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Dalit literature in Maharashtra owes much to Arun Kale: What his verses revealed about caste

By November 27, 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 Arun Kale.


The problem with a discourse on aesthetics and dialectics in India, is that it is perceived from the dominant location, specifically from the Brahminical lens. The lives of Dalits — especially Ambedkarites — in Maharashtra over the past six decades, have witnessed a huge paradigm shift. Since the language of Dalits’ experiences, of humiliation and discrimination, did not and can not be shared by the Brahminical agencies sitting atop all cultural and literary thrones, it is impossible for them to define the aesthetics and dialectics of the lives of Dalits. Hence, we need poet like Arun Kale, to guide us through the richness of the Dalit struggle to put a human being at the centre of the discourse over dialectics and aesthetics in India.

Arun Kale

Born in Nashik, Arun Kale has written three poetry collections — Rockgarden (1993), Sairanche Shahar (1997), Nantar Aalele Lok (2006). All of his poetry anthologies were well received and grabbed many prestigious awards, were reprinted over several editions, and translated into many languages. Having undergone his political tutelage during the time of the Dalit Panthers, Kale, however, mastered a different tone for his poems. He could see the tragedy as well as strength of a Dalit activist at the same time. For instance, he says:

Home is in the slum area
The roof gets piping-hot in the summer
Water leaks through in the monsoon
In the winter, the cold wind pokes
I am troubled by gutter and mosquitoes!
But where they are not?
The home belongs to me
Saheb, because your struggle and grace
I am very much in delight   

(Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)

We often do not find such a balance of two opposite situations; it takes courage to appreciate life amid the struggle which a poet like Kale lived through. Dalit poetry is accused of colouring the negatives of life, by Brahminical literary pundits. But since these pundits lack the language for articulating/understanding the experiences of Dalits, they make fallacious assumptions.

To see the truth, we need people like Baburao Bagul — who, as a writer, was restlessly engaged with the everyday experiences of Dalits. About Kale’s poems, Bagul said, “Arun Kale’s poetry is immensely filled with context. It gives the pleasure of recurrence of truth. It can fight for itself on any level of literature. Ambedkarite poetry… is in an eternal bond with the movement that demand the blissful ideals in life. This ideal does not hover in dream. Ideals such as ‘Buddhist India’, ‘State Socialism’, and ‘Shikaa, Sanghatit Hwaa, Sangharsh Kara’ have been sowed in this soil by Babasaheb. Arun Kale’s poetry is the prosperous farm in this tradition of Dalit poetry”.

What is propagated in India as poetry is suffering from the fractured and dubious perceptions shaped by the quest of domination. Except Dalit writers, no one had ever dared to seek truth and a place for a human being in the domain of literature. Arun Kale, therefore, is a complete antithesis to the entire tradition of Brahminical literature. Kale seeks an identity and a place for a man in literature when he says:

You can construct ivory towers
Piled with your identity
But please keep in mind
That there an identity
To Maharwada, Mangwada
As well as broken wada

(Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)

Literature, when it is seen in an isolation, appears to us the world in itself. But when it is compared (to other factors), the meaning of the same world is multiplied for us. Today, without reading Dalit writers, it is impossible to know India because, as Baburao Bagul says, “In the society of castes, a man is always in a state of war. He cannot see the person who is not from his caste as his brother or a friend. And if the person from the other caste is not in a position of power, then that person appears to him alien”.

Inheriting the past in which their human-ness was ripped off, Kale, as a poet, succinctly elaborates the conspiracy in which such a horrendous act could take place in a casteist society, writing:

The people who came later were herdman earlier
They were pirates and robbers
They were businessmen
They were aggressive gangsters
They became owner, kings and priests

They discovered continents, countries
They discovered  planets and stars
They named those after their fathers,
The people who came later
Did not discover a man

(Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)

Such is the ideological standpoint from which Kale looks at the history of migration, domination, subjugation, appropriation and humiliation. Since he does not see a discovery of a man by these migrant-oppressors, dialectics in his poems take a profound shape in which he challenges the idea of modernity as per which man, is being adjusted according to the material external-ities. Hence, being a reader, one has to provide an unshakable attention to the narratives of Dalit writers — that is, if one wants to understand the discourse of dialectics and aesthetics that Dalits (Ambedkarites) have created through their struggle and pens.

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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