Tamil Dalit Poetry

The State of Tamil Nadu in South India is ubiquitous in many ways- perhaps the most important being that in the 1920s it gave rise to a powerful non- Brahmin movement called the Self- Respect Movement led by social reformer Periyar. It later led to the formation of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) party.

Tamil Nadu politics is today dominated by two Dravidian parties- the DMK that morphed out of the DK and its off- shoot, the AIADMK, the former led by Karunanidhi and his family, the latter, by the temperamental Jayalalitha.

Periyar’s social reform movement was largely rationalist and is perhaps without parallel in its expanse and intensity. Periyar’s oft- quoted statement is:

“He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”

Unlike elsewhere in India, Tamil social structure is not in the form of a pyramid- instead it has a caste system with a very small Brahmin (less than 2%) population, a large chunk of the backward castes and a substantial Dalit population (about 20% of the total state population) – the “other upper castes” like the Kshatriyas are absent. 90% of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu own no land.

Tamil politics is dominated by some of the backward castes many of which are no longer “backward” in most ways. Periyar’s movement produced a powerful assertion of the Tamil backward castes but left little or no space for the Dalits.

Even serious Dalit literature arrived only in the early 1990s.

But it is in this state that the Dalit intelligentsia can emerge as a powerful voice. Over the years, a literacy culture has taken strong roots in the state- literacy is far higher than in all states except Kerala. There is also an immediate tradition of protest and assertion albeit of the backward castes.

The fervour, the controlled but intense anger and the intellectual restlessness to understand society in order to change it among some of the young Dalit professionals and students in the state is like the one that one earlier used to observe only among the Marxist inclined youth in the sixties and seventies.

The Sep- Oct issue of Muse India, edited by the young and talented Meena Kandasamy, containing a selection of some of the Dalit poetry emerging out of Tamil Nadu offers a poignant window into these undercurrents of protest.

Rajkumar ND in the poem ‘A Wish’ gives an inkling of the mood:

He who desires peace
Under oppression
Is a fraud.

It is human tendency to disturb
And attain clarity in the fight
For liberation.

In “Infection“, Devadevan sarcastically comments on the sacred thread that is the privilege only of the Brahmin men:

The chief doctor came,
Examined my friend
And raised his head.
In the direction of the ears
That were throbbing with worry
And concern and questions
He bent his head
And from his white-gloved hand
Held a dirty sacred thread
And said,
“This could have caused
The infection.”

There are 15 poems in this issue of the magazine, most of them translated by Meena Kandasamy who also provides a short and cogent backgroud to the emergence of Dalit literature in Tamil Nadu.

Like all other Dalit literature, Tamil Dalit literature too has an excess of autobiographies. Critics condemn these literatures of lament, but they too have a central place within the creative core. Tamil Dalit literature is characterized by the call for self-identity and assertion. It 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.

Link to Muse via Whitejasmine

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

15 thoughts on “Tamil Dalit Poetry”

  1. Excellent and informative post as usual. Thanks for those poem excerpts; they are powerful. It’s indeed a revelation to see such a train of thought still finding poetic expression. A hopeful sign.

    The magazine looks brilliant. Thanks for the link.

  2. I agree… socially committed writing is inspiring, but is less visible in the din of the over communicating 21st century. Hopefully, it will recover its ability to reach out to those sensitive to social inequities and instill confidence in those seeking change.

  3. Good one.

    Take care while attempting to analyze Tamilnadu though. It does have a kshatriya base – quite a big one at that. The Thevars and Naickers are dominant Kshatriyase. It does have a very sizable vaishya base of Mudaliars, Pillais, Chettis.

    In the 20’s Tamilnadu had a 16-18% Brahmin population as evidenced by the communal quota at that time. There are no solid figures available after that other than the fact that only 12% of the population is outside the ‘backward classes umbrella’. If the population has slid down to 2% from 16%, a study needs to be done why that happened. It cannot be harmonious if social programs result in a massive exodus. If might work in a limited geographical area such as a state or district, it wont work nationwide.

