by Raj Kumar
The objective of this paper is to discuss the historical context of the emergence of a new literary genre called “Oriya Dalit literature” which reflected the growing identity, awareness and consciousness of the Oriya Dalits during the colonial period and post-independence days. Although there was no literary genre distinctively known as “Dalit literature” during the pre-independence in Orissa, an examination of some literary works written by the Dalit intellectuals as well as the upper caste progressive writers indicate that the oppression, agony and anger of the Dalit masses is reflected in their writings. An attempt has been made in this paper to analyze the nature of literary representation of Dalit problems and the emerging consciousness in the writings of selected Dalit scholars. In view of the distinct socio-political background of Orissa in India, it seems appropriate as well as befitting to compare and contrast the sensibilities articulated in Oriya Dalit literature with that contained in other protest literature available in India and abroad.
Unlike Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other Indian states Orissa has not experienced vigorous Dalit protest. But this does not mean that Dalit voice in Orissa has been silent. As a matter of fact, Oriya society is no stranger to caste oppression and other forms of inequality. Protests against this have been voiced from time to time by the oppressed groups. Anti-caste and anti-Brahmanic consciousness has informed Oriya Literature since the advent of Buddhism in Orissa and more particularly during the period from the eighth to eleventh century when Boudha Gan O Doha otherwise known as Charyapadas were written by the Buddhist Sidhas. Hadi Pa, Kanhu Pa, Tanti Pa, Chourangi Nath, Gorakh Nath, Mahendra Nath or Lui Pa, the authors of Charyas are well known among the natha sect of saints and they constitute a distinct social tradition in Orissa. However, a secular socio-literary movement can be stressed out in the middle of the fifteenth century when a strong movement against social inequalities raged in Orissa. Panchasakha, the five poets carried out the movement, which was started by Sudra Muni Sarala Dasa for another century. The Bhima Bhoi movement of nineteenth century really made the on-going resistance stronger and more open. The culmination in post-independence period of a series of social protest movements is the political movement. It aims at securing for Dalits the right to live with dignity and self-respect. Oriya Dalit Literature, although, still lacks firm roots, it is slowly but unmistakably taking shape. As such, it is imperative to give the phenomenon a close look.
Dalits in Orissa, as elsewhere, have been and still continue to be downtrodden and oppressed because of their repression by the caste system. Predominantly rural and illiterate, they have become one of the most exploited peripheral groups in the society. Over the years, they have been living in sub-human conditions and suffer economic exploitation, cultural subjugation and political powerlessness. A report prepared by the Harijan Sevak Sangha in 1978, which is still relevant, highlights the existential conditions of Dalits in Orissa. According to it:
Out of the surveyed states, Orissa is one where public places were not accessible to the Harijans in almost all the surveyed villages,
although the violent incidents are not reported in equal measures. The reasons may be the general backwardness and powerlessness
as also the low level of awareness of the Scheduled Castes, who continue to bear the social injustices perpetrated on them. (1)
Living in such an environment where insecurity reigns, Oriya Dalits always have to work hard and lead a life of compromise and alienation. James M. Freeman (1978) in a study of untouchability in Kapileswar village, a part of Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa, finds how high caste people force the lower castes to be away from educational institutions that are least desirable. In an interview with Muli, an untouchable narrator, Freeman notes:
The villagers never forgot, nor did they let us forget that we were untouchables. High caste children sat inside the school; the Bauri
children about twenty of us, sat outside on the veranda and listened. The two teachers, a Brahman outsider, and temple servant refuse
d to touch us, even with a stick. To beat us, they threw bamboo canes. The higher caste children threw mud at us. Fearing severe
beatings we dared not fight back. (2)
That no militant movement or rebellion on the part of Dalits has taken place against their upper caste Hindu counterparts in the state does not in any way negate the socio-economic sufferings of Dalits. It only underlines the fact that Dalits of Orissa have been suffering caste oppression silently like Muli. One reason may have to do with the socio-economic life of Dalits in Orissa, which has not undergone the same level of change like Dalits elsewhere, for example, Maharashtra. History testifies that a few cases of unorganized sporadic resistance did take place, but they were swiftly suppressed. In fact, leaders of these resistance movements invariably came from within the fold of Hinduism. It is one of the facts that ruling class has used the pervasive cult of Jagannath to mould the consciousness of Dalits to a point that has blunted the edge of their protests. The legend of Dasia Bauri and many others testify to this.
