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BOOK REVIEW

Epic effort

Print edition : Sep 08, 2022 T+T-

Epic effort

A significant work that challenges the dominant verse-epic tradition.

“Your deeds might result in the birth of a great poet in our community

Despite his accomplishments and outstanding artistic

and literary talent

He will not be eligible for great fame

In this fallen country that obsessively argues about high

and low birth

What can be more pathetic than this?”

                                                  —Jashuva

On September 29, 2021, A. Suresh, Minister for Education, Andhra Pradesh, said the State government would “take forward the imagination and ideology of legendary verse poet Gurram Jashuva”.  “The contribution of Jashuva to the Telugu language is incomparable. His stirring verse poetry mirrored the prejudices and untouchability prevalent in those times. Jashuva’s memory will be kept alive through the Jashuva Kala Praganam being constructed in Guntur,” the Minister said, according to a report in The Hindu.

Andhra Pradesh Minister A. Suresh and MLC Dokka Manikya Vara Pradad garland a statue of Gurram Jashuva in Guntur in July 2021.  
Andhra Pradesh Minister A. Suresh and MLC Dokka Manikya Vara Pradad garland a statue of Gurram Jashuva in Guntur in July 2021.   | Photo Credit: T. VIJAYA KUMAR

Gurram Jashuva’s Gabbilam is a remarkable example of his ideology, imagination, and exemplary literary skills as a poet. Jashuva, an anti-caste visionary, was the first to write a Dalit epic to challenge and subvert the classical verse-epic tradition in Indian poetry, and transform the dominant literary ideology in classical Telugu literature. He was a radical, and that is reflected in his choice to write the poem in Sankritised Telugu.  Jashuva shatters the opinionated Savarna scholars’ view that the Avaranas are incapable of aesthetic skills. 

Inversion of tradition

Gabbilam is an early twentieth century Telugu text, translated into English by Chinnaiah Jangam and published by Yoda Press in 2022. The poem is divided into two parts, with a preface to each part. Part I is titled “An Untouchable Odyssey” and the title of the second section is “Meditation on Freedom”. The preface to each section summarises its contents, the poet’s opinions and his expectations. The second part is lengthier and contains references to renowned personalities, events, movements, reforms, and other issues of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century India.

Gabbilam means bat, and in Telugu culture bats are considered inauspicious; they embody evil and bring bad luck. They often dwell in caves, and caves are reckoned as entrances to the underworld. Bats are also thought to be spirits of the dead, and their features are attributed to the devil. Dante’s Inferno, Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the works of Milton and Shakespeare all refer to bats as predatory creatures and an ill omen. In biblical tradition, bats are messengers of Satan.

Gabbilam: A Dalit Epic
By Gurram Jashuva, translated by Chinnaiah Jangam
Yoda Press
Pages: 105
Price: Rs. 399 

Jashuva had Kalidasa’s Meghaduta in mind when he wrote his poem. Kalidasa’s protagonist is the lovelorn Yaksha who sends messages to his beloved, and his messenger is a cloud. In classical epic tradition, the protagonist is always a god, a demi-god or a king. Their messengers are magnificent and graceful birds such as swans, peacocks, or parrots. Jashuva inverts the tradition. His protagonist is a Dalit whose messenger is gabbilam, an ugly and ominous bat. The protagonist refers to the bat as the goddess and symbol of the outcastes as it represents the reality of their community. Much like a bat, the protagonist is also a victim of discrimination and humiliation. Jashuva’s choice of a Dalit hero and his messenger subverts the dominant literary and intellectual traditions.

The theme of classical epic poetry is the hero’s adventurous exploits, a great war, or his romantic escapades. The intent is to propagate Brahminical traditions and Savarna culture. Such poetry justifies and maintains social stratification based on caste. “They normalise the status quo in society,” says Jangam. The dominant literary tradition either excluded the experiences of the marginalised or kept it outside the main framework. Jashuva subverts this tradition by taking as his subject the life of an “untouchable” who has been denied basic human dignity. The wilful optimism of Savarna writers is countered by the intellectual pessimism of the Dalit writer.

In the first section, a bat enters the house of a Dalit who welcomes her and wants her to “Narrate my suffering to the bearer of the trident, the God Shiva”.  The protagonist tells the bat which route to take to reach Kailasa in the Himalaya. This gives the poet the opportunity to recount the cultural wealth of kings and their kingdoms, the prolific art and architecture of cities, and the literary contributions of various poets. So wonderful does India look from the Himalaya in a starlit night that its beauty cannot be captured by even the most imaginative poets, writes Jashuva. The poet tells the story of rich Indian culture but juxtaposes it with his community’s unpalatable social reality which is strategically kept outside the cultural heritage.

Uncomfortable truths

The second part of the epic was written in 1946 when India stood at the threshold of Independence. Throwing up uncomfortable truths about the caste system and its atrocities, Jashuva asks whether the Shudras will get their share “in the comfortable paradise called Independence”. The protagonist wants to understand the meaning and significance of freedom and independent India for  Dalits. The question is, how inclusive will this freedom be? Will it also mean freedom from caste atrocities? Will Dalits be emancipated from hunger, poverty, untouchability, illiteracy, victimisation through religious traditions and practices, and a life deprived of self-respect and dignity? The protagonist remarks that Independence will be empty without the annihilation of caste. There will be true freedom is when victims of caste will be free from the prejudices of the caste system.

