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Towards a Theory of Dalit Literature

Yogesh Maitreya ( is a poet and translator. He is a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, studying the history of Ambedkarite shahiri in Maharashtra.

The historic works of three writers offer a theoretical framework through which to view  Dalit literature in India. 

The meaning Dalit literature acquires must be seen through the prism of the “historical silence” of its writers and their previous generations. This historical silence, when manifested through words, Dalit literature being its embodiment, emerged through theoretical frameworks. To understand Dalit literature in its profundity, it becomes necessary for us to pay keen attention not only to what Dalit writers have been writing, but also to the writers who have argued about the existence of a theory of Dalit literature, which has hardly gained any recognition among literary critics in India and abroad.

Three writers from Maharashtra, Baburao Bagul, Sharad Patil, and Sharankumar Limbale, have helped construct a theory of Dalit literature. Bagul’s 1981 work, Dalit Saahitya: Aajche Krantividnyan (Dalit Literature: Today’s Science of Revolution), Patil’s 1988 work, Abrahmani Sahityanche Saundaryashastra (Aesthetics of non-Brahminical Literature), and Limbale’s Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature (2004) are three major works that argued the case for a theory of Dalit literature.

Bagul was acclaimed as a short story writer. However, he was also a poet, novelist, and a literary critic. According to Marathi literary critic Krushna Kirvale, “at the centre of his artifact [literature], there is a reference of philosophy (‘tyancha kalakrutichya kendrasathni tatvadhyanacha sandarbh hota’).” His book, Dalit Saahitya: Aajche Krantividnyan, showcases his idea of a theory from which Dalit literature has emerged. The experience of untouchability, as suggested in his book, is an important part of Dalit literature. This means, experience is a part of Dalit literature. This has been elucidated further in his book, where he has rejected the discriminatory categorisation of literature. He has elaborated on how Dalit literature is nothing but a literature of human beings. By which he means that it has been created by those who were rejected as human beings in caste-society and have now regained their humanity in the form of Dalit literature.

Patil was commonly hailed as the proponent of the Marx–Phule–Ambedkar school of thought. As a student of the fine arts in his youth, and later as someone engaged with the communist movement and then in the anti-caste movement, his research methodology was that of an erudite scholar of history, art, aesthetics, and politics. With substantial knowledge of Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, his elaboration of a subject was always supplemented by references—of history and mythology—and his agenda was to identify the problems of caste-society. In his remarkable work, Abrahmani Sahityanche Saundaryashastra, he made an original argument about the causality between the Buddhist conversions of 1956 and the emergence of Dalit literature. In this book, he proposes that the emergence and development of Dalit literature is linked with the event of the Buddhist conversion of B R Ambedkar and his followers in 1956. Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal once said,

conversion to Buddhism … freed the scheduled castes from mental and psychological enslavement … religion [is] an attraction for the common man and it was not easy to change his attitude toward it … [The Buddhists have] liberated themselves from old ideas of karma and destiny and from worship of Hindu gods. To the extent this facilitated their adopting rational attitudes to their condition in society, the chances of their actively striving to change their conditions were better.

It explains that Buddhist conversions in Maharashtra at the mass level led to the creation of Dalit literature as it has created a “reader” at the mass level and an anti-caste, non-Brahminical literary conscience. To elaborate the formation of a literary conscience among Dalits, he sheds light on the historical linkages between the religion of the dominants (Brahmins/Brahminism) and the religion which has a history of fighting against the caste system (Buddhism). The Buddhist conversions of 1956 signalled the need to break the oppressive caste system to attain enlightenment; the beginning of rationality and logic, and wisdom and compassion, in a society. These seem to have been the essential guiding principles in the formation of Dalit literature. In this sense, Dalit literature helps people understand human society with rationality, logic, love, compassion, and, more importantly, wisdom, and not mere knowledge. Subsequently, Dalit literature helps build the imagination for an equal, just, and fraternal society. The core argument in the context of literature, in his book, is a thoughtful question: Is Dalit literature possible without Buddhist conversion?

Limbale, with the publication of his autobiography, Akkarmashi, in 1984, widened the boundaries of Dalit literature, and of the literary world itself. In it, life and its rejection in caste-society was explained through the lens of a protagonist who does not fully belong to one caste. A reading of his remarkable autobiography suggests that Dalit literature is not a “desire” to imagine, but a “need” to imagine casteless life that derives from the understanding of a man and nature; of a man and his immediate ecology. However, his significant contribution to the theory of Dalit literature came with the publication of his book, Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature. The book handled the question of literature and ideologies, literature and experiences, and literature and aesthetics. The arguments in this book suggest that Dalit literature rejected the literary sources behind Brahminical aesthetics because they were not mere texts, but had transformed into norms which manufactured inequality and discrimination in society. Dalit literature tends to create the imagination of egalitarian society by also portraying the cruelties of caste(s) in its narratives because truth or fact cannot be omitted from the process of imagination. Hence, it is essential for Dalit literature to repair the imaginative faculties of society because, as the book suggests, imagination has no existence without society. Therefore, the purpose of Dalit literature is not just to create art but to bring mental liberation through art for the creation of Prabuddha Bharath [Enlightened India].

A close reading of Bagul, Patil, and Limbale leads us towards a theory of Dalit literature. The commonality between their arguments about Dalit literature and its emergence includes personal experience, revival of Buddhism, and the rejection of Brahminical aesthetics. Their arguments are also shaped by the combination of three thinkers and philosophers, namely, Karl Marx, Mahatma Phule, and B R Ambedkar. The arguments made by these authors are just a beginning towards the understanding of the theory of Dalit literature.


Updated On : 2nd Jan, 2019


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