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Beyond the Coherence of Identities: A Reading of Sedal

Dalit writings in Tamil while producing a new collectivity are silent about the power play within the community in terms of gender or sub-caste dynamics. Imaiyam's novel Sedal shows that neither power nor powerlessness is absolute and that there are limits to the powerlessness of the untouchables too. The dalits often oppress the sub-castes which are lower in the hierarchy and even within the dalit communities common suffering does not produce a singular dalit identity.


Beyond the Coherence of Dravidian parties for over half a century, dalit writings have essentially brought to
Identities: A Reading of Sedal light how the so-called homogeneity of the Tamil/Dravidian identity has ren
dered invisible the play of power on the
basis of caste hierarchies. They also ques-
Anandhi S tion the singularity of the opposition be-

Dalit writings in Tamil while producing a new collectivity are silent about the power play within the community in terms of gender or sub-caste dynamics. Imaiyam’s novel Sedal shows that neither power nor powerlessness is absolute and that there are limits to the powerlessness of the untouchables too. The dalits often oppress the sub-castes which are lower in the hierarchy and even within the dalit communities common suffering does not produce a singular dalit identity.

An earlier version of this paper was presented in a seminar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, in September 2001 and at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. I am grateful to the seminar participants for their comments and a special word of thanks to C Lakshmanan who introduced me to Imaiyam and his writings.

Anandhi S ( is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 15, 2011

rguably, the most significant intel lectual and cultural intervention that took place in Tamil Nadu from

the 1990s onwards is the arrival and affir

mation of dalit writings. In their varied

forms such as fiction, poetry, literary criti

cism, translation, and self-writing, dalit

writings have questioned the dominant

common sense about the Tamil past as

well as the present. For instance, the

rereading of the much valorised Tamil

classical literary texts by Raj Gouthaman

has shown us how claims to morality and

ethics found in these texts reproduce up

per caste norms and power (Gouthaman

1997).1 Dalit literary texts such as Bama’s

Karukku have not only questioned the

prevailing notions of what counts as good

literature but have also offered us hitherto

unavailable slices of the everyday lives of

dalits and their upper caste oppressors.2

They have further questioned the hegem

onic modes of writing history with their

upper caste biases and conscious and un

conscious exclusion of dalits and other

subaltern groups. As part of such critique,

writings of dalit intellectuals such as

Iyothee Das have been systematically

compiled, critically introduced, and made

available to the public.3

The arrival of dalit writings as an inde

pendent genre in the Tamil public sphere

has been initially greeted by the literary

establishment with unconcealed hostility.

For example, Tamilselvan, an activist of

the cultural front of the Communist Party

of India (Marxist), advised the dalit

writers, “Give up your pointless howling…

(Instead) produce serious literature.”4

While criticisms such as these signal the

panic about the arrival of new literary

cannons and the subaltern claims over

history, it is indeed true that dalit writings

– both literary and non-literary – have carved out a significant niche for itself in the Tamil public sphere.

Fissuring the homogeneity of the Tamil/ Dravidian identity propagated by the

vol xlvi no 42

tween the brahmin and the non-brahmin advocated by the Dravidian parties by showing the oppression of the dalits by the non-brahmin caste Hindus.5 In the same vein, they critique the claims of nonbrahmin upper caste norms as the cultural ideal of the Tamil society.

While the dalit writings are radically recasting the pre-existing Tamil common sense, they are also constrained by the need to produce a dalit singularity which is dictated by the need to produce a new dalit collectivity. In other words, they are marked by a silence about the power play within the community either in terms of gender or sub-caste dynamics. For instance, M S S Pandian’s reading of Bama’s Karukku notes,

Bama recounts with gusto the stories of women’s indomitable courage and prowess… But all these fleet through the text as if they are mere fragments of a larger story. We are left to imagine the gender relations within the community. Are we to take it as a sign of greater equality between genders within the dalit community? Or is it that Bama deliberately refuses us the story and holds it as a secret in the face of onslaughts on her community? Only she can tell. In making us wait, she is perhaps once again asserting her own will and that of her community.6

Another way of interpreting this reading is to acknowledge the pressure of the community, its need to forge a collective political identity leading to silencing the internal dynamics of power within the community. Voicing the dynamics of power play may be treated as an act of betrayal by the purveyors of the community identity.7 Thus the field of dalit writings in Tamil exists both as a domain of radical possibilities and of critical constraints.

Against this background, the present article analyses a recent novel by Imaiyam entitled Sedal.8 The choice of the novel is informed by the fact that Imaiyam is one of the few dalit writers to venture beyond the claims to the coherence of the dalit or other identities and disclose the dynamics


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october 15, 2011 vol xlvi no 42


of power and powerlessness as based on a vector of identities and as contingent.

