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Dalit Women’s Writing in Telugu

Dalit Women’s Writing in Telugu

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Challapalli Swaroopa Rani

(Published in EPW in 1998)

It has taken a long time for dalit women to overcome their oppression as women, as dalits and put to creative use the gains of social and literary movements. There are of course common issues that bind dalit men and women, like untouchability and caste oppression. But women also suffer from patriarchal oppression. These concerns are constantly foregrounded in dalit women’s poetry in Telugu and is evident in the form, content and the emotions that they express. However, dalit women’s poetry in Telugu still needs to develop beyond the confines of patriarchy.

The alphabet is now a weapon in the hands of ‘untouchables’ – a weapon to attack the oppression perpetrated by brahminism for centuries, Dalits denied learning and respect, have now crafted self-respect from their humiliation, strengthening their castes and destroying ‘sanatana’ values and traditions’ People who have been denied a basic humanity and have been outcasts for centuries, have now stormed into literary avenues’ roaring. Today ‘untouchable’ voices rule Telugu literature. That is the fierce wind of dalit poetry.

What is Dalit Poetry?

Before beginning a debate on which poetry is dalit potery it is necessary first to look for some clarity on who are dalits. There was recently a wide ranging debate on ‘who are dalits’ among literary friends. Some people argued that along with the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and backward castes, minorities and women should also be considered dalits. After some discussion, they came to the conclusion that only ‘malas’ and ‘madigas’ who belonged to the SC category should be considered dalit. In general, there is considerable confusion as to who are dalits. Notwithstanding the above debates, dalits could be defined as people who have been subjected to untouchability and denied social, economic, political and cultural rights. What is dalit poetry? Whose poetry is dalit poetry? These questions have also generated considerable debate. Writing by dalits that is based on dalit consciousness will reflect the painful lived experiences of dalit people. The fact of being born a dalit alone is not enough to write dalit poetry. Dalit consciousness is a critical factor in dalit writing, The question of whether non-daiits can write dalit poetry has also come up from time to time. Writing by upper castes that expresses dalit reality in terms similar to that by dalit writers can be called sympathetic poetry. There is an unanimous view that only those who suffer oppression can adequately represent that oppression.

Historically, the poetry of Siva Kavulu, bhakti poets, and verses by Vemana laid the foundation for dalit poetry, Siva Kavulu strongly opposed the ‘chaturvarna’ theory, although this was part of their religious rhetoric. Bhakti poets strongly disagreed with the caste system and inequalities it threw up. They preached that all persons irrespective of caste could reach god. Vemana through his poetry paved the way for a trend that condemned caste and superstitions – thus becoming the first time. revolutionary of modern times. Joshua who was not only born into an untouchable caste, but also used a dalit as the central figure in poetry for the first in his poem “Gabbilam” (the Bat) could be called the first dalit poet, Joshua used his verse to tear apart the serpent-like grip that caste had on dalits condemning them to a life of humiliation and deprivation. At the same time, Joshua wrote, there were other dalit poets, Nakka Chinnavenkayya, Jala Rangakavi, Kusuma Dharmanna, Nutakki Abraham – who followed the trend set by Joshua and wrote condemning the caste system.

As in colonial times, in the post-colonial period too, our poets have written nationalist poetry. This was followed by new trends in progressive poetry in Telugu ranging from Abhyudaya Kavitvam, Digamhara Kavitvam, revolutionary poetry, feminist poetry to dalit poetry, Joshua wrote the poem ‘Gabbilam’ during the freedom struggle. After Joshua’s time a number of movements grew to strengthen dalit poetry. The sharpening of focus and perspective in dalit writing which increasingly came to be seen as a tool to dismantle brahminical traditions is a result of a multi-dimensional history. Alongside the inspiration given by the various Ambedkarite anti-caste movements, incidents of upper caste violence against dalits like those at Karamchedu, Chunduru, and Padirikuppam led to the direct use of dalit poetry as a weapon against oppression. While dalit poetry in Andhra has its roots in the dalit movements in the state, it has also drawn inspiration from the Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra, spreading out in the process. To date there are about 30 dalit poetry anthologies in Telugu (among them Chikkanavutunne Pata, Nisari, Bahuvadasau Valivera, Padunekkina Pata. Gunde Dappu, etc, are important).