Highlights
  • In Gabbilam, an early 20th-century Telugu epic, Dalit writer Jashuva subverts the established verse epic tradition.
  • Jashuva’s protagonist is a Dalit and his messenger is gabbilam, an ugly bat.
  • In Telugu culture bats are considered inauspicious; they embody evil and bring bad luck.
  • Chinnaiah Jangam’s translation has made Jashuva’s work. available in the mainstream, nationally and internationally.
  • The Translator’s Note, introduction, copious end notes, and visual illustrations help comprehend the contexts and references and also enrich the reading experience of non-Telugu readers.

Jashuva narrates the success stories of contemporary Indian scholars who brought recognition to India. “But they never counted me as one of them (a part of the society)/Always considered me an outsider.” His exceptional talents will also not receive praises “because of [his] status as a slave”. Jangam mentions in the introduction that one of the elementary factors for the famed Battle of Palnadu (12th century) was the decision of the minister of the Haihaya king to open the Chennakesava temple to all castes. This “stain of untouchability” made India lose its respectability. Rohit Vemula, the Dalit research student who died by suicide in 2016, wrote, “Mahakavi Gurram Jashuva was the first compelling organic Dalit voice in Telugu literature, who exposed the hypocrisy of caste ideology…” There are allusions to anti-caste and anti-Brahminical voices in  history such as Brahma Naidu and Vemana, the poet, pointing out how these geniuses were excluded from social and literary histories because their beliefs and values countered the dominant culture. The poet presents an incisive critique of a caste-ridden society where access to gods, success, praise, and everlasting glory have been exclusively reserved for the Savarna.

Jashuva gives an account of the contemporary socio-political, religious and linguistic movements and reforms in the country by deftly weaving them within the structure of the epic. He talks about  anti-colonial nationalism, the temple entry movement, Ambedkar’s role in the emancipation of the outcastes, religious differences between Hindus and Muslims, the north-south divide, linguistic and identity politics among the Telugu and Tamil people in Madras Presidency, the differences between the Malas and the Madigas on the issue of stratification within their outcaste status, Andhra’s agitation for a separate Telugu State, Hindi’s status, and the struggles to curtail the hegemony of English. Jashuva establishes that Christians, the revolutionaries, and the rationalists failed, despite their efforts, to redeem the “untouchables”.

Poetics: an alternative approach

Gabbilam is also a commentary on the art of writing poetry, role of a poet, and function of poetry. He suggests poetry should be written for the benefit of humanity and to provide wisdom, not for money or praise. A poet will be appreciated for writing on a powerful theme even if the poem is short. A poet should write stories that will awaken readers. Poets must write compassionately.

Jashuva condemns the old and traditional literary practices of grammarians who were obsessed with technicalities, appropriate use of syntax, and linguistic refinements. Such people cannot appreciate “the aesthetic elegance of poetic creation”. In their effort to appear linguistically refined they ignore “tasteful Telugu words” that are culturally loaded with meaning. Jangam comments that Jashuva included the words used by rural folks into the classical Telugu literary idiom, making him the most creative Telugu poet. He became popular among “low caste” village people who incorporated his poems in their stage dramas as they communicated their lived experiences. Gabbilam, like any other Sanskrit epic, lives in the imagination of the popular Dalit culture of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Mainstreaming

Chinnaiah Jangam says:  “I took more than a decade to translate. As a Dalit, when I started reading it, I was able to see lived experiences and the historical injustice faced by Dalits. My endeavour is to bring that historical experience into the mainstream.” Jangam is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, Carleton University, Canada. By translating Gabbilam into English, Jangam has made a remarkable contribution to the field of Dalit Literature. Thanks to his efforts the epic is now available in the mainstream nationally and internationally. The Translator’s Note, introduction, copious end notes, and visual illustrations to the epic help comprehend the contexts and references and also enrich the reading experience of non-Telugu readers.

Artists at a painting event organised as part of Gurram Jashuva birth anniversary celebrations in Guntur. A file photograph.
Artists at a painting event organised as part of Gurram Jashuva birth anniversary celebrations in Guntur. A file photograph. | Photo Credit: T. VIJAYA KUMAR

The government’s ambitious National Education Policy envisions an Indo-centric syllabus in schools and higher education. It aims to promote Indian languages and culture to cultivate the essence of India in young adults. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are taught everywhere in India and they are an indispensable part of the collective imagination of Indians. A welcome addition to the mainstream was Silapathikaram or TaleofanAnklet, a Tamil epic in English translation. It is the only Indian epic that has a female protagonist at the centre of the story. Though the epic idealises a patriarchal concept, karpu, which comes closest to “chastity” in English, its inclusion in the mainstream enabled scholars to problematise it and subject it to feminist criticism. Likewise, Gabbilam: A Dalit Epic should be part of the curriculum of universities across the country to provide an alternative reading and a comparative discourse. Any attempt to nurture the spirit of India and Indianness will be incomplete without a wholistic insight into the caste based social structure.

Ruchi Singh is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University.