Namdeo Dhasal is arguably one of the most significant Indian poets of the late 20th century. His work not only captures what freedom, democracy and modernity meant for the average Indian in the decades after Independence—experiences, no doubt, fraught with contradictions—but it also displays brilliant poetic innovation. This essay attempts to situate Dhasal in the tradition of Marathi poetry and assess his artistic vision and extraordinary contribution.
The evolution of Marathi poetry
In order to understand of the evolution of Marathi poetry, it is critical to move beyond the restrictive understanding of literature as a written or printed object, which is integral to the colonial idea of literature. Poetry in India has always implied performance, music, retelling and improvisation as well as transmissions through oral traditions. It is constituted by intensive inter-medial, cross-lingual and cross-cultural intercourse, in short, by translational activity.
Most often, translation is seen as a process operating between languages. However, as Juri Lotman (1990) has pointed out, translation can also take place across diverse sign systems in a ‘semiosphere’ or the totality of sign systems. Thus, translation takes place from one sign system into another relatively incompatible one, across boundaries and asymmetries, and operates due to the tension between these sign systems. It is the mechanism that underlies creative innovation.
Lotman’s theoretical framework has the potential of cutting through the restrictive idea of literature as a static printed object and bringing within its realm the visual, musical and performative expressions of culture. This makes it very valuable for the analysis of Indian cultural practices in general and Dhasal’s poems in particular.
From this perspective the works of Marathi poets like Mukteshwar, Dnyaneshwar, the Varkaris and the poets of the Mahanubhava sect, which are late medieval (13th–18th century) retellings of and commentaries on classical Sanskrit narratives in the language of the non-literate masses who had no access to Sanskrit, can be conceptualised as translations across asymmetrical and hierarchic languages and as creative innovations. The Marathi into which these manuscripts were translated used primarily folk, oral and performative meters and styles thus making these elite texts accessible to common people.
After the 14th century, Persian and Arabic words and idioms entered the language of Marathi poetry during the rule of the Sultans and as a consequence, altered the nature of the Marathi semiosphere. Later, in the 18th century, there was a revival of Sanskritised poetics under the Brahmin Peshwa rulers. The Brahminism of the ‘core’ of Marathi literature and culture was strengthened during this period. (The semiosphere is divided into the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’, and the core generates self-descriptions of who ‘we’ are and the boundary that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’.)
The language of modern Marathi poetry and literature was born in the late 19th century with the advent of colonial education and print capitalism due to which texts from English literature (e.g., Palgrave’s Golden Treasury) were translated into the Marathi of the time, producing a new hybrid idiom. This became the language of self-description of many significant modern Marathi writers and their self-descriptions often were nationalistic, romantic and based on an Orientalist glorification of the upper-caste past.
In the mid-1940s, with the poetry of B.S. Mardhekar (1909-1956), a modernist idiom exploded on Marathi scene. This idiom was influenced by the language of Euro-American avant-gardes like surrealism, imagism and so on. It challenged the nationalistic and romantic self-description of Marathi poetry with depictions of the dark world of urban squalour, explicit sexuality and despair. And significantly, it questioned the lyrical sentimentality of Marathi culture’s ‘core’ poetics, which has dominated modern Marathi poetry.
It is in the space opened up by Mardhekar’s radical poetics that, from 1955–75, the little magazine movement’s non-conformist, urban, sexually explicit and politically-charged writing practices, including Dalit literature, could develop. However, this intervention was as much elite, savarna (upper caste) and masculinist as the pre-modernist poetry of the 19th century. For a long time in the Marathi semiosphere, as in other semiospheres in India, the core has been monopolised by an elite minority, and its savarna, upper- and middle-class, patriarchal and heteronormative languages and idealised cultural spaces have defined what culture is and ‘who we are’. The core has also generated hegemonic notions of ‘what reality is’ or ‘the world picture’.
