Namdeo Dhasal and His Irreplaceable Grammar of Social Change 

On the death anniversary of the visionary, a chance to remember the manner in which he challenged socio-political and caste hierarchical structures through revolutionary writings.

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The anti-caste school of thought is born from and evolves around rejuvenating humanism.

The radical anti-caste movement and its philosophy has greatly influenced other social movements in various ways. The Dalit Panther Movement (DPM) is the most popular, among others. This movement and its members not only contributed in fundamentally altering the cultural and literary space of resistance but it also instilled a great sense of confidence among the anti-caste generations born after the 1970s. Its revolutionary character and methods of fighting for justice continue to motivate millions of Dalits even today. 

This year on May 19, we will be celebrating 50 years of DPM. At the same time, January 15 is marked as the death anniversary of a co-founder of Dalit Panther, Padma Shri Namdeo Dhasal. No one can deny the fact that Dhasal has had an irreplaceable influence on many generations in articulating or attaining socio-political and literary consciousness. 

One can see that the political sphere at present is captured by self-interest and self-centredness. However, leaders and radical activists like Namdeo Dhasal have challenged socio-political caste hierarchical structures through revolutionary writings. His words are about centuries-old history of caste-ridden society. According to Dhasal, his poetry is influenced by the traditional theatre, tamasha and anti-caste thought of Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Along with these, Dhasal was also influenced by thought of Ram Manohar Lohiya. In totality, Dhasal was influenced by Ambedkarite and socialist thinking. 

Also read: Namdeo Dhasal and Poems of the Streets

Looking at his everyday experiences, Dhasal says that untouchability is so embedded in village society that it follows even after coming to the city. Dhasal’s life was full of suffering; from his childhood experiences with caste discrimination to those as a taxi driver as an adult, privileged society did not given him a life of respect. His life itself was the school and his experiences the syllabus which he constructed in calling for a social struggle for change. 

Dhasal imagined the role of sex workers and transgender people as radical activists and considered them capable of fighting their battle.

J.V. Pawar informed me of an incident from 1971 when Dhasal had even organised a ‘morcha’ of people involved in sex work and transgender people – both groups were invisible in the political realm – from Kamathipura towards Chaityabhumi. If one who knows about structural social reality thinks about this action symbolically and pragmatically, this is a journey from dirt to self respect.  

In his interview with Nikhil Wagle on IBM Lokmat, Dhasal mentions he used to write ghazals but had to abandon it as he did not find any relational reasoning within the everyday lived experiences he or his community had. It is said that Dhasal gave new fame to the Marathi language, but one has to go beyond this limited acknowledgement. From his Golpitha (1973) emerges the shocking social realities of Mumbai. Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi, Tuhi Iyatta? (‘What Grade Are You In, What Grade?’, 1981), along with his other anthologies of poems, several prose pieces and one novel gave a new vocabulary and new grammar to the Marathi language. By riding over established Brahmanical Marathi, Dhasal through his poetry offered critical theory for a critical society. 

In his poem “Kamathipura” compiled in the collection Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi, Tuhi Iyatta? he writes: 

गोड किंवा खारट
विषाची चव घेण्यास जुंपल्यात इथं रांगा.
शब्दासारखे इथे मरणदेखील आले आहे भरून
बस्स, थोड्या वेळात इथे सरी कोसळू लागतील”. 

(sweet or salty
there are queues here in competition to taste poison
unlike words death has also come as blocked up
enough, in a sometime there will be heavy showers) [rough translation by author].

This above stanza depicts the life and social relations in Kamathipura, a area where a number of people come to see sex workers. In the crowd, nobody will be visible. This is a story of every red light area and its narratives that have mostly remained invisible to society at large. 

Through his social and political commitment, Dhasal introduced a new world to mainstream literary culture. Although there are few works available around Dhasal’s poetry, they have remained limited to anger, body and the city. There is no in-depth study available which explores the critical pedagogy that Dhasal has formed through his experiences and writings. This critical pedagogy of Dhasal is poetical, political and socio-culturally rooted in humanism and the necessity for dismantling structural inequalities.  

Prashant Ingole is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.