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– Prathama Banerjee[…]
The third set of questions I have in mind relates to language. The issue of language has most commonly been raised in India in contexts of teaching. Here, language is seen primarily as a matter of communicability of content, presumed to be already and sufficiently available in English. Connected to this is the question of availability of reading materials in Indian languages. As of now, in teaching contexts, language thus comes up primarily as a translatability question. Hence, the recent governmental initiative of the National Translation Mission, which however seems defunct even before take-off.
To my mind, the problem here is that we have failed to establish translation itself as a worthwhile academic act – based on research, offering employment at par within academic institutions and bringing formal credit to students specializing in it. Also, in contexts of research, the language question is barely ever raised. It is presumed that high-end research would happen by default in English. Indian languages will of course figure in such research if they are social sciences, but only as primary materials (drawn from archives, fieldwork, interviews etc.), subsequently cooked in English before being served as knowledge, as it were. Finished products of research then would be translated back into the vernaculars for purpose of dissemination.
It is important to note here that since the 1950s, translation of ‘regional’ literature into English, especially under the aegis of the Sahitya Akademi, has been central to our cultural imaginary. More recently, translations of feminist and dalit writings from the bhashas into English have further reinforced this centrality of translation and have impacted social sciences positively. Yet, what this has also done, paradoxically, is create an image of the Indian languages as primarily ‘literary’, i.e. structurally resistant to academic articulation – and this, despite the large volume of intellection that goes on routinely in vernacular domains, often outside enclosed academic institutions and in the larger public sphere of essays, journals and little magazines. In this context, I think it is useful to draw in the language question within the purview of our thoughts on interdisciplinarity.
First of all, we could consider if it is worthwhile setting up ‘translation studies’, within or outside universities, in the shape of an interdisciplinary field – rather than simply presume that translation is either a matter of individual multilingual skill or a subsidiary field to language and literary studies. We must admit that different disciplines have evolved different languages of thought, and academic translation requires a simultaneous engagement with these distinctive conceptual languages. The question of academic language thus is tied to but not reducible to the question of English versus vernacular or spoken versus literary. We must ask then if social sciences share the same conceptual language irrespective of whether they are carried on in English or Bengali or Malayalam?
If not, which is most likely, then the interface between vernacular social science domains and the formal, academic domain is not merely that of translatability but also of interdisciplinarity. That is, the language question here is embedded in the larger question of the relationship between distinct bodies of knowledge with different norms, forms, protocols and textual genres. In other words, translation studies must open unto the interdisciplinarity question – because in the context of social sciences, translation is a matter of both conceptual and linguistic translation, of transactions both across disciplines and across language domains.
Second, we can also reverse the above question. That is, we can ask if interdisciplinarity itself should be seen through the prism of the language question. In other words, when we put two disciplines such as history and economics face to face, are we actually also looking at two languages of articulation, which can only speak to each other through translation or through the mediation of an altogether different third language, which gets produced out of the event of coming face-to-face? In other words, do we get any further purchase in thinking interdisciplinarity by seeing disciplines as different languages seeking to access a common or a shared object of knowledge, rather than by seeing disciplines as primarily constituted by incommensurably different objects of knowledge and different methods?
Finally, we can also consider setting up in our academic institutions centres of ‘regional studies’ – somewhat similar to, yet distinct from, the ‘area studies’ model of US universities. What this does is to subsume, yet critically foreground, the language and translation question within a larger problematic of what is today being called the ‘vernacular domain’. These centres, of say Tamil studies or Bengal studies or North East studies, would call upon all social science disciplines (including economics, film studies and environmental studies) to simultaneously engage with the ‘region’ in India. It will be within this larger framework, then, that we address simultaneously the question of language, of vernacular social science, and of translation. Needless to say, this would require a critical rethinking of what it is to mark out regions, without simply validating the political boundaries of the Indian federal space.
(Excerpted with gratitude from Prathama Banerjee, “Disciplines Inter-disciplines and Languages” Seminar #624, August 2011, )
Accessed at: http://www.india-seminar.com/2011/624/624_prathama_banerjee.htm
Prathama Banerjee is a researcher and teaches at CSDS.
Three aspects of translation
(A broadsheet team discussion)
– A Suneetha, M A Moid and R Srivatsan
What do you mean by the idea of ‘translating worlds’?
Suneetha: When one writes, one is addressing existing debate; one is trying to write in that particular domain, context and discourse. These determine the shape of one’s writing, its content and its tone. On one level, there is the hierarchy between English and regional languages and on the other, each language has its own public sphere related to its own history, context and politics. The debate in each language is characterized by both these factors. To give an example, Urdu debate has a pan-national context which also includes Arabic, Persian and Islamic worlds. Academic debates in English would address multi-national readerships. With a linguistic state and an identity that was established over 50 years, Telugu debates have a profile that responds more to the political debates within the state. There is very little attempt to speak to an audience which is not Telugu speaking. So when we try to translate from English to Telugu or Urdu to Telugu one needs to be aware of these plural linguistic worlds.
For instance in the first broadsheet we encountered a problem in trying to translate the issues of Hyderabad Muslims. The term has a meaning because Hyderabad Muslims have an identity that is located in the history of the debate that occurred about Hyderabad, both in English and in Urdu. In Telugu this resonance is absent. The concept of the Hyderabadi Muslim does not have any meaning beyond that of ‘minority’. The sense of history, the sense of culture is not there, so how does one translate across this division.
Srivats: In fact what I found resonance with, in the SEZ broadsheet, was the essay which was translated by K. Sandhya, on the Chinese SEZ. The problem was not translating a Chinese world into a Telugu world but it is being able to translate a world which comes from the domain of academic writing, accurately to the Telugu by keeping it comprehensive. There is actually a world of academic writing also as opposed to the world of cultural writing, of a different complexity, and I felt that there was a precision in her translation of the argument about the Chinese SEZ into Telugu. I would also like to add a little bit to this notion of the world. The world we mean here is not the earth — the world is the large horizon that surrounds an individual; it links individual actions to a context, direction, purpose, meaning, broadly speaking, to a project. A person writing responds to that project – what a special economic zone is, how it would relate to Chinese modernization, how this process is to be described analytically, etc. It is responding to not to an inanimate context, but to a set of questions, a debate in that domain. If we want to translate this work to a Telugu general readership, we are trying to communicate the sense of that world or domain that determines his project. To make it clear, the individual’s purpose is determined by the world around him, by political and social context where that person is actually having a problem… so a person is writing, intervening in a particular way, for example, in an academic point on the China. Specifically, it is about the relationship between special economic zones and industrial development there. By translating it for a Telugu general readership one should be able to convey the sense of the community in which the writer is placed. Similarly while translating a story or poem from Telugu to English, you have to be aware of these negotiations, this project and this struggle of this person writing in Telugu, the debates and battles being fought, and try to evoke it in English.
Moid: I think that the world is nothing but the world view. The view we have of the world is the world for us – and it is rooted in the experiences around us. What I feel challenging and interesting is we have so many world views in the space of our own country and therefore so many languages because each language is supposed to express a particular kind of cultural experience, landscape and the particular world view which speakers of it have. Then we get something common as well as something not common, for example Telangana Telugu and Andhra Telugu. The problem is how to translate from one language to the other… translating culture, translating concepts, translating experiences, thoughts, emotions and all those things.
Suneetha: I think it is important to stress on what you both said i.e., language-worlds are not self contained but are connected by world-views. And these connections that cut across political issues, academic writings or cultural writing are what facilitate translation.
Moid: I think our understanding has been improved because of our effort to keep it bilingual. If it were kept only in English, we wouldn’t have faced these problems and we wouldn’t have understood all this.
What did you mean by the idea of force in translation?
Srivats : I would like to counter pose the concept of the world for translation with the force of the sentence in the first language. It seems to me while the world suggests an over-all picture of translation, the notion of force is actually exerted at the level of finest detail of the word or sentence. In an academic translation from English to Telugu, force will be its precision and the way it relates to terms around it. If you take a poetry translation from Telugu to English, force will have different meaning altogether, what the sentence means, how each sentence is stated assume importance. In order to grasp the world it is necessary to capture and convey the force of the statement with rigor and precision involved in it. And the rigor and precision comes, not simply from an exact use of a word in English because the connotation would be entirely different, but from an attempt to find a very precise equivalent for that in the language into which you are translating… so to establish that force it means the translator has to judge the kind of force that person being translated is exerting in her world, and try to figure out what the equivalent should be in English in order to convey that to the English reader. The Telugu reader reads directly the force within the world shared with the original writer whereas in the reader in translation has to be educated to the world in which the text was originally written. So the translator should be able to convey this. The person who is reading the translation is often opening a window on to the other world and so the ability to convey force is what actually gives the translation its life. So if you take a text, for a nominal example (and this is not a comment on the existing translation!), Antarani Vasantam and translate it without any life or force in English, it will read as sentences which are somewhat like close to what that person says—not idiomatically, but clumsily; whereas if we are able to translate it with verve, with rigor, a certain force, that text comes alive in the English.
Suneetha: Yes, there is a certain economy of words which doesn’t mean simply stringing them together. In some instances certain phrases require two or three additional sentences to convey what the author means but there are certain phrases in which I have actually resisted from using additional words or sentences because I wanted the reader to feel the tension. I wanted the reader to go to the additional effort of finding what the author has meant, to think more, and so in those contexts I have actually kept the translation to a minimum. Conveying force therefore requires different strategies.
Moid: Force is such a crucial thing, especially if you want to convey specific kind of emotions and feelings. In translating a scientific text, a very technical text this problem perhaps doesn’t arise. Accuracy is more important there. When you translate cultural material, such as experiences, I think force becomes very important. I think there is a classical problem here is…do you need to be loyal to text or to the meaning? What do you choose? And it’s a difficult choice. If one is loyal to the text you may lose the grip of the meaning and if you want to be loyal to the meaning your translation will not be loyal to source text.
Srivats : Each has to be calibrated …
Suneetha: Yes, calibrated…
Srivats: At the level of the sentence and sometimes at the level of the word: the better the translation the finer its calibration.
Moid : There is also this technical view that a good translation becomes possible only if you are an expert in the subject, in the source language and in the target language. It would be easier if one is expert in both the languages but if you don’t know the subject the decision will take some more time – it will not be very automatic, spontaneous …
Srivats : It is very difficult to meet this demand for double expertise if you also take subject also to be occupation, say agriculture – if you are translating from the Telugu Dalit text to English, and I am speaking from my experience. To know the subject means to know the agricultural vocabulary and very few people are going to have command over English and command over Telugu and command over the agricultural vocabulary and even the translator is always going to be a mismatch to the demand on many occasions.
