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Giving voice to Dalit women’s experiences: The power of Pradnya Daya Pawar’s words

By December 6, 2017No Comments

Source : Firstpost

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 Pradnya Daya Pawar.


The history of Dalit Women’s writing in Maharashtra is rich. It also has the scope to offer new and critical perspectives to the Dalit/Ambedkarite Movement across the globe. Its writers have absorbed the experience of humiliation: in the context of patriarchy, at the hands of men across castes, at the hands of Dalit men who in turn were humiliated by the larger Brahmanical society. What should a person do who, as a victim, stands against the entire caste-structure starting from her home?


This complex web of experiential realities, bleak indeed when Dalit women articulate it, is not immediately accepted and recognised. The reason for this is what poet Edouard Roditi calls “curious high-brow prejudices”. Since its beginning, after the conversions to Buddhism in 1956, Dalit women’s writing in Maharashtra has made itself visible and succeeded in telling the tales which have often been rejected — by Brahminical female agencies who claimed to be feminists as well. When a Dalit woman writes, her claims for her existence in her literature, appear much louder and mightier to our ears. Starting from depicting experiential realities aimed at finding one’s own place and identity in society and reaching the position at which it is being theorised, is a process that needs lots of courage and patience, but more importantly an urge to fight, survive, sustain and grow. Pradnya Daya Pawar’s life is a testimony to this.

Pradnya Daya Pawar, a writer as distinguished as her father Daya Pawar, prefers to be called a poet. However, she has written a play, short story collections, poetry collections and columns. Although all of her works put us in a different settings/perspectives to take another look at what is happening around us, it is her poetry that speaks most profoundly. She belongs to the time when the Dalit/Ambedkarite Movement in Maharashtra had been going through an intense period of proliferation in its social, economical and psychological domains, breaking many conventional methods to assert against upper caste oppression. Dalit literature in Maharashtra had started with a common agreement: breaking the conventional Brahminical narratives. But from its inception to the present, not many people have recognised the transformation it has gone through. It has recently shifted from the macro to the micro level of subjective realities and writings, which are treading new paths to deal with the monster of caste.

For Pradnya Pawar, as she writes:

The process of creating a poem certainly can not be explained by systematic mathematical equations. Despite a poem being a creation, it not one. It is difficult to explain the poem just at the level of logic.  Poetry is the reaction to things around you which make a deep impact on your mind, which shake you from inside, and which make you anxious. I feel, poetry begins at the point when something humiliates you, makes you anxious, and bites you.

You must read her, when she so sharply unravels the history of oppression in India:

All historical evidences of

Identifying a difference between

Vagina and petals of a flower

Are mutilated under a foot

[Translated by Yogesh Maitreya]

These verses are from her long poem, Aarpar Layit Pranantik, on Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar (tamasha artist). In these highly charged and provocative verses, it it also visible that Dalit women’s writing in Maharashtra has managed to interlink the ‘personal’ with the ‘social’ without disrupting the process of material dialectics. Such clarity is exceptionally missing in Brahminical women’s literature in India. Thus, literature at this point also provides us clues about the failure of ‘mainstream/Brahmanical’ feminism to understand Dalit women’s experiences as well as their dubious claims to be allies in Dalit women’s struggles. But a poet like Pawar writes only after gaining sufficient clarity about oppression as well as the roots of it. It is only after reaching these levels of understanding that poetry becomes a weapon. How? Pawar explains thus:

Women who have participated in the struggle of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, were later on kept limited to the home due to narrow-minded politics of men. I have, through my poems, depicted how their spirit to fight and assert, have been frozen. Dimensions of oppression of a woman have been changing according to the time/s. Obviously, the image of Dalit women in my poetry became visible because of such indicative and framed circumstances, I must humbly say this. My surrounding thrushes me to write. Writing becomes a weapon for me. The weapon to arrest a restless at the bottom. It is not that writing can not be done to seek pleasure. But to achieve such position, we need social structure that is happy, not divisive, and maintains equality. Each of my poem has made me uneasy. [sic]

The witty use of the ‘social’ with ‘personal’ and linking all these in the work of art, a poem here, is an ability one rarely achieves. Pawar, however, has already executed this ability in her works. In India, women too are divided along caste lines, hence only the category of gender cannot do justice if the oppression is debated within feminist frameworks borrowed from western institutions.

The historical background to which a poet like Pawar belongs, provides her with a critical eye with which to look at things in India, quite polemically, since what Babasaheb Ambedkar called ‘public law’ works against them. One can claim to understand the circumstances that lead to oppression of Dalit women, but none can dare to say that they can ‘feel’ these. ‘Feeling’ is what she owns; it is hers entirely. But now she has learnt to articulate her feelings, to decorate her feelings with words and has the power of ‘rejecting the rejection’ (as Gopa Guru argues).

Pawar’s journey has been one of many upheavals, both in her social and personal life, and such hardships have only shaped the quality of her prose so that it can stand on its own without any support, just as an individual should. She understands what it means to a woman in this country — a Dalit woman:

 Oh mother! I know

The grotesque tree of agonies of a woman

Drenched in the copious amount of liquor

I know

The customary womanhood of a women

Who had lost her password

[Translated by Yogesh Maitreya]

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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