    Whatever the positive aspects of Periyars movements – its impact on Dalits is debatable. TN does not have any independent Dalit political voice. You cant find many Dalits owning big industries, hotels, estates, educational institutions and the like.

  4. Thanks for the background data, I dont think that the Brahmin exodus from Tamil Nadu has been analysed at all. It almost sounds like an ethnic cleansing.

    I feel that Periyar’s movement has actually retarded the growth of a Dalit movement. Partially it is because it was a reform movement “from below” which articulated, at least in its rhetoric, the interests of a large section of population including Dalits.

    But in general, social reform movements- even those initiated and controlled “from above”- in Punjab by the Khatris and in Bengal by the Brahmins/ Kayastas has tended to blunt the caste antagonism and therefore emergence of a Dalit movement.

    In tamil Nadu, Dalit unease has been articulated by other means- by conversion to Islam for example. Let us not forget the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981 that led to the VHP’s anti- Muslim campaign.

  5. You are mistaken on the point of Tamil Nadu’s literacy. Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh both have higher literacy rates than Tamil Nadu. (2001 Census)Furthermore, the Dalit movement in Maharashtra also threw up new writers: Laxman Mane, Namdeo Dhasal, Ratanlal Sonagraha. These are not known because of the lack of translation. Like in TN, while there are parties that claim to represent Dalits, the truth is that they have little power. Dalits are among the poorest in Maharashtra. The recent conversion in Nagpur is also an indication of how alienated they feel.

  6. Anonymous: You are probably right on the literacy figures. I should have done a better homework in this regard.
    You are absolutely right on the other Dalit poets that you mention- the reason I started writing this post is because I found very little work on Dalits and Dalit literatures specially on the blogosphere. Much of the Indian content on the internet (as outside) is so heavily one sided.

    It needs, like Indian society, to be corrected.

  7. I think the anger of dalits against brahmins is misplaced. There was even a disgraceful poem written in this forum against brahmins. It is a fact, (not openly acknoewledged) that non brahmins hate dalits more than brahmins.

    Periyar did nothing for dalits. In fact he did not remove the caste suffix naciker from his name. At best dalits served water or did menial jobs in DK conferences. He never openly championed the cause of dalits. He in fact, openly rebuked them a few times.

    Also dalits are doing themselves no good by converting to islam/christianity. The caste feelings in these religions are worse than hinduism.

  8. I have already said so. Even today, the dalits are discriminated more by the non brahmins. The situation is the same even today. Take the history of caste clashes in TN & U will know.

    Periyar spoke against the leaders of this community, criticising them for demanding reservation in jobs, education and politics: ‘You are roaming around asking for more wages, a ministership, jobs, education. Are these sensible demands or honourable?’ He described untouchability as the worst kind of atrocity in the world. He stated that no one had done any useful work to annihilate the practice and everybody was fooling the people by simply talking about it. Unfortunately, he too never crossed that boundary.

    Periyar never did anything for the untouchables with as much commitment as he worked to promote khadi in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu or to cut 500 coconut trees from his land as part of the agitation against toddy drinking. When he spoke about the problems of untouchables, he equated those with problems faced by non-brahmins. Since he viewed the problem of untouchability as equivalent to the treatment of sudras by brahmins, he could say: ‘There is no difference between ourselves and you in terms of our philosophy of social life.’ This same is the problem in temples too, he said, adding that the term ‘Sudra’ is more humiliating than the word ‘Pallar’ or ‘Parayar’. By saying this, he usurped from the untouchables even the position of victims. Instead of rising against the atrocities of caste Hindus, he took steps only to pacify them.