Suneetha : to expand both your points, translating and conveying the force of the argument, of the language and of the project of the person, is not the matter of the expertise. I think it’s the matter of trust. And it is like a craft. Each time it would be different and not a mechanized kind enterprise. Of course, you do have Google translation but it will be only a Google translation. So, it is going to be imperfect … it is not going be perfect.
Moid : There is a machine translation and what we do is a specific translation, you can’t compare both!
Srivats: The third issue under discussion is one of translating concepts.
Suneetha : Yeah! Concepts bring back the world again actually in a much more concrete manner. I think we have faced issues in rendering some concept or the other in each of the broadsheets, haven’t we? Right from finding words like ‘sphurana’ for connotation, for eminent domain, public purpose in the SEZ broadsheet, various terms in the Aarogyasri and sexual harassment broadsheets. We had to coin new words especially from English to Telugu. Even in the SEZ broadsheet we had to address this, especially when we were trying to translate eminent domain or public purpose. The term public is translated as people or belonging to a people in Telugu. But public is a domain that is not borne out of collective action alone nor does it belong to all people equally. It is a product of modernity that has possibilities for universal belonging but is not reducible to people.
Moid: I think we have been successful in dealing with these concepts.
Suneetha: I am not very sure.
Srivats : Yes, the concept inhabits its own discourse. It has a set of supporting terms which give it meaning … it works in relation with these terms and somebody who has thought of this concept has elaborated those relationships and shows how the concept lifts something out from the buzz of everyday life—but to do that in the translation, means to find out what is the equivalent labor there for that person who has not facing it as the original reader but is trying to figure out what the labor of the concept is in the original.
Moid : The reason why I said we were successful in the concepts is that I have seen translations in Urdu journals, some postmodern texts being translated to Urdu.. I often get lost in trying to figure out what is being said. Whereas my experience with the broadsheet is that I don’t feel lost — I understand what is being said…
Srivats : Deleuze argues that to manufacture a concept is to lift something out of the flow. The reason why I am saying this is..the translation is actually bringing into the target language something new – you have to lift something out in the flow of the target language in order to reflect the problematic in the source language… you are trying to show the person the reflection of what is happening there … so you actually need to set up the reflection of the concept as a mirror.
Moid: That was the original intention of the broadsheet, wasn’t it? We put together each issue with a focus in a related contextual and conceptual field. In each broadsheet we try to provide a broad spectrum of perspectives and related concepts. Not all are politically correct but they all provide the frame of reference for the argument in the target language. The idea is to convey what’s happening.
– Gogu Shyamala and A Suneetha
Was there a discussion about Telangana idiom when the book was first released?
The book was published in 1985. It must be said that all the criticism was about the limitations in perspectives and understanding of the editors. The debate centered largely on the limitations of understanding oral history of women as ‘history’, about the problems faced in making them worthy of publication, and about the overall failure of Stree Shakti Sanghatana’s effort. We may examine typical criticisms that came up in the dailies and a few monthlies like Arunatara.
Balagopal dismissed the effort in Arunatara as follows: “I don’t think that many people will understand all these interviews. This is not a problem of language (Telangana language or women’s language). If spoken words are transcribed as they are, even those spoken by a person versed in writing will not be understood—even less would the speech of people like Palakurti Ailamma, and Dudala Salamma”. He thought that there was no question of readers understanding the oral histories which are there in the book. He considered some of the linguistic issues as technical ones, “the editors baulked at submitting the women’s spoken word to the sentence structure of masculine written prose and left it as it is. Because of this, a situation arose in which even those who are familiar with Telangana language and the idiom of women, could not understand the interviews.”
There was some definite praise for the book and its language use—this was not absent. Vakati Panduranga Rao (Newstime, 11 January, 1987) while discussing Palakurti Ailamma’s life story had this to say, “There is the smell of fresh earth in the language of this book… it is the living everyday language of people, a language that is not handcuffed to grammar, a language that is free of unnecessary ornament; this language fresh from green fields intoxicates”. However, what we see here is his romanticism. Chekuri Rama Rao commented thus about the language, “Bringing out the role of women, who hold up half the horizon of our desires, in their own words is a priceless gift to language researchers”. He didn’t say anything more.
Volga’s comment was close to our understanding (Eenadu, “Silent Music” Column), “We read women’s words as they are. We powerfully experience their thoughts, their mode of thinking, their method of understanding and articulating issues, their identity that is reflected in that method.
It becomes clear when we examine these comments that there was no context or environment for a discussion of the issues of language that were raised in the book.
You have launched a radical critique of left movements on the basis of women’s experiences in the book. How far did the voice of the women you interviewed contribute to that critique, and what was the role played by language in that voice?
Many of us came from the background of left movements. We had extensive discussions on women in revolutionary movements; on the role of women in history from Paris Commune to the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and on the feminist movements in the West. We had a context where innumerable women took upon themselves a variety of responsibilities and duties in the historic Telangana Armed Struggle. Our main objective was to write, with the help of our acquaintances who saw the Armed Struggle at first hand, ‘our women’s history’ which was not recognized in any recorded history hitherto. It was not our primary objective to launch a radical critique of the left movement. Some of these things become clear when we examine a few of the oral histories of women and their voices. We need to examine what Dudala Salamma had to say about the knowledge, strengths and capabilities that she acquired from the struggle, “I wonder how wisdom came to me from all this…. You are lettered. I have lived tending to buffaloes. All these details are at the tip of my tongue“(We Were Making History, p 261). At the same time, it is important to mention Priyamvada’s criticism of the party, “They (women) felt that if they came to the Party where men and women worked together freely, their lives would change for the better. They could not say all this very clearly, but they felt that they could experience another life, live as they chose to. But the party could not support them as it did not have a clear idea of how to tackle the problem of women who left their husbands and came away. They were also not sure whether it was the correct thing to take such women away from their husbands” (ibid. p 263). We must see Kamalamma’s suffering and maternal grief as she became pregnant and bore children while underground. “I was pregnant, but I traveled with them. It was time for the child to be born—we had no protection there. No hope of getting a midwife. The Party leaders threatened me, ‘you have to decide to give him away or live somewhere else with him… If you return your body will be slashed with knives and they will stuff chilli powder in the cuts. You will be raped and killed. It is your decision – think about it.’” When she asked that her husband be called and the baby shown to him, she was told “This is not the correct proletarian consciousness, my dear”. Kamalamma says, “My head spun. Did I deserve to be told all this? I didn’t come into the struggle to make a living. My body wasn’t in my control. My mind wasn’t in my control. And my tears flowed in an unending stream.” (p 265-266 – translation modified).
If we have to say how understand the role language played in their voice, we need to look at Priyamvada’s comment: “After the parliamentary elections and the Police Action, our dreams were smashed. Crushed like an egg. What a blow it was. After the elections, do you know where we were? Like the proverbial rug… lying exactly where it was thrown.” (p 272-273). Let us look at how Kondapalli Koteshwaramma described the difficulties of understanding politics, “It seemed as if Avakaya (a hot mustardy mango pickle) was given to a child first being introduced to solid food. They would expound arcane political concepts. They were like iron pellets – indigestible”.
You have reproduced the language of someone like Ailamma directly. However, there are many differences between her social context and yours (caste, class and education). Not only this, intellectually it seems as if you have applied Western feminism which has nothing to do with the realities of Indian society. How did you resolve these various differences? What kinds of discussion took place in your group regarding these issues?
There are many parts to this question. If this question is to be answered, in is important to understand the reasons behind this initiative. To explore our history as a feminist group was the first one. To work with women who had participated in the Telangana armed struggle was the second. After the sexual assault on Rameeza Bee, we had an opportunity to work with some of them (women of the armed struggle) and the idea of understand their past experiences arose in that context. If in our group some of us came from families which took part in movements, others had studied struggles of women in other countries. For example, the book Sandino’s Daughters, about the women in the Nicaraguan Revolution came out in 1981. At about the same time in 1983, the Hyderabad Book Trust brought the life story of a Latin American woman, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, called Maa Katha (Let Me Speak). It is a story of Bolivian women in struggle. We read the English version in the group. We read many books on women’s history in that context. We understood that across the world there were new attempts to reproduce women’s life stories as they were told. This understanding inspired us to undertake this project. We got the idea to record women’s stories in their own language and idiom. Different voices may be heard to echo in this book on oral history. In these echoes, you can hear middle class women, rural women, literate and illiterate women, women who spoke in the Telangana idiom, women who spoke a pure Brahminical language. Our attempt in this book is to present before the reader these all of women’s emotions, language, passion, suffering and political knowledge!
As far as I remember we didn’t give place to considerations such as which is a great language, which a common language, which should be corrected and which should be omitted. Our first interview was with Ailamma. We met her in her house in Palakurti village and spoke to her. As we recorded her words we felt the weave of her poetry and the melody of her speech. However to write it was a herculean effort. Stubbornly putting down on paper her exact words as she spoke them through repeated hearing, repeated editing—that was our objective.
Our primary aim was to present their voices to the readers. We only gave second place to the Telangana language and the politics behind it. Even though we recognized the issue, it did not assume priority. For example, it is possible to look at what we have said about Telangana language at the end of the book: “At one time, it was difficult even to write in Telangana language. However, it too gradually acquired status as a regional language. We want to bring the language spoken by one subsection of this region to light—women’s language and issues.” (p 284—translation modified).
To say that we drew on “Feminism” intellectually implies that we were influenced by the West, which is incorrect. What influenced our group in this effort were the two books on Latin American women’s struggles alone. However, the medium in which these books became accessible to us was the English language. When looked at thus, the bridge between two underdeveloped nations is English.
Whether it was an unfamiliar idiom or an odd pronunciation, everybody—the members of the group, those who read the draft and the composers in the printing press tried to correct it. It took all our talents and more to bring each of the life stories into shape and to preserve their integrity. We were told that we did not write the letters and words correctly or properly, or that the sentence structure was wrong, and that our editing was wrong. What exactly is standard language? Is it the Telugu of the Guntur-Krishna districts—how was this principle arrived at?
