A shorthand for Namdeo Dhasal (February 15, 1949 – January 15, 2014) is that he was a Marathi poet and a Dalit activist-organiser. Another, which partly collapses these, is that he was a Marathi Dalit poet. A third, a fourth and a fifth: a poet of the poison-tipped pen; Maharashtra’s pre-eminent poet of protest; someone who changed political positions ‘as often as one changes shoes' (Deshpande 2014). These descriptions may be correct but they’re not complete. How does one begin to sum up Dhasal’s life, his life-work and philosophy?
We can begin by thinking about how we want to analyse his writing—he wrote fiction, non-fiction and newspaper columns too—and his politics. In an obituary included in this module, Satish Kalsekar, Dhasal’s close friend and fellow poet, says that to call him a Dalit poet is a display of our intellectual poverty. He adds that Dhasal didn’t speak about oppression from a particular caste perspective only and that ‘he tried to connect his fight to end casteism with the struggle of deprived people of all kinds through his prose, poetry, interviews and newspaper columns’.
We know that Dhasal’s poetry was intimately tied to his politics and he had this to say about it: ‘I have a mission in life and that is to oppose all forms of exploitation—economic, social and cultural. My poetry is a product of my spontaneous commitment to my mission' (Chitre 2007b). As a result, it becomes difficult to divorce one from the other; however, we shouldn’t let his politics overdetermine our reading of his poetry. The two can be seen as complementary to each other, perhaps as parallel tributaries of the same river that frequently sprout streams connecting them.
Before we consider his poetry then, let us look at the life that the inspired it. Dhasal was born in a Dalit community of Mahars in the village of Pur-Kanersar near Pune in Maharashtra. His father was a small-time farmer who lived off land allotted to him and other Mahars just beyond the village limits. Because his meagre income wasn’t enough to support the family, Dhasal’s father migrated to Mumbai with his wife and son in the 1950s.
In the city, Dhasal’s father worked as an assistant to a local Muslim butcher and the family lived in Dhor Chawl near Golpitha, which is close to the red-light area of Kamathipura in South Mumbai. (Dhor is the name of an ‘untouchable’ caste whose traditional occupation involves working with the remains of dead animals.) Dhasal grew up in a caste and class ghetto, among low-caste Hindus, poor Muslims, Dalits, migrant labourers, sex workers, their customers, pimps, smugglers, drug peddlers and petty criminals of all sorts.
He finished his schooling but never went to college. He read voraciously though—from poetry to political thought—and traces his poetic influences to the major European poets. As a young man, Dhasal was a leading activist who made his living by driving a taxi. A failed love affair and disillusionment with certain progressive and Leftist political parties—both a result of casteism and communalism—took him down what he called a ‘different path’, towards an uninhibited life that saw him visit opium and hashish dens and sex workers’ homes. It was these experiences that he recorded in Golpitha, his first poetry collection that came out in 1972.
Golpitha spewed venom not only at the dominant caste order but also at the sacred texts of all religions. Its language had what one reviewer has described as ‘sledgehammer scatology’ (Subramaniam 2007) and what Dhasal’s friend and translator Dilip Chitre called ‘bibhatsa rasa’. Consider the following extract: ‘Man you should explode/…Jive to a savage drum beat/Smoke hash, smoke ganja/…Cuss at one and all; swear by his mom’s twat, his sister’s cunt/…Turn humans into slaves; whip their arses with a lash/ Cook your beans on their bleeding backsides…’ Needless to say, it took the Marathi literary world by storm.
Golpitha also has tender moments spent in the company of a sex workerjust as it has reverential devotion for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dhasal was deeply influenced by Ambedkar as well the Indian socialists Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya NarendraDev and he remained an admirer of their writings till a late age.
With the passage of time, Dhasal came to realise that none of the so-called progressive political parties saw caste as their top priority. So, he and his writer-activist friends decided to create their own outfit, which would be committed to fighting casteism. Thus, Dalit Panthers, a militant, anti-caste organisation, was born, barely a month after Golpitha came out. Dhasal’s co-Panthers were J.V. Pawar, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle, among others. In its manifesto, Dalit Panthers expanded the definition of Dalit to include not only the former untouchable castes, but also oppressed peoples as a whole from different castes, classes and religions.(To learn more about Dalit Panthers, see Interview with Malika Amar Shaikh.)