Social inequities, injustices and indignities flowing from them have been the fate of Dalits in Orissa. Dalits have endured them through the ages but not silently. It is true that violent eruptions of frustration and anger have been rare; however, many voices particularly in literary forms, since the fifteenth century, have been raised against social inequalities and injustice. Five centuries of protest, even though sporadic and largely inefficacious assuming the form of highly respectable and popular literary creation, underlines not only the persistence of social inequalities but also a heightened awareness of the degrading character of these inequities. It also underlines the deeply felt need to remove these inequities in order to restore dignity to human existence–dignity that has been denied to Dalits. But prior to fruitful action in this regard is the consciousness- building that draws pointed attention to the existence of inequities, its malign consequences for social life and relations, and the pressing need of ameliorative action.
Consciousness-building as well as relevant action to rectify and reshape certain thought-ways and work-ways has necessarily to conform to the alternatives available at a particular time and space. Socially prescribed and sanctified action-paradigms provide opportunities for voicing protests. These opportunities constitute alternative lines of action. These alternatives may incorporate two different strategies. One strategy may emphasize remaining within the fold of the regnant world-view, but insist on putting into operation the ideas, institutions and practices that are integral to it and that are claimed or believed to be as ennobling and elevating human existence, which remain, due to one or the other reason, inoperative or are sabotaged if already in operation. Another strategy that can be followed is to challenge the very basis of the regnant world-view and call for the demolition of institutions and practices based on it. The former recognizes the legitimacy of the regnant world-view and underlines the need to preserve it by cleaning it of its impurities. In contrast, the latter strategy aims at throwing lock, stock and barrel, the existing institutional arrangement, practices and the underlying world-view. It proposes to install entirely a new social order based on a new set of values, practices and institutions.
Keeping this in view, three distinct phases of Dalit protest in Orissa expressed through popular and very effective literary creations, about which historians tell us, can be identified. The first of these phases pertains to the use of socially accepted, sanctioned and sanctified world-view and the insistence on making some of its salient features the living, active and dynamic elements of social life and relations. This phase is exemplified by the social protest movement in medieval Orissa (Circa 1400-1550 AD). Persons who led this movement were primarily poets who in their writings protested against the four pillars of their contemporary society. First of all they protested against the social structure attacking caste, untouchablity, low status of Sudras and women and their deprivation of knowledge. Secondly, they strongly opposed the intellectual hegemony of Sanskrit language and, as a mark of protest they created a parallel vernacular literature. Third, they criticized religious imposition and its various externalities such as priesthood, rituals, pilgrimage and idol worship, etc. Last but not the least, they also raised their voices against political authority and exploitation by the ruling class and patriarchy. These writers who were mostly poets carried out a sustained campaign to protect the common people from injustice, exploitation and deprivation. Their message emphasized self-respect and dignity for the lower strata of society. Some of their works can be termed Oriya Protest literature since its roots lie in the protest literature produced during this time.
Sudramuni Sarala Dasa (15th century) was the pioneer of the social protest movement, which Orissa witnessed during the medieval time. Sarala Dasa was known for three of his major works namely the Oriya Mahabharata, the Bilanka Ramayana, and Chandi Purana. These literary works he wrote in the language of the common people taking the events of the recent past and sundry mundane affairs focusing on their real life situation. Thus it was a protest against the poets and the writers of the court whose medium of writing was Sanskrit, the language of dominance and power, and against excessive concern with royal characters.