As mentioned in our foreword, public histories are written in a standard language and idiom that has universal consent. It is a rule bound authoritative language and sentence structure. We faced so many obstacles in writing about women whose lives and experiences were hidden behind the borders of mainstream history and written language. We had heated discussions even within our group. When we wanted to understand oppression under feudal landlordism, we heard instead of man-woman relationships, lives of women underground, their responsibilities and their mental agony. It was a problem to transcribe the tapes exactly. While there were two or three people who knew Telangana Telugu, those who had the patience to write were scarce indeed. Uma Maheshwari worked hard to reproduce Telangana Telugu precisely in writing. We faced the danger of relapsing into standard language time and again.
It must be said that we did not represent women’s life stories in this book. We wanted to make heard women’s experiences in their voice. The main issue was not their answers to our questions. The important thing was that they spoke; we listened and wrote down exactly what we heard. This was not as easy as we thought it would be. As difficult as it was to say things that remained unarticulated in any language, and to present the depths of those women’s experiences which had not been plumbed by anybody until then, it was equally difficult to find a language suited to that task. It was not only a matter of finding a language but of stretching it to its limits. This is the ‘language of silence’ mentioned by oral historians. However, it is necessary to cite the comment of an intellectual who did not understand this, “These oral histories demonstrate the wrong understanding of Stree Shakti Sanghatana about women’s movements and women’s history. The end result of the book—We Were Making History—is their unscientific perspective which names some words as ‘language of silence’ and reads non-existent meanings into them, without comprehending the real truth” (Sudhir, Prajashakti 14th December 1986).
In hindsight, could you say some more about the differences between Ailamma’s language and the language of the public discourse of those times—intellectual, journalistic, and in books?
We Were Making History was printed in Telugu in 1985. We could say that in the 1980s, the writings in Telangana language were few indeed. In 1985-6, Namini Subramaniam Nayudu was writing Tattoo as my witness (Pacchha Naku Sakshiga) in Rayalaseema idiom. Pasham Yadagiri and Devulapalli Amar were writing in Telangana idiom. Telidevara Bhanumurti also wrote a column with the title “Chalne do Balkishan” in Udayam newspaper (Telugu). After 1990, Mallepalli Lakshmayya wrote about the oral narratives based on everyday lives of ordinary people in a column titled “A hand writing for the spoken word”. However, while these came on the edit or literary pages, there was and is no instance of an entire newspaper being written in Telangana idiom then or now. Even in a daily like Namaste Telangana, the Telangana idiom is used in some columns only. The reason for this may be that the language must be accessible to everybody.
We need not even discuss textbooks. There is no question of their being in Telangana idiom. It is not that there were no books written in this idiom. Vattikota Alwarswamy’s writings came out in the 1940s followed by writings of Dasarathi Rangacharya and Kaloji. Yashoda Reddy and Mudigonda Sujata Reddy were women writers from that period. After the 1980s, Kalava Mallayya and Allam Rajayya were important writers of short stories and novels in Telangana idiom. Readers would be familiar with the wonderful shorts stories and novellas of Gogu Shyamala, Joopaka Subhadra, Jajula Gowri and Jwalita. It is my opinion that despite all this writing, it is only in the context of the success of the Telangana movement that such literary works were owned and taken to new heights. These works assumed importance in the effort of the new Telangana movement to counter the humiliation and insult suffered by the Telangana region in relation to language.
We may say that We Were Making History is one of the important books that articulated the Telangana idiom. How would you look at the importance of the book in the context of the recent Telangana movement?
This question deals only with language. The answer to this question is evident in all the issues discussed so far. Language is one of the many issues raised by We Were Making History. We can see written language, spoken language, language of literates, language of illiterates, women’s language, caste based language, hegemonic Telugu language (Krishna-Guntur) in this book. This book has foregrounded many issues related to language. Not only this, it is possible to see many issues raised by this book as relevant to the character of the new Telangana state. Among these, issues related to women, especially to women who played various roles in different movements are important. We need not reiterate the fact that thousands of women played major roles in several articulations of the Telangana movement over the last decade. However, where are such women in today’s political world? What are the reasons for their absence in legislatures, leadership and government structures? Is history repeating itself? It is time to ask ourselves these questions again.
Translated by A Suneetha and R Srivatsan
K Lalita works at Yuganthar and is a feminist, writer and thinker.
– N Manohar Reddy
When dalit literature emerged with full force in the 1980s and 90s, many upper caste intellectuals, starting from orthodox brahmin pundits to revolutionaries, attacked it for its “obscene” use of language. Jilukara Srinivas’ article in this broadsheet discusses that controversy. However, contempt and disgust for the language of dalits is not new. When Gidugu Ramamurthy led the Vyavaharikodyamam (Spoken Telugu movement) in the early twentieth century, upper caste pundits protested against it as they believed that gramyam—the language of malas, madigas, shepherds, dhobhis, barbers and so on—was trying to infiltrate education and literature in the name of vyavaharikam. Also, serious criticism was leveled against the Telugu spoken in the Telangana region, which was denounced as Taurakyandhramu or Turaka Telugu Bhasha.
Treating the language of dalit bahujans with contempt seems to have existed almost a thousand years ago during Nannaya’s time. Nannaya, who translated Mahabharat into Telugu and known as adikavi or the first poet (of Telugu literature), in his poetical treatise of grammar wrote that words such as Vastadu, Testadu, Potadu—the language of the illiterate—were ungrammatical and thus unsuitable for literary creation (Andhra Sabda Chintamani, p. 20). In the successive centuries, writer after writer such as Appakavi, Ketana, Chinnaya Suri and many more well known upper caste scholars, grammarians and writers endorsed Nannaya’s position on language. Ketana declared that Telugu people would not accept gramyam, and described it as the language of abuse, or the language used to abuse others (Andhra Bhasha Bhushanamu, p.8). Appakavi, who stated that only brahmins were qualified to write poetry and is known for his high brahminical conservatism, ruled that words such as Vastandi, Testandi, Chustandi, Istandi, which were understandably spoken by the subaltern classes, were apabhramasas (abnormal) and were morphologically defective. He further stated that such words were not only unsuitable for literary production, but any Kavyas which employed those words would be treated as uncivilized/uncultured (Appakaviyam, p.41). Both Ketana and Appakavi belonged to the premodern period and we do not know if they were contested on this issue. However, what we do know is that writers such as Palkuriki Somanadhudu, Vemana, Potuluri Veerabrahmam, Molla and others broke the rules set by the orthodox brahmin pundits.
One would be surprised to know that the rules set by Nannaya and others were endorsed by Chinnaya Suri and Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who included them in their grammar books written for school children in the Madras Presidency in the 19th and 20th centuries. Chinnaya Suri was the foremost pundit of his time, and Kandukuri is considered the father of Telugu prose. As late as in the early twentieth century, gramyam was banished from classrooms and the literary domain. One of the leading members of the influential Andhra Sahitya Parishat, Jayanthi Ramayya Pantulu, went so far as to state that “including gramya language in literary works and, worse, prescribing such texts as study material for school children would be a disaster” (Andhra Sahitya Parishadvruttantamu, p.5).
In addition to grammar books, pundits used dictionaries to define the term gramyam in demeaning ways and thereby contain it. For instance, Sankaranarayana’s Telugu-English dictionary defined gramyam as ‘pertaining to the lower nature in man.’ G.N. Reddy went two steps further and described it as a language of ‘asleelamu’ (obscene), ‘asabhyamagu mata’ (vulgar speech), ‘telivilenidi’ (nonsense) and ‘nagarikata lenidi’ (uncultured), (www.andhrabharati.com). Bahujanapalli Sitaramaiah did not even find it worthy of mentioning it in his Andhra Sabda Manjari.
While, prior to 19th century, gramyam was defined as the language of ‘pamarulu’ (illiterate people) or ‘grama janulu’ (village folk), interestingly, in the modern period, specific caste names came to be associated with the term. Jayanthi Ramayya Pantulu, who led the pundit group against Gidugu’s Spoken Telugu movement, stated that “brahmins and other educated people’s spoken language is different from the spoken language of uneducated masses.’ He further added, “while classical Telugu is like a stream of filtered water, gramyam is like the polluted water collected due to repeated rainfall,” and “while the classical language is disciplined and flows steadily between the two ridges, gramyam moves crazily and loses its way,” and if literature is produced in the latter, “language loses its hygiene, sounds get corrupt and thus such literary works should not be used in schools (Adhunikandhra Vangmaya Vikasa Vaikhari, pp.169-199). Similarly, Vedam Venkataraya Sastri argued that producing literary works in the language of saakalollu (washer folk) and mangalollu (barbers) would be like driving away the sacred cow and fetching a drove of donkeys in its place.
There were strong reasons why brahmin pundits prohibited/banished the language of dalit bahujans in education and literature. We know that brahmins had a monopoly over these two fields. Thus the fear of losing their privileged institutional positions seems to one of the reasons for their opposition to gramyam, because gramyam would facilitate the entry of people of other castes into these arenas. One of the pundits called Suri Sastri vehemently opposed Gidugu’s Spoken Telugu movement and argued that “empowering gramyam would mean unseating the pundits from their jobs, and besthalu (fishermen), eedigalu (toddy tappers), drunkards, yaanadis (ST), sabarulu (ST) are conspiring to occupy these positions (Gramyagramya Vivada Peetika, 1913).
The fear that Christianity would annihilate Hinduism seems to be another important reason for the pundits’ vehement opposition to gramyam. It should be noted that in the nineteenth century various Christian missionaries established schools in the Madras presidency, and one of the significant efforts was the establishment of panchama schools for the untouchables. One of the main problems that the missionaries faced was the sanskritized Telugu used in the text books, which the missionaries felt was the main impediment in imparting education to the children coming from the untouchable castes. Thus the missionaries established vernacular societies and printing presses and brought out books in the language spoken by the students at home. Similar efforts were made in case of Bible translation. Thus conversion was very much in the pundits’ mind when they opposed gramyam. Vedam Venkataraya Sastri wrote “many people were under the illusion that Spoken Telugu movement was an attack only on language. It is not true. This is an attack on Hindu religion. It is a movement that is aimed at destroying our religion completely by destroying the languages of our country just the robbers take off brick by brick and make a hole in the wall of the house and rob the entire wealth.” He further argued that if gramyam developed, it would dethrone grandhikam (classical Telugu), which will result in a situation where no one would have the skills to understand puranas. Not just that. The missionaries are forcing students to read Bible by force (Gramyadesa Nirasanamu, pp. 43-45).