Notions of Caste Power

The prevalence of the devadasi system (or the practice of dedicating young girls to Hindu temples) among various nonbrahmin castes and its sexual and economic aspects has been widely written about and discussed in Tamil. Ramamirtham Ammaiyar’s Dasigalin Mosa Valai Allathu Mathipetra Minor (The Treacherous Net of Devadasis or the Minor Grown Wise) published in 1936 is a well-known case in point.9 Also, the Dravidian movement, in particular the Self-Respect Movement led by E V Ramasamy, campaigned vigorously against the system as demeaning to the non-brahmin castes and produced significant literature on the practice.10 Yet the prevalence of the devadasi system among various dalit communities has received hardly any attention in Tamil Nadu.11 Importantly, the chief protagonist in Sedal is Sedal, a young girl belonging to the untouchable Koothadi community, who is dedicated to the local Chelliamman temple. Koothadis perform folk plays and sing funeral songs and are treated as lower in caste status than the Parayars. Based on three years of ethnographic research carried out by Imaiyam and partly based on the life story of the real Sedal, the semifictional work revolves around her life.

The novel opens with the encounters between Nataraja Pillai, the all-powerful caste Hindu Vellala landlord, Ramalinga Iyer, the local brahmin priest, and the members of Sedal’s family. Because of their caste and class location her family members are powerless before Nataraja Pillai. Yet they protest in their own way the decision to dedicate Sedal to the local temple. Despite his caste location and because of his class location, the brahmin temple priest too is powerless before Pillai. He is not only addressed derisively as “Pandaram” and “Aandi”, but also ends up standing in front of the non-brahmin landlord with folded hands and the towel tied around his torso – signs of subordination usually assigned to the so-called untouchables. The brahmin priest and the untouchable Koothadis, despite occupying the two ends of the caste spectrum, cannot go against the dictates of Pillai. In other

Economic & Political Weekly

october 15, 2011

words, Sedal questions received notions of

caste power by producing an uncommon,

though momentary, equivalence between

the brahmin and the dalit. Sedal is dedi

cated to the temple because of Pillai’s be

lief that it will end the prolonged drought

which has devastated the region and the

village and led to the migration of the dal

its to distant places such as Malaysia and

Ceylon. Following the dedication Sedal’s

putative auspiciousness is expected to

bring on the rains.

Sedal is separated from her family against

her will and kept in a hut next to the temple

in the protection of a destitute old lady

belonging to the Parayar caste. The tree

in front of the temple becomes her sole

companion for most of the time. She has to

clean the temple and its premises, light the

temple lamps, and sing not only for the

deity but also in different houses in the

village during life cycle rituals accompa

nying events such as childbirth and death.

She also has to travel to the neighbouring

villages during temple festivals to sing

pallu songs. In return, she is provided with

grains, one measure of which is collected

from each cultivating household. Sedal’s

dedication to the temple does not bring the

rains and her parents migrate to Kandy in

search of employment without her know

ledge. She is left alone and lonely. Without

the rains, she is not given the promised

grains and left to lead a life of misery. But

when the rain eventually comes, it is attri

buted to Sedal’s auspiciousness and she is

celebrated by the entire village. People

bring their ill children to her believing

that her intervention with the goddess

will cure them; and they bring seed grain

to be blessed by her in the hope that it will

result in a bountiful harvest.

The old woman in whose protection

Sedal stays dies even as Sedal attains

puberty. Treated as a polluting agent, she is

denied access to the hut next to the temple.

Driven by poverty, untouchability and loneli

ness, Sedal decides to take her own life. On

the way to the river to drown herself, she

runs into Ponnan, a distant relative who runs

the famous Ponnan Drama Troupe. Ponnan

takes her to his village and eventually Sedal

becomes an accomplished stage dancer and

actress. Given Sedal’s fame as a dancer, the

Ponnan Drama Troupe becomes famous in

the region as the Sedal Drama Troupe.

vol xlvi no 42

Twenty-five years after leaving her village, she decides to return. The village, which has changed dramatically as signalled by the absence of the tree which kept her company after she was dedicated to the temple, is divided over accepting her. The village panchayat finally decides to accept her with a fine and without the promised grain as compensation for her service to the temple. Life moves on in poverty with people close to her either dying or leaving her. Finally, as an ultimate recognition of her talent on the stage, she gets a call from Panchali, a dancer and actress of the previous generation who is bedridden. Panchali is so accomplished that those who are trained by her run no less than 15 drama troupes. She talks to Sedal at length about her times and requests her to train the last of her troupe and ensure its debut.