The protest expressed through the writings of Sarala Dasa was given a deeper edge by the writings of the Panchasakha (five-fellow saintpoets) named Balarama Dasa, Jagannatha Dasa, Achyutanda Dasa, Jasobanta Dasa and Ananta Dasa, who dominated Oriya Literature for a century (1450-1550). The five fellow-poets together rejected the dominance of Sanskrit language in literature and espoused the cause of vernacular as the medium of expression. Thus, they made major contributions towards the use of plebian Oriya language in Oriya literature. In fact, they followed the path Sarala Dasa had cut in Oriya literature as a pioneer and rendered the sacred books of the Hindus into the people’s language in order to make them available to the people. Balaram Dasa’s Jagmohan Ramayan and Laxmi Puran, Jagannatha Dasa’s Oriya Bhagabata, Achyutananda Dasa’s Harivamsa, Jasobanta Dasa’s Premabhakti Brahmagita and Ananta Dasa’s Hetudaya Bhagabata are the foremost examples in this direction.
The poets also protested against the rigidities of life in temples and monasteries, and sought to rise above the dualistic debates reducing religion almost to the level of an intellectual polemic and ignorant prejudice. (3) In the process, the poets had to face opposition, criticism and even conspiracy of the orthodox pundits who instigated the kings to create trouble for them. In spite of various repressive measures taken by the establishment, the movement could not be curbed fully, even if it had to compromise eventually with the dominant Brahmanical system.
After the Panchasakha, the tradition of writing protest literature focusing on and depicting people’s lives and language came to an abrupt end. A remarkable change in the approach of literature both in theme as well as in style is clearly discernible. The lead was taken by the princes of royal family (for example Dhananjaya Bhanja and Upendra Bhanja of eighteenth century) who were acquainted with the themes and discussions of old Sanskrit works, their forms, their ornate style and articulations. Their literary works were bound to be aristocratic and there was no smell of any reform in their writing. Such a literature was fatalistic in character. As a critic observes:
Medieval literature has nothing to do with politics and did not generally go with the political affairs, as the livelihood of the poets and
authors mainly depended on the bounty of the sovereign power of the ruling chiefs. Nor could the medieval literature think of any
fundamental social reform that might throw challenge to the established structure of the society. It was chiefly fatalistic in character. (4)
It is important to note that protest literature was once again retrieved from the realm of purely religious by Bhima Bhoi. With him begins the second phase of protest, which marks a definite break from the earlier one. Born into a Kondh family, Bhoi was the follower of Mahima Dharma, an autochthonous religious movement which made its presence felt in Orissa in the nineteenth century and drafted most of its followers from the lowliest and the downtrodden in society. The most widely known works of Bhima Bhoi’s are the Stuti Chintamani, the Srutinisedha Gita and the Nirbeda Sadhana. Apart from these there are scores of his Mahima Bhajans whose language is so simple that even an illiterate person can memorize them. Like his predecessors, Bhoi attacked orthodox rituals and customs of Oriya society. His literary works sought to redefine and redesign societal norms, manners and behaviour promising the poor and the downtrodden a better world. In a line in Stuti Chintamani, Bhoi writes,
Too much are the miseries of the living beings
How can one tolerate?
Let my soul go to hell
So that the world be redeemed. (5)
Like the saint-poets of the medieval period, Bhoi attacked the orthodox rituals and customs of Orissan society. As a true follower of Mahima Dharma he was against any worship. That is why he did not spare any god or goddess but criticized them. He writes:
Vishnu died as many times As there are leaves in a banyan tree.
A number of dwellers from milky river
Drowned in the ocean of maya.
Alike the flood-water
There are many forms of the Lord.
Before going to heaven
Ramas had to leave
Their bodies on the earth.
So are the Krishna Chandras
Who died without saving their souls.
Though Mahadevas are many
Parvati brought them under her control. (6)
Bhoi was one of the active followers of Mahima Dharma and he propagated alternative ways of living, which brought radical changes among the followers of Mahima Dharma. It is believed that, getting inspirations from Bhima Bhoi some of the followers of Mahima Dharma organised a protest march in 1874 to burn the idols of deities in Puri Jagannath temple claiming that Lord Jagannath did not belong to Brahmans and the higher castes, but to the original inhabitants of the State, the Adivasis and the lower castes. (7) Thus Bhoi’s religio-literary consciousness gave birth to an incipient organization and movement venturing into the newly emerging public sphere.
