It was once a general perception and I think still is, that poetry can be done by only a few people and it needs literary skills. I really do not understand what these “literary skills” are. I find these skills and restrictions to be exclusive and oppressive.
I find it oppressive and discriminating because the world of poetry always revolves around poets who weave it with their privileges. For example, in Telegu poetry, Sri Sri is considered a mahakavi (great poet) and his language is considered to be the flagbearer of poetry. By doing so, we have all been a part of unrecognising poets that do not imitate the realm of Sanskritised Telegu or sophisticated English.
This goes on further and systematically in the guise of construed principles of poetry. The community of mainstream poets denounces the poetry of the marginalised and poetry that does not fit into the mainstream. It is obvious that poetry that came from oppressed sections have been othered. So let us read about some Dalit women poets whose poetry challenged dominant caste norms and take us to the lives of their community.
1. Joopaka Subhadra
Joopaka Subhadra is a Dalit woman poet from the state of Telangana who reflects Dalit struggles in her poems. She spoke about the discrimination of Dalit women from Dalit men. Her poems tell us about Dalit women from rural backgrounds.
She is the founder of Mattipoolu (SC, ST, BC and Minority) Women Writers’ Forum and has been one of the very strong voices for the community. She engages with the discourse of rape a tool used by the powerful to oppress women.
Leather poem from Ayyayyo Dammakka
Mallanna may be a slave to the world
But he is reputed in our waada (colony).
For having tied the wedlock,
I have become a slave to Mallanna.
My stories and my pains
Evaporate at the hamlet’s boundary stone
Her poem collection Ayyayyo Dammakka in Telegu reveals the gender discrimination within the Dalit community. Another celebrated poem of hers is Kongu isn’t a rag that stands guard over my head in the Madiga poem collection, Kaitunakala danDem. In which she differentiates between the ghungat worn by dominant caste women and the kongu (the free end of the saree) worn by Dalit women.
2. Aruna Gogulamanda
Another Dalit womanist poet from Telangana is Aruna Gogulamanda. She comes from a middle-class agricultural family. She weaves her poetry around Dalit women who had to face twofold discrimination for being women and Dalits. Her poem A Dalit woman in the land of goddesses reveals the hypocrisy of Indian culture that boasts about celebrating women as goddesses.
Excerpts from A Dalit woman in the land of Goddesses
Her eyes two dry hollows bear silent witness
To hundreds of deaths of her mothers, daughters, sisters
Their dreams, respect and their bodies.
Her calloused hands, her unkempt hair
Her cracked heels, her wrinkled hair
Tell the tales of living through fears and years
Of centuries and millennia of violations and deaths.
She was told
That she was dirt,
She was filth and
In this sacred land of thousands of goddesses
She is called a Dalit.
She brings out the difficulties that working-class Dalit women had to face through her poem. Her poem for Rohit Vemula in Telugu builds the portrait of Dalit student struggles in elite institutions who face mental agony owing to institutional casteism. Her poetry is simple and deep to which everyone can connect. “None of these are India’s daughters”, she says about the multi-fold discrimination of Dalit women in and outside families.
Sukirtharani is a Dalit feminist poet who writes in Tamil. Her poems are unique, centred around caste and body. She brings out how the caste system restricts the bodily freedom of women. Her six poem collections: Kaipattri Yen Kanavu Kel, Iravu Mirugam, Kaamatthipoo, Theendapadaatha Muttham, Avalai Mozhipeyarthal and Ippadikku Yeval are about her Dalit identity. Her poem Yen Udal (My Body) is about how women’s bodies are always seen with men’s patronization.
Viduthalaiyin Pathaagai by Sukirtharani
At the top of the pole
planted in my vagina
the flag of our freedom shall fly
painted in the colour of blood.
Many of Sukirtharani’s poems are being taught in colleges in Tamil Nadu. She organised the poet’s protest in 2009 against the violence on Tamils Sri Lanka. Sukirtharani’s poems will tell you how caste and women’s bodies play a profound role in the marginalisation of Dalit women.
4. Vijila Chirappad
Vijila Chirappad is a Dalit woman poet who writes in Malayalam and tells stories of Dalit women in kerela. Her poems imply how the communist history of Kerala has done nothing to achieve a casteless society.
Vijila’s poems explain that the struggle of every woman is not same, where she distinguishes between dominant caste women and Dalit women in Kerala. Her poems reflect everyday difficulties that women face in and outside homes. Vijila’s poem, Household Rags bring out the culture of slavery that married women are bound to.
Wasteland by Virila Chirappad
chandrika chechi of the Wasteland
about the homes one enters
only through the back door.
of the flats
where one enters
through the front door —
the ones with the porch light on.
returning daily from the marketplace
both the fish and she share
the same path —
the one through the back door.
entering through the very same route,
while hearing the television
blare the pledge aloud on August 15 —
all Indians are my brothers and sisters.
Her work includes three poem collections namely, Adukala Illathaa Veedu (A Home without a Kitchen, 2006), Amma Oru Kalpanika Kavitha Alla (Mother is not a Poetic Figment of our Imagination, 2009) and Pakarthi Ezhuthu (Copied Notes, 2015).
5. Sheetal Sathe
Sheetal Sathe is an Ambedkarite woman poet as well as singer. She writes songs and poems for Kabir Kala Manch in Hindi which have been translated into English. Her poetry is anti-caste and pays a tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar. Her poem, as well as song, Ek Maitra Raangadya which was translated into English, brings out the nausea of untouchability that is served to Dalits in everyday life.
Ek Maitra Raangadya
Nausea served in the plate , the untouchable nausea
The disgust grows in the belly, the untouchable disgust
It’s there in the flower buds, it’s there in sweet songs
That a man should drink another man’s blood,
This is the land where this happens
This is the land of hellish nausea
Her poems and songs are all a form of challenging state repression and caste violence. She wrote the poem Rohith Gaya, Dalit Gaya, Mar Gayi Hai Lokshahi for Rohit Vemula which mentions the death of democracy. Her poems/songs made the state target her and she had been imprisoned in 2011 for her rebellious poetry.
This is by no means an all-encompassing or a representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are more than welcome in the comments section.