Songs from the underworld

Print edition : March 22, 2013

Namdeo Dhasal: 'I did not have to consciously turn to poetry. Ever since I learnt to speak my mother tongue as a child, I started playing with words.'

He threw out all the rule books and was free as a poet. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Namdeo Dhasal, whose poetry is open to the beauty as well as the brutality of life, is a pioneer not only of Dalit poetry but also of contemporary Indian poetry.

MY reservations about Namdeo Dhasal’s present political positions have in no way reduced my admiration for his unmatched poetry—a deeply innovative, almost Baudelairian, poetry of the bohemian and the flâneur, that alternates between indignation and playfulness. This Marathi poet living in Mumbai remains one of the pioneers not only of modern Dalit poetry but of contemporary Indian poetry in general. The excellent translations of his selected poems by another significant Marathi/English poet, the late Dilip Chitre, published by Navayana, carry the essential features of the original—as I gather from my Marathi friends—of course, with all those transmission-losses natural to the translations of poetry that employ a community idiom.

“I did not have to consciously turn to poetry. Ever since I learnt to speak my mother tongue as a child, I started playing with words.” This is how Namdeo opens his statement on himself appended to the poems. Here he recollects in some detail his early life in his native village of Pur near Pune: watching closely the seasonal performances of the tamasha troupe led by his uncles and grandfather; the robust ribaldry of lavani songs; the melodious tamasha songs, ovis, bhajans and lyrics sung by his mother; the nightly community gatherings rich with dance and song; the shehnai played by his grandfather Raoji Buva Dhasal, who was a respected musician acknowledged by the Indore court; the harmonium, tabla and mridang played with the same expertise by Narayanbuva, his father’s brother steeped in the Varkari pilgrims’ musical tradition, the readings at home of Shivalilamrut, the Natha text and Jnaneshwari, the Varkari text, especially in the month of shravan; the kirtans of Gadge Baba; the Shimga festivities following Holi when the children put on masks and special dresses to play fictitious roles; his own dance as a woman in sari that was a real hit with all the villagers… these recollections tell us the story of a sweet childhood spent in the village, full of music, dance and festivities despite the untouchability and the communal divide that existed there. There is no bitterness here; there is instead a robust acceptance of all that was positive within the community life and even pride about his family, with its artistic and spiritual traditions.

Namdeo also remembers the great wave of conversion to Buddhism that swept Pune after 1957, in the wake of the mass movement launched by Dr B.R. Ambedkar. The mahars stopped doing their caste-assigned chores; they held concerts and meetings to spread the message of liberation from the hierarchy. Namdeo, then a third grade student, also wrote a song inspired by what was happening around him. He pays glowing tributes to Narayan Shankar Kokate, his teacher at the Baney Compound School in Mumbai who prepared him to be a writer, teaching him classical Marathi literature, nurturing his taste and providing him with a sense of quality in writing.

He also mastered Marathi prosody under his training and developed a taste for traditional poetry. The reference library at Janata Kendra opened before him a vast treasure house of literature, complementing what he had learnt from his masters.

Namdeo first wrote romantic lyrics on nature and love; the literary magazine Satyakatha and the avant-garde magazines where he came across translations of modern European poets changed his very attitude towards the art of poetry. The casteism he encountered in the context of a love affair in the apparently progressive sections of establishment politics led to his disenchantment with the Praja Samaj Party with which he had so far been associated.

Revolt against the system

He revolted against the whole system that sustained communalism and casteism. The frustration turned him into an anarchist: he boozed and visited brothels and plunged himself headlong into life in the backyard of the city. He threw out all the rule books and was free as a poet. He sharpened his weapons; nothing could stop him now. He was a taxi driver; he had no fixed time for reading or writing; he wrote at eateries during his brief intermissions. He never consulted others about his poetry nor compared himself with others; he followed his instincts and just decided to be faithful to the nuances and subtleties of the life that opened up before him in all its beauty and brutality. The poems/excerpts translated from Namdeo’s eight collections reflect the range and variety of his poetic oeuvre. The opening excerpt from Golpitha, the poet’s first collection, is a powerfully ironic piece that at first appears nihilistic and destructive:

Man, you should drink human blood, eat spit, roast human flesh, melt human fat and drink it

Smash the bones of your critics’ shanks on hard stone blocks to get their marrow,

Wage class wars, caste wars, communal wars, party wars, crusades, world wars

One should become totally savage, ferocious and primitive….