The dalit literary movement in Telugu is not merely confined to literary activity. It has exposed the humiliating realities that dalits confront every day in different arenas. In the recent case of the death sentence on
Chalapathi and Vijayavardhan Rao, dalit poets clearly identified the caste character of the legal machinery and the state, The dalit literary movement played a significant rote in obtaining a stay on the execution of Chalapathi and Vijayavardhan Rao. The writings on this case by various dalit intellectuals, journalists, and poets have been published in a volume titled Chalapathi Vijayavardhanam published by Ekalavya Publications. Although these are only initial steps, the involvement of dalit women poets in the Chalapathi Vijayavardhan case needs to be taken note of. While dalit poets have been writing on all aspects of the caste system, it is only as dalit women began to write, that the genre of dalit poetry became complete. The first two poems by dalit woman were published in an anthology brought out by central university students called Gunde Dappu. After that poetry anthologies like Padunekkina Pata, Chalapathi Vijayavardhanam, Meme, carried poems by dalit women. Prior to that, poetry from the dalit woman’s perspective was very heavy. Madduri Nagesh Babu’s ‘Devuni Pellam’, Satish Chander’s ‘Arachethi Randralu’, Vemula Yellayya’s ‘Etti Thalli’, Durga Prasad’s ‘Devadasi’ and Yendluri Sudhakar’s ‘Aido Vachakam’ – are some significant poems. These poets wrote about and condemned the physical, and mental torture and atrocities that their women were subjected to in different walks of life. Upper caste women poets have written very little about dalit women. However, two poems in the collection Neeli Meghalu, one by Varalakshmi ‘ndAme’ and another by Volga ‘Akale Migilii’ (Only Hunger Remains) speak of the appropriation of labour and about working class women. However, the poems do not at any point address caste or the caste-specific experiences of those women.

The poetry by dalit women written from the dalit women’s perspective and based on their experiences as dalit women is far more powerful and has a far greater impact than the poetry of dalit male poets or upper caste women poets. Dalit women’s issues have less in common with dalit men1 s issues than with those of the upper caste women. If there is any soul in this country who subjected to all kinds of oppression and exploitation, it is the dalit woman. On one side she is oppressed by the caste system, on the other side she is subjected to gender oppression and class exploitation. She is a dalit among dalits. It is from this angle that we need to understand dalit feminist poetry and its specificity.

As in all kinds of history, in literary history too, the story of dalit and women’s writing has languished in the dark depths of casteism. Although literacy levels are very low among dalits, every dalit ‘wada’ is an abode of literature, because art and literature are born of (the labouring class). The reality of dalit lives, the splendour of their life’s work, their troubles, their tears, all take the form of stories, or songs or poetry. This is a truth that cannot be hidden. However, a large part of the written and oral literature written and sung by dalits for centuries has been stamped out by time.

Molla, who wrote the Ramayanam in Telugu in the 13th century could be called the first dalit woman poet. She belonged to the potter’s caste Kummari In her time, men opposed women writing poetry or entering the royal courts. Under those social conditions, Molla earned a place for herself in history, not just as a low caste woman who opposed patriarchy, but as one who earned fame through her poetry, Molla’s Ramayanam is considered the first condensed Ramayanam in Telugu. Although Molla was a dalit poet, her poetry does not address the issue of caste in any significant way. Similarly, it cannot be argued that she wrote from a feminist perspective as we understand it today. However, the women characters in her poetry are shown to have dignity and courage.

In the modern age, a woman poet who has written verse in the ancient tradition is Kolakaluri Swaroopa Rani, She has been conferred the title of ‘Kaviyatri Tilaka’. Gangavataram, Sivatandavam, Chandragrahunam, Probodham are some of her important writings. In ‘ Chandragrahnam’, Swaroopa Rani has used the moon to symbolise the Indian woman, Rahu the husband and Aryabhatta the modernist. The moon asks Aryabhatta to shield her from the eclipse of male chauvinism: In the poem ‘Deepanni’, she writes satirically on the suffering that oppressed castes have been subjected to for generations.

