Rajvinder Singh remembers noted Marathi poet Namdeo Laxman Dhasal whose work was based on his strong belief that poets have to become the voice of the voiceless

How does one remember a poet, a friend, who has just been swallowed by the crevice of history, but who had himself created history with his work and enlivened it throughout his active life? Namdeo Laxman Dhasal, the celebrated Marathi poet, a Padma Shri, and a Lifetime Achievement Award winner of the Sahitya Akademi, who has won various battles in life, has lost his ultimate and most precious war against the disease, myasthenia gravis, deteriorated further by a recently detected colorectal cancer.

Ever since I met him some 13 years ago, the cage of his illness had been trying hard to stifle the powerful bird of his being and his creativity, but it had not been able to subdue him all these years. While braving the disease, he was continuously writing and regularly publishing, both poetry and prose. Now his untimely demise has not only eclipsed the age of powerful Marathi poetry, but also that of Pan-Indian literature.

Namdeo was introduced to me by our common friend, Dilip Chitre, another well-known Marathi poet, in June, 2001, in Berlin, where we all three were part of the 1st International Literature Festival. Dilip had entrusted me with the task of taking care of Namdeo citing his poor health condition. I had heard about him, his firebrand activism, the Dalit Panther movement that he started in the early ’70s, his works like “Golpitha”, but hadn’t read him. During our various interactions in Berlin, I found his verses penetrating and original. I later came to know that his poems had invoked varying degrees of epithets from various commentators, such as loose, impudent, and lacerated. It didn’t come as a surprise to me as his poetry defies superficiality, in which most of the poetry of our age is at home. But Dhasal was not a parrot-poet, using words in repetition learnt once by heart. Rather, he was a spatial singer of mindful words invented by the heart and necessary to convey the pains of social darkness hanging in the air and felt by the poet. To this effect, he always propagated that poets have to become the voice of the voiceless. I remember, when he had visited Berlin for the second time in 2006, he had, in one of our meetings, defined his poetry as “an injection of life into the carcass of human freedom”.

Now that this most fervent challenger of poetry is gone, let’s try to relate to the idiosyncratic, exuberant and the original tone of his verses.

Namdeo’s work, like that of Sant Tukaram, challenges the system, the so-called socio-political set-up. His language is direct and anti-euphemistic. Those who have criticised his formulations as repulsive have barely tried to get into it and visit it. They have decidedly remained foreign to it. Poetry is an art which should be enjoyed for what it is, rather than what we expect it to be. Every poet, rather every poem, is a foreign land. Its strangeness can only be won over and adopted from within, just like an unknown, foreign country we visit for the first time. It is in this manner that poetry makes us erudite and eloquent.

The dual public persona of Namdeo might have complicated things further, as a poet and a politician do not always form two edges of the same sword. I, however, have not been much concerned with Namdeo’s political life. Notwithstanding the view one may have about his political escapades, one cannot deny his innovative contribution not only to Marathi literature, but to our literature as a whole. In his later lifer, even though he never formally joined Shiv Sena, his economic situation and the continuing burden of buying expensive medicines (even I used to send him medicines for a period of time, but could not afford it much longer) prompted him to regularly contribute to Samna, the mouthpiece of the Sena, which earned him some money, but a lot of critique. Although he would challenge his adversaries from time to time, he never felt bitter about them, so clear was he about his path.

Over time, his health started deteriorating. On his Berlin visit in 2001, he could still climb three stairs to be with me in my flat, though he needed a lot of time and energy to do it. But on his second trip to my city five years later, it was totally impossible, and he remained in my car and had his lunch there.

It was now more than clear to him that he would never be able to make another journey anymore. But his lust and need to be in dialogue with the world never died. He came up with the idea that if he couldn’t go to the world and its writers anymore, he could at least call them to Mumbai, his home city, and asked me for my help and co-operation. Consequently, I collaborated with Namdeo to organise two World Literature Festivals, in 2008 and 2010, in Mumbai. Despite it being a strenuous exercise for him, it was obvious how much he enjoyed being with writers from the wider world. His wife, Mallika Amar Shaikh, a well-known theatre personality and herself a celebrated Marathi poet — she happens to be daughter of the legendary Shahir Amar Shaikh, whose folk songs played a crucial role during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, was often worried about him. But she let him do what he wanted and instead suffered herself.

Now that the legendary Namdeo Dhasal is no more, I rely on what they say that legends never die, they live in the hearts and minds of people forever. I am not sure as to where our souls go to once we are gone, whether they travel back to our creator, or attain Nirvana. All such ideas appear to me as a creation of man in order to make sense of life. But I am more than sure that Namdeo’s soul will remain with us, amongst us, and be talking to us through the words and poems he had produced over a period of some 40 years. Rest in peace my friend.

(Rajvinder Singh is a Berlin-based multi-lingual poet and literary semiotician. He was National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, between 2011-13)

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