Dalit literature in general and Dhasal’s poems in particular embody this asymmetry of the core and the periphery—the ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’—and question the nature of the Marathi world picture and the periphery to which Dalits are relegated. Dhasal’s poems also challenge the normative literary practices defined by the core by writing in ‘incorrect’ ways about the contradictory reality of the everyday and the ‘abject’ world that the downtrodden inhabit. If, according to Lotman and Uspensky (1978), the term culture implies ‘the non-hereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions’ whose fundamental task is to generate structuredness and to ‘structurally organiz[e] the world around man’, then Dalit literature in general and Dhasal’s poems in particular question the givenness of this cultural memory and attack the oppresiveness, exclusivity and cruelty of the overall structure. They question and seek to rework ‘the meta-level of the semiotic map of the culture’ produced by the core and seek nothing less than ‘cognitive restructuring’ (Lotman 2005) of Marathi cultural identity, memory and reality in order to produce an inclusive and just society, in short, nothing less than the transformation of the existing semiosphere.
Both modern Marathi poetry of the 19th century and modernist poetry initiated by Mardhekar belonged to core minority or what Dhasal used to call the culture of ‘three and half percent of the population’. It is into this modernist avant-garde idiom that Dhasal introduced Bambaiya Hindi and Urdu and the languages of the abject—in the sense used by Kristeva (1981:11)—world of Kamathipura. He also subverted and parodied Sanskrit words to bring in indeterminacy and undermine not only the elitism of modern Marathi poetry but also the elitism of the modernist idiom. His influence on later generations of Dalit and non-Dalit Marathi poets is immense. Many stylistic aspects of Dhasal’s avant-garde, heterogeneous, playful, alliterative, explicit and opaque rhetoric find echoes in the linguistic flourishes of significant later poets like Bhujang Meshram (1958–2007), Arun Kale (1954–2008), Mahendra Bhavre (b. 1961) and Santosh P. Pawar (b. 1972), among others of this generation.
Unpredictability in Namdeo Dhasal’s language
In an interview given to the noted Marathi writer-activists Satish Kalsekar and Pradnya Daya Pawar for the journal Anushtubh’s special issue on Namdeo Dhasal in 1998 (which was re-published in a later edition of Golpitha), Dhasal discusses his artistic and political vision as follows:
My commitment is that I will express whatever contradictions are there in my political act and in my literary act with all their complexities and agonies. Earlier, the structure of poetry was equal to feelings plus imagination and composition. Academic people used to think like that. Feelings, movement, composition, imagination plus contradictions between the individual and the collectivity plus the universe plus action and contradictions between all these things are important too. Poetry is reaching out into the 10,000 contradictions in the story of what is called the 10,000-year-old human civilisation and the life of a person who carries it. That is how I define poetry. Hence I am extremely free, with no burden, no conventions. From this point of view I let others say whatever they like about my 'isms' and traditions, but I have this honest opinion about Dalit literature. You should go beyond the narrow concept. The term 'Dalit' is a synonym for proletarian. What a vast world you can access with this kind of vision!
(Dhasal 1999:128–29, translation mine).
Contradictions, complexities and agonies of all sorts are what one finds when one reads Dhasal’s poetry or considers his politics The significance of Namdeo as a poet, thinker and politician can be grasped best by understanding his vision, which insisted on opening up the idea of Dalit beyond one’s caste location and extending it to the global phenomenon of the proletariat. This vision was reflected in the manifesto to the Dalit Panthers and eventually, made Dhasal’s fellow Panthers accuse him of being a Marxist and expelled him from the organization. Ambedkarism and Marxism are often perceived as ideologically incompatible by many Dalit thinkers and politicians. Many feel that the category of caste cannot be reduced to class and Ambedkarites do not accept the idea that Buddhism can be the ‘opium of the masses’. However, the combination of Ambedkarite ideology and Marxism enabled Dhasal not only to extend the understanding of the term Dalit but also to locate himself and his cultural identity, both critically and historically, in the complex history of the subcontinent.