    Around the time Gurusamy wrote in Kudiarasu about Adi-Dravidas being beaten by Nadars and Maravars, Periyar justified their actions: ‘I am agitated to hear about the atrocities done to Adi-Dravidars by other castes. But, when I think of their actions, I also understand that they are not responsible for what they have done. They are doing this because of the faith they have in their religion; because of the idea of karma and fate, that is all.’ He even accused the untouchables, who rose against such atrocities, saying: ‘You think only at that moment – as great injustices and do not reflect on why it happens, what is the reason behind this, and what we can do to purge it. You are not ready to listen to those who take steps and join with them in their action.’

    Did he ever conduct a protest opposing the caste Hindus? Did he ever provide any help to the untouchables? Or did he at least create a crisis in the attitude of caste Hindus? ‘No’ is the only answer to all these questions that anyone who has a conscience will give.

    Until today untouchables have not got equal opportunities in any social sphere. But Periyar kept on insisting that they already had sufficient reservation. The hostility was explicit in his campaign against the Constitution as well as on other occasions.

    Periyar described the Constitution as written by brahmins to suit their own interest and to enjoy all kinds of privileges. Commenting on the constitutional safeguards provided to the untouchables, he said: ‘Dr. Ambedkar fought for his Adi-Dravida (untouchable) community. They told him, “You can ask whatever you want. We will oblige. But don’t talk about others.” Accordingly, Ambedkar sought solutions for his community alone. So they drafted the Constitution giving due reservation to the untouchables. They have given placements to Adi-Dravidas as demanded by Ambedkar. At least he got that much. Will anyone demand like that for our community? No. While giving this much reservation for Adi-Dravidas, they say that our demand for reservation is not justifiable.’ Do we need to quote any further to determine whether Periyar felt happy or sad over the rights secured by the untouchables?
    On another occasion he says: ‘If Muslims and Scheduled Castes get reservation, leaving the rest to be occupied by the Brahmins, then who will ultimately get affected? What will happen to you, the non-brahmin Tamils, the Dravidians, other than the Muslims and Christians? What will happen to your future?’

    The non-brahmins who were described as ‘equivalent to the untouchables in social life’ by Periyar, never allowed the untouchables to better their lot. They treated them inhumanely. This historical truth continues even today. Periyar led many agitations demanding equality of opportunity. But it was only for those castes described as non-brahmins and not for the untouchables. Even when he talked about reservation on 25 April 1940, he classified government employees in two categories – brahmin and non-brahmins.

    Even those who argue that Periyar worked for the untouchables only cite the participation of untouchables at the lowest level. They cannot provide evidence of anyone holding a higher position. They repeatedly refer to a few of his actions as ‘revolutionary’, like Periyar’s meetings with Ambedkar, the publication of the Tamil translation of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and the intercaste marriage conducted by him between Annapoorani Ammal, an untouchable woman, and a non-brahmin.
    Neither Periyar and nor those in his movements were ever involved in an agitation against their kith and kin over the question of mixing with untouchables as proposed by Ambedkar. Untouchables serving food in Justice Party meetings, and eating in an untouchable’s house were claimed as achievements of the Dravidian movement in the 22 April 1947 issue of its journal, Viduthalai. Nowhere do they record a meeting led by an untouchable. Perhaps they felt that an untouchable was fit only for serving food.

    We cannot say that Periyar never created any crisis. His protests relating to the issue of non-brahmins did create such crises. In matters relating to untouchables, however, his attempts remained at the level of rhetoric.

  9. I thought the post did indicate about the incompleteness in Periyar’s movement:
    >Periyar’s movement produced a powerful assertion of the Tamil backward castes but left little or no space for the Dalits.

  10. whatever u said is correct smitha when dalit people were not given any work and treated very badlyand not given rights to mingle with people not taken in schools harresed by high caste how they can conduct a meeting.when highcaste people dont allow them in temples and tortured by groups why cant dr.ambedkar ask for his own people since high people were not that much broadminded y cant he ask for his own people.bagavath geeha teaches love for people fails to follow that they follow caste system.not to blame others why cant you say lets make difference join hands instead of blaming ambedkar and periyar.

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