Sedal returns to the stage. When Ganapathi invites her, she not only accepts but also tells him that she is paid twice the money others are paid from the very day she wore her dancing anklets. Ganapathi agrees to pay.

A Series of Chances

Sedal’s life as narrated by Imaiyam is an example of how subaltern lives take their course by means of a series of chances over which the protagonists do not have much control. Sedal did not have any say in her dedication to the village temple. Her meeting with Ponnan is accidental. It is the absence of an artiste during a performance which forces Ponnan to fall at the feet of Sedal and ask her to substitute as a dancer on the stage. It is this accidental moment which transforms her into a widely travelled and accomplished stage artiste. The call from Panchali is unexpected and ensures Sedal’s return to the stage. Similarly, it is a problem with her back that confines the celebrated Panchali to her bed and forces her to request Sedal’s help with her troupe.

Despite the quality of tragedy wherein the characters do not have much control over the events, the novel,12 through the quotidian transaction among the characters, shows how the situations of lack of control are continually transformed to their advantage, however minimal. Signi ficantly, through these transactions, Imaiyam


shows how everyone, including the dalit sub-castes, use caste, gender and class as means of asserting their power over others. The choice of Sedal, who belongs to one of the lower dalit sub-castes, as the chief protagonist of the novel facilitates Imaiyam in this task. While I explore these aspects of the novel in detail in the subsequent sections, let me give here one instance from the novel to show how these quotidian transactions are structured in it.

Take the case of the relationship between the destitute old woman of the Parayar caste in whose custody Sedal, who belongs to the Koothadi caste, is left after she is dedicated to the Chelliamman temple. Being a destitute and without a family, the old woman’s interest in accepting to take care of Sedal is motivated by her economic insecurity. Since Sedal will be compensated in grain by the villagers for her services to the temples in her own and other villages, it will take care of the old woman’s survival too – if she accepts the custody of Sedal. But Sedal is aware of the old woman’s intention in accepting her. After her parents leave for Kandy, her relatives invite Sedal to live with them. She evades accepting the invitation but uses it as a threat against the older woman’s harassments. Sedal threatens the old woman that she will leave her behind and live with her relatives (Sedal: 47). Here are two women who have no control over their destinies; yet they use the limited resources at their disposal to extract advantages from each other. Let me now turn to how Sedal discloses the contingent uses of gender and caste by the dalit communities in their quotidian transactions to assert power in situations of acute powerlessness.

Limited Upper Castes’ Power

The pervasive upper caste oppression of the dalits is only one aspect of the violence of caste which Sedal captures. As Sedal recalls in one passage in the novel:

Wherever you go to dance, there will always be a difference in dancing in the (Dalit) colony and the upper caste streets. However many days you dance in upper caste streets, they will feed us only in the cattle shed. If we spill butter milk or rasam on the floor, they will scold us telling ‘Look! The Koothadi dogs do not know how to eat’... There will not be any problem for us in the Parayar street. We will be fed each day in one of the houses of the community elders. We will also be al

lowed to sleep in the temple (165-66).

Despite such upper caste oppression, the upper caste men’s desire for Sedal renders them powerless in front of her. The episode where Veeramuthu Udaiyar seeks her intimacy is a telling instance: “Veeramuthu could not speak. To hide his fear in the heart and the trembling in the body, he repeatedly wiped his face and neck with a towel. When Sedal wondered why his eyes were dazed and his eyelashes were fluttering, she began to doubt (his intentions)” (187-88). When Veeramuthu manages to tell her that he visited her because he liked her, Sedal wonders: “What to tell a man whose face is as pale as a chicken thief (who has been caught), whose well-built body is shivering and who is sitting like a woman overcome by shame?” (188). Sedal rejects Veeramuthu’s offer by invoking both her untouchable status and her auspiciousness of being dedicated to the temple of Chelliamman.

While the power of the upper castes seems to be omnipotent, it is in fact not. In front of Sedal, who belongs to the Koothadi community, Veeramuthu, who is an upper caste Udayar and a landlord, stands miserable, drained of his claims to masculinity and power. In other words, even the power of the upper castes cannot be taken for granted and its manifestations are contextual and contingent.

As much as there are limits to the power of the upper castes as Sedal shows us, it also shows us that there are limits to the powerlessness of the untouchables too. Often, this takes the form of the oppression of the dalit sub-castes which are lower in the hierarchy.

