ideas, rituals, customs, and truths are questioned, lampooned, and satirized.  Thus at every level Dalit poetry defies the parameters assumed by mainstream poetry. It ushers its marginality into the center of discourse and questions the validity and privilege of the center.
Dalit poetry questions the values of truth and beauty set in classical Indian poetry. Established ideas are questioned. Religion is treated irreverently, especially since religion is used to divide and violate Dalit humanity and dignity; caste is critiqued; Brahminism is lampooned; nationalist ideas are questioned if it does not include women’s rights and Dalit rights; Dalit literature does not let any righteous position go without critique.
Writing about Polish poetry in his Witness of Poetry, Czeslaw Milocz observes that when millions of Jews were erased in the holocaust, writing went back to the elemental expression. Stark, spare lines wrested themselves out of the survivors of such terror and pain. In the caste-based history of oppression of Dalits, writing itself becomes a radical act because it is witnessing and recording memory that the hegemony wants erased. Description, or recreating what one sees is an essential part of witnessing; creating the picture using visual images, and other sensory imagery, so the audience can place itself in the space that the poem creates. Many of the poems written by Tamil Dalit poets describe what they saw, as if to say: I was there and this is what happened. At the same time, Dalit poetry eschews what classical Tamil poetry does with its elaborate description of place. Instead, description itself becomes a narrative. Describing what one sees is itself a radical act as is narrating or reporting an incident, since the voice of the Dalit has traditionally been suppressed and the space the Dalit occupies has itself been historically precarious.
Moreover, the medium of print had never allowed them the distribution of their poems/stories. The songs they sang remained within the group rarely getting out into the larger community. Since education was rarely offered to Dalits, very few received literacy and therefore Dalit literary production is recent. But the ironies that have resulted from these inequalities are immense and feed Dalit Tamil poetry.
Perception of the world is radical as seen in the poems by Yazhan Aathi, Sukirtarani and Kandasamy.
“Missin” by Yazhan Aathi can be seen as encapsulating the history of Dalit experience. Lives lived but not acknowledged by society. Lives erased. There is nothing the poet says that can give its audience reprieve. There is nowhere one can shelter from the oppression that has been meted by casteism. “Into grief stricken howls have dissolved our songs and pictures never to be found again” (39), weary, dissolved, burdened, stifled, vomiting words used to express the body’s utter pain that is beyond even numbness. Poetry as the vomit of the ancestors who bore all the suffering. Now the audience has to drink it. The rage is palpable in these poems.
Sukirtarani uses nature imagery in a radical way in her poetry. In “Nature’s Fountainhead,” the whole poem works on the conditional clause “if,” where the Dalit subject is victimized/erased. This is the premise which leads the speaker to answer that she sees herself as part of Nature and she will survive whatever erasure is meted out to her. She will transform into a field, a bird, breath, or water; she asserts in this poem that the Dalit sees herself as part of the five elements, the very foundation of life. She transforms victimization into defiance. She sows freedom by removing the seeds of self-oppressive victimhood. She does this by transforming the way she looks at her oppression. She sees herself as part of the natural world which is free.
What is/was the reality of life for Dalits? In “Portrait of my Village” Sukirtarani encapsulates what one might find in a Mulk Raj Anand novel: dry lands, sour smell, the burying of dead animals, bare feet, cupping of hands to receive anything that is offered—a sign of enforced humility, hands ripped by cultivation, hunger, drinking tea at a prescribed distance for untouchables. The last word “vigilant” jolts us more than the physical experience and the landscape. It evokes the stressed body that can never be free for doing even something as mundane as drinking tea.
Describing another, she identifies herself as her subject. She speaks for their shared subalternity, their shared “air” “sprinkled with untouchability.”  The verb “sprinkle” is a word taken from the Hindu religious ritual of purification to show that the very air they occupied was seen as impure by Hindus.
Defiance: She owns the derogatory name that is given to her. She claims, “Paraichi.” She asserts boldly, “we stand at the forefront.” She sees her people as in a war. They are on the frontlines. Even if they are killed, they will return to life (“Soldier”).
Inventing one’s own language to express what is true about one’s experience is the hallmark of Dalit Tamil poetry. As Babu Masilamani writes in “My Literature,”
The Kings of poetry
And those who had achieved
In classical Tamil
Did not even glance at me
Quivering like a worm
In the clutches of death.

