Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Dalit among Dalits - the Angst of Tamil Dalit Women

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Dalit among Dalits - the Angst of Tamil Dalit Women

Article excerpt

THE CASTE SYSTEM IN INDIA HAS SEGREGATED THOUSANDS OF DALITS* from mainstream culture to a subhuman and debased existence. In the 1930s, Ambedkar spearheaded a Dalit liberation movement in Maharashtra. Dalits articulated their dissent against the dominant ideology not only on social and political platforms but also through literary forms. Literature became an effective tool to express their protest and anguish at the domination of the Caste Hindus.2 Dalit literature not only reveals the angst of being a Dalit in a caste-driven society, but it simultaneously registers a revolutionary discourse that challenges the hegemonic caste structures of society. For Dalits, literature has become a site for asserting resistance and affirming a distinct Dalit consciousness and sensibility. The burgeoning of Dalit literature began in the 1950s and 1960s in Maharashtra. In less than two decades, the literary movement spread to other languages such as Gujarati, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil.

Contemporary Tamil Dalit Literature

In Tamil, Dalit literature is a recent phenomenon. It was only in the 1990s that it became a significant presence in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Dalit literature has a specific history that sets it apart from Marathi Dalit literature. While the latter owed its emergence mainly to the liberation movement spearheaded by Ambedkar, Dalit writers in Tamil Nadu were equally influenced by the thinking of E.V. Ramasami Naicker (popularly known as Periyar). Tamil Dalit writing also has a major influence in the Self-Respect movement3 started by Periyar, who championed the cause of the under-privileged through his anti-caste and anti-religious propaganda.

As a genre, Tamil Dalit literature marked its identity on the literary map in the 1990s. However, recent studies reveal that Dalit consciousness and sensibility in Tamil Nadu pre-dated Ambedkar' s struggle against caste oppression in Maharashtra. Ambedkar' s disillusionment with Hinduism and subsequent conversion to Buddhism was preceded well ahead of his times by Dalit intellectuals in Tamil Nadu in the late-nineteenth century. Scholars like Geetha and Rajadurai point out that Tamil Dalit writing existed as early as the 1890S.4 The struggle for Dalit liberation began in Tamil Nadu under the leadership of Iyothee Das Pandithar, who founded the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1881 and was propagating Buddhism in Tamil Nadu long before Ambedkar. In 1907 he started the weekly journals Oru paisa Tamilan and Tamilan, which espoused the cause of Dalits, who were then referred to as a 'Depressed Class' and later, in the 1930s, as 'Adi Dravidars'. However, a distinct Dalit politics and sensibility, cultivated by Panchamar5 intellectuals such as Iyothee Das Pandithar in the early decades of the nineteenth century, failed to sustain its drive in the middle years. Their alignment with the Self-Respect and later with the Marxist movements in the mid-nineteenth century suppressed their distinct voices. The later failure of the Dravidian movement and the Communist party to grapple with the specific problems of Adi Dravidars (present-day Dalits) led to the formation of distinct political and social organizations. Thus, in the 1990s, Adi Dravidars achieved a specific social, political, and literary identity.

The term 'Dalit' itself gained popularity in Tamil Nadu only in the 1890s. Before that, up to the 1880s, Dalits were referred to by the Tamil equivalent taazhtapattor (those who have been put down) or odukkapattor (the oppressed) or Adi Dravidars. As a genre, Tamil Dalit literature became widespread after the 1994 centenary of Ambedkar' s birth. These nation-wide celebrations were a driving force among Tamil Dalits, bringing to the fore Ambedkar' s ideals and thoughts. Exposure to his writings was a great inspiration and led to a distinct Dalit political and literary movement in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s. Since then there has been a rich production of Dalit literature in several genres - novels, short stories, poetry, and autobiography. …

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