Sedal repeatedly shows that the dalits as a whole, independent of their sub-caste divisions are singularly treated by the upper castes as untouchables. The conversation between Sedal and Sengathi in the upper caste street is one of the instances:

Hey! Who is there? It is me, samy. Which street? Parayar street, samy. Can’t you see manusalu [human] is coming. Are you blind? Can’t you step aside a little? (57)

For the upper caste Sengathi, Sedal’s specific caste status as a Koothadi does not matter. She is merely an untouchable like

october 15, 2011

the others. The segregated space of the untouchable settlement, i e, the Parayar street where she lives, is the sign of her status. In other words, whether one is a Parayar or a Koothadi or even a dedicated woman, her suffering at the hands of the upper castes is the same.

But within the dalit communities, this common suffering does not produce a singular dalit identity. Each sub-caste asserts its power by humiliating the subcastes which are considered to be below them. For example, the Parayars address the Koothadis as koothadi Nayi (Koothadi dogs) so as to assert their putative superiority (30). Following her dedication to the temple Sedal’s ritual position in the village is next only to the brahmin priest. She is, as we have seen, a source of auspiciousness and well-being. Yet the dynamics of sub-caste discrimination among the dalits does not spare her.

Though members of different castes come to her to benefit from her perceived auspiciousness, she has to keep a distance from the castes lower than that of the Koothadis. For instance, a Chakkiliyar woman, Nallammal, brings an ill child to Sedal. Sedal prays to the goddesses to return the child to health and applies holy ashes on its forehead. She is overcome with the desire to hold the child but does not dare to do so. If the Parayar children see her holding a Chakkiliyar child, they will tease her by calling her an untouchable Chakkiliyar and ask her to keep away from them. While the Parayar children may only tease her, the grown-ups in the village will abuse her; and the temple priest will tweak her ears and thighs for touching a Chakkiliyar child (80). Similarly, an old woman belonging to the Thombar caste, considered to be lower than the Koothadis, offers Sedal a piece of tapioca to eat. Sedal has not eaten since the morning and is very hungry. But she refuses to accept the tapioca and tells the woman to keep away from her. Once again, it is the anxiety that other children will not accept her as playmates that keeps her away from the woman (84). The pervasive consciousness of caste among the dalit subcastes acquires its intensity in the novel by being portrayed as inhering in children and controlling one’s desire to cross the caste lines even in the context of hunger.

vol xlvi no 42


Each sub-caste also asserts its singularity instead of partaking in a common identity. When the old woman, in whose care Sedal lives dies, there is a suggestion that Sedal should be allowed to light her funeral fire. After all, the old woman does not have any relatives and has spent her last days with Sedal. But Sedal’s relatives object to this suggestion by claiming that “Sedal is a woman and is dedicated to the temple. She belongs to Koothadi caste. How could she set the funeral fire of a Parayar woman?” (103). Though Parayar is considered a superior caste compared to the Koothadis, the latter assert their caste singularity by refusing to light the funeral pyre of a Parayar.

Similarly, gender too, in conjunction with caste, affirms itself in Sedal as a simultaneous source of power and powerlessness and, importantly, not only in the case of the upper castes. In Sedal, upper caste women assert their superiority by resolutely clinging on to their caste identity. While Nataraja Pillai, the Vellala landlord, allows a Christian priest to build a church and a school in the dalit settlement, his wife, Amaravati Aachi, will not accept any allopathic medicine. She rejects it by saying, “Even if I die, I do not need foreign medicine, my caste honour will go (if I consume foreign medicine). Instead I will consume poison” (68). But the assertion of caste-based superiority of the upper caste women over lower caste men and women has its limits as well. For instance, Sedal’s accomplishment as a stage artiste and her beauty is a source of envy for all women, including those from the upper caste:

It is not that others savoured Sedal’s adornment and beauty. She is fond of it, intoxicated by it. She never wanted to lessen it even for a day…All women envy her. They burn with jealousy that they cannot dress up like her. Sedal will behave as if to add to their envy. The days she goes to sing pallu songs, she will dress up like a bride…(146).

Sedal as a source of envy for other women rests on two facets of her identity. Both as a devadasi and as a stage artiste, she can dress and adorn herself the way she wants. These possibilities are denied to so-called “respectable” women. But interestingly, Imaiyam shows that these very same elements of Sedal’s identity work as a limit to her agency as well.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 15, 2011

When Ponnan the stage artiste dies, his

wife Anchalai refuses to allow Sedal to look

at his body. She suspects that Sedal has had

a clandestine relationship with him and

hurls the choicest abuses at her. What dom

inates these abuses is the portrayal of Sedal

as a characterless whore. Sedal, despite her

ability to perform in front of men and wom

en, is voiceless and her humiliation is com

plete (183-86). Such a portrayal of Sedal as

characterless becomes possible precisely

because of her relatively unencumbered

life – outside the monogamy – both as a de

vadasi and as a stage artiste. In short her

source of power in some contexts becomes

the source of her powerlessness in others.