Thus it is clear that the people I have mentioned until this point, who were opposed to gramyam were orthodox brahmins. They were determined to save the caste system and the Hindu religion. However, we know that Gidugu and Gurajada were secularists. They dreamt of a modern society where all class and caste differences would disappear. They wanted pundits and common people to live together. They believed in equality. They aimed at raising the status of the oppressed by imparting knowledge and using simple language to achieve that goal. Their integrity cannot be questioned in this matter. However, when it came to the question of the language of modern Telugu literature and education, or the standard language, they proposed sishta vyavaharikam (the spoken language of the upper castes) as the most appropriate. They argued that the pundits mistook their proposal for sishta vyavaharikam for gramyam and tried to persuade the pundits that sishta vyavaharikam and gramyam were different things. For instance, Gurajada argued that it was improper on the part of pundits to say that the language spoken by the shistas day and night was gramyam. “Thus hereafter it would be proper for the pundits not to consider the polite/cultured language of the brahmins as gramyam.” Thus he was disheartened when pundits abused sishta vyavaharikam as gramyam, or ‘the language of the children of whores’ (Gurajadalu, pp.555-562).
Similarly, Gidugu Ramamurthy argued that, “spoken Telugu means…the language spoken in everyday life and used in the written communication such as letters by the cultured Telugu people (vaishyas, telagas, blacksmiths, kapus, kshatriyas, brahmins and others)…this is pure Telugu. Why isn’t this a good language? Is it the language of malas and madigas to be called gramyam? (Telugu Translation of the Savara Reader. Part 1 (P.iii).” In the same vein, in his last speech given in the office of the journal Prajamitra, run by Gudavalli Ramabrahmam, on 15-01-1940, Gidugu made the following plea: “Our elders still hang on to the misconception that vyavaharikam is gramyam…I would like to once again insist that they must not do that. Estheticians of Sanskrit literature consider the language of shepherds and other such illiterate people as gramyam. Judged by whatever parameters, vyavaharika bhasha cannot be labeled as gramyam because the language I have been campaigning for the last three decades is the language of sishtajana vyavaharika bhasha and not the language of shepherds and other illiterate people… Sarvesa Ramesam garu, Andhra University College president Vissa Apparao garu, the well known pundit and poet, Challapilla Venkata Sastri garu, Veturi Prabhakara Sastri garu, Viswanatha Satyanarayana garu, and many other elders have delivered radio speeches. All of them are sishtas. Their language is sishta jana vyavaharika bhasha” (“Tudi Vinnapamu” in Pratibha, pp. 206-207).
In Telanagana, most people remember Suravaram Pratapa Reddy as the father of Telangana language. However, Suravaram remarked that “There are boyilu (people belonging to boya community, a scheduled tribe) in Karimnagar district. Their language is the worst. It is incapable of producing the ‘va’ sound. They say ‘ankaya,’ ‘anta,’ ‘acchinanu’.” Similarly, Suravaram was ashamed that the language of the Telangana people was badly corrupted by Kannada, Marathi and Urdu. He believed that the language of Warangal, which has northern Circars (Andhra) as its border, was a little better (Golkonda Patrika Sampadakiyalu, Vol.2. 1936-1945. pp. 178-180).
It was perhaps to protest against the upper caste attitude towards the language of dalits, that Gurram Joshua, the famous first generation dalit poet, wrote an article titled “Tirlika” in the journal Bharati in its August 1936 issue. In a debate that had happened earlier in Bharati, Sripada Lakshmipada Sastri had argued that the word “tillika” was not a pure Telugu word but it was a corrupt form of the Tamil word ‘Tirvalishu.” However, Joshua protested and argued that the word “Tillika” was known even to the children of his region. Not only this word, but many other words which could not be found in dictionaries and unknown to pundits, were in use, he wrote. He made it clear that just because some words were unknown to great pundits, they would not die. He further argued that “only those who personally observed the life and the cultural practices of people in villages could understand the usage of Telugu language in different parts of Andhra country. But, how can the pundits, who don’t even know the difference between malas and madigas, understand?” (Bharati, August, 1936).
– R Srivatsan
Holy Shit is a fun filled, erudite and perceptive history of swearing in the West from Roman times to the twenty first century. Given the vast time period covered, it may be expected that the book will be somewhat superficial in its treatment of different aspects of the subject, but it is surprisingly deep in some of its observations.
Mohr’s work brings out the relationship between the sacred (the holy) and the profane (shit) in the use of English language in Western history. The holy element of swearing comes from the sin of using god’s name in vain – a peculiarly Christian idea: e.g., “Good God”, “Jesus H Christ”, etc. Perhaps this is enough to tell us that swearing doesn’t have the same history in India, since we don’t have the holy in it at all. Somehow, “He Bhagwan” or “Devuda” or “Kadavale” don’t work in the same way. The profane element is there in common between the West and in Indian languages– ‘motherfucker’ almost equated by ‘maderchod’ in Hindi; plus sundry other everyday usages.
What are the different theories of swearing? Mohr outlines the physiological, the linguistic and the historical. Physiologically, she argues that swear words actually have a different action on our brain and body which can be objectively measured. On the other hand, she describes physiological research that explains how disease can result in the propensity to be abusive: e.g., Tourette’s syndrome where people with a specific disorder tend to be obscene in their speech or gestures.
Linguistically, Mohr argues that swear words tend to hijack meaning – moving away from the exact meaning (denotation) to its connotation. “This tastes fucking good!” has nothing to do with intercourse – it has to do with how good something tastes (There is no specific equivalent of this structure of obscenity in Indian languages). In other words, swearing is a non literal use of a word that has a specific undesirable, yet very powerful meaning. And yet, what is a ‘powerful meaning’?
Historically Mohr suggests that swear words derive their extreme power from the opposite of connotation – they are directly and evocatively connected to what they refer to, far more than any other words are. Hence the exclamation “Shit!” (here too there isn’t an equivalent in Indian languages) is powerful because however connotatively it is used, it remains attached almost physically to what it describes – here, the smelly, repulsive mass of visceral expulsion.
Swearing, Mohr argues has a very different flavour in different periods. For example, in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, swearing was directed at men, describing them as individuals who had sex in a particular way. Sometimes it was in praise, For example, when Caesar returned from a conquest in 46 BC, he was among other things called a ‘pedicator’ (butt-fucker) to both protect him against envy and also show his virile prowess in war. On the other hand, a man who took the feminine position in sex (regardless of whether the partner was a man, a boy or a woman) – e.g., used his mouth to provide sexual favours, was cursed with a language of special venom.
Page 27 – The jealous fucker must have told Page 28 – Our people are just good for nothing. Page 30 – If he doesn’t give it by the next morning, the mala’s son is a dead bastard! Page 30 – I am at my wit’s end trying to get rid of this demon! Page 32 – This Girisham is a cunning scoundrel. – Brother, the son of a bitch has come at an inappropriate time! – She has devised a strategy so he can’t sleep with her. Page 33 – Oh my God! Maybe this bitch would expose me. – For the first time. I am hearing of a widow’s fidelity. – With you here, how can she be a widow? Page 34 – Don’t take her in! That howling mad widow bites men – Thieving whore! She has hidden her lover under the bed – If you had asked me, I would’ve given 20 such whores in marriage to you – Brother, never believe this whore Page 35 – I have no husband dead or alive! What have I got to earn by hiding? – Hey you aggressive bitch! Why are you hitting me? – That fool is also under the bed – Your slut, I will see how she stops me! – Why won’t this bitch come out from under the bed? Page 38 – Every asshole says I have sold my daughter. Page 40 – You want me to discuss with bloody women! Page 41 – Just a foolish motherfucker. Page 42 – This son of a bitch has kissed her I believe. Page 43 – These days who needs to study Sanskrit. Only the wretched will learn it. Page 44 – Brahminism has gone to the dogs thanks to this damned English curriculum. Page 45 – The rascal is mute. – I delivered a two hour lecture on National Congress to the bullock cart driver. Then, the asshole asked me when Congress would transfer the village constable! – I am happy that the scoundrel Kartaka Shastrulu has left … – That shameless bitch is ranting! Here I am discussing the matter with important people and she has to cut in with her nonsense. Why did you call me! (Selected by T Srilakshmi, Translated by Navadeep, Pranoo Deshraju and A Suneetha) T Srilakshmi is office manager of Anveshi. In the Middle ages (very approximately 2nd Century AD to 1300 AD), use of god’s name, speaking of heaven out of place, calling to Christ in trivial speech were all sins which carried serious punishment. These were because taking god’s name was a sacred act and using it without that sacredness at heart was a supreme offence. Later on in the Middle Ages, it was a sin to speak of (God)’s blood (related to the current word ‘bloody’), or (God)’s wounds (later secularized in the English speaking West to ‘zounds’). These forms of swearing were related to the spread of Christianity. In describing the situation after the Middle Ages, Mohr generally agrees with the historical sociologist Norbert Elias’ thesis on the emergence of the concept of civility. In other words, the birth of a recognizably modern society gives rise to a set of cultural restraints on what a person may or may not do in public view – and in parallel what a person may or may not say in respectable company. Over the centuries, this becomes something that is codified by the excesses of Victorian morality so that by the nineteenth, it becomes unacceptable to even say the word ‘legs’ or ‘trousers’ in public. However, colourfully obscene language flourishes alongside as a cottage industry, as witnessed by much literature in the nineteenth century. This period and the early twentieth century are also obsessed with the appearance of slang, obscenity and vulgarity in literature – as evidenced by the legal proceedings against DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the whole, evidence does not permit Mohr to follow the linear path of historical progress and say that swearing is a thing of the past, and that in a civilized world, there is no need for swearing! On the contrary, abusive, powerful language is alive and well, expressing the inexpressible and shocking the civil norms of speech and writing today. Reading Mohr’s book, I was struck by the absence of a concept that would have explanatory value for many of the effects of swearing she describes – shock that seems to be an invariable effect of hearing obscene language, discomfort in hearing swear words, bodily response (skin transconductance changes) when swear words are heard. While she uses the term connotation to describe the excessive effects of the swear word, the concept of connotation remains in the realm of meaning and significance. The effects she describes are bodily, physically experienced, effects –Gilles Deleuze called such words ‘order words’, i.e., those words that affect physically rather than communicate meaning. The absence of this concept is somewhat striking in an otherwise sophisticated study. Another important issue is the context the swear word is used in and why: in other words, the act being performed in the use of the word. What is the difference between swearing in one’s active speech and reporting its use in speech or writing? How does one think about the literary reproduction of obscene language – either in a novel or in a theoretical exposition like Mohr’s? In absence of this theoretical anchor, Mohr is unable to differentiate between swearing in everyday language and swearing as it appears in literature. Third, I was struck by the fact that Mohr has not dealt with the problem of intersecting domains in which verbal obscenity is interpreted – in the domain of gender and that of race or class. While her analysis is able to handle the social class and race domains with some sophistication, she has very little to say (except that it makes her more or less uncomfortable) about how abusive language affects (both in meaning, and in its power effects) a gendered response. Put differently is there a response to swearing that differentiates men and women as targets, respondents and speakers in a given culture and at a specific point in history? In making this differentiation it is not necessary to propose that women are universally victimized by swear words and other forms of obscenity, only that there are likely to be specific historical differences in the reception and expression of obscenity that need to be taken into consideration in a theoretical discourse1. Finally, I began to think about how we would study the history of abuse in India – what is the equivalent of racial abuse? For example ‘nigger’ is a classically troublesome example dealt with in detail by Mohr. What are the parallels in India? Would it be the use of a caste name as an abuse? E.g., what is intended when a member of the dominant elite abuses someone by the term ‘Madiga’? How are verbal caste slurs related to caste-based abuse in general? Further, what is the relationship that emerges between caste-based abuse and the new notion of a verbal atrocity which is punishable under the SC/ST Atrocities Act? How does one then think of obscene language that is used by the productive castes? Is this a ‘vulgar’ way to repudiate the superior claims of upper caste society and standard language with the proliferation of terms like ‘dengu’, ‘modda’ etc.? How indeed is the language used to describe sexual elements (‘mithun’, ‘yoni’, ‘lingam’) in sacred Hindu texts constructed as ‘polite’ and acceptable? What are the intersectional effects of these language practices on women? Note: 1. In keeping to these limits I am skirting the debate between Judith Butler and Catharine Mackinnon on the illocutionary effects of pornography. See the section titled ‘Anti-pornography paradigm’ in Judith Butler, 1994. “Against Proper Objects. Introduction” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.2+3 (1994); 1-26.
