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A theory for Dalit literature: The importance of Sharankumar Limbale’s writings

By November 21, 2017No Comments

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Editor’s note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits.

It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. It marked a resurrection of their experiential world, which had been appropriated by the pens of Savarnas.

Poems, stories, novels, biographies, autobiographies produced by Dalits established a new body of literature in which, for the first time, the downtrodden took centrestage. People who had been denied what humanity considers the ‘basics’, started to transform the lives of others like them, through the written word.

As this movement of literary assertion by Dalits grew stronger, the unseen side of India — the side that is brutal and inhumane — became visible to the world. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives. Almost all of the writers who shaped the early theoretical discourse of Dalit literature were from Maharashtra and in this series, we revisit the lives and works of 10 distinguished Dalit writers from the state — and their impact on the literary world.

In this column, we look at the literary legacy of Sharankumar Limbale. 


On tracing the history of literary criticism in India, you’ll find that the written literature of India — in the vernacular as well as English languages — has been shaped by the experiential canvas of domination. What this means is — Brahmins wrote and critically looked at other Savarnas’ works.

Literature, being the unspoken turf of the Savanas, over which their domination was unchallenged, had never been able to produce works that could grasp the culture, music or art that belonged to the community of people who they had made ‘untouchables’. When Dalit literature appeared first, it was despised, rejected as a ‘literature’ itself. However, Dalit (read: Ambedkarite) writers have understood the need to theorise the literature they have been writing. What impelled them to theorise their literature? Didn’t their literature already have a theory? And how did each contributor build this theory with his/her own interpretations, largely shaped by the experiential world they shared with the consciousness of their community?


Baburao Bagul’s work, Dalit Sahityache Krantivigyan (roughly translates as ‘Revolutionary Science of Dalit Literature’) was one of the first and brilliant attempts to provide theory to Dalit literature. Being his predecessor in this domain of theory making, Sharankumar Limbale broadened the scope of such attempts. Born in 1956 in Maharashtra, Limbale’s life was not easy. If one happens to read his autobiographical book, Akkarmashi (meaning ‘Outcast’) one feels discomforted, and of course, one might even not like it for its stark depiction of Limbale’s life. It also separates itself from the experiential perceptive world of readers whose reading tastes were nurtured by the literature of Savarnas.

Limbale’s Akkarmashi is undoubtedly a seminal book in its own right. However, Limbale’s biggest contribution to Dalit literature is his book, Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature. NS Phadke, a Brahmin writer and critic of Dalit literature, said: ‘The kinds of contexts and events that are needed to add colour to a novel are not found in Dalits’ lives’. Of course, the ignorance of writers like Phadke towards Dalit literature stems from their historical blindness towards Dalit lives — which they could never connect with, at an empirical or theoretical level.

Sartre once said: “The literary object is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last.” Since the nature of the caste system prohibits Brahmins from reading the Dalits’ lives in entirety, Brahminical critiques of Dalit literature are not only invalid but also oppressive. They come out of ignorance, as well as a strong urge to negate the existence of Dalits.

When explaining the underlying faults of Phadke’s writing, Limbale explained, “Phadke finds it difficult to build this structure from the hut of the untouchables, but Arun Sadhu, Jaywant Dalvi, and Madhu Mangesh Karnik, [all are Savarna writers, emphasis is this columnist’s] have written novels on Dalit life. Dalit writers have published numerous novels. Because of his formalistic perspective, Phadke cannot see events and contexts in the lives of Dalits as worthy of gripping fiction.”

Limbale’s critique and his theoretical formulation about the ignorance of Brahminical agency sounds mature since it was formulated at a time when Dalit literature had achieved a significant status, especially outside India and was being given serious thought by scholars overseas. Nevertheless, it is a triumph of Dalit writers like Limbale, who wrote fervently — across genres — to reclaim their personhood, to assert their humanity. The works of Dalit writers were the bricks that built the wall of theory around Dalit literature. In this view, Limbale’s contribution to Dalit literature is immense.

Limbal has written more than 40 books. Akkarmashi and Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature provides the context of Dalit literature, taking reference from Black, Marxist and Russian literature and illustrating the trajectories of experiences needed in order for something to be take shape as a piece of art. And to understand why Brahminical writers in India did not give a due attention to Dalit literature, we must reflect on what Limble says: “A considerable proportion of Savarna critiques of Dalit literature suffer from shallowness. Also, there is a distinct tendency to expose the instances of one-sided, monotonous and sub-standard writing and publishing found in Dalit literature. There is also an attempt in Savarna critique to sever the Dalit writers’ links with tradition and culture. And, finally, there is a total absence of sociological literary yardsticks. All these limitations point to the need for a Dalit literary criticism”.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet and translator. He is the founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a Phd at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


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