Siddalingaiah: People’s poet

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Kannada poet and writer Siddalingaiah. Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES

book cover. Photo: special arrangement

Siddalingaiah. Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES

Siddalingaiah (1954-2021) achieved cult status in progressive movements with his poetry being appropriated by a variety of activists in the 1970s and 1980s.

Siddalingaiah, the revolutionary Kannada Dalit poet, passed away on June 11 at Manipal Hospital in Bengaluru owing to COVID-19 pneumonia and organ failure. A spate of condolence meetings organised by Dalit, labour and Left organisations held on his passing attest to the overwhelming impact his literary works had on the progressive movements in Karnataka. At all these meetings, Siddalingaiah was often addressed as ‘Kavi’ Siddalingaiah. That moniker is sure to become a permanent affixture to his name in Kannada as the sign of his respectful stature in the world of letters. At a state-sponsored event held on June 21 to lay the foundation of a memorial for Siddalingaiah, Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa released a volume of his entire corpus of poetry titled Bodhivrikshada Kelage (Under the Bodhi Tree).

Siddalingaiah was born in 1954 in a Holeya Dalit family in Magadi town, around 60 kilometres from Bengaluru. His was the last house in the Dalit colony. He describes a poignant scene in his autobiography (Ooru Keri) when he saw his father fastened to a yoke and trundling like a bullock, ploughing the fields, while a man swung a whip behind him. The family moved to Bengaluru’s working-class neighbourhood of Srirampura while he was still in school. Siddalingaiah was admitted to the R. Gopalaswamy Iyer hostel for Dalits where his mother worked as a sweeper. His father did odd jobs, as a substitute worker in a textile mill and at firewood depots to carry firewood to people’s homes.

Siddalingaiah went to the Government Arts College, where he initially became known as an avid debater, a skill he had honed from his schooldays. But he was to establish his reputation as a poet when he was a postgraduate student at Bangalore University. In 1973, as a student activist, he stood firmly by B. Basavalingappa, Minister for Municipal Administration, who sparked a huge controversy when he asked Dalits to “fling the images of gods into the gutter” and also said that “much of Kannada literature is boosa”, meaning cattle-feed.

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Siddalingaiah’s first collection of poems titled Holemaadigara Haadu (Songs of the Holeya and Madiga), published in 1975, became immensely popular for their angry and indignant style. (Holeyas and Madigas are the two broad agglomerations of Dalits in Karnataka.) During the political churning of the 1970s when fundamental social relations were being challenged in Karnataka under the chief ministership of Devraj Urs, Siddalingaiah’s poetry catalysed the nascent Dalit movement in the State. M. Srinivas (known in Kannada literary circles as ‘Shudra’ Srinivas), who published these early poems in his magazine Shudra, said that the poems from Holemaadigara Haadu “became the manifesto for the Dalit movement in Karnataka”.

The English translation of one of his poems titled “A Song”, which formed part of Holemaadigara Haadu, has been reproduced here to give readers a sense of the rage in young Siddalingaiah’s voice:

Bash them, kick them,

skin these bastards alive!

God is one, they claim

but build a different temple on each street.

We are all God’s children, they say,

yet they shrink from us holeya as if we’re snakes.

No entry for us to their inns, their wells, their houses.

But dogs that lick our shit may share their rooms.

They eat what we grow, take the sweat of our brow.

It’s only us people they shun.

We are not holeya and madiga any more, my brothers.

They call us harijan and laugh, my brothers!

They hold ‘meetings’ about us, draft laws for our sakes;

pat each other’s backs in our name.

They’ll liberate us, they declare in the papers-

how they yell from their mikes!

Yet no ischool for us, my friends, only drudgery.

Nor can we hold our heads up.

They’re playing games with us, these bastards!

So, smash them, kick them, break these whoresons’ bones!

(The poem has been translated by Maitreyi Karnoor and is available in Steel Nibs are Sprouting: New Dalit Writing from South India, Dossier II edited and introduced by K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu.)

At around the same time, Siddalingaiah formed the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) along with litterateur Devanur Mahadeva and Dalit ideologue B. Krishnappa. The young poet’s atheism and rationalism had become well known by then. While the DSS has split into several factions since those early days, its various wings remain the most prominent Dalit voice in Karnataka. Mavalli Shankar, State convener of DSS (Ambedkar Vada), said Siddalingaiah, through his activism and poetry, brought “Dalit consciousness to an entire generation”. Siddalingaiah formed the Bandaaya Sahitya Sanghatana in 1979 focussing on protest literature when the Kannada Sahitya Parishat refused to have a separate session on Dalit literature at a national-level conference that year.

Siddalingaiah followed up his early collection of poems with Saaviraru Nadigalu (Thousands of Rivers, 1979), Kappu Kaadina Haadu (The Song of the Black Forest, 1982), Aayda Kavithegalu (Selected Poems, 1997), Meravanige (Procession, 2000) and Nanna Janagalu Matthu Itara Kavitegalu (My People and Other Poems, 2005). The tenor of his later poetry shifted from the anger seen in his early work, but the concern for Dalits and the subjugated remained constant.

