Dr. Ajay Sekher, writer, translator, artist and Assistant Professor of English at S S University of Sanskrit (Tirur Centre) received the ‘Aadiyar Deepam’ award recently. In this conversation with the young poet Chandramohan.S, he talks about the award, his writing, research and translations.
Chandramohan: Please enlighten us about this award.
Ajay Sekher: Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha or PRDS the organisation founded by Poykayil Sri Kumara Gurudevan or Poykayil Appachan in the first decade of the 20th century has successfully completed its first century of social existence and struggle. The official organ of PRDS which is called Aadiyar Deepam is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. PRDS has instituted an award called ‘Aadiyar Deepam Award’ on this historic occasion. As a person who has done the translations of the songs of Poykayil Appachan into English (2007) and as a researcher who has written and published many papers on Appachan they selected me for the first award. My cultural contributions in writing and painting were also mentioned in the citation. I find it a great honour and privilege as it comes from the people at the bottom forging their way to the fore front. It is a unique gesture of appreciation as far as a socially committed writer and knowledge worker is concerned. I am truly honoured and humbled by this organic acceptance and fraternal alliance.
Chandramohan: Please provide a brief biographical sketch of you.
Ajay Sekher: I was born in Kottayam in 1976 in an Avarna lower middle class family. My parents were school teachers in government service and I had to travel with them in various parts of Malabar during my childhood school days. I had attended more than 10 government schools to complete my tenth. Towards their retirement they came and settled down in Kottayam again in the late 1980s. I attended CMS College Kottayam for Pre-Degree and B A Degree in English. Then I moved to School of Letters, M G University for my MA in English(2000). After that I briefly worked for one year in the Panchayat service as a lower clerk. It gave me an opportunity to realise the stratified society in the grass roots and the exclusionary discourses in public services.
Resigning from the clerical service I joined M G University again for my Ph D in 2002. I submitted it in 2005 and the degree was awarded in 2007. It was a study on the caste and gender marginalia in Indian fiction. In 2008 it was published by Kalpaz an imprint of Gyan Books, New Delhi as Representing the Margin. It is available online as a Google book. My first book to be published happened to be Unknown Subjects: The Songs of Poykayil Appachan. It was edited by E V Anil and V V Swamy. I translated it and it equipped me to translate more dalit poetry from Malayalam later. My translations are included in the Oxford Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing by Prof M Dasan (2012). Along with these writing efforts I have been teaching for a living. I had been guest lecturing since 2002 in various schools, colleges and universities across Kerala. I have taught at S N College Kumarakam, Sanskrit University Kalady, School of Letters, M G University Kottayam, Govt V H S S Rajakumari Iduki, Govt College Kasaragod, Govt College Thrissur etc. Currently I am Assistant Professor of English at the Tirur Regional Centre of Sanskrit University. I write in Malayalam and English and also translate between the two. My articles and translations have been published in Indian Literature, EPW, MLS, New Quest, Littcrit, Matrubhumi, Bhashaposhini and other leading journals and periodicals.
Chandramohan: How does your work of translation of Pokayil Kumara Gurudevan fit into the larger stream of the narrative?
Ajay Sekher: Poykayil Appachan’s songs and spirituals were prohibited from printing and publishing in the mainstream for almost a century by the hegemonic Savarna consensus. It was Sahodaran Publications of Vakatanam run by Rajagopal Vakatanam that published the Malayalam original in 2006. It was edited by V V Swamy and E V Anil associated with the PRDS movement. The authorship and poetic subjectivity of Appachan was under historic erasure in the print public sphere of Kerala as he invoked the historic memories of slavery and sabotaged Savarna hegemony in both Hindu and Christian common sense. Soon after the Malayalam publication the idea of translating Appachan into English was mooted in a discussion with V V Swamy and E V Anil; and they have edited and published my English translation under the banner of Institute of PRDS Studies in 2007.
The copies of the English translation was sent to most of the leading academia and media in India. According to Swamy that marked the renewed interest in Poyka inside and outside Kerala. Susie Tharu’s Penguin anthology and M Dasan’s Oxford anthology of dalit writing later included Poyka’s new translations by more illustrious translators like Catherine Thankamma. Dr Sanal Mohan’s studies on the PRDS movement are also instrumental in spreading awareness in academic public sphere on the significance of Poykayil Sri Kumara Gurudevan. Appachan has enlightened us with a unique narration of erased subjectivity. Memory and voice are important accents in his songs and spirituals. His narrations are subversive and introspective. New historiographers like Dr K S Madhavan view the narratives of Appachan as conceptual and epistemological breaks and ruptures. In the light of Gopal Guru’s concepts of experience and theory, the guerrilla speeches, songs and unique narratives of Appachan need to be reread and analyzed in detail.
Chandramohan: Your other literary works and criticisms?
Ajay Sekher: Writing in the Dark: A Selection of Malayalam Dalit Poetry (Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai: 2008) consists of my translations of dalit poetry from Appachan to young poets like S Kalesh. It was edited by M B Manoj and George K Alex. This came out well before the Penguin and Oxford anthologies. I was also fortunate to translate Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye (Neelimayeriya Kannu, D C B, 2010) and Playing in the Dark (Irutile Kali, Prasakti, 2008) into Malayalam. My critical essays in Malayalam were collected and published in 2008 as Samskaram, Pratinidhanam, Pratirodham: Samskara Rashtriyatilekulla Kuripukal (Fabian, Mavelikara). My recent book is Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a Democratic Future (Calicut: Other, 2012). It is a critical recovery of Kerala modernity and its anti-caste thrust through one of its chief cultural architects like K Ayyappan also called Pulayan Ayyappan. Sahodaran returned to Kerala public sphere when dalit criticism and historiography made its mark in Malayalam literary scene at the turn of the last century.