An examination of dalit feminist poetry unravels for us a concern with caste oppression, gender oppression and class exploitation. Contemporary dalit feminist poetry is written by Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, Madduri Vijayasri, Darisi Sasinirmala, G Vijayalakshmi, Rani, Karri Vijayakumari, Seeta Mahalakshmi, Nakka Vijaya Bharathi and M Gauri, There is some similarity between the writings of these poets and the women poets in Maharashtra who have been part of the Dalit Panthers Movement like Hira Banisode, Jyoti Lanjewar and Kumud Pawde, as well as the writings of Black women.

The dalit woman faces three kinds of oppression in her everyday life, Writing about the twin evils of casteism and male chauvinism that condemn her life, a dalit woman poet writes:

When has my life been truly mine
In the home male arrogance
sets my check stinging
while in the street caste arrogance
splits the other cheek open

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Mankenapuvvu’)

In the poem ‘Dalituralu’, the poet speaks about the manner in which every one from the upper caste person to her own husband, dominate her in one way or another, denying her of any individuality.

I am dragged
here and there
under someone’s buttocks
a seating plank
some one or other
drags me along
by a nose rope
to make me dance

(Darisi Sasi Nirmala, ‘Dalituralu’)

Dented an education for centuries dalit women struggle to gain an education and get jobs, only to find themselves obstructed by caste at every step; in hostels, in schools, in offices. The upper caste ‘manuvadi’ culture subjects them to physical and mental torture and does not allow them to take any cultural initiative.

Chasing the far away distant hope
of an education
Reaching the shore of the hostel
Shrinking from the hungry look of
the warden
I long to gather my body into
a fist and fling it into the distance

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Mankenapuvvu’)

The poet here, in an effort to protect herself from insult, seeks ‘deharahityam’.

Atrocities and rapes are not new to dalit women. From Soonpanaka of the Ramayanam to Sajjalagudem Mahadevamma, there has been a tradition of insult imposed on dalit women,

Only the other day I lost my ears and nose
to Sri Rama’s will
It was yesterday that my
grief was described as baseless
Today I spin suspended
a centuries old
doubt and a crisis
between ‘punnama naraka’ and ‘pativratyam’

(Vijayasri, ‘Alisamma Shapam)

In some areas, girls born into dalit castes are dedicated to the gods as devadasis, busavis, jogins. This uncivilised tradition that condemns women to a lifetime of prostitution is still prevalent in this country. It is unknown anywhere else in the world. We are all familiar with the agony of Sajjalagudem Mahadevamma, a basavi. Dalit poets are now asking which chapters in this country’s history will contain the histories of these women.

My fame is that I
was recognised as a whore
even as a new born babe
my story that should bring
the head of this civilisation
low into the depths of hell
In which chapter of the volumes
of famous history of your country
do you intend to write it?

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Nishidda

In the same way, caste dogs her steps even if she is a working woman. When dalits hear the accusation that they have got jobs only through reservation, not through merit as is the case with the upper castes, and when there is a constant whisper about their caste background, they are driven to the point of pouring oil into their own ears, in the way that the upper castes used to do to them earlier as punishment for listening to the chanting of the Vedas, This is the case with dalit men as well.

In the name of love and marriage countless Sunitas are getting sacrificed to upper caste men.

Good enough to fulfil lust
but not good enough for a family
I feel like hiding my face in a stream

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Mankena

Suicide becomes her protest –

For generations I have
borne this leprous caste ridden male world
in the basket of tender affection
on my head.
This merciless time
forces me to bear the
cross of humiliation
in my virgin womb.

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Prema Vaida’)

She does not want to waste her love on this male world that does not understand that even a dalit woman has a heart, a dreams of love. She instead postpones her love to a more broadminded time.

Hindu Puranas speak of Krishna as a romantic soul, the only lover to 16,000 ‘gopikas’, Flinging this Hindu thinking back, a poet writes:

You who so skilfully
stole the gopikas garments
can you steal this heart
so carefully hidden
behind deerskins?