While this tension between two seemingly dissimilar ideologies might have lead to Dhasal’s marginalisation in the arena of Dalit politics, it gave an explosive creative dimension to his poetry. His poetry became a searing criticism of our culture, devoid of the tendency to glorify or romanticise history, which is often seen in savarna representations. Dhasal’s blistering revision and interrogation of the history of the Indian subcontinent’s ancient civilisation is a powerful dimension of his poetic vision, as his poem ‘Sthayee Dushkaalaatun’ from Murkha Mhataryane Dongar Halavla indicates. It exemplifies Dhasal’s definition of poetry as ‘reaching out into the 10,000 contradictions in the story of what is called the 10,000-year-old human civilization and the life of a person who carries it.’
My famine-ous foe
A savage, retarded culture of 3,000 BC
Frolics in your potbelly,
In 1974 it has turned utterly perverse.
They call the hideousness that you are a ‘nation’
Due to the growth of capitalist society
Otherwise who would give a fuck about you?
After living in this terrifying desolate desert
When we shove our hands into the bag
Of your history and your geography,
We come across the monstrous idol
Made from billions of deceased youngsters,
Their dead parents, their families
Eighteen incessant worlds of their poverty
This is my skeleton, this one is yours
This is my father’s skeleton, this is your father’s
This is your grandfather’s skeleton, this, your grandmother’s
(‘Sthayee Dushkaalatna’, 7-10, translation mine)
As a poet, this openness allowed him to access creative resources from the international avant-garde and established Marathi poetry as well as the resources available to a Marathi Dalit poet such as folk and performative traditions. This radical openness is reflected in the extraordinary range of incompatible and contradictory linguistic registers in his poetry, often ranging from Sanskritised words (used ironically and subversively) to Kamathipura slang; from folk, oral and performative devices to Western avant-garde techniques; from the mythology (in Barthes’ sense) of sewage water, sex workers and venereal diseases to sublime terms drawn from Buddhist philosophy; from the rhetoric of political speeches to the registers of tenderness and erotic love; from Bambaiya Hindi to English or Urdu; from references to Bollywood to the evocation of myths and legends from ancient civilisations; from the registers of Bhakti to contemporary Western avant-garde art; from the mythology of Marxism to eulogies of Ambedkar; from odes to Gandu Bagicha ('Arsefuckers’ Park') and Saint Faulkland Road to a lofty, biblical ode to Indira Gandhi.
What differentiates Dhasal from other Dalit writers is his radically innovative language and use of semiotic registers, something other Dalit poets have not been able to achieve. Such a complex use of what Chitre calls ‘bastard language’ makes Dhasal’s poetry ‘complex and barely accessible to either an average Dalit listener or a highly literate reader. The surrealistic imagery and flow of his poems and his sudden but deliberate evocation of extension or orchestration of different contexts of experience baffles both the uninitiated and the literate among his audience.’ (Chitre, 1982). Dhasal’s poems are obscure and opaque for many of his readers, and the implied reader is probably someone like Dhasal himself who is familiar not only with the local language but also Indian and global artistic and political movements.
The heterogeneous nature of Dhasal’s poetic language is obviously not merely verbal, formal or linguistic but semiotic as it goes beyond the printed page into the realm of visual culture, performance, art and everyday life. Analysing Dhasal’s language as consisting of semiotic registers or signs offers us insights into the working of the cultural contexts in which his poems were produced, circulated and read.
The explosiveness of Gandu Bagicha
Kamathipura in central Mumbai was once the subcontinent’s largest red-light area. And it was only a lane away from Dhor Chawl where Namdeo grew up. Along one of Kamathipura’s lanes, also known as Duncan Road, is a public park called Durgadevi Udyaan. The hijra or transgender community often carried out rituals such as nirvana or the castration of men to make them eunuchs inside this park (Majumdar 2009). So, the lane was often called Hijra Galli. The park was also a place where hijras and gay men engaged in sexual activity. As a result, Durgadevi Udyaan became Gandu Bagicha or Arsefuckers’ Park. And despite attempts by the government to renovate and sanitise the park, people still call it Gandu Bagicha.