But it turns around towards the end, leading to a tender and moving conclusion:

One should regard the sky as one’s

grandpa, the earth as one’s grand


And coddled by them everybody

should bask in mutual love

Man, one should act so bright as to make the Sun and the Moon seem pale

One should share each morsel of food with everyone else, one should compose a hymn

To humanity itself, man, man should sing only the song of man (“Man, You Should Explode”) .

“Ode to Ambedkar” is rich with evocative imagery:

“The skin of the untouchable parched by cycles of untouched life is moistened by your Heavenly stream; You have smashed the head of the god-given wind/ That created room for a wobbly nation and its restless people”, “The parrot of existence perennially pecks at the unending agony of thought”, “An earthen owl of compassion and a black rose of blood grow out of my arse”, “If I don’t uproot this society of mere onlookers,/ A hard rock will separate you and me: and I will not be able to see/ Your radiant disc surrounded by lotuses growing among crystals, rejecting all material things..”, “For, at the very point of the needle, one is introduced to love and to the green blade of wheat”, “That Sun flows perennially through shouts of victory”, “That sun flies like the New Year’s butterfly and spreads light,/ That Sun grows parallel to railway tracks,/ That Sun loosens the stone walls of universities;/ It moves only from one freedom to the next”.

These and other dynamic lines remind readers of a Pablo Neruda or a Cesar Vallejo by their raw force and sheer creative energy. A similar energy also characterises “Water”:

Water is like Siddhartha

Water is like the ashoka tree

Water is also nitric acid.

At times the lines become soft and fluent like the lines of a folk song:

Speak water, what colour are you

Son, it’s like your eyes…

Tell me water, what your colour is

Daughter, it is the colour of your thirst.

At times the lines turn red with wrath:

The rising day of justice, like a bribed person, favours only them

While we are being slaughtered, not even a sigh for us escapes their generous hands

(“The Orthodox Pity”).

The idiom grows darker and more complex as we move forward to poems like “Approaching the Organised Harem of the Octopus”. Black becomes a positive colour as in the poetry of Senghor and the poets of negritude. “ We are all over the streets spread out long and wide as tar on the road” (“By the Side of the Crucifix”). The legs of homeless urchins in the graveyard, the moon hurt all over the body like a prostitute, grotesque people eating starvation underlined in decimals in the womb of 1970, the eunuch cropping up in the harvest to castrate the shit, the sewage that gushes out in a torrent from the face: clear and blurred images try to capture the horrid reality of our time. “Mandakini Patel: A Young Prostitute, My Intended Collage” is another poem that foregrounds the gory violence perpetrated upon a 16-year-old girl by a brutalised society. The poet’s tone grows tender as he thinks of the girl:


Your mind is neither ash nor marble

I feel your hair, your clothes, your nails, your breasts

as though they were my own

They reveal to me, within myself colonies of the dead…

Never before had I seen a face so

devoid of light

As was yours…

But the poet does not lose hope:


my peahen,

Look out of the window, and a new

world is born.

Troubled nation as a tree

The poet’s troubled yet untiring voice goes on recounting atrocity after atrocity, sin after sin in the other poems in the collection extracted from the later collections. The style is basically the same, but sometimes it grows more ironic as in “The Tree of Violence” where the tree becomes the central metaphor for the state of the nation constantly troubled by waves of violence whose roots lie in the basic inequalities in society. It is a tree that grows thousand-fold when cut down.

Those who brought up the tree

walked out on their homes

They laughed their way to the


Because they knew it for sure

That as long as the circumstances that gave birth to the tree were not rooted out

The tree was not destined to die.