Abuse in Gurujada’s Kanyasulkam
Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2013.
Page 27 – The jealous fucker must have told
Page 28 – Our people are just good for nothing.
Page 30 – If he doesn’t give it by the next morning, the mala’s son is a dead bastard!
Page 30 – I am at my wit’s end trying to get rid of this demon!
Page 32 – This Girisham is a cunning scoundrel.
– Brother, the son of a bitch has come at an inappropriate time!
– She has devised a strategy so he can’t sleep with her.
Page 33 – Oh my God! Maybe this bitch would expose me.
– For the first time. I am hearing of a widow’s fidelity.
– With you here, how can she be a widow?
Page 34 – Don’t take her in! That howling mad widow bites men
– Thieving whore! She has hidden her lover under the bed
– If you had asked me, I would’ve given 20 such whores in marriage to you
– Brother, never believe this whore
Page 35 – I have no husband dead or alive! What have I got to earn by hiding?
– Hey you aggressive bitch! Why are you hitting me?
– That fool is also under the bed
– Your slut, I will see how she stops me!
– Why won’t this bitch come out from under the bed?
Page 38 – Every asshole says I have sold my daughter.
Page 40 – You want me to discuss with bloody women!
Page 41 – Just a foolish motherfucker.
Page 42 – This son of a bitch has kissed her I believe.
Page 43 – These days who needs to study Sanskrit. Only the wretched will learn it.
Page 44 – Brahminism has gone to the dogs thanks to this damned English curriculum.
Page 45 – The rascal is mute.
– I delivered a two hour lecture on National Congress to the bullock cart driver. Then, the asshole asked me when Congress would transfer the village constable!
– I am happy that the scoundrel Kartaka Shastrulu has left …
– That shameless bitch is ranting! Here I am discussing the matter with important people and she has to cut in with her nonsense. Why did you call me!
(Selected by T Srilakshmi, Translated by Navadeep, Pranoo Deshraju and A Suneetha)
T Srilakshmi is office manager of Anveshi.
In the Middle ages (very approximately 2nd Century AD to 1300 AD), use of god’s name, speaking of heaven out of place, calling to Christ in trivial speech were all sins which carried serious punishment. These were because taking god’s name was a sacred act and using it without that sacredness at heart was a supreme offence. Later on in the Middle Ages, it was a sin to speak of (God)’s blood (related to the current word ‘bloody’), or (God)’s wounds (later secularized in the English speaking West to ‘zounds’). These forms of swearing were related to the spread of Christianity.
In describing the situation after the Middle Ages, Mohr generally agrees with the historical sociologist Norbert Elias’ thesis on the emergence of the concept of civility. In other words, the birth of a recognizably modern society gives rise to a set of cultural restraints on what a person may or may not do in public view – and in parallel what a person may or may not say in respectable company. Over the centuries, this becomes something that is codified by the excesses of Victorian morality so that by the nineteenth, it becomes unacceptable to even say the word ‘legs’ or ‘trousers’ in public. However, colourfully obscene language flourishes alongside as a cottage industry, as witnessed by much literature in the nineteenth century.
This period and the early twentieth century are also obsessed with the appearance of slang, obscenity and vulgarity in literature – as evidenced by the legal proceedings against DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
On the whole, evidence does not permit Mohr to follow the linear path of historical progress and say that swearing is a thing of the past, and that in a civilized world, there is no need for swearing! On the contrary, abusive, powerful language is alive and well, expressing the inexpressible and shocking the civil norms of speech and writing today.
Reading Mohr’s book, I was struck by the absence of a concept that would have explanatory value for many of the effects of swearing she describes – shock that seems to be an invariable effect of hearing obscene language, discomfort in hearing swear words, bodily response (skin transconductance changes) when swear words are heard. While she uses the term connotation to describe the excessive effects of the swear word, the concept of connotation remains in the realm of meaning and significance. The effects she describes are bodily, physically experienced, effects –Gilles Deleuze called such words ‘order words’, i.e., those words that affect physically rather than communicate meaning. The absence of this concept is somewhat striking in an otherwise sophisticated study.
Another important issue is the context the swear word is used in and why: in other words, the act being performed in the use of the word. What is the difference between swearing in one’s active speech and reporting its use in speech or writing? How does one think about the literary reproduction of obscene language – either in a novel or in a theoretical exposition like Mohr’s? In absence of this theoretical anchor, Mohr is unable to differentiate between swearing in everyday language and swearing as it appears in literature.
Third, I was struck by the fact that Mohr has not dealt with the problem of intersecting domains in which verbal obscenity is interpreted – in the domain of gender and that of race or class. While her analysis is able to handle the social class and race domains with some sophistication, she has very little to say (except that it makes her more or less uncomfortable) about how abusive language affects (both in meaning, and in its power effects) a gendered response. Put differently is there a response to swearing that differentiates men and women as targets, respondents and speakers in a given culture and at a specific point in history? In making this differentiation it is not necessary to propose that women are universally victimized by swear words and other forms of obscenity, only that there are likely to be specific historical differences in the reception and expression of obscenity that need to be taken into consideration in a theoretical discourse1.
Finally, I began to think about how we would study the history of abuse in India – what is the equivalent of racial abuse? For example ‘nigger’ is a classically troublesome example dealt with in detail by Mohr. What are the parallels in India? Would it be the use of a caste name as an abuse? E.g., what is intended when a member of the dominant elite abuses someone by the term ‘Madiga’? How are verbal caste slurs related to caste-based abuse in general? Further, what is the relationship that emerges between caste-based abuse and the new notion of a verbal atrocity which is punishable under the SC/ST Atrocities Act? How does one then think of obscene language that is used by the productive castes? Is this a ‘vulgar’ way to repudiate the superior claims of upper caste society and standard language with the proliferation of terms like ‘dengu’, ‘modda’ etc.? How indeed is the language used to describe sexual elements (‘mithun’, ‘yoni’, ‘lingam’) in sacred Hindu texts constructed as ‘polite’ and acceptable? What are the intersectional effects of these language practices on women?
Note: 1. In keeping to these limits I am skirting the debate between Judith Butler and Catharine Mackinnon on the illocutionary effects of pornography. See the section titled ‘Anti-pornography paradigm’ in Judith Butler, 1994. “Against Proper Objects. Introduction” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.2+3 (1994); 1-26.
– Jilukara Srinivas
Can profanity be poetry? True, all critics agree that only impassioned poetry has the power to move the reader. There are many instances where the use of intemperate language has been justified as righteous anger. What is righteous anger? Which caste can rightfully express it? When Sri Sri wrote ‘donga-lanja-kodukulu-asale-mesile (sons of whores) they said it was righteous anger. When a Dalit poet wrote those same words, they challenged it asking, “How can you use such language and call it poetry?”
There are many ways of expressing anger. Anger can be expressed through violence, it can also be embodied in a swear word. Why does one feel anger? A person feels anger when she realises she has suffered injustice. On the other hand, she can be unaware of injustice and still be angry. The intensity of the anger depends on the context and moment in which the realisation occurs – the realisation of an injustice against one or one’s society. The poet searches for words and signification that capture the intensity of such anger, but words that can convey these emotions with sophistication are hard to find. The poet then draws on her cultural background and chooses ‘swear words’ to aptly express her anger.
Ferdinand de Saussure said that ‘signs’ are cultural constructs. Hegemonic culture has imposed several ‘signs’ on Dalits, placing the Dalit body at the centre of these constructs. Swear words are also cultural constructs, and are often anchored on the human body, particularly the female body. Classical poetry comprises of descriptions of the female body. Descriptions of sexual bodies in Dalit poetry are considered vulgar, profane. The written language of the ‘cultured’ is the only acceptable language for poetry. It is the unwritten edict that the language of poetry must be the language of the upper castes. Many Dalit poets have demonstrated the unparalleled beauty of the Dalit language. The ‘Nishani’ poets, Madduri Nagesh Babu, Paidi Teresh Babu, and Khaja have fittingly responded to upper caste critiques of Dalit poetry. Telangana Madiga writer Vemula Yellaiah, who has used ‘swear words’ in creative ways in his novels ‘Kakka’ and ‘Siddhi’, is continuing the same tradition.
Whites have committed several atrocities on the Blacks. They have erased all Black culture. Language is the symbol for culture and civilization. Franz Fanon has famously argued that by forcefully classifying Blacks as ‘uncivilised’, White culture ensured that Black language would always be different. The difference was marked by the humility, fear, hesitation, lowered-tone and stammer of the Black voice. Black language spoken amongst fellow Blacks takes on a different tone and content, drawing heavily on the ‘swear words’ of their cultural background. These ‘swear words’ are omnipresent in Black poetry. You never see a Black character in a Hollywood film who doesn’t cuss or swear. White heroes on the other hand speak sophisticated, ‘conceptual’, language. In most films, it is common for Black voices to be loud and White voices mellow. We see the same representation of upper castes and depressed communities in literature here.