(M Gowri, Tandina Chetulu’)

We see very often dalit men marrying upper caste women. However, instances of upper caste men marrying dalit women are rare. In cases where they do marry, the husband’s ill-treatment of his wife who is ‘culturally backward’, is illustrated in the poem ‘Panchayati’,

SO now you know I am a ‘madiga’ maid                                           because I cannot sing Rama kirtanas?
it seems a buffalo is better than me
he swears at my-low caste in Sanskrit

(Vijayasri, ‘Panchayati’)

A large number of nurses who work in hospitals are dalit women. From the doctor to the patient, everyone treats her like a low caste woman, refusing to recognise the service she renders. There is a poem that speaks of this.

What heed to talk of
low caste nurses?
Eyes lit with love
day and night they
dress ulcerous wounds.
Instead of Florence Nightingale awards
they crawl over her
nursing heart
like cancerous cells.

(Swaroopa Rani)

Employers refuse to treat women working in the fields and the home as human beings, addressing them with disrespect and humiliating them. Beautiful names cannot be part of her language. The dalit woman who calls people ‘Ammagaru’, ‘Ayyagaru’. has only one name ‘Ose’.

Dalit women poets have confronted atrocities and rapes of dalit working class women in fields and homes. They recognise the fact that these women are subjected to such inhuman behaviour only because they are dalit women. The upper caste capitalist class wants to appropriate not just a dalit woman’s love but her sexuality as well. As this poem says;  

When Koti Reddy pulled your
sari in the corn field
the humiliation
when your husband seeking your
torn sari said you were
the shrinking of your heart

(Vijay Kumari, ‘Gavini Daati Ra’)

Domestic workers face all kinds of violence and deceit at the hands of their employers.

From the moment I opened
my eyes
I cried for ‘dora’ and ‘dorasani’
not mother or father.
Caste is my colour
dire poverty my garment
When he said come
to my bed and
get a new skirt for the festival
I believed him.

(Vijayalakshmi, ‘Pani Pilla’)

This poem speaks of the ways in which employers offer small attractions to young unsuspecting girls and then rape them.

Dalit women have confronted both oppression by upper caste men, as well as the deep seated male arrogance within their own castes. The dalit man, while he suffers from caste oppression, is not willing to let go of the dominance that this system has given him for being a man, Dalit women have spoken about how dalit men are subordinated to the upper castes and in turn subordinate their women. The following lines speak of the ways in which the man satisfies his ego by laying with women’s lives;

Why blame any other?
my dalit himself
ties me across as a

(Sasi Nirmala, ‘Dalituralu’)

Men, while abusing one another, use obscene words about each other’s women: Alisamma, curses them:

You animals
Do not shame
your mothers
for having borne you.
At least now
pluck out your tails and fangs
cast them out
and turn into human beings.
That is my curse.

(Vijayasri, ‘Alisamma Shapam’)

Although the land in this country bears grain after being watered by the sweat of dalils, for dalits it is a daily struggle to get enough foodgrains to eat.

Mother, without your touch
there is neither air not light
on this earth
Unless your hands delve into the
slush to catch jewel bright fish
the country’s hunger
will remain unfed.

(Swaroopa Rani)

This poem describes the indispensability of the dalit woman’s labour. The poem’ Vegu Chukka’ says that although the dal it woman’ s touch is necessary for a house to become clean, she herself is always unclean, untouchable.

Although each corner
of the house sparkles
from her touch
To her fellow humans
she is untouchable

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Vegu Chukka’)

Generally speaking, poetry invests life in inanimate objects. Dalit poets, by divesting woman, a live being, of life, foreground the irony that is central to a dalit woman’s life.

The media and the government have a caste character in India. All forms of media are put to the service of the upper castes. The daily violence on dalit women and murders of these women are never allowed to enter the media. Not just that, murders are often covered up by using ‘suicide’ or ‘natural causes’ to describe the deaths. And caste plays a key role in this cover-up. These apsects too have been reflected on in dalit women’s poetry.