The tree finally becomes the cornucopia for the newborn nation.

The poems grow even more strident in Tuhi Yatta Kanchi (What is Your Grade?). Poems like “Kamatipura”, “Hunger”, “Ode to Ambedkar” and “Sweet Baby Poverty” are all poems of deep anguish and concern for the underprivileged whose anger and frustration become the poet’s own.

The poems from Khel (Play), however, are more introspective and deal with the questions of the self. The “Untitled Poem 1”, for example, begins like this:

I have seen him

I have rejected him often

My corpse that wanders

From town to town.

The next poem begins with:

The Self sheds its dead skin in water

Again a growing creeper climbs the new skin…

Each thing unfolds its inner space.

The style also becomes softer and more sober in the later poems:

There are neither flowers

Nor leaves;

Neither trees

Nor birds.

All this is mimicry by mercy of His grace

Sealed fragrance of musk

Thus the chains on one’s legs are transformed

into music…

(“Arse-fuckers’ Park 1”).

The irony is still there as the poet speaks about the politicised crows listening to the proceedings of pimps confessing to a study of streetwalkers, and home guards performing their drills on a sterile field of silence. And there is the choking pain: “ Behind every word/ There is a naked face hidden”, “A wound has found its home in my heart—even words cannot open its doors”. And the surrealist images:

Horses are being tattooed on my arms.

The creeping plant of my penis is about to flower.

Ibsen’s doll is about to get married…

The black truth seeks to ride the tortoise (ibid.).

The poet revolts against the total cleanliness of the shirt of a non-worker and the uncompromising purity that grows heartless:

A human being shouldn’t become so spotless.

One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt.

One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin

(“Speculations on a Shirt”).

I am a venereal sore in the private part of language”, the poet declares meaningfully in the poem “Cruelty”; “ The living spirit looking out of hundreds of thousands of sad, pitiful eyes/Has shaken me”. He seeks release from his “infernal identity” as he sees a sigh “standing up on lame legs”. The longing for liberation keeps coming back: “ I do not wish to get chained to this God-created hell” (“Worry”); “ Gradually people start coming out of the body” (“People”).

The poem “December 6” is a powerful reminder of the crisis of our secular ethos:


This city is no longer mine

It was only yesterday that you told


That this country belonged to us…

The walls of my own house charge

upon me

They want to assassinate me.

Digging up dead bodies from the

past the enemies are busy

Playing the politics of


Yesterday they murdered Gandhi

Now they want to put the whole

nation to death…

The poet’s idiom gets more direct on occasions like these. He finds his face stirred up on the surface of water like Narcissus did; he sheds his skin like a snake and asks the reader not to blow a breath on the water as with that his memoirs will lose their face—a reminder of the fragility of human life (“Autobiography”).

Tragedy and comedy become one for him, fate’s tamasha and pain’s dasavatar. He sums up his life thus:

This soil created me as an outsider;

This air turned its back on me;

What took pity on me in the end was the sky that has no limits (“Miracle”).

He is anxious about tomorrow when people would present nuclear warheads, instead of roses, to one another as symbols of love (“With a God who Isn’t”). He tells van Gogh, “ You’ve forgotten to paint/ One of the colours of the sun!” Kabir has disappeared from the bazaar: “ This chatter of freedom does not accept my tradition” (“Poetry Notebook”). Still he knows that “ it’s started to rain/ On the untouchable earth” (“Comes the Day, Passes the Day”).

The poet’s testament is summed up in these lines:

The wicked have injured the earth

Poets know all about it

Only poets can save the Earth

From extinction.

Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry is at the same time personal expression and the expression of his traumatised community.

As Dilip Chitre remarks: “It is the nimble and graceful movement across the fault-lines of alienation that gives his poetry its artistic distinctiveness. At times a cleansing fury rages in his writing. At other times, it is moistened by sensitive compassion and a spiritual clarity. Namdeo’s is a rooted and located human voice that demands to be heard on its own terms.”