Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Not a Literature of Lament: An Analysis of Emerging Themes and Trends in Tamil Dalit Literature

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Not a Literature of Lament: An Analysis of Emerging Themes and Trends in Tamil Dalit Literature

Article excerpt

The emergence of Tamil Dalit literature in the 1990s as a distinct literary form has led to a corpus of novels, short stories, poems and autobiographies. The general impetus in these writings is to reflect on the marginalized existence of Dalits. However, Dalit literature is more than a literature of lament and frustration. Though the theme of Dalit victimhood was dominant in Tamil Dalit literature in the 1990s, in recent years writers like N D Rajkumar, Sugirtharani, Soe Dharmam and K A Gunasekaran have produced works which have made a remarkable shift in the canon of Dalit literature (Azhagarasan, 2008, p. xxii). The number of Tamil Dalit writers and their literary output has increased sporadically in recent years. Though pain and suffering continues to be one of the dominant themes in Tamil Dalit literature, there are narratives which have explored diverse themes. However, with the exception of the literary works of writers like Bama, Imayam and Sivakami, the English translations of the works of other (Tamil Dalit) writers are very rarely available. Focusing on Tamil Dalit literary works that have departed from the formulaic themes, this paper argues that Dalit literary works are neither formulaic nor mere narratives of victimization. Rather, the prioritization of translating and publishing Dalit narratives of victimhood into English has led to typecasting Tamil Dalit Literature as 'tales of suffering'.

Are Tamil Dalit literary works merely "narratives of suffering"? Dalit writers consider their literary works as a movement of social liberation. Tamil Dalit writer Raj Gautaman points out that the decade-old Tamil Dalit literature has two important social functions. As a literature waging an ideological battle against casteism, it enables Dalits to realize their subjugation in the past instilling an awareness in them and the confidence to fight for equality and human rights. They no longer consider themselves inferior to the members of the other caste and feel in fact, equal. It has instilled in Dalits a confidence and pride in their existence (quoted in Holmstrom, 2005, p. xiii).

As a counter-movement against dominant discourses, Tamil Dalit literature provides a space for the assertion of Dalit identity and selfhood. The various contexts and heterogeneous experiences of Dalit communities make Dalit literary works a rich source of Dalit culture, tradition and language. It should be pointed out that though caste oppression or discrimination is a common element in most Tamil Dalit literary works, their contexts are different and range from Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit to Tamil Dalit Christian communities. Further, Tamil Dalit literature functions as protest literature, which opposes the hegemony of the dominant mainstream literatures. Heterogeneous Dalit cultures have resulted in multifarious plots and characters in some Tamil Dalit literary works.


Dalit literature in Tamil is considered to be a recent phenomenon. However, Dalit literary writing has existed (as Adi Dravida literature) in the 1930s. V V Murugesa Bhagavathar's Adi Dravida Samuga Seerthirutha Geethangal (1931) is regarded as one of the early works in Tamil Dalit literature (Arasu, 2004, p. 146; and Sajan, 2004, p. 25). This collection of poems highlights the caste discrimination and practices of untouchability prevalent in that period. The poet writes, "Most of our men, women and children are illiterates and fall prey to the manipulations of the upper castes and suffer endless exploitation. ... This book seeks to bring an awareness of our deplorable conditions and to instill in our youngsters a sense of unity, motivation and rejuvenation ..."(Translation mine. Bhagavathar, 1931, p. vxiii).

The poems in this collection bring to light the menial living conditions of Adi Dravidars1 and motivate them to work towards liberation. In the poem "Jathi Kodumai" ("Evils of Caste"), the poet condemns the prejudices of Caste Hindus who praise the devotion of Nandanar2 and nevertheless deny Adi Dravidars entry into Hindu temples. …

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