The fact that his poetry, which has achieved cult status over the years, was appropriated by a variety of activists who were speaking up against all kinds of oppression in the 1970s and 1980s gives one an idea of the wide impact this diminutive poet had. By this time, he was acknowledged as a public intellectual. The veteran Kannada journalist Sanathkumar Belagali said Siddalingaiah’s “songs [poetry] were an intrinsic part of the farmers, labour and left movements”.

During those early days, Siddalingaiah also identified himself with the Communist movement. He writes in his autobiography that he was associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Siddalingaiah participated in workers’ protests in Srirampura, a locality where there were several textile mills. Prasanna, the veteran street theatre activist who started the leftist theatre group Samudaya during the Emergency, recalled that “Siddalingaiah was shaped by the organised Left movement during this period. Dozens of Dalit youngsters would come and participate in the activities of Samudaya.”

In 1988, when Ramakrishna Hegde was Chief Minister, Siddalingaiah was nominated to the Karnataka Legislative Council. He was only 34 years old then. Reacting to the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, Siddalingaiah said in the Legislative Council: “December 6 is the day that Babasaheb Ambedkar passed away. The day he passed away is the day when the ideals that he propounded have been destroyed. This is very painful and I understand the demolition of Babri Masjid to be the ghastly work of bigots and lunatics.”

He was an MLC for two consecutive six-year terms, 1988-94 and 1995-2001. Subsequently, he was appointed chairperson of the Kannada Development Authority and the Kannada Books Authority.

Siddalingaiah had taught at Bangalore University and even served as the head of the Kannada Department. He was feted widely thoughout his career. He was awarded the Rajyotsava Award (the second highest civilian honour in Karnataka) in 1986. Siddalingaiah chaired the 81st edition of the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in 2015.

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Apart from poetry, Siddalingaiah published an excellent study of village deities titled Avataragalu (Avatars) based on his doctoral research. His autobiography, Ooru Keri, was published in three parts in 1996, 2009 and 2018. (Part one and two have been translated into English by S.R. Ramakrishna and published as a single volume titled A Word with You, World.) Siddalingaiah’s account has been lauded for its depiction of Dalit life and for its insights into the struggles of the community. What sets the autobiography apart from other similar works in the genre is the easy use of humour and irony and the author’s self-deprecating tone.

Black laughter

Siddalingaiah was aware of his unique literary style and had commented in an interview about his use of humour: “There is a lot of pain in the life of a Dalit, true. But there is also so much laughter. There is an abundance of jokes about landlords, middle men, exploiters, etc. There is this term called Black Laughter. Just as the white men laugh with condescension, the oppressed have their black laughter too. Similarly, there is something called the Dalit laughter.”

The cultural critic D.R. Nagaraj, who was a close friend of Siddalingaiah, titled his afterword to the first volume of Ooru Keri as “The Power of Poor People’s Laughter”. Evaluating the work, Nagaraj writes that the poet “in Siddalingaiah interestingly attempts to retain the cultural rage of contemporary Dalit politics, and yet be different. This is writing that makes rage pleasant. Here, anger becomes sarcasm. Ire is translated into a mischief that grasps the subtleties of life. What might have appeared strange if turned into a grand narrative becomes a story of human activity. Siddalingaiah transforms wrath into mischief.”

Assessing Siddalingaiah’s literary output, Prasanna said: “Some critics have categorised his poetry as ‘raw’ but this irritation is a sign of the unease of the upper castes. When we talk of Siddalingaiah today, we don’t merely identify him as a Dalit poet as he transcended this identity to become a people’s poet.” The Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa, who was a fellow convener of the Bandaaya Sahitya Sanghatana in 1979, stated that Siddalingaiah’s contribution to “the Dalit movement and protest literature remain unparalleled”. He added a word of praise for the singers who had taken Siddalingaiah’s poetry to the masses.

Rajya Sabha member and poet L. Hanumanthaiah stated: “All DSS events started with Siddalingaiah’s songs. He was the most important person for the Dalit movement. He had a unique literary style that was full of rage. He gave a new direction to Kannada literature with hundreds of poets attempting to emulate his style. [Ramakrishna] Hegde, who became a fan of Siddalingaiah, made him an MLC.” While he took aggressive and principled stands through his poetry and activism, Siddalingaiah was a soft-spoken person and is remembered for the wry humour that accompanied his public speeches in later life.

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Siddalingaiah was accused by his fellow travellers in the progressive movement of succumbing to the lure of power and compromising, at least partially, on his principles and betraying the Dalit movement. Siddalingaiah had even released a book on the positive aspects of Manu Smriti. He was accused of hobnobbing with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and even joining the saffron party. His long-time friend Mohan Kumar Kondajji, who is now an MLC, denied the charges. He said: “You can never say that he was associated with the BJP.”

‘Shudra’ Srinivas added: “Siddalingaiah never identified himself with the BJP. He did meet [BJP national president] Amit Shah [in 2018] but never gave a clarification about this because it would become a controversy.”

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