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Building Bridges

Being Dalit as a Bangla Writer

Tirthankar Chanda is a playwright and writer based in Kolkata. Rounak Ray (rayrounak@gmail.com) is also a writer based in Kolkata.

Being Dalit is not an appendage to the identity of being a writer in Bangla. A community that has being marginalised historically needs to contextualise their identity in forms that can subvert privileged notions of belonging and solidarity. 

This is a transcreation of a Bangla essay written by Tirthankar Chanda in the Volume 4, No 1 Issue of Chetana Lahar. The original Bangla essay is attached as a pdf. 

The pertinence of this discussion started taking shape after I attended a book release in Kolkata. The book in question was written by a Dalit author.

My questions started brewing up after a revered singer-songwriter, who was invited at the book release function, said something before he started singing for us during the event. He asked if it was necessary that a writer be judged on the basis of his/her community identity—a Dalit writer or a woman writer. Creativity itself should be the sole marker for an artist, he said. According to him, there is only good writing and bad writing. Are we not looking at the writer with pity by using attributes like Dalit, subaltern or marginalised?

I believe that the world of arts and letters cannot be segregated into neat categories of “good” and “bad.” There are large swathes of grey areas.  Moreover, it is only the privileged who can determine quality in the arts, by exercising their right of expression. In the ancient period, it was a norm to place a stick at the middle or the side of the stage when Sanskrit dramas were enacted. The stick was supposed to discipline the non-Aryans or Adivasis who, according to the pandits, would create ruckus out of boredom for not being able to decode the gentility of Sanskrit dramas.

What I am trying to say is, those forms of art may not appeal to some viewers or viewers of certain social groups. A large number of viewers are cultural outcasts when it comes to performances whose target audience is the elite. The cultural practices of the marginal sub-cultural groups are often interpreted as unrefined and vulgar by the privileged. It is laughable that the bhadrolok sometimes claim that the lifestyle of marginalised groups is not very different from their own. Sanskritir Bhaanga Setu (Broken Bridge of Culture) by Akhtarujjoman Ilias is an excellent book on this subject.

However we need to evaluate what prompted the singer-songwriter to advocate eschewing one of the multiple identities of the author—Dalit, homosexual or transgender. It is not enough to critique the categories of good and bad literature alone.

Systemic Issues

Let us delve into the topic from another viewpoint. It is needless to say that if a physically disabled person has climbed the Mt Everest, then it will evoke more respect for the mountaineer than a non-disabled person. Other than overcoming the obstacles of the Himalayas, the mountaineer has also conquered one’s own embodied disabilities. However an individual feat should not be used to dismantle the larger struggle for the rights of disabled persons. Urgent interventions are required to improve access of disabled persons to not only professional environments, but also public spaces and the struggle for these rights cannot be determined by one individual’s heroic feat.

We can draw an analogy to the Dalit writer here. The powerful section of society and the ways in which power operate oppress not only Dalits, but also all other discriminated sections. Those who are used to the upper caste privileges cannot understand the indignity and insult of everyday life faced by a discriminated person. Sandip Bandyopadhyay has given an excellent instance in the book Doliter Aakhyanbritto (Narratives of Dalits) published by Mrittika. In the book, a certain teacher believing in “social-progress” says, “Oil and water has got mixed. Students are coming from the families of Santhals-Bauris-Khoyars (of the many, these three are the discriminated communities of West Bengal). How come their marks can be good? Do they have any culture in their families?” (p184)

It is so absurd to see that the teacher can forget the duty of educating the students for which teachers get a handful payment every month. Teachers like these are potential stumbling blocks to the empowerment of students belonging to subaltern communities. We may light candles after the death of Chuni Kotal, but we do not give heed to thousands of Chuni Kotals every day and every hour. We are dumb to this daily phenomenon. Our silence is violent, and often it ends up subjugating the weak and emboldening the powerful.

Violence and subjugation, like in the case of disabled persons, is systemic and not an everyday spectacle. It is manifested in the everyday actions of people and institutions, and that is what makes it so pervasive and entrenched in society.

Only a Dalit writer knows about the hurdles one has to overcome for being a writer. But it does not mean that just because a certain artist (or writer) is Dalit or of any marginal community, their work should be regarded as excellent. The evaluation of the works of a subaltern artist calls for a two-fold process of nurturing. Firstly, when we will talk about the works of these artists, we have to unfailingly remind ourselves the unspeakable episodes of indignity faced by them in their daily life. Secondly we should strive to bring to the public eye the works of subaltern persons. Any discriminated person has the inalienable right to be a part of the artistic realm not just as Dalit, transgender or Adivasi, but also as a maker in oneself.  

Celebrating Maghai Ojha

I will end this essay by citing an incident that involved the famous Assamese percussionist Maghai Ojha (or Oja). Ojha was invited as a percussionist in the initial state level conference of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Assam. Ojhas, as a community were called for playing percussion in any ceremonies of upper caste people.  After the ceremony was complete, Ojhas were fed at the backyard in the cowshed. The food was thrown to them in a spread banana leaf from a distance—such was the level of discrimination meted out.

Balraj Sahni was so moved by Ojha’s performance that he took the latter on his shoulders and walked through the whole of Guwahati in the rally next day. Years later, when an academy of instrumental music is set up near Jorehat in the name of Maghai Ojha one can say that the process bringing the Dalit voice to the public eye has just started. Bangla literature needs to reinvigorate the same process.

Translator’s Notes

The Kannadigas, Malayalis, Marathis, Tamils and Telugus are much receptive to the idea of subaltern writing, in this case, Dalit writing than Bengalis. This translation is made with the view that Bengalis are beginning to acknowledge Dalit writing.

A squirrel moves from one household to the other defying the walls between them. We also have to proactively take up the project of the cultural bridge between Dalit writing and writing from other discriminated communities.

Supporting Document: 

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