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Dalit literature, or literature about the Dalits, an oppressed Indian caste under the Indian caste system, forms an important and distinct part of Indian literature. Dalit literature emerged in the 1960s, starting with the Marathi language, and soon appeared in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil languages, through narratives such as poems, short stories, and, most , autobiographies, which stood out due to their stark portrayal of reality and the Dalit political scene.
Dalit literature denounced as petty and false the then prevailing portrayal of life by the Sadashiv Pethi literature which lacked mention of the abject poverty-stricken lifestyle of the Dalits and the utter oppression the Dalits faced, at that time, from the higher castes. It is often compared with African-American literature especially in its depiction of issues of racial segregation and injustice, as seen in slave narratives
One of the first Dalit writers were The Sage Valmiki who wrote the epic Ramayana and sage Vyasar who wrote the other epic Mahabharatha.later was Madara Chennaiah, an 11th-century cobbler-saint who lived during the reign of Western Chalukyas and who is also regarded by some scholars as the "father of Vachana poetry". Another poet who finds mention is Dohara Kakkaiah, a Dalit by birth, whose six confessional poems survive.
In 1958, the term "Dalit literature" was used at the first conference of Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha (Maharashtra Dalit Literature Society) in Mumbai by people including Jyotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar. In 1993, Ambedkari Sahitya Parishad, Wardha organized the first Akhil Bharatiya Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan (All India Ambedkarite Literature Convention) in Wardha, Maharashtra to re-conceptualize and transform Dalit Sahitya (Dalit literature) into Ambedkari Sahitya, after the name of the Dalit modern-age hero, scholar and inspiration Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who had successfully campaigned against caste-discrimination and was a strong advocate of Dalit rights. Ambedkari Sahitya Parishad then successfully organized the Third Akhil Bharatiya Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan in 1996 and became a voice of advocacy for awareness and transformation. Since then ten similar Sahitya Sammelans, or literary gatherings, were held in various places.
The Ambedkari Sahitya Parishad was officially formed in 1992 with the goal to foster among people common ideals of humanity and to provide a platform to those who are inspired by Ambedkar's thoughts and philosophy.
Baburao Bagul (1930–2008) wrote in Marathi. His first collection of stories, Jevha Mi Jat Chorali (English When I had Concealed My Caste), published in 1963, depicted a cruel society and thus brought in new momentum to Dalit literature in Marathi; today it is seen by many critics as an epic portraying lives of the Dalits, and was later made into a film by actor-director Vinay Apte. Gradually with other writers like, Namdeo Dhasal (who founded Dalit Panther), these Dalit writings paved way for the strengthening of Dalit movement.
Modern Dalit Literature
According to K. Satchidanandan, Dalit literature began to be mainstreamed in India with the appearance of the English translations of Marathi Dalit writing. An Anthology of Dalit Literature, edited by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot, and Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, originally published in three volumes and later collected in a single volume, edited by Arjun Dangle, both published in 1992, were perhaps the first books that popularised the genre throughout India.
But the origins of Dalit writing can be traced back to Buddhist literature; Dalit Bhakti poets like Gora, Raidas, Chokha Mela and Karmamela; and the Tamil Siddhas, or Chittars (6th to 13th centuries C.E.), many of whom must have been Dalits going by hagiographical accounts like Periyapuranam (12th century). But it was after the democratic and egalitarian thinkers such as Sree Narayana Guru, Jyotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Iyothee Thass, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Poykayil Appachan and others cogently articulated the sources and modes of caste oppression that modern Dalit writing as a distinct genre began to emerge in Indian languages.
According to Satyanarayana and Tharu, "although it is possible to identify a few Dalit writers from earlier times, the real originality and force of Dalit writing, which today comprises a substantial and growing body of work, can be traced to the decades following the late 1960s. Those are the years when the Dalit Panthers revisits and embraces the ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar, and elaborates his disagreements with the essentially Gandhian mode of Indian nationalism, to begin a new social movement. In the following decades, Dalit writing becomes an all-India phenomenon. This writing reformulates the caste question and reassesses the significance of colonialism and of missionary activity. It resists the reduction of caste to class or to non-Brahminism and vividly describes and analyzes the contemporary workings of caste power."
Asserting the importance of Dalit literature Arundhati Roy has observed: "I do believe that in India we practice a form of apartheid that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. And it is as important for Dalits to tell their stories as it has been for colonized peoples to write their own histories. When Dalit literature has blossomed and is in full stride, then contemporary (upper caste?) Indian literature's amazing ability to ignore the true brutality and ugliness of the society in which we live, will be seen for what it is: bad literature. It will become irrelevant."
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- Purushotham, K. (2013) Trans. and Ed. Black Lilies: Telugu Dalit Poetry New Delhi: Critical Quest.
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- Ravikumar (2009) Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics. Calcutta: Samaya
- Satyanarayana, K & Tharu, Susie (2011) No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South Asia, Dossier 1: Tamil and Malayalam, New Delhi: Penguin Books.
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- Uma, Alladi. Rani, K. Suneetha. and Manohar, D. Murali. (2014) Eds. English in the Dalit Context. New Delhi: OrientBlackswan.
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- Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature
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- Excerpt from Arundhati Roy's essay, "The Doctor and the Saint"
- We Need Ambedkar Now: Arundhati Roy Interview