Gandu Bagicha first finds mention in a poem by Dhasal titled ‘Randki Punav’ in Golpitha. The narrator describes the dance of the eunuchs during their festival of Randki Punav. He is more of an objective watcher here, but in Dhasal’s 1986 poetry collection Gandu Bagicha, the space of the park becomes a full-fledged metaphor for a subversive and abject counter-space.
Gandu Bagicha 2
It is no longer the garden we knew
Jara bhunke de mera fata hua sa hriday…
…The worm of karmanyewadhikaraste
has started nibbling at the silence
the crippled cockroach of karma yoga
Needlessly keeps digging up the soil
…it has already torn
The condom of delusion
(Dhasal 1986:22, translation mine)
In the translation above, the words in italics are the poem’s non-Marathi words. As can be seen, they come from Sanskrit, Bambaiya Hindi and English. ‘Gandu Bagicha 2’ begins with the narrator’s nostalgia for a time when hijra sex workers would freely offer their services to customers. Here, ‘digging up the soil’ euphemistically connotes the homosexual act.
According to the poem’s narrator, attempts to sanitise Gandu Bagicha have emasculated the space by making it futile and dead but only figuratively, as the second stanza demonstrates. In the world of the poem, the process of sanitisation is actually the process of Sanskritisation (as is suggested by the use of phrases from the Bhagavad Gita). The metaphors ‘the worm of karmanyewadhikaraste’ and ‘the crippled cockroach of karma yoga’ also suggest how it is actually Brahmanism, as epitomised by the Gita, that has buggered, screwed or made an asshole of culture as the book’s title suggests.
Just as the efforts to sanitise the park have resulted in a sense of emptiness and futility for the speaker, the efforts of the savarnas (upper castes) to sanitise the language of poetry have resulted in clichéd sentimentality, which is superficial and hollow. (The Dalit Panthers, as some people may remember, carried out the burning of the Gita during one of their protests.) Gandu Bagicha (the park) is not just a metaphor but also a cultural space, a space on the periphery of not just Mumbai but also Marathi culture as a whole or one may say, the Marathi semiosphere. In some sense, the poet is suggesting that Marathi culture has become a Gandu Bagicha or an Arsefuckers’ Park.
Now, in spite of poet Dilip Chitre’s extremely competent English translations of Dhasal’s poetry, these translations fail to capture the linguistic—and semiotic—diversity of Dhasal’s language or as Lotman would put it, its ‘heterogeneity’. For instance, Chitre’s translation of Urdu phrases like ‘deedar-e-yaar’ and ‘ailh-e-chaman’ as ‘O revealed friend, O gardener’ in ‘Gandu Bagicha 1’, seem to strip away their homoerotic connotations, especially in the context of Gandu Bagicha. This is probably because Chitre’s implied audience was primarily an Anglophone one rather than an Indian one, which could understand the hidden meanings of these Urdu phrases.
Dhasal also has a poem called ‘The Eternal Garden and I’ in Gandu Baghicha, which plays on the connotations of the garden and the Christian myth of the Fall from the Paradise. The juxtaposition of the incompatible Bambaiya Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit phrases or Gandu Bagicha and the Christian Paradise is not an accidental or a random stylistic feature; it constitutes what Lotman would term as a ‘semantic trope’ (1990). He defines the semantic trope as ‘a pair of mutually non-juxtaposable signifying elements, between which, thanks to the context they share, a relationship of adequacy is established.’ (38) By producing semantic diversity, a semantic trope brings into culture a necessary degree of indeterminacy.
