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Subaltern Poet: Namdeo Dhasal

by Prof Madhav Sarkunde

Padma Shri  Namdeo Dhasal – a renowned poet from the subaltern world –  breathed his last on 15th January 2014. He was suffering from myasthenia gravis for a decade and recently was detected for having colorectal cancer. By the time I received the message of his demise, I was in Nagpur. I received a call from a scribe in the office of a national daily – Lokamat. He asked me to say something as homage to the poet. While in drive, I expressed my feelings in few words in praise of Dhasal and that appeared in the next day’s issue.

Really, it is a great coincidence that the bad news reached me exactly at the moment I came out of the research department of Nagpur University. I have submitted a synopsis for my proposed Ph.D. My subject of research is a comparative study of the poetry of Langston Hughes and Namdeo Dhasal. For a long time I had been brooding over the selection of the topic of research. And finally, I have decided on this one. I was very happy about my selection and had thought that I would see and have an interview with Namdeo Dhasal. But the destiny had a different game to play. It robbed me of that opportunity.

Anyway, I will continue my work and try to talk the poet through his poetry. Like Namdeo Dhasal , Langston Hughes is also one of my favorite poets. I have translated into Marathi over a dozen of his poems along with other black poets.  Its book:  “Black is Beautiful” is published in Marathi Language. I have a great respect towards these poets and that is what made me to do some substantial job at research level. Here what I have to say is about Namdeo Dhasal in preference.

Namdeo Dhasal belonged to Dalit community. He hailed from a small village from Pune district. In their early days, they came to Mumbai. Namdeo Dhasal had education just up to tenth class. Then he drove a taxi in the milling crowd of Mumbai. As an untouchable and his firsthand experience of slum life in Mumbai, young Namdeo wanted to ventilate all that through his own language. And he did it. His first anthology of poems: Golpitha appeared in 1972. The defiant idiom, novel imagery; tragic theme from the lives of the underdogs, comprehensiveness of human values have been characteristic features of the Golpitha. Marathi Poetic world had never guessed that there can be such a human life and it can be put in words in this manner. There were hundreds of new words and new phrases inGolpitha which were totally inaccessible to even noted literary figures in Marathi Language. And experiences of the depressed and oppressed shared in this magnum opus were even more volcanic. The whole of Marathi Literary world was turned topsy-turvy by his poetry. To the following Dalit writers and poets, he became a role model. Almost all the subaltern poets imitated him.

Why did Dhasal’s poetry influence contemporary literature?  It is because he was an activist-cum-poet. What he wrote, it sprung from real life. He did not write sitting high in the ivory tower like others. He mingled among the masses. He lived in their huts and dined with them. He shared their sorrows and sufferings. Therefore, the common masses accepted him as their representative voice. They genuinely felt that it was he who gave vent to their suppressed feeling through his poetry. He has founded a forum – Dalit Panther – on the model of ‘Black Panther’ in America. He fought against all sorts of social evils in Maharashtra through this organization.

It is said that the environment one grows up in has much more to do with the making one’s mind and persona and Namdeo Dhasal was not exception to this rule. Since He grew up in Dhor Chawl on the fringes of the red light area in the then Mumbai, he witnessed the world which struggled to survive through innumerable miseries and hardships. And all this had deep impact on his sensitive mind. His way of thinking was carved out of this social milieu. But it is surprising that though he was part and parcel of this world that was abysmally steeped in all types of social evils – pick-pocketing, smuggling, thievery, gruesome quarrels, murders, exploitation, deception, prostitution and so on, just like the ones in some Hindi movie, he did not spoil himself by dissolving in it. Rather he chose to be a catalyst. He looked on each and every event happening around. He tried to interpret them all against the vast backdrop of the high-brow world rolling in all sort of delight and happiness. He compared and contrasted life both in the Dhor Chawl and outside it. And the discrepancy met his eyes was so steep that unsettled him root and branch. So his poetry is nothing but an outgrowth of this soul-chilling situation. He became a dominant voice of the voiceless in his world. He boldly questioned the old social order based on inequality and oppressions. The following piece from his Golpithais is a fitting example of how the gullible were exploited.

Who has sheared and enclosed people in a glass paperweight?
In the coming harvest will crop up that eunuch who will castrate
The shit and the sewage that gushes out in a torrent from my face
You will only have to give your fingerprints with dirt-smeared hands
On a white of paper
You will have to cut my gags to free my mouth
Sure, I can cove with soil
The old hostility between you and me
But do stop sending these virgin female calves
Into your puritan pastures to graze:
If they are lured in there and if they got used to grazing there
That would be most tragic day in your life and mine.

Indeed the canvas of Dhasal’s poetic world was very wide, comprising almost all the depressed sections of society in India. As he was a grass-root activist, he saw life of common people from very close quarter. He shared their agonizing trials and tribulations too. He left no stone unturned to give proper considerations to their unnoticed grievances through his poetry. He portrayed their problems at philosophical level from the rostrum of Dalit Panther Movement.  For that he seriously studied Karl Marx and other revolutionary leaders from the world over. Particularly, he stood up for the people who were deprived of their natural human rights. While India boasts of the greatest democracy in the world, millions of people are there who have not enough food to eat, a humble hut to live, let alone the education. I hold that if these people are not done justice by ensuring them food, clothing, shelter and education in time, they would come forth and blow up the very foundation of democracy one day. Namadeo Dhasal argued that the old social system which believed in inequality based on castes must be discarded, if India has to emerge as a superpower in the world. Those who are at the helm of the power should look upon the poor masses as human resources that can be harnessed to raise the economy of this country. He was of the opinion that both, the oppressed and the oppressors ought to forget their past feud and come together for the betterment of their nation. Because today times have changed, a great deal.  Be they haves or the have-nots, their destiny is inextricably intermingled. They can’t go ahead in isolation. So they must seek each other’s assistance, if they have to make progress. Thus in his last phase,Namdeo Dhasal spoke out the language of social unity. He wrote some verses of Samashti – poetry of all-oppressiveness in the last period of his poetic career.

Namdal Dhasal was a follower of Dr B. R Ambedakar throughout his life and believed in egalitarian ideology. As a poet and a social activist; he was sincere to the core. He had a covetous friend circle. Many noted poets and scholars from all over the world were his close friends. Noble Laureate Mr. V.S. Naipaul was his good friend. Whenever he came over to Indian, he met Namadeo Dhasal and had a view of slums in Mumbai. It is said that Mr. Naipaul wrote two books on the basis of information handed over to him by Dhasal. Namdeo, quite in his last days, had joined  Shiv Sena, a political party of Blasaheb Thakare. And this defection of his has left many Dalit activists in bad mood. They angrily called him seditious. However, the stand-off between him and his people did not last for long. When the news came through of his serious illness, all prayed from his recovery. Some have monetarily helped him when he was in hospital. Really, Namdeo Dhasal was a revolutionary poet who galvanized thousands of minds over fort years. Now he no more amongst us, we miss him all the more. But we hope that his poetry will keep inspiring us to the dreams he cherished for all.

Book: Shattered Sighs