Is there a Dalit Sensibility?

Rama Rao VVB explains why a Dalit sensibility is different, in this issue of Muse India that focusses on Manipuri poetry and Dalit poetry in Telugu.

Is Dalit sensibility different? Isn’t all sensibility the same?

My answer is ‘yes’ for the first question and ‘no’ for the second. Sensibility, among other things, is a product basically of upbringing – dependent on environment and capacity to feel – dependent on exposure and social intercourse. Having answered the basic questions, I come to my own exposure to the genre – yes, genre for it is rightly claimed and rightly acceded, thanks to democratization of at least freedom of poetic expression – of dalit poetry in Telugu with authentic dalit sensibility. Though I cannot write dalit poetry authentically, I can certainly empathize with that as one of the many kinds of poetry and write about it too.

The point worth noting is that dalit poetry or dalit literature does not remain only as the expression of a community or a section for long. With their aspirations and their imaginative fervour and sensibility, they show the tendency of merging into the main stream enriching poetry in a sublime sense.

Purushotham K provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary Telugu Dalit poetry and the diversity within it.

One of the problems of the Dalit thought has been to fight the enemy within resolving the conflict between the caste and class. When it comes to the question of Dalit liberation, certain poets believe in class. For instance, balladeer Gaddar, whose songs and ballets inspired thousands of Dalits, is uncompromising about the class based solution: ‘Having been scorched again and again / Turned into an atom bomb / Having become an atom bomb, / We detonate to reform society in exploitation / We will build another world that would / Treat humans as the humans.’ Another revolutionary poet, Salandhra puts it: ‘What if I am called by whatever name / When I become a drop of tear / Blossomed in the eye of a comrade / When I imagine the goals of the martyrs in my wounds.’

The revolutionary Dalit poets valorize the fighting spirit, sacrifices and immortality of Dalit activists who lose their lives working in the cadre of the underground Left. Contrarily, the Dalit activists question the class based violent struggles in which it is the Dalits who are used as the pawns. U Sambasivarao, a noted activist/writer would question: ‘Those that hack my throat haunting us / Are certainly my tormentors / They keep professing us to / Join the class war / As all the labourers are of one class / They give up Dalitism of uprisings / We may be poor devoid of food / But we are rich by caste.’ Several other Dalit poets denounce that revolution is not a panacea of solution to the Dalit problems. Thinkers like Sivasagar, intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandrabhan Prasad would argue that the Dalit problem need Dalit solutions as Shikhamani would satirize the class poetically: ‘I who sang heartfully / The heroic death of revolutionary warriors / Couldn’t be moved by / The mercilessly chopped bodies inflated / Having been stuffed into gunny bags and / Trampled into marshland.’ J. Goutam would critique the class based solution: ‘Sacrifices! Heroic march-pasts! The prisons of the State / Glue them all on the face of this fellow / Let’s surge ahead / ‘Let hundred flowers blossom, and / A thousand thoughts contend’ / Hail Marx, hail Mao and Lenin / Beware of Maoism’.

There is a good selection of translations of poems in the same issue.

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