The surrealistic metaphors in ‘Gandu Bagicha 2’ produced by such juxtapositions, are what Lotman (2004) would call ‘scandalizing metaphors’ which are ‘principally innovative’ and are ‘treated by the carriers of traditional meaning as arbitrary and offensive to their feelings’. Such metaphors ‘compensate the continuous process of “aging” of the various means of meaning-generation by the introduction and use of new, previously forbidden, meaning-generating structures’ (19). While theorists like Kristeva (1981:11) would say that the ‘abject’ content of Dhasal’s work, is ‘the jettisoned object, radically excluded, which draws me towards the place where meaning collapses’, Lotman would argue that such tense juxtapositions of the included and the excluded could bring about ‘explosive’, that is, unpredictable and abrupt changes in the semiotic system (2004).
Dhasal’s avant-garde technique can also be read as his attempt to bring about ‘explosive’ processes of cultural change. And looking at this poetic innovation from a distance, one begins to see how Dhasal’s poems introduce indeterminacy and unpredictability in the Marathi semiosphere and renew the hackneyed language of Marathi poetry.
The coming together of the core and the periphery
It is also possible to see Dhasal’s poems as generated by the boundaries of the urban Marathi semiosphere where savarna, upper- and middle-class or paandhar pesha cultural spaces have traditionally occupied the core, relegating spaces like Dhor Chawl and Kamathipura to the periphery. The juxtaposition of the incompatible languages of Kamathipura with the idealised savarna, pandhar pesha languages of Marathi culture in Dhasal’s poetry generates rhetorical effects and has political implications too. The resultant indeterminacy in Dhasal’s poems revives what Lotman would call ‘the inner reserves and the potential for dynamic development’ of Marathi culture, which has become static due to the over-development of the core.
The semiotically polyphonous poem titled ‘Termite of Reality’ from Golpitha illustrates this agenda of cleaning up the oppressive and hackneyed cultural forms imposed by the core, and instilling love for oneself in place of the self-hatred instilled by the savarna cultural establishment.
Termite of reality
The Form of the form comes into flower
At the touch of the termite of reality
We bear on our shoulders
The Vadavanals of the Saptarishis
We sport the flutes of grass
The harems effortlessly close upon
The commands of sperm donations
Corroborating your adultery
We clean up
The darkened virtuous forms of God
With our tempestuous brooms
Kissing our own selves,
Embodying the primordial forms
Of brittle feelings excommunicated
(Dhasal 1999:61, translation mine, italics for non-Marathi words)
The savarna reality, which is the reality of the powerful, is incompatible with the Dalit’s reality, the reality of the downtrodden and the marginal. The multiple and contradictory registers of the metaphor of harem for the elite establishment, the mythological references to Vadavanals, Saptarishis and Lord Krishna’s flute, and the collison of non-Marathi words and neologisms produce indeterminacy and ambiguity not only in Dhasal’s poems but in the very language of Marathi poetry. The mythology of the harem is again found in the poem ‘Approaching the Organized Harem of the Octopus’ in Golpitha. The organised harem of the octopus is also a metaphor for the Marathi cultural, social and political establishment and a symbol for the global political establishment; so not only does it stand for the nucleus of the Marathi semiosphere or even the Indian semiosphere, but the nucleus of the global power structure as a whole.
Apart from the polyglottism of his avant-garde style, Dhasal’s poetry also has thematic and generic range. Two noteworthy genres that recur in his poetry are odes dedicated to individuals and erotic poetry. Apart from an excellent series of odes written for Dr. Ambedkar, collected in a single volume as Tujhe Boat Dharoon Chalalo Ahe Mee, he wrote an ode titled Amchya Itihaasaatil Ek Apariharya Patra: Priyadarshini in 1976 addressed to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For many of his Leftist admirers, critics and supporters, this was an act of sycophancy and opportunism as Mrs Gandhi had withdrawn all the cases against the Dalit Panthers after the Worli riots of 1974. A poem like this is uncharacteristic of Dalit literature and demonstrates the unpredictability of Dhasal, the politician and poet. Attacking all of Mrs Gandhi’s opponents as ‘fascists, the enemies of humanity and womanhood’, the poem celebrates the mythology of Mrs. Gandhi as Durga (also something that the artist M.F. Husain did) and compares her to Joan of Arc.