These were fiery beginnings, both for his poetry and his political work. As students of Dhasal’s work, we need to look not only at Golpitha but also at how his poetry evolves till Nirvana Agodarachi Pida, his last collection published in 2010. Kalsekar says this about the evolution of Dhasal’s poetic voice: ‘Namdeo’s poetry in the early period seems more aggressive whereas in the later period, it becomes more wise and appears more mature.’ Dilip Chitre, another close friend of Dhasal’s and his translator, says, ‘Imagery and metaphor connected with water and soil are remarkable for their frequency in Namdeo’s poems from the earliest to the latest' (Chitre 2007a). Chitre traces this back to an early childhood experience: As a young boy, Dhasal and his friends were ‘caught’ playing in a well meant only for the ‘touchables’ and when discovered, had to face the wrath of a man who attacked them with a fusillade of stones. Chitre concludes that, ‘these were fundamental experiences of alienation that were to inform all his future work as a poet, a thinker and a fighter for rights’.
In this module, Sachin Ketkar’s essay helps us begin our own journey of discovery of Dhasal’s poetry. Among other things, Ketkar speaks of Priyadarshini, Dhasal’s biblical ode to Mrs Indira Gandhi published in 1976, which came under severe criticism. It was seen as an act of supplication and an opportunistic move, especially since MrsGandhi had lifted several cases that were filed against the Panthers earlier. Why Dhasal chose to support the Emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi, why he wrote Priyadarshini the way that he did, needs its own separate discussion.
The Panthers’ support of the Emergency was followed by internal disagreements within the organisation and Dhasal’s eventual marginalisation. In the early 1980s, he was expelled from his own organisation on charges of being a Marxist. His fellow activists couldn’t reconcile the coming together of Ambedkarism and Marxism in his thought.
In 1981, Dhasal was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a rare neurovascular disease that causes muscular weakness and fatigue, and affects motor skills. Illness and alcohol addiction gripped him for quite a few years and he wrote little during the '80s. The poetry collection Tuhi Yatta Kanchi and the short novel Hadki Hadavala came out in 1981, followed by two poetry collections Khel (1983) and Gandu Bagicha (1986), but from 1986 to 1995, he didn’t publish anything.
In the 1990s, he was politically active again and began publishing both poetry and non-fiction. Dhasal formed an alliance with the Shiv Sena in 1997 and started contributing a column to its mouthpiece Saamna, and in 2006, appeared on a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh platform. All of this came as a shock to many of his admirers who had known him to be a uncompromising critic of the Hindu Right—not only had he called it Brahmanical, but he had also written about it with stinging contempt in his poem on December 6, 1992. His wife and fellow poet Malika Amar Shaikh says that through this alliance, Dhasal possibly wanted to bring his people (Dalits) into the mainstream. However, it earned him his wife’s and society’s ire and neither forgave him for it.
Something else that stirred controversy was Shaikh’s autobiography Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay (‘I Want to be Shattered’, 1984). In it Shaikh spoke frankly and openly about her troubled married life with Dhasal—how he never paid attention to running the household, how he drank excessively, how they were violent towards each other, among other things. Shaikh had thought that after the book came out, he’d leave her but Dhasal altered his behaviour and in Shaikh’s words, they both ‘made adjustments’.
While Dhasal, his wife and son eventually moved out of Kamathipura and into the middle- and upper-middle-class suburb of Andheri, he never saved any money. As a result, in later years, Dhasal had to battle cancer with meagre resources. Shaikh had to make public appeals in order to raise funds for his expensive treatment. Dhasal succumbed to his illness and left us on January 15, 2014. Over a year has gone by since his passing, and the question before us is: How will we remember him?
The task is daunting: to understand a life engaged equally with poetry and politics and to appropriately historicise one man’s poetic developments and political moves. Dhasal was a man of many shades and in order to understand him in totality, we need to understand these shades and all their sub-shades. Our attempt here is to provide only a modest introduction to Dhasal’s poetic life and to raise questions for further study. We invite you to contribute your own essays to this module, in English and Marathi, on any aspect of Dhasal’s life or writing. In the hope that his searing poetry, whose words almost burn the page, may continue to keep us vigilant of caste atrocities that continue till this day.
Chitre, Dilip. 2007a. ‘Namdeo’s Mumbai’, A Current of Blood: Poems Selected and Translated from the Marathi by DilipChitre, pp. 95–117. New Delhi: Navayana.
———. 2007b. ‘Namdeo on Namdeo’, in A Current of Blood: Poems Selected and Translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre, pp. 109–118. New Delhi: Navayana.
Deshpande, Sudhanva. 2014. ‘Namdeo Laxman Dhasal (1949–2014)’, Economic and Political Weekly, 49:6:32–33.
Subramaniam, Arundhathi. 2007. ‘Taste of Freedom’, The Hindu Literary Review, October 7.