Finally, I wrote for myself
They called it
Dalit literature.
No, no,
It is my literature.
(Translated by Meena Kandasamy).
It is useful to look at Sukirtarani’s poem, “Infant Language,” in which she speaks her wish for a language that is fresh and wholesome, en utero, a language not contaminated by the suffering her people have faced. It is the language of compassion – that will not wound the tongue, but give birth to a new language. The poem ends with the word “prasavam” which actually means giving birth: the body as delivering a new language.  This new language is seen as birthing freedom from oppression of the body as well as artistic expression.
For the Dalit poet, language is experiential as history and memories of oppression are felt in the body (Holmstrom 27). Nature is also seen as the body.  “The Dalit aesthetic cuts across the poetics of language because of the close emotional link between land, labor, and the body, a relationship of both love and anguish” (27).  Sukirtarani calls herself Nature’s fountainhead, become wart, fire, sky, win water, spill over the more she is confined—she is nature and the world with its restrictive value structures is a dam built to limit her (209).
We can theorize that Dalit poetry transgresses the restrictions of space. Since historically Dalits were restricted from the spaces occupied by upper castes, it is in the space of a poem that the Dalit poet enters to make it the space of total freedom and in fact redefine cultural and literary “tradition” by debunking tradition.  When the Dalit poet enters this poetic space, he or she goes beyond testimonial to freeing the imagination and thus freeing him/herself. The Dalit Tamil poet erases the line between written and spoken Tamil (diglossia) to explore spaces beyond the limitations set by society.  Not only the form of a poem, or the imagery used, or the curious juxtapositions, but the ability to show desire in its elemental forms.  For instance, in Sukirtarani’s poems we see the experience of the speaker’s enjoyment of nature that society cannot taboo:
“The mind disdains fetters…/Splashing joyously in the rain (Holmstrom 45); or the connection with one’s mother: “her scent lives on / Within me” (46). Or creating one’s own myth as a displacement of the one that does not serve the purpose of empowerment. As in “The last kiss.” It begins with the image of genesis: The garden they constructed together…” The couple is intensely into their love making, so caught up in their desire that the space of her body is covered with kisses; finally when the last kiss was planted, “the earth was submerged into the flood.” This is like a Noah’s flood that submerges the couple in love—they are not reprimanded by their knowledge of love. The flood is their desire—a physical submerging. If we take the bodies to be one with the earth as Dalit aesthetics suggest, they i.e. the couple is the earth. 
Or the wit of repartee in Yazhan Aathi’s “He-goat Whiskers”:  as narrated by the speaker’s grandmother about the grandfather who defies the system using things that are far more dangerous than violence: pissing on the perpetrator!
Or, in Devadevan’s poem, “Infection,” in which the doctor is attending to a suffering patient, a Brahmin:
And from his white-gloved hand
Held a dirty sacred thread
And said,
“This could have caused
The infection.”
The poem is a joke about the sacred thread as dirty and therefore contagious, and it is also an attack on Brahminical ideas of sacredness.
Some Dalit poets have used fragments and pastiche to defy norms of syntactical arrangement. For example, Ravikumar in “Nine poems” creates a pastiche from myth and personal witnessing; fragments of perception are juxtaposed against each other creating irony and surprise.
Meena Kandasamy, whose militant voice marks her poetry, uses interesting use of juxtaposition to achieve her ironic view of the establishment. Consider the following poem which is divided into two columns to indicate the division between castes, the Dalits at an untouchable distance from the ruling caste.

One More        Final Question
Can                  My
Untouchable   Atman
And                 Your
Brahmin          Atman
Ever                 Be
Because of the radical ways in which Dalit Tamil poets use syntax, form, image, wit, and metaphor, the subjects they deal with are filled with an energy and insight that we may not see in mainstream poetry. For example, the sacred thread in Devadevan’s tongue-in-cheek poem becomes the synecdoche of the hegemony of caste. The word “infection” in the poem gains currency in spitting out the double image of casteism as infectious and therefore the perpetrator—here, the Brahmin—has to be quarantined! It is not the Dalit—the untouchable—who is sick but the ruling Brahmin caste! Such a witty reversal that hits to the heart of caste-based religion can be seen only in Dalit poetry.
Dalit Tamil poetry is strongest in its critique of caste and Hinduism. It does not let the reader rest easy with any of the commonly accepted notions about religion.
Unjai Arasan lists what comes out of the mouth of holy men as if to say, “wallah, none of this applies to dalits.” In fact the “truths” asserted by these authorities of faith are oppressive—his poem makes a statement about religion itself as oppressive (Muse India).
And as writers/readers who are bound by caste/race/nationality, we, too, enter this space and meet the Dalit poet on his/her own terms. I call this new space a “touchable” space, a space of boundless imagination and inventiveness, a space that throbs with the life of sonic mingling.
Dalit Tamil poets also perform their poems in public, at political events, at literary events, and at social gatherings, a radical act within the traditionally accepted ethos of Tamil performance poetry. They occupy both stage and street, thus defying their imposed invisibility by making their physical selves and the body of their poems be seen and heard.
I argue that Indian literature is reshaped by Dalit poetry. Dalit poetry “touches” Indian poetry, culture, and thought with its politics/poetics forcing the population and literature to face assumptions about everything from Hindu philosophical ideas to literary production.
·         Kandasamy, Meena. Muse India. 2006
·         Milocz, Czeslaw. Witness of Poetry. Harvard, 1984.
·         Holmstom, Lakshmi. Edited and translated. Wild Girls, Wicked Words. Sangam House, 2012.

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