I know
This corpse is mine
that lies soaking in the rain
felled by the blow of caste lust.
While not even be smelt
by the news
The police lathi and the courts eye
have no business with my
stripped naked skin

(Sasi Nirmala, ‘Muttugudda Kapputunna’)

Similarly, the visibility that movements led by upper caste women enjoy, is not available to dalit women’s struggles.

You peacocks of high caste
preening your plumes
in the Narmada Valley
your call echoes and rouses
each corner of the world
but my sister’s struggle
to dam the swollen streams of arrack
choking them
their hoarse voices
will lie buried in
Telugu earth

(Sasi Nirmala, ‘Muttugudda Kapputunna’)

Any oppression will continue as long as there are people who bear it silently. The moment tolerance dies, even a blade of grass becomes a thorn that pricks. The dalit woman today is preoccupied with cutting open the ulcer of caste and dressing the wound.

There is a slight difference between the situation of dalit women and other women. Women in general suffer from gender oppression. Dalit women, in contrast, suffer more from caste oppression. Till today, both the feminist movement and feminist literature have represented the issues of upper caste women. Feminists have struggled for economic and sexual freedom for women. Dalit women poets feel strongly that dalit women’s issues have not been adequately represented in the mainstream, Condemned for centuries to a life of bondage, basic needs and questions of survival are still central issues for dalit women.

From the Soorpanaka of yore
through Chilakurti Muthemma
to Sajjalagudem Mahadevamma
of your lineage of humiliation
swept along a torrent of tears
of your existence
of your being a “nityasumangali’
from birth you are encountering
hunger through the years
has one even one of them
ever spoken

(Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, ‘Mayamma’)

Further dalit women have questioned and rejected caste in terms in which upper caste women are even today unable to do. Even women who suffer patriarchy humiliate dalit women, because they belong to low caste.

Why speak of the other?
Another woman wants to buy me
She wants me as the gold lace
to her upper caste new sari.
She wants me as the crimson
on her lips.

(Sasi Nirmala, ‘Dalituralu’)

The unwillingness of upper caste women to express solidarity with dalit women who have been humiliated or tortured by upper caste men.

Do you remember
your words when
your husband plucked me
like a chicken?
Do you know how often
I was cheapened
at your hands
in your house

(Sasi Nirmala, ‘Dalituralu’)

The same Manudharma that gave upper caste the authority to dominate over lower castes, also gave men the right to oppress women. There are instances when dalit men, in the course of their condemnation of caste have also humiliated upper caste women. This is proof of the fact that male chauvinism is common to men, irrespective of caste. Similarly when people from different cultural backgrounds marry each other, adjustments and understanding especially with regard to each other’s cultural practices is necessary. In this effort, the need for one person’s customs to be ridiculed’ by the other does not arise, Between wife and husband there must be the openness and freedom for each to follow their own customs and lifestyle. Nagesh Babu’spoem ‘Vidi Akasam’, which looks at woman-man relations across caste camp up for intense debate,

However, women and dalits have been sacrificed at the altar of Manudharma. The contradiction between the two is a non-antagonistic contradiction not an antagonistic one. Women and dalits need to collectively struggle against a common enemy – a struggle that would replace Manudharma with Manava dharma.

While dalit feminist poetry in other languages had developed faster and earlier in time, there are reasons for the slow development of dalit feminist writing in Telugu.H has taken this long for dalit women to surmount their oppression and put to creative use the gains of social and literary movements. Watching their men participate in struggles and write about their oppression dalit women have also learnt to give voice to their troubles. There are of course common issues that bind dalit men and women together, like untouchability and caste oppression. This does not detract from the patriarchal oppression of dalit women. These twin concerns are constantly foregrounded in dalit women’s poetry, as is evident from the form, content and emotion in the latter which is markedly different from the poetry of dalit men. Dalit feminist poetry still needs to spread out in many directions. So far the articulation of caste has been much stronger and more powerful than the articulation of patriarchy. Finally, dalit women’s writing has yet to move from poetry to short stories and novels.

[All translations of poems into English are by Vasanth Kannabiran]



[Courtesy: EPW, April 25, 1998]