The speaker in the poem, keenly aware of the impending criticism of his poem, tells Mrs Gandhi to ‘Keep smiling like a green new leaf / in the humble part of our hearts’. While it is easy to critique Dhasal’s politics and ideology, the poem has to be understood in its historical context. It was written during the tense period of the Emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi and Dhasal was trying to be a spokesperson, not of a political party or the elite Left, but of large sections of Indian society who undeniably admired Mrs Gandhi. In an attempt to avoid the elitist view of Indian history and literature, a view taken not just by cultural nationalists but also socialists and Leftists, Dhasal always sought to position himself alongside the masses and look at the world from their perspective. While this long poem lacks the creative complexity and richness of his other poems, it embodies the tensions and contradictions of the time and echoes the positions he put forth in his interview with Kalsekar and Pawar (cited above).
Gender, sexuality and eroticism form another prominent theme in Dhasal’s oeuvre. Women in various social roles figure prominently in most of his works and are often equivocal symbols. The collection Chindhyanchi Devi ani Itar Kavita (2012) is a collection of poems about women while Khel (1983) is sequence of poems dedicated to ‘all erotic activities of men and women’. These philosophical poems have dense surrealistic imagery and ode-like features, and celebrate the joy and suffering of erotic love despite all its contradictions—existential, cultural, biological. The poems are not romantic in the conventional sense as eroticism and man-woman relationships are seen through the eyes of the oppressed, deprived and stigmatised man, who is aware of inequalities, contradictions and historical ironies. The poems succeed because of their imagery and deliberate ambiguity as this untitled poem translated by Dilip Chitre reveals.
The Self sheds its dead skin in water
Again a growing creeper climbs the new skin
The tree of yearning that begins to burn in the artificial summer
Beyond them are your sailorly eyes and the lightning flashing in them
And the sea arrives strolling to the shore
Youth’s butterfly floating around the bellybutton of nudity
The white snail of your breasts crawls inside my body
Water walks without feet
While this surreal poem talks about the possibility of erotic love rejuvenating life for human beings, we can say that the semiotic polyglottism of Dhasal’s rich poetic language, his thematic range and the openness of his vision have helped Marathi poetry shed it dead skin and given it a new life.
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Chitre, Dilip. 1982. ‘The Architecture Of Anger: On Namdeo Dhasal's Golpitha,’ Journal of South Asian Literature, 17.1: 93–95.
Dhasal, Namdeo. 1976. Amchya Itihaasaatil Ek Apariharya Paatra: Priyadarshini. Mumbai: Prabhat Prakashan.
———1983. Khel. Mumbai: Pras.
———1986. Gandu Bagicha. Mumbai: Ambedkar Prabodhini.
———1999. Golpitha. Mumbai: Prabhat Prakashan.
———2007. A Current of Blood: Poems Selected and Translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre. New Delhi: Navayana.
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 A sign system is a system of symbols that is used to send and receive messages. Sign systems can be verbal or non-verbal; they can consist of mathematical symbols, musical notations, visuals, gestures, objects, etc.
 Kristeva (1981:11) would say that the abject content of Dhasal’s work is ‘the jettisoned object, radically excluded, which draws me towards the place where meaning collapses’.
 ‘Mere dost…hriday’ is Bambaiya Hindi for ‘O friend, please bake my tattered heart for me.’
 Karmanyevadhikaraste is a Sanskrit word that appears in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, 47th Shloka. It means, ‘Only on your actions, can you claim your right… Let not the fruits of your deeds be your motive, do not get attached to inaction either.’
 Karma yoga in Sanskrit refers to a philosophy of life based on the above-mentioned shloka from the Bhagavad Gita.
 Vadavanals are mythical fires in the ocean.
 Saptarshis are the seven celestial sages or rishis who are extolled at many places in the Vedas and other texts of Hindu literature.
 The flute here refers to Lord Krishna’s flute and the English word is used in the original Marathi poem.