Folks on the Margins: Contextualizing Hira Bansode’s ‘Shabari’

Saloni Walia

Saloni Walia

M.Phil Research Scholar, Delhi University

Keywords: Dalit, Mahar, caste, gender, marginal, epic

Abstract
Belonging to the Mahar community, Hira Bansode is a name to be reckoned with in Marathi literature. She is considered a resonant voice in Dalit poetry. The selected piece of work is ‘Shabari’ which will be analyzed in the paper.
The myth of Shabari who is a tribal woman, finds little mention in Valmiki’s Ramayana. In lieu of serving her Guru for a lifetime, she is awarded with Rama’s blessing. As a token of reverence, she offers self-tasted berries to Lord Rama who despite being forbidden to eat them; obliges Shabari and shows his gratitude. She represents symbol of selfless devotion in the epic. Bansode questions this stance through her poem. Along with this, she takes up the injustice meted out to Sita for having been abandoned by Lord Rama. By talking about a tribal and Brahmin woman together, Bansode addresses the larger issue of feminism and how women belonging to different stratas of society and enduring different kinds of miseries are bound together with a common thread of ‘suffering’.
Transcending the borders of feminism, Bansode goes one step further when she discusses the predicament of Eklavya, the tribal prince who too was denied the privilege of education by the class conscious Dronacharya in the epic Mahabharata. The paper attempts to analyze these situations from the lens of various contemporary theories at length.
           
Research Paper
Belonging to the Mahar community, Hira Bansode is a name to be reckoned with in Marathi literature. She is considered a resonant voice in Dalit poetry. The selected piece of work is her poem ‘Shabari’ which will be analyzed in the paper.
            The myth of Shabari who is a tribal woman, finds little mention in Valmiki’s Ramayana. In lieu of serving her Guru for a lifetime, she is awarded with Rama’s blessing. As a token of reverence, she offers self-tasted berries to Lord Rama who despite being forbidden to eat them; obliges Shabari and shows his gratitude. She represents symbol of selfless devotion in the epic.
            While Shabari was a Girijan (tribal), the poetess is a Harijan[1] (dalit). It seems she has fused these identities and views them as a collected representation of the marginalized section of the society. It is through Shabari that she has expressed her angst. By invoking the mythical Shabari, Bansode raises some very pertinent issues about caste and gender in the Indian context.
 Bansode questions Shabari’s blind devotion to Rama through the lines “Was this fulfillment?” urging her to be assertive of her rights. She has a strong objection over her subservience. She hints towards the power dynamics at play propounded by the French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault[2]. According to him, power works in binaries. The meek surrender of the ‘powerless’ instills power in the other. This is a way of urging the downtrodden to recognize their hidden power. This can be interpreted to be a scathing attack on casteism infecting the Indian society.
Moreover, through her poem, Bansode is also ridiculing religious scriptures who have propagated this difference. This discrimination took firm roots at the time of the compilation of Manu Smriti which infamously introduced the loathsome Varna System. Louis Althusser’s[3] theory of the Ideological State Apparatus also offers a possible explanation. Even though his theories were based on the classism prevalent in European societies, it feels apt to see its implication in a casteist society too. He argues how the dominant class used institutions like religion to exercise their authority over their subjects. She calls for the mind to be decolonized and do away with mental slavery.
     Vyasa’s Mahabharata is another scripture which receives her ire. This text as well as Ramayana are the pillars of Hindu beliefs which are critiqued. The myth of Eklavya deserves a little space here. He belonged to the Bhil tribe of Nishadha kingdom and had a dire wish to learn the art of archery from the ace Guru Dronacharya. Since Eklavya was not royalty, he was snubbed and refused to be taken under his mentorship by Dronacharya. Saddedned by the rejection but still resolute to learn the craft, Eklavya makes an idol of his teacher. He takes blessings from this statue and begins his self-learning. When discovered by Drona who wanted to polish Arjuna as the superior most archer, he is dumbfounded at Eklavya’s mastery. In Gurudakshina[4], Drona asks for his thumb which Eklavya happily agrees to.
            The poetess has equated Eklavya with Shabari as both belong to the underprivileged lot and were sidelined to the fringes. In addition, the figure of the teacher is also eyed with suspicion. Blind worship of any person is condemned. She goes on to question Ram:   
Why didn’t you ask of omniscient Ram,
           Who knows the past and the future
About the heart- rending sacrifice of Eklavya’s thumb?

Bansode uses an accusatory tone where she is not even sparing Shabari. If the oppressor is held responsible for committing atrocities, so is the oppressed who is not fighting back. Shabari is being reprimanded by the poetess for merely receiving his blessings. Is justice reserved only for the highly born? What about the common folks? The questions posed here forms the essence of Dalit writing in literature. It is the very backbone of the Dalit movement.
Furthermore, the poem can be put in a postmodern model too as it counter questions the genre of grand narratives. French philosopher and theorist Jean François Lyotard favours the need to step out of the perception set by such texts in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). The entire universe cannot revolve around the hero and his great journey. It is also about the untold histories that were never recorded or given any heed in the mainstream.  She does not stop here:
Why didn’t you ask
About blameless Sita’s exile?

Where was his Dharma when he abandoned his wife? Ram’s justice is put under scrutiny. Here the battle of the sexes enters the scene. Patriarchy is severely censured. The construct of masculinity is demolished that demands loyalty from the wife but spares all the men. Why is not the same parameter set for the husband? Why doesn’t he have to give Agnipariksha? These questions are relevant in the contemporary context.
           
            Moreover, it is noteworthy that Sita unlike Shabari was a high caste Hindu woman. She was the daughter of a Brahmin[5] adopted by King Janaka of Videha[6] whom he stumbled upon while ploughing a field. Sanskrit scholar of Marathi roots and a social reformer Pandita Ramabai ridicules the rigidities Manusmriti imposed on the higher caste women in her book The High Caste Hindu Woman (1888). They were kept away from education and those who were educated were mostly self-taught and homeschooled. She even described the life of a single woman, whether widowed or forsaken was an easy target for the society to malign.
 Through Shabari and Sita, feminist angles are also explored. Their mention together in one poem calls for a unique sisterhood in resisting suppression. Birth into high caste makes life easy for a woman- this is a fallacy. Sita’s case proves it still does not assure social security. In this sense, all women are alike.
 Thus, casteist, sexist and religious politics have been targeted by Hira Bansode in her radical poem ‘Shabari’. Her verses urge for the formation of a new canon which decentralizes Brahmanical focus in epics and makes way for ‘Marginal Narratives’.
Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press. 1971. pp.1-31,
            https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm, Accessed 3 Oct, 2018.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. Penguin. 1976.
--------------------- History of Sexuality: The Will of Knowledge Volume I. Penguin. 1976.
Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press. 1979.
Saraswati, Pandita Ramabai. The High Caste Hindu Woman. Jas b. Rogers Printing Co: Philadelphia. 1888.

Endnotes

  1. These nomenclatures were given by Mahatma Gandhi.
  2. Foucault discusses his idea of power in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1976) and the first volume of History of Sexuality (1976).
  3. French philosopher and theorist. His idea of Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) was discussed in his 1970 essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.
  4. Graduation fee in English. In ancient times, the ‘Guru’ or the teacher was paid in lieu of the services offered by him to his ‘Shishya’ or student. This is for the education and guidance given by him to his disciple. The repayment could be in any form and the student had to oblige. It was a form of reverence towards the teacher.
  5. It is contested. Though various myths are associated with her birth legend. 
  6. Ancient Hindu kingdom sprawling geographically from Bihar to Nepal.

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