It is an illuminating coincidence that my first book and first award happen to be related to Poykayil Appachan. Though I belong to the community of Sahodaran I reached him via and through Appachan. My critical practice is really indebted to dalit criticism in Malayalam especially K K Kochu, K K Baburaj, Salim Kumar, Sunny Kapikad and others. The works of Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Spivak, Susie Tharu, Gail Omvedt, Gopal Guru, Kancha Ilaiah, J Reghu, B Rajeevan, P P Raveendran, K Satchidanandan, E P Rajagopalan, M Dasan, K M Yesudasan… are really influential on me. I am also deeply moved by the critical works of African American and Afro British post colonial authors like Morrison, Walker, hooks, Gilroy, West, Hall and others. The counter hegemonic tradition of Indian enlightenment from the Buddha to Phule, Ambedkar, Narayana Guru, Ayya Vaikundhan, Appachan, Sahodaran and Periyar is also deeply engaging for me.
Chandramohan: You have pioneered the process of cultural archaeology, to unravel hidden history of Buddhism in Kerala, could you elaborate?
Ajay Sekher: It is again a critical extension of the work already done by deviant and inter disciplinary critical explorers like Ilamkulam Kunjan Pillai, P C Alexander, P J Cherian, P K Gopalakrishnan, V V K Valath, N M Namputiri, P O Purushotaman, K Sugatan, S N Sadasivan, K K Kochu and others. The missionaries of Asoka reached Tamilakam and Keralam as early as 3rd century BC and Buddhism survived in Kerala up to the 14th or 15th century AD. After the establishment of Hindu Brahmanism in Kerala around the 9th century AD the Buddhist laity was cast away as untouchable and Avarna. Therefore it is the common heritage of all the people in south India prior to AD 9th century. Dalit bahujan cultures in the peninsula are directly linked to the history of Buddhism in south India. It is still surviving in various cultural practices of education, health care, medicine and rituals in disguised and corrupt Hinduized forms.
Cultural and linguistic residues of Buddhism are still present in our linguistic and life contexts and practices. The interjection “Ayyo” is such a linguistic residue that is still deeply embedded in the collective unconscious of the people in south India. Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil or Malayalam speaking people irrespective of their religion, caste, class, gender, region, sexuality and ideological affiliation make this outcry “Ayyo” at the time of peril or unexpected shock. It is an ancient address to the Buddha in ancient Dravidian language or Pazham Tamil. Ayya or Ayyan is an address to the Buddha in south Indian reverence. Putan and Kutan are also such compassionate rural names of the Buddha that the people cherish. There are place names with these affixes as in Putan Pally or Kutanad. Mundan is associated with the egg heads of the monks. There are still surviving places with the Munda affix as in Mundur or Mundakayam. Pally is another Pali word that is widely present all over south India from Andhra to Kerala. Sery or Cheri is another Pali word widely present in place names and family names all over Kerala.
The presence of large number of Pali words in current Malayalam and the place names with Pali affixes prove the prolonged contact of Kerala with Pali speaking monks of Buddhism. Apart from linguistic, toponymic and ritualistic relics and residues; architectural, iconographic and textual evidences are also widely available. The black granite idols of the Buddha in Anuradhapura style of Ceylon associated with Teravada recovered from Mavelikara, Karumady (Alapuzha district), Katanam, Kayamkulam (Kollam district), Kottapuram (Thrissur district) and Pattanam (Ernakulam) prove the concrete presence of Buddhism all over Kerala and especially before the 8th century AD as these idols are dated to 6th to 8th centuries AD by researchers.
The presence of Kavus or sacred shrines, Naga worship, Pipal (Bodhi tree) worship, Ketukazhcha or spectacles including horse, bullock, storks and other animal or bird icons are direct iconographic reminiscences of Buddhism and its ancient carnivals in Kerala soil. Brahmanic texts like Keralolpathi boasts about the victory over the Buddhists and their execution, banishment or mutilation. All the recovered idols were unearthed from temple ponds or paddy fields adjacent to current Hindu temples and shows severe marks of mutilation proving violent demolition and dumping or burial. Pattanam excavation has also revealed extensive presence of Indian rouletted-ware or black and red ware, the kind of pottery brought in by Chamana monks. A potsherd with an inscription “Amana” in Tamil Brahmi script representing the Buddhist and Jain monks was also recovered from Pattanam. Numerous Buddha idols that were lying abandoned in margins and marshes were destroyed, stolen or smuggled into the global idol market. Thus the material archaeological evidences substantiate the cultural and linguistic evidences.
Chandramohan: A word of advice for younger researchers and students?
Ajay Sekher: Education as a practice of individual and social emancipation, change and freedom is inextricably linked to ethics. Standing with justice and resisting repressive power centres and cultural hegemony are part of this liberative ethics and transformative educational practice. Development of critical consciousness is key to this educational ethics and democratic politics. We need to critique the traditionalist values and cultural norms in this regard. The erased and subjugated knowledge systems and epistemologies must be ethically rehabilitated into the heart of the pedagogy and research agenda, especially in the humanities in higher academia. This is also a cultural and political emergency as cultural nationalism and fascism are going to take over the country and trying to check knowledge related practices even in the academia.
Chandramohan.S is an English poet based in India. His poems reflect the socio-political struggles of the marginalized, the working class and the nomadic outcasts of the World who are victimized and then forgotten as nations clash and wage relentless war. His work has been profiled in New Asia Writing, Mascara Literary Review and About place journal.Counter-Punch poetry, Thumb Print magazine, The Sentinel etc.