Dalit politics has rejected classical literary principles and poetic devices. This Dalit movement cannot be contained within the classical aesthetic framework. Dalit poetry cannot use the poetics of Manu to achieve their goal. Brahminical language can never represent Dalit life. If life experiences define language, Dalit experience alone can define Dalit language. This is why Dalits have drawn on their own tone and tenor. The limits imposed by classical literary standards have been abandoned by Dalit poetics, which desires freedom and self-determination. Critics have been unable to understand this shift. Can the language of poetry use ‘swear words’? Dalit poets have skilfully foregrounded the dilemma of whether profanity can be instrumental in impacting the reader’s understanding, and bringing about social change.
What is the language of poetry? In the middle-ages Sanskrit became the language of poetry, and the official language of the Brahmin community. It was also the device of ‘cultured’ people, used solely by Brahmin priests. What came to be identified as Telugu was a Sanskritized language created by the Brahmins. The Brahminical idiom has dominated language from the time of the Mahabharatam to the present. The Brahminical language of the prabandha era literature presents obscenity in the form of erotica. Prabandha descriptions of nayikas are appallingly obscene. Critics have been very broad-minded in their reading of these works, while dismissing jaanu-telugu and accha-telugu(people’s Telugu) as lesser languages. Even the metred couplets of the Telangana poet Palkuriki Somanath have only been considered as inferior literature. Whether a language is respected or humiliated depends on who speaks it and the grammar that guides it. Literature was evaluated not only on the basis of the language, but also on the subject of the text, and the caste class status of the hero-heroine. The respect a written work received was based on the caste of the author. The world of Telugu literature was directed and ordered by the aesthetics of Manu. These dictatorial principles of literature were challenged by Dalit politics, and a new aesthetics were presented through its poetry. Dalit politics has thrust the Brahminical language of literature aside and brought to light its own similes, metaphors and symbolisms.
The beginnings of Dalit poetry focussed on attacking the enemy, targeting the upper caste reader. The Dalit poet had decided that there could be no camaraderie with the (upper caste) reader. It is an absolute wrong to want to write poetry in the language of the respectable – in the language of your pindakudu Brahminism – after knowing that the upper castes murdered Kanchikacharla Kotesh, that they tortured and paraded Mahadevamma naked for the sake of 5 rupees, when they butchered Dalits like sacrificial animals in Karamchedu and Tsunduru. Upper caste society has enjoyed filling Dalit lives with violence and verbal abuse. When the abuse was forcefully shot back at them, they were stunned and launched a counter attack –“profanity is not poetry”. They claimed that the Dalit poet’s only goal is to abuse upper caste society. No Dalit poet has claimed that society can change only through abuse. Dalit poetry has moved beyond its early content, and has acquired a mature perspective. It has presented the world of Telugu literature with new values. Dalit poetry has broken the shackles of classical aesthetics, foregrounded several ideological issues and created a new craft of poetry. The refusal of Manuvadi critics to engage with the hidden implications of this new craft, or the aesthetic contributions of Dalit poetry, amounts to a blatant conspiracy. This Manuvadi perspective cannot contribute to literary democracy.
Translated by Diia Rajan
Jilukara Srinivas is an activist and thinker of dalit bahujan issues.
Diia Rajan is interested in community, culture and language.
– Deepa Srinivas
This article draws on my experience of working with Anveshi for a project titled Different Tales. Popularly known as the ‘stories project’, it entailed a search for children’s stories from marginalized communities–stories that one rarely sees in print. It was a long journey for those of us in the project—often filled with doubts and difficult questions, yet greatly enriching and opening out ways of engaging non-mainstream childhoods. The project led to the collection and publication of a set of 15 stories for older children in a series named Different Tales. Written in Telugu and Malayalam originally, these stories were translated across the two languages as well as into English.
The initiative took shape within a larger critique of dominant representations of childhood in children’s literature, textbooks, consumer culture and popular media as a period of innocence, neatly separated from adult anxieties and responsibilities. A survey of standard reading material produced in India since independence reveals that narratives are routinely built around the everyday lives, economic resources, familial bonds, beliefs, food habits and emotions of children from middle class backgrounds. Children from non-mainstream settings do sometimes appear in these stories but they must strive to establish their exceptionality in order to be accepted.
This article is a brief discussion of the relationship between language and life worlds, a question that emerged as central in Different Tales. We found out early enough that the search for different childhoods in stories also called for the search for a new register. The conventional language of children’s stories was tied up to the dominant idea of childhood. This meant that the language of a story had to be as simple as the ‘simple’ minds and hearts of children. It had to be direct, uncomplicated and transparent. However, a close look at the language of mainstream children’s stories uncovered its ideological assumptions; its ‘innocence’ was mediated by an upper caste middle class point of view. For example, a typical narrative for young children might go something like this: ‘Here is Ramu. Ramu is a carpenter. See that lovely table at the centre of your living room? Ramu makes tables like those….On most days Ramu has to work very hard. But he loves his craft and always has a smile on his face!” The apparent simplicity of language oversimplifies Ramu, reducing him to the service he renders for a privileged class of people. Yet another story, drawing from Hindu mythology, narrates how Shurpanakha, Ravana’s sister, is smitten by Rama. Lakshmana must cut off her nose and ears in order to restrain her and send her back to Lanka. Strangely enough, while children’s literature must ideally be free of violence, there is no attempt to camouflage the violence of Lakshmana’s action by moderating the choice of words –they are direct and brutal. The story is meant to evoke two kinds of emotions in children: awe at Lakshmana’s masculine prowess and mirth at the demon-woman’s incongruous and illegitimate desire for the blue-blooded Aryan male—Rama.
Writers from dalit and other marginalized communities break away from the language embedded in dominant children’s literature. Let me try to elaborate this point by recalling one of my many conversations with Gogu Shyamala, a well known dalit feminist and writer. Two of Shyamala’s stories, ‘Tataki’ and ‘Madiga Badeyya’ have been published in Different Tales. For Shyamala, writing in the local register of the Madiga community of Telangana that she belongs to, is also an act of retrieval of the history of that community. As she puts it, “The stories I wrote are about my childhood; about the occupations and productive labour of my family and community. When I wrote as an adult, I myself had become distanced from that language. Sometimes I would call up my sister and ask, ‘What is that word?’ If she too didn’t remember, I would ask her mother-in-law.”
Shyamala’s concern is reflected in the use of certain words, such as landha in ‘Madiga Badeyya.’ Landha refers to the pit or tank, traditionally used by the Madiga community to make leather. Walled off by rocks, this pit would contain water, lime, tangedu leaves and the leather under process. Shyamala admits that many people, including some from her own community, might not be familiar with the word today. Modern methods of leather-making have made the landha obsolete. Yet for Shyamala, the word resonates with the occupational and cultural history of her community. She recalls how people from all communities would come and pay their respects to the landha in a village. The leather made in the landha would become part of the potter’s or the ironsmith’s tools, indicating the interdependence between productive castes.
In ‘Head Curry’, a Telugu story written by Mohammed Khadeer Babu, a Muslim writer from Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh, the language foregrounds the connections between food culture and community life. This story is woven around his childhood memory of the cooking of the ram’s head at his home, considered a delicacy in his region and community. It describes a pleasure rarely represented in children’s literature which is located firmly within the normative vegetarian culture. The descriptions are from the child-protagonist’s point of view—from the time he procures the coveted ram’s head on a Sunday from the butcher Maabbasha to the time when the intricate dish is cooked to perfection and the family hurriedly sits down to an eagerly awaited, mouth watering meal. Khadeer Babu’s words capture the taste, textures and pleasures of the dish: ’Sitting around in a circle, eating the head curry—so full of fat that it sticks to the hand, the small black pieces tasting heavenly—mixing it with hot rice, with brain fry as a side dish…all the headache that plagued us till then disappears, leaving us with a feeling that the world is a blessed place.’ The language is simple yet it slips in images and smells and tastes that are unfamiliar in children’s stories. Some critics have found the language of ‘Head Curry’ to be too gory for a children’s story. Their sense of shock is clearly tied to the normative perception of minority meat eating practices as savage and deviant.
The sanitization of language in children’s stories implies a refusal to engage with the difficulties of childhood. Different Tales grapples with the truth that the lives of children—especially of those from marginalized communities—are not without violence. Shyamala’s ‘Tataki’ is about eleven-year old Balamma who gets up at the crack of dawn so she can channel the freshly released canal water into her family’s tiny plot. But in doing so she inadvertently violates an incontrovertible rule—the land-owning, upper caste karnam’s plots must be watered before anyone else’s. Outraged at this transgression, he calls her lanjamunda (whore/bitch) and attempts to rape her. The story deviates from standard children’s reading in two major ways. First, it depicts sexual violence which is considered a taboo. Second, it uses words of abuse that are unacceptable in children’s stories. Shyamala believes that it is important to retain the abuse word. Words such as lanjamunda are routinely used by the upper castes to humiliate dalit women including young dalit girls. Balamma’s childhood does not mitigate her transgression of the caste hierarchy. Shyamala’s language reflects the realities of Balamma’s life but the story does not get locked into violence and victimhood. It moves on to speak of how Balamma draws on the wisdom of the women in her community to get out of a difficult situation. The story deals with sexual violence but also focuses on the resilience of the child and her relationship with the community.
The stories of Different Tales may be enabling for children from marginalized communities because they mirror and validate their lives, work, families, relationships and negotiations. Does this mean they have nothing to offer middle class children? I do believe that standard children’s literature restricts the imagination of middle class children as well. Stories from non-mainstream contexts open up new perceptions and enjoyments for all children, beyond the clichéd models of ‘We are all Indian’ or ‘Unity in Diversity.’
This is by no means an exhaustive account of the complexity of the language question as it emerged through Different Tales. I only hope it signals how the language of stories from marginal cultures is not determined by a pre-existing ideal of childhood, but is shaped by lives and contexts. For a children’s literature aspiring to represent plural childhoods, these stories hold rich possibilities.
Deepa Srinivas teaches at Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad University.