It is no wonder then that the socio-cultural handicaps prevented the Ambedkar phenomenon to have any deeper impact on Dalits in Orissa. It did evoke some political response. However, by and large it failed to provoke literary articulation among Dalits in Orissa. However, during the same period we find some amount of writings on Dalit life-situation by upper caste writers mainly within the over-arching ideology of nationalism. (8) In most of these writings the Dalits have been portrayed as lazy, quarrelsome, alcoholics, thieves, cheats, etc. which are also some of the anthropological epithets and characteristics used to condemn the Dalits even today.
It is only around the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century that Dalits of Orissa began asserting themselves, if not organisationally, at least, individually through their writings which constitute “Dalit Literature” proper. This constitutes the third phase of protest, which takes its inspiration from the modern world-view underlining the central importance of freedom and equality. Writers of this new literature are few in numbers. Most of them are teachers, lawyers, doctors and other government employees constituting a small vanguard symbolizing the advanced consciousness of a very backward and divided people. (9) The literary genres they have started experimenting with are limited to poetry, short stories, plays and critical essays. Novels, autobiographies and other forms of literature are rare. Given their background, Oriya Dalits are far from being powerful presence and the literature they have been creating over the years is hardly documented for wider audience. However, a look at the whole spectrum of Oriya Dalit literature reveals that the vision of Oriya Dalit writers cannot be confined to any geographical boundary; they can be heard in any part of the world wherever man/woman fights for his/her liberation.
Interestingly, many contributors to the Oriya Dalit literature are poets. The process of poetry arising out of a distressed cry can be felt in most Dalit poems because in these utterances protest seems to come from the insulted and the injured who have laboured for generations for their livelihood. One can take any Dalit poem and feel the rhythm of distress arising out of the eternal pain. As one Oriya Dalit poet writes:
They are rage now
They are awakened
Awakened from their mass slumber
They will burn down the establishment
For their bread and butter
They have already given a call
And are ready to shed their blood
With red tears. (10)
The voice grows bitterer and more defiant when he confronts his enemies:
Who are those?
Who took away the service-sword?
And imprisoned him for eternity
The self-respecting Dalit
Will no more bear it?
But, break the chains and sickles
And smash the prison-house
To be liberated from
Around him and
The world! (11)
The Oriya Dalit poet makes an effort to use images as well as words which comes from his own experience. His protest is not against any individual or group but the society as a whole. Nay, he even goes further and declares war against all the oppressive forces of the world to “smash the prison house, to be liberated from all red-tapisms around him and the world.” It may be mentioned here that besides Bichitranand Nayak several Oriya Dalit poets have been raising their voices against the various oppressive forces. Notable among them are: Basudev Sunani, Kumaramani Tanti, Sanjay Bag, Anjubala Jena, Mohan Jena and many others.
In this connection one does remember the colonial exploitation on the Blacks of Africa and the Negroes of America by the dominant Whites. To assuage their guilt and to veil their brutal exploitative actions the dominant group perpetuated a number of negative stereotypes of Blacks during slavery. The long-suffering Christ-like Uncle Tom, the child-like Sambo, the loyal Mammy, the emasculating matriarch and the wild seductress were some such stereotyped images which have endured till today and inflicted immense damage on Black people’s psyche. (12) Pained by torturous existence of their slave ancestors and enraged by the denigrating stereotypes, many Blacks consider slavery as a dismal past best forgotten. Perhaps the most humiliating myth was that of the acquiescent slave which has been demolished by the numerous slave narratives that recount the valiant resistance of slave narrators to the institution of slavery and their perilous journey to free states. In a poem titled “Africa’s Plea” one Black poet writes:
I am not you--
but you will not
give me a chance,
will not let me be me.
'If I were you'-
but you know
I am not you
let me be me.
You meddled, interfere
in my affairs
as they were yours
and you were me.
You are unfair, unwise,
foolish to think
that I can be you,
talk, act and think like you.
