Namdeo Dhasal

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caste system, politics, realism
Written and spoken word (general)
Asia, Southern and Central
created on:
April 28, 2005
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since November 21, 2005. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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Namdeo Dhasal was born in a village near Poona, India, in 1947. As a member of the Dalits, the casteless (or ´untouchables´) he grew up in direst poverty. Dhasal spent his childhood in Golpitha, a red-light district in Mumbai/Bombay, where his father worked for a butcher.
Following the example of the American Black Panther movement, he founded the Dalit Panther with friends in 1972. This militant organization underscored its radical political activism with provocative pamphlets. Dhasal was one of the most famous and most outspoken members of this group. In 1973 he published his first volume of poetry, ´Golpitha´, which caused an uproar in literary circles. It was followed by more poetry collections and two novels. In 1982 cracks began to appear in the Dalit movement. Ideological disputes gained the upper hand and eclipsed the common goal. Dhasal wanted to engender a mass movement and widen the term Dalit to include all oppressed people, but the majority of his comrades insisted on maintaining the exclusivity of their organisation. Serious illness and alcohol addiction overshadowed the following years, during which Dhasal wrote very little. During the 1990s he became more politically active. Dhasal currently holds a national office in the Indian Republican Party, formed by the merger of all Dalit parties.

His work has earned him many honours and prizes. The Dalit literature tradition is very old, although the term was only introduced officially in 1958. Dhasal was greatly inspired by the work of Baburo Bagul, who employed photographic realism to draw attention to the circumstances which those deprived of their rights from birth have to endure. Dhasal’s innovative poems broke away from formal and stylistic conventions. His use of vulgar language offended literary taste. He wrote in Marathi, the official language of the state of Maharashtra, but included many words and expressions which only the Dalits normally use. In ´Golpitha´, for example, he adapted his language to that of the red-light milieu, which shocked middle-class readers. The Establishment’s assessment of Dhasal’s political as opposed to his artistic achievements may differ drastically, but for the writer they are inextricably linked. In an interview in 1982 he said that if the aim of social struggles was the removal of unhappiness, then poetry was necessary because it expressed that happiness vividly and powerfully. Later he stated, ´Poetry is politics´. Dhasal adheres to this principle in his private life. He told the photographer Henning Stegmüller, "I enjoy discovering myself. I am happy when I am writing a poem, and I am happy when I am leading a protest of prostitutes fighting for their rights."
Author: International Festival of Literature Berlin (ilb)


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