Namini Subramanyam Naidu
Illamanthu Naidu doesn’t belong to this village. This is Meturu, his mother in-law’s village. His native village is Rangampeta. Where is Meturu and where is Rangampeta? To reach Rangampeta you need to cross Tirupati, then Chandragiri and finally, the Kalyani dam. Rangampeta is an area of extreme drought. The cultivation is tank-based. The soil is sandy. Only if the tank fills up do you get a crop.
This land is as barren as a widow. Illamanthu has no land here, not even the measure of a bare loincloth. He has dragged his family so far somehow, eating shit or picking cow dung cakes. Now, the children have grown. The family cannot cope with the increasing cost of food and has collapsed.
Illamanthu’s brother-in-law’s village is also Meturu. One day Gurappa Naidu came to Rangampeta and said “This village has done you no good. No matter how you persevere it is like throwing scented water into ashes. It simply flows out instead of remaining within. Come to my village. Whatever you do here, you can do there. We can take care of each other and lead our lives.”
Illamanthu did not accept this proposal. He said “In your village, we have no value. Why should we lose the little respect we get at our in-law’s place? We will labour daily there as we do here. Why take this trouble? Even if we need to live on water alone, it is better to live here.”
(Translated by Navadeep and Pranoo Deshraju)
Namini Subramanyam Naidu is a writer.
From ‘Munnikanadi’s Sedhyam’, Navodaya Publications, Vijayawada, 1990.
Which language, which idiom, whether classical or colloquial, I have now no doubts!
As I stammered with elastic words
and stumbled through alien speech,
have cauterized my tongue, haven’t they!
You have re-scripted my words,
in your language with a ring
tied to a sacred thread
on a bed of rice, haven’t you!
Letters written in oil convey nothing.
I don’t know why
the Pedda Bala Siksha
is not in my language,
nor do I know why
my mother tongue has
become a distant relative.
my speech cannot differentiate
geminates, dentals and alveolars,
stress and syllable collapse in our idiom,
a sentence does not break where it is
Wearing its gaps as symbols of wounds.
Mine is a mother tongue that
does not score marks.
What letter to trace,
what dialect to learn by heart,
what answer to produce,
I have no doubt.
This alien tongue of Teluguized Sanskrit,
The language of god brought down
to earth forced on my childhood.
My initiation to letters is a
descent into meaningless silence.
My tongue doesn’t twist it’s true.
Five-six-seven letters roll out as speech sounds.
This new dialect
the non-letter that mutters meaning,
both answer and question.
What language to speak,
what idiom to write,
what rhyme to sing,
there’s not an atom of doubt
I remember being taught to pronounce
“My last rites”.
“Feed crows – my ancestral spirits”
I also remember
my outstretched palm
Turning into a bloody flower.
welts on my back,
the pandit’s barbarous
signature on my cheek,
my broken teeth hailing
from between my jaws
all these stand out in memory.
I now don’t care for let’ers and forms
My quarrel is with meaning, isn’t it?
A barrel full of errors
(With apologies to the Marathi Dalit Poet, Arun Kamble)
From “Maatru Bhaasha Maaruvesham”, Chikkanvutunna Paata Kavitvam Prachuranalu, 1995 pp 151-153
Translated by Manohar and Srivatsan
Prasen works as Journalist with TV5 in khammam.
– Gogu Shyamala
Historically, dalits have constantly waged a battle against the false epics, literary and art forms and propaganda of Manuvaada. In another direction, dalit literature has continually exposed Brahminism’s vile lust for dalit blood. In addition, this literature has immediately unmasked Manuvaada in various theories and political practices. Dalit literature works in society by constantly interrogating the dominant ideology with a new consciousness, and thus with its own renaissance, drives society in more egalitarian directions. Finally, Dalit literature stands as the foremost among equals representing bahujan society as an alternate force to Brahminical Hinduism’s patriarchy and its literature.
In modern Telugu literature, dalit poets express the daily diversity of ideological, linguistic forms from their own world view. That is why, we may observe that if one literary world describes this as native, indigenous or bahujan (peoples’) literature, the hegemonic literary world calls it velivaada (outcaste ghetto), marginalized, lower caste, under class, or untouchable literature.
Dalit Literature and Language
Dalit poetry is full of diversity. In studying this poetry it is necessary to focus on language. These poets have given priority to their respective regions, land, water, biodiversity and specificity, production, natural resources, occupational implements, community and family. They have used, and continue to use language which reflects this priority. Dalit poets, in their literary forms, have included the perspectives of social, economic, cultural identities of their waadas (locality specific to communities such as Maala, Maadiga, Begari, Baindla, Chindu, Dakkali, Manyam, Nethakani, Pambala, Budugajangalu, Maasti), and family, as themes in the composition of their poetry. We could say that the specific idiom of these lived practices flows into their poetry. Importantly, the poet’s world view reflects the idiom of the families whose lives simmer in waadas branded by untouchability and oppression, and thus questions the ideology of the agrahara in literature from a fundamentally different perspective.
In this broad context, we can now look at the philosophy, use and expression of language in the following example. Endluri Sudhakar writes “Poetry is the secret skin of my community’s occupation/I cannot touch only a single object/I cannot stitch only one kind of shoe/Oh you bat, to your feet and my poetry I fit a new pair”, and brings his poem “New Bat” into a new flow.
In the process of dalit literary formation, it must be said that language plays a key role. We also see dalit poets use specific names for their literary use of language. As part of this, they call it variously “language of mud”, “black language”, “crow language”, “earth language”, “language of the tanning tank”, “language crackling underfoot”, etc. Thus, it is necessary to do a comparative study between language and literature of aboriginal people, and caste Hindu language. The most important thing to mark is that recent research has uncovered oral literature as the basis for modern dalit language, literature and expression. It is necessary to conduct research on the following aspects of dalit literary language.
Rejecting Hindu principles
If we examine dalit literature, we observe that all these poets, reject Brahminical cultural principles and standards. This is the reason why Pydee Teresh Babu, referring to the outpouring of Dalit agony in the grip of the Hindu caste system, says, “the alphabet were purified as they fell in the fire that burns in our stomachs”. “With a leather knife, will I write an epic poem on hide”, swore Madduri Nagesh Babu. In his “Panchama Vedam”, Satish Chander challenged the Hindu bhasha praveens (advanced scholars of language), “That the four verses shall not mingle was yesterday’s grammar/Words that touched the fifth tongue were never written/Trampling on the verb, Manu became the greatest poet/Fear not, O non-scholars of language/Lines that elope kick away the grammatical families you have built/They migrate to waadas without caste boundaries”.
The difference between Dalit and caste Hindu language, or the structure of criticism of the Puranic figures and legends, are clearly seen in Sivasagar’s “History as it Moves”. “With a smile on his lips, Shambuka/Kills Rama/Ekalavya chops off Drona’s thumb with an axe/Bali, with his small feet/stamps Vamana into hell/Manu stabs needles into his eyes/Cuts off his tongue/Pours lead into his ears/Rolls on the cremation ground. What is happening now is the great Chandala (subaltern) history”.
Dalit history and hegemonic history
It we examine the history of language, as part rewriting the language of power, as part questioning this language, at the same time as part reconstructing dalit history, we see that both in the past and in contemporary times, language plays a major role. Just as “As time flows, new rhythms follow new paths”, language took fresh steps. Mothkuri Johnson’s play Maatanga Emperor Veerabaahu, is a living proof of this process.
Johnson’s play is set in the context of the kingdoms under the rule of the Maatanga kings, which have been written about in the Puranas. Samrat Veerabaahu is one such Matanga king. Harishchandra (Translator: the mythical king who was hailed as the paragon of truth) was in debt-bondage to the sage Vishwamitra. In order to free him, Veerabaahu pays the necessary money to Vishwamitra and purchases Harishchandra. In the context of this slave purchase, there develops an interesting conversation between Harishchandra and Veerabaahu and his courtiers. One of Veerabaahu’s ministers asks Harishchandra:
Minister: Wouldn’t it have been possible to rule the people as one unit, rather than separate them into castes?
Harishchandra: Oh great minister, it is a matter of survival. We may defeat you with plan, plot, timing, strategy, fraud or modern weapons, but we can’t with our power and the strength of our people, can we oh my lord? What is our strength against your people’s strength?
In Vidheeshaka’s retort to this, “As lumps of clay in heaps of grain!”, we must examine specially the language of analogy. It implies that Vidheeshaka, belonging to the ruling elite as a Maatanga, retained touch with the common language and metaphor of agriculture, because he retained contact with agriculture as an occupation.
Before buying Harishchandra as a slave in order to free him from bondage, the Maatanga King Veerabaahu, his queen, courtiers, ministers, poets and the advisor Videeshaka put him in the dock with their questions. Answering these questions, Harischandra, on his own, reveals and describes the many lies he had told, and his reasons for telling them, and in effect confesses to them too. As a result of this, the poet Mothukuri Johnson retelling the tale of the Harischandra the True, turns history we know upside down, and shows him up as Harischandra the Liar.
Crow poets and Koel poets
When we study examples of the contrasts between poets who write with brahminical ideology, and those who write with a dalit perspective, the Hindu poet will describe a tall man as a ‘temple pillar’, while the Dalit poet will describe him as a ‘toddy palm’ or a ‘date palm’. In another example, a loafer will be described by the dalit poet, as ‘one who roams without labour or lyric (pani paata lekunda tirugevaadu)’ while the Hindu poet will describe him as ‘one who roams without studies or salutations (chaduvu sandhya lekunda tirugevaadu). Dalit literature is full of such differences in language, if we search for them. It is also necessary to speak here about, Johnson’s poem “Crow”. In this poem the poet describes and delineates the main difference between the crow and the koel.
What O poet is the koel’s nature?
Giving birth to their young, flinging them at the nursemaid’s face
Sikhandish women who crawl pubs coolly sans motherhood
Throwing into my nest eggs they cannot hatch.
The warmth within my feathers,
Breathing life into new generations on the path into light
Is this my nature, or the koel’s?
What O poet is nature?
Ignorant of the field
Unacquainted with hardship
Collecting the crop grown by ten others
Into her bag, as rich lords do
Coming only in springtime
To gobble up the tenderest shoots
Puffing with arrogance, the discordant shrieks of the koel’s songs,
Become poems for your pen.
Looked at as language or as choice of theme, or as the difference between the crow and the koel, Johnson gives us an inescapable analysis, through which the crow that was once an object of meanness and disgust for many people now commands increased respect. Beyond this, poets in cine and literary fields differentiated themselves into ‘crow’ poets and ‘koel’ poets. This expression of their difference is no small matter.