God made me,
He made you,
For God's sake
Let me be me. (13)
Like the condition of the Blacks in Africa, the American Negroes had to undergo the same humiliating experience under the White oppression. But it is no mystery that out of the traumatic experience the American Negroes came to sing:
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child;
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child--
A l-o-n-g w-a-y-y-y from home. (14)
Like the Black writers who are being deprived of from availing equal citizenship in their own country, many of the Dalit writers feel that they have no motherland. This is because Indian society oppresses and suppresses them to the utmost. That’s why they are critical about the idea of India as a nation as well as Indian nationalism. Take for example the following poem where a Dalit poet questions the credibility of what India is known to the international audience:
This country which demands a pot of blood
For a swallow of water
How can I call it mine
Though it gives the world
The (empty) advice of peace? (15)
Dalit writers use images as well as words, which come from their own lived experiences. They feel that their vision and sensibilities must be translated into art honestly, in its raw undistilled form, without euphemism. The language they use is often brutal and crude, springing from a life of poverty, ignorance, anger and violence. The agony of the poor and dispossessed finds powerful expression in their writings through poignant and explosive words. Sometimes it is interspersed with abuse too. But, nevertheless, there is an attempt on their part to evolve a new aesthetics because they feel that the gentle expectations of the existing elite literary standards cannot do justice to the quality of the life they know and render in writing.
Jagannath temple, Puri is a stronghold of Brahmanism (16) in Orissa. Its tradition is eclectic in the sense that it has absorbed tribal, Buddhist, Tantric, Shaivite and Vaisnavite elements. These various elements drawn from different sects have been well integrated into a unique brand, which is called Oriya Hinduism. (17) It is said and not without a reason that the non-sectarian nature of the cult of Jagannath has made it possible to forge unity among people with diverse social and religious backgrounds against foreign enemies in the past. However, this tradition does not make it possible now for the Dalits to enter into the temple complex. Even Gandhi’s visit to Puri during his Harijan movement in the 1930s did not result in the opening of the temple for these ex-untouchables. (18)
This denial of entry into the Jagannath temple to the Dalits by the Hindus has become a theme of importance in Oriya Dalit literature. Take for example, Ramachndra Sethi’s short story “Dwitiya Buddha” (The Second Buddha). (19) Here the story writer, in stead of rejecting God altogether, like many Oriya Dalit poets and writers, accepts it. But, since the subject is an untouchable body who cannot enter into the temple, the narrator of the story who is the author himself, finds Sri Kshetra and Sri Jagannath in the body of his wife. (the nipples on her breast are as if the eyes of Jagannath, her navi, the Brahma, and of course, her yoni, the pinda, the source of life). Here both Jagannath, the sacred and the holiest and the untouchable body, the polluted and the lowliest become metaphors to cross their swords on each other. Though, on the surface of the story there is no rejection of the Hindu God, there is a subtle suggestion by the writer: giving an alternative interpretation divergent from the one prevalent in the mainstream thinking. Thus, the untouchable body as a subject-self needs further scrutiny.
It is apt to bring Muli’s autobiography at this point of time. Muli as an untouchable autobiographer narrates the fate and the fight of the Bauri community vis-a-vis the dishonesty and the double standard of the upper castes. A poor, illiterate and lazy untouchable Muli is, he tries his hands in several professions, but fails. At last he becomes a pimp supplying women to his rich upper caste masters. Muli’s description of the double standard of the high caste men who treat him familiarly in private but disavow him publicly brings critique of caste practices in utmost sincerity. Muli challenges their hegemonic attitudes and tries to fight back by changing his masters. Muli is clear in his attitude: “he strives for dignity; he seeks to be respected by the people around him; he questions why fate has brought him to his present circumstances; he wants a good life for himself. As he approaches what he thinks of as old age, Muli sees his dream of achieving a good life slipping by; a bleak end awaits him. He expresses no hopes of salvation or a better existence in a future life. His particular beliefs are guided by his cultural setting, but his predicament is not.” (20)
The gap between Muli’s predicament and the existing corrupted socio-cultural settings where the Oriya Dalits have been living and experiencing through the ages is a point of departure from which the Oriya Dalit writers get inspiration to revolt and to write. The perpetual presence of poverty, powerlessness, untouchability, hypocrisy and corrupt social practices have generated a variety of responses among Oriya Dalit writers. These responses are basically forms of protest aimed at bringing about social change through revolution. Their protest is not against any individual or group but society as a whole. They reject the so-called “tradition”, which helps upper caste writers in legitimizing existing structures of inequality. It is in this sense, Dalit literature is engaged in two functions: demolition and reconstruction. (21) It is keen in destroying what is considered as “dead wood”, decaying components of existing social and cultural order. But at the same time, it is anxious to transform the social reality in the direction of total freedom, equality and human dignity. Thus, Oriya Dalit literature in all its forms interrogates the world-view of the upper caste and institutions and demands social practices based upon its transformation.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(1.) Quoted in a report titled, “A Study on the Problems of Untouchability with Emphasis on the Incidents of the Atrocities on Harijans in Orissa”, Prepared by NISWASS (National Institute of Social Work and Social Sciences), Bhubaneswar in 1984, p. 111.