Similarly, in a poignant passage Sedal

thinks of her death:

Sedal suddenly got a doubt. When people died

she has sung songs and danced. She has sung

mourning songs and beaten her breasts…

When she dies, will there be songs? Will they

bury her at the banks of the river or burn her

body in the middle of the river? Will they allot

her a separate place in the burning ghat since

she was dedicated to the temple? Whether

those who are dedicated to temples are burned

or buried?…who will do her death rituals?…

Will they leave her body in the middle of the

road like that of the old woman [who took care

of her] and dispute about what has to be done

to the body?… Tears rolled down from her

eyes. Her body shivered (248-49).

Power and Powerlessness

The significance of Imaiyam’s Sedal lies in the fact that it shows us through a series of quotidian exchanges between different characters, that neither power nor powerlessness is absolute. In the case of both subalterns and the elite, power is pervasive in its manifestations. Everyone – be it the upper caste landlord or the landless Parayar or Sedal herself – tries to use the resources at their disposal, however minimal to their advantage and to humiliate others. Yet such practice of power cannot but be contingent. In different contexts, the very same resources which produce power also produce its limits. (This is, however, not to deny that different forms of power and powerlessness and their consequences need to be differentiated. That is indeed a necessary task.) Through such an account of the play of power in the everyday context, Imaiyam shows that any claim to the coherence of identities cannot but be a fiction.

vol xlvi no 42

Importantly, Imaiyam’s novel departs from the caste narcissism of subaltern communities and opens up the space for the subaltern communities for a selfcritical engagement with notions of power. Its larger message seems to be that critical acts need to also be self-critical.


1 Raj Gowthaman, Aram/Adikaram (Coimbatore: Vidiyal Pathipagam 1997). For a critical reading of the writings of Raj Gowthaman and others, see, M S S Pandian, “Stepping Outside History: New Dalit Writings from Tamil Nadu” in Partha Chatterjee (ed.), Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian Nation-State (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1998.

2 Bama, Karukku (Madurai: Samathuva Sinthanai Aaiyvu Maiyam, 1992). For an account of Karukku, see, M S S Pandian, “On a Dalit Woman’s Testimonio” in Anupama Rao (ed.), Gender and Caste (New Delhi: Kali for Women), 2003.

3 G Aloysius (ed.), Iyotheedasar Cintanaikal, Vols I-III (Palayamkottai: Folklore Resources and Research Centre), 1999.

4 Quoted in V Arasu, “Tamil Sirupathirigai Choolalum Dalit Karuthadalum” in Ravi Kumar (ed.), Dalit Kalai-Illakiyam-Arasiyal (Neyveli: Dalit Kalai Vizha Kuzhu), 1996, p 217.

5 M S S Pandian, Brahmin and the Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2007, pp 233-45.

6 M S S Pandian, “On a Dalit Woman’s Testimonio”, pp 134-35.

7 Following Paul Gilroy’s notion of “Racial Narcissism” which demands a singular way of articulating black identity and resenting debates within the community as betrayal, Pandian calls this as “Caste Narcissism”. See, M S S Pandian, “Caste and Democracy: Three Paradoxes” (unpublished paper presented at the University of Pennsylvania in December 2008).

8 Imaiyam, Sedal (Chennai: Cre-A 2006). Imaiyam’s critically acclaimed first novel, Koveru Kaluthaigal, was published in 1994 by the same publisher.

9 For a discussion of the novel, see Anandhi S, “Representing Devadasis: Daisigal Mosavalai as a Radical Text”, Economic & Political Weekly, Annual Number 1991; for a translation of the novel see, Vasanth Kannabiran and Kalpana Kannabiran,

Web of Deceit: Devadasi Reform in Colonial India

(New Delhi: Kali for Women), 2003.

10 Anandhi S, “The Women’s Question in the Dravidian Movement c 1925-48”, Social Scientist, Vol 19, Nos 5-6, May-June 1991.

11 The prevalence of the devadasi system among the dalits is only recently drawing attention. For a historical account of the system among the dalits in Andhra Pradesh, see Priyadarshini Vijaisri,

Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India (New Delhi: Kanishka Publisher), 2004.

12 For an extended discussion on the genres of romance and tragedy, see David Scott Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press), 2004.

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