Dalit writers have created a language which rejects untouchability and slavery, and are putting it to use. They are exploring this language in their writing and speech. They are using this language specially in all villages including in Telangana, because exclusion, untouchability, bondage and atrocities have been perennial in history and continue in new forms today.
Translated by Gogu Shyamala and R Srivatsan
How English language becomes as a tool of discrimination in the University
In Central Universities like the University of Hyderabad, English as the medium of instruction becomes imperative as there are students from different regions in the country as well as international students. It is the only link language that enables them to connect.
Dalit students face several problems due to their inability to speak in English: inability to mingle with other students; to interact with teachers in the class room, take notes or follow the lectures. However when the ability to communicate in English is taken as a measure of the academic ability of the students many Dalit students end up facing serious problems in their career. Their knowledge of the subject in their native tongue or the ability to articulate responses in the same are hardly considered worthwhile. Often lack of English bars them from articulating their positions. This reinforces the general perception that the Dalit students are without merit, ignorant and unfit for the University. That they could not have reached without ‘reservations’. ‘English complex’ in the academia fosters a phobia about university education among Dalit students. Taking this as the excuse, upper caste teachers continue to treat them with prejudice and even insult them. Such attitudes have infected some Dalit faculty also in the recent times.
Even though the UGC mandated remedial classes are run for the students from non-English medium backgrounds, there is a mismatch between the expectation of the students and what is being offered. While the students want the ‘remedial English’ to help them understand the classroom lectures, remedial classes are oriented towards teaching them ‘language’. Students say that these two forms of English are quite different. Further the fear of being ‘identified’ as Dalits in the campus also prevents students from attending them.
Dalit students adopt various strategies to learn English: interacting with only such people who speak in English; reading English newspapers and news channels; using dictionaries, taking classes from seniors. Some take learning English as a challenge while some see it as a problem. The former seem to fare better compared to the latter.
From the Short Term Fellowship report of M Madhavi on problems faced by Dalit students in the University of Hyderabad. Excerpted and translated by A Suneetha.
Mirapa Madhavi is PhD Student at UoH.
– Katti Padma Rao
Vemana’s language is one of social revolution, it is the agitation of a philosophical life, the all consuming flame of a courageous conversation, the fire of people’s rage, a reflection of historical reality, a great living struggle of humanity. Vemana has been and continues to provide language, inspiration, consciousness, thought, concern, illumination, confrontation, fullness—to innumerable social revolutionaries. His language expresses the life world of the Telugu people. Vemana spontaneous words mark him out as the First Telugu Poet (adi kavi).
Why would an idol need a colourful garb?
Would a god ask for temples, spires, pots
Food and clothing?
Beloved of the Bounteous, Vema, listen!
In this poem he has used the (Telugu) words, ‘stone’, ‘toy’, ‘why’, ‘colour’, ‘ful’, ‘garb’, ‘temples’, ‘spires’, ‘pots’, ‘food’, ‘clothing’, ‘he’, ‘ask’, ‘god’, ‘bounteous’, ‘beloved’, ‘listen’, ‘Vema’. The ability to use so many words in such a short poem marks his genius.
The essence of the poem is ‘why does an idol require colored clothes, temples and spires?’ ‘Would god ask for food and clothes?’. His idiom combines the power of the word with the power of the imagination. A great poet is one who challenges contemporary society. A poet must without fail have a philosophical frame of mind. That philosophy must awaken a man’s mind. A tiny word must be able to evoke a great meaning. It should roll mellifluously on the tongue. We call a poet with such qualities a great poet. From a philosophical perspective, Vemana is a materialist (lokayat). His poems bear great challenges. He interrogates contemporary society. He embodies a beautiful Telugu dictionary. We learn Telugu alongside his poetry. Through his poems we understand social change and economic life.
The Brahmin class which obstructed the spread of Vemana
CP Brown of St. George College published Vemana’s poems in 1829. The printing of Vemana’s work which was a trenchant yet humorous critique of Brahmins was disliked in those days.
The College Board printed 500 copies of this book. They gave 50 copies to Brown sahib. Though the remaining copies had to be distributed across the country, it seems as if they didn’t make it out of the godown. These published pages were crumpled and thrown into the dustbin. It’s clear whose handiwork it was. Abbe Dubois has commented about the classes who did not allow the work of Vemana and others like it to see the light of day.
Dr. Pope who transcribed Dubois’ book clearly described the latter’s views. He is known to have said that Brahmins refused to recite Vemana’s poems; not only were they opposed to him, they also expressed that opposition openly.
Vemana the people’s poet
Vemana’s poetry is extremely popular among the Telugu public, but this fame is limited to the Sudras. Even among these, those who revered Hinduism have no doubt looked down upon Vemana. When his poems were included in government school text books, this opposition was stark. Teachers and students tried their best to evade the government’s orders. The inclusion of Vemana’s texts was postponed several times under various pretexts. Even after their inclusion teachers would not teach specific verses saying that their criticism of Hinduism was distasteful. The reasons the Brahmins gave for their hatred of Vemana’s poetry was his gramya (lower caste linguistic) style and obscenity (Prajakavi Vemana p 274). We can understand the extent to which Brahmins went to prevent the entry of Vemana’s verses into the curriculum.
Vemana lived a movement. Narla, who recognized him as a philosopher, stated his opinions clearly as he established Vemana’s character. One who does not try to fight contemporary social ills, one who cannot fight superstition, can never be a great poet. Society naturally rejects those who love to rebel. It creates several hurdles for them. It constrains them all the time. Vemana exposed the nature of religious and philosophical oppression in his time. He acted as an advocate of justice.[…]
Not only do Vemana’s verses dance off the tongues of intellectuals and ordinary people, there is also a depth of meaning in them. He has given all of them an opportunity to render these meanings at their own level. Vemana made us understand that a poet should possess not only knowledge of example and analogy, but also analytical and rational thought. He nourished contemporary nouns, phrases and verbs. This alone is the inspiration for today’s Telugu dictionary. In the economic life of those days, the coins kasu, veesam, dammidi, taaramu, roka were in circulation. He constantly used all these terms.[…]
Joshua who spoke of caste agony
When a man is accused on the basis of his color, region or language, a poet can express his agony powerfully… Joshua spoke not only of caste discrimination but also of caste agony.
In Vyasa’s divine discourse
That gave birth to the four Vedas,
Can Madigas be found?
Alas, untouchables in
Flesh and blood are primitives it seems!
From a black heart needles
Pierce their way out,
How do you bear it O my sister?
Vemana taught poem the question. Joshua brought it strength. Although philosophical interrogation of everyday issues that confront a people existed before Vemana, it was he who brought to it the thickness of Telugu language. Joshua’s asking if Madigas are present in the discourse of Vyasa who created the Vedas, and also asserting a history where Malas and Madigas are original inhabitants of the nation, shows us Vemana’s legacy in him. In his Kaandiseekudu (A Refugee) he asserts that the nation prospers only when caste and religious differences vanish.
Till the world readies itself for a relentless struggle
Toward the sense of equality,
Till the divisive disease of extreme untouchability
Disappears in all its forms,
Till the overweening pride in ones community, place and nation
Is brought to nullity,
Till the light of universal brotherhood spreads the sense of one community
To ends of earth,
Unless uniform access to knowledge, religion and society is made available
To one and all,
The well being and supreme happiness of the India-to-be
And never will cool the hecatombs of war1.
The poet says that lack of uniform access to knowledge, and social and religious freedom to all, is bad for the nation. From this we can understand how much agony the poet experienced as a result of social oppression. The language is of social revolution. Joshua’s formulation that extreme untouchability is a disease is the pulse of a beating heart. Such language should find its way on to the student’s tongue – and into people’s speech. This will create an atmosphere in which social reform will occur. This will carry forth Vemana’s language of social revolution.
Hierarchies of tradition, oppressive religious structures,
High and low Varnas, untouchability
Bring forth the world’s millennial flood,
Will you learn to halt
This drivel and drama of deceit?
The language of social revolution has not been accorded the importance that has been given to traditional language in Telugu. If we disseminate the language of social revolution, it will lead to the death of caste and religion and the birth of a united Telugu nation. This was said by the well known writer Bhoopati Narayanamurthy in his Telugu jati – Telugu jatiyata (Telugu community – Telugu nationality).
A language is like the pulse of a nation’s existence. Language is the instrument for the progress of a people, and for the development of their literature, history and culture. Each man who is born has a nationality. There is a language that is spoken by that nation. There is a land for that nation to stir and grow. A nation without language cannot survive. As with each nation, the Telugu nation has a language. This is our national language. This language is the reflection of our nation’s literary life. Pundits say that literature is the great Upanishad (secret doctrine) of Man’s cultural life. In the modern world, the boundaries between communities and their cultures are changing every day. Even so, a language spoken by a community is treated as an emblem that marks the identity of that community. Whichever region or country they are in, those whose mother tongue is Telugu are treated as part of a single nationality. Though there are castes and religions in a nation, the language spoken by its people helps the unification of that community.
Note: 1. Translators: This verse could be read as a critical rejoinder to the famous poem “Where the mind is without fear…” from Tagore’s Gitanjali, which had been translated into Telugu by at least four people including GV Chalam. While Tagore’s poem calls upon the Father to awaken his country in the dream land, Joshua’s poem plants any social transformation squarely in the realm of critical human action.
Excerpted from “Nadustunna Charitra” (Contemporary History) February, 2006.
Translated by N. Manohar Reddy and R. Srivatsan.
Katti Padma Rao is a poet, activist, and leader of Dalit Mahasabha.
Selle, although I am poor, I would even borrow to care for a guest as I would my own life. Send Munni over at least this summer vacation. I have no daughter; I will shower her with whatever I have for a few days and send her back…” Then she said, “But then this is my foolishness, why would rich kids like yours visit poor homes like ours…never mind, sister I will leave now…I don’t know when I will see you again.” … Karim bi adjusted the flowers braided in her hair, sneezed, cleaned her nose with the corner of her sari and looked back repeatedly with reddened eyes— and left.
After graduating, I have until now only visited relatives on my father’s side, none on my mother’s. I had gone long ago but I remember nothing. This summer vacation I have decided that I will visit Karim badi amma’s house one way or another. I have thought of taking my younger brother with me since older girls are not allowed to go alone. I said as much to my mother and her face bloomed like marigold in a backyard garden.
(Translated by Pranoo Deshraju and Navadeep)
From Silsila from ‘watan’ muslim stories, Nasal Kitab ghar, Nalgonda, 2004.