Although Dalit writers have been at work in India for many centuries, the term ‘Dalit literature’ has a specific, currently meaning and can perhaps be seen in those writings. ‘Dalit literature’ describes Dalit narratives depicting the struggle against oppression and has been inspired by African-American literature and movements in the 20th century.
Protests against the caste system and oppression are expressed in a new literature called ‘Dalit literature.’ Poems, short stories, novels, and autobiographies by Dalit writers provide useful insights into the question of Dalit identity. In India, the movement started in Mumbai with the publications of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha in1958, and soon found its place in the mainstream of Marathi literature. Later, the trend shifted to Hindi and Kannada. Currently, it has entered Tamil. But in Oriya, Dalit writing has had a late start compared to its counterparts and its voice has not yet been part of the mainstream.
The poets of Charya Yuga or the Natha sect of saints like Hadi Pa, Kanhu Pa, Tanti Pa, Chourangi Nath, Gorakh Nath, Mahendra Nath or Lui Pa etc, all came from downtrodden social groups and constitute a distinct social tradition in Orissa. But their poems are more philosophical and tantric — religious rather than portraying social oppression. But that does not mean Oriya society is a stranger to caste oppression and other forms of inequality.
There were also many poets from the ‘shudra’ community who raised their voices against the Brahmen hegemony but their writings were not similar in theme and concept to today’s so-called Dalit writings. From Saral Das, the Adikabi of Oriya literature whose Oriya Mahabharat was read for the first time in the fifteenth century to the famous saint poet Bhima Bhoi to the powerful Marxist poet Rabi Singh of the 20th century, a long list of Dalit writers have flourished in Oriya literature. But these writings are not only confined to Dalit oppression in relation to a Dalit caste system. There is evidence of writings on Dalit oppression in Oriya literature from Bhagbati Panigrahi and Sach Routray to Gopinath Mohanty, and many have a theme of such oppression. But these writers do not belong to the lower or untouchable caste. In poetry the Vaishnavite upper-class poets like Dinakrushna Das raised their voices against the Brahmanical bureaucracy, but we can’t place them alongside contemporary Dalit writing. Bhima Bhoi, the tribal (Kandha) religious poet of the 19th century fought against caste and ritualised piety and initiated women in the society.
The only English book I have ever read on Oriya Dalit literature was Paralysed Tongue, an Anthology of Dalit Studies (Pagemaker, 2005). Ironically, this book is edited by two Brahmin scholars: Aswini Kumar Mishra and Jugal K Mishra. While searching for other articles on the net, I found two; one is a long essay by Raj Kumar and another is a blog by Basudev Sunani . Raj Kumar identified only one Dalit short story writer, Ramchandra Sethi, and one of his short stories: Dwitiya Buddha. He counted six contemporary poets: Bichitranand Nayak, Basudev Sunani, Kumaramani Tanti, Sanjay Bag, Anjubala Jena, Mohan Jena, adding an appendage of ‘many more.’ Basudev Sunani’s irregular blogging (ten between April 2009 and December 2009) contains two of his essays, a short story, and a few poems.
Recently, a few magazines and Facebook users have tried to raise the Dalit discourse aiming to make it more active and streamlined. But the main question is: are there a sufficient number of lower caste or tribal writers from Dalit socio-economic classes available in Oriya literature or it will be a movement of middle-class upper-caste writers who are plenty and who constitute the mainstream?
( Published in my regular monthly column at New Indian Express, in its 25 July 2010 issue)