(2.) James M. Freeman, Untouchable: History of an Indian Life, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1978, p. 90.
(3.) Basanta Kumar Mallik, Paradigms of Dissent and Protest: Social Movements in Eastern India (c AD 1400-1700), Manohar, New Delhi, 2004
(4.) B. C. Roy, Orissa under the Mughals, Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1981, p.176.
(5.) Bhima Bhoi, Stuti Chintamani, Dharma Grantha Store, Cuttack, 1992, p.53.
(6.) Bhima Bhoi, Stuti Nished Gita, Dharma Grantha Store, Cuttack, 1992, p.9.
(7.) Chittaranjan Das, A Glimpse into Oriya Literature, Oriya Sahitya Academi, Bhubaneswar, 1982, p. 82. Also see Radhakanta Barik’s “Dalit itihasa tatwa” (Oriya) in Bikalpa Bichara, July-September, Bargarh, Orissa, 1994
(8.) See Raj Kumar, “Oriya Dalit literature: A historical perspective”, The Fourth World: Journal of the Marginalised People, No.2, October 1995, NISWASS, Bhubaneswar, Orissa.
(9.) There are at least ninety-three Scheduled Caste communities in Orissa having different customs, traditions, dialects and deities of their own. It is in this sense Dalits in Orissa, as elsewhere, are divided communities.
(10.) Bichitrananda Nayak, Mukti, Anirbana, Cuttack Students’ Store, Cuttack, 1993, p. 20.
(11.) Ibid. p. 20.
(12.) See Sunanda Pal, “From peripheri to centre: Toni Morrison’s self-affirming fiction”, Economic and Political Weekly, September 10, 1994, p. 2440.
(13.) A poem by Ronald Tambekui Dempster, quoted in Godfrey N. Broun’s Apartheid: A Teacher’s Guide, The UNESCO Press, 1981, p. 75.
(14.) St. Clair Drake, The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion. Third World Press, Chicago, 1970, p. 12.
(15.) Prahlad Chedwankar, “Empty Advice”, An Anthology of Dalit Literature, edited by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 1992, p. 37.
(16.) James J. Preston, “Goddess temples in Orissa: An anthropological survey”, Religion in Modern India, edited by Giri Raj Gupta, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1983, p. 237.
(17.) Ibid, p.233.
(18.) Atul Chandra Pradhan, The Nationalist Movement, Amar Prakash, New Delhi, 1993, pp. 222-23.
(19.) Rama Chandra Sethi, “Dwitiya Buddha”, Rama Charita Manasa, Punyasloka Prakashani, Banapur, 1980, pp. 6-7.
(20.) James Freeman, Untouchable: An Indian Life History, Op. cit., 1978, p. 396.
(21.) S.P Punalekar, “Experience, perceptions and reality: A study of Dalit literature in Maharashtra”. Collection of unpublished seminar papers, Centre for Social Studies, Surat, 1988, p. 37. Also see Uttam Bhoite and Anuradha Bhoite, The “Dalit Sahitya Movement in Maharastra: A Sociological Analysis”, quoted in E.V. Ramakrishna, Making it New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1995, pp. 97-116.
DR. RAJ KUMAR
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH, SGTB
KHALSA COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY
OF DELHI, DELHI-110007
Delhi University, Delhi
Courtesy: Find Article.com, Jan/2007