Noted Marathi poet and one of the founders of Dalit Panthers, Padma Shri Namdeo Dhasal died on Wednesday after a long battle against illness that included colorectal cancer in the wee hours of Wednesday. He was undergoing treatment at the Bombay Hospital in south Mumbai. He was 64.
The award-winning writer of Golpitha had a medical history of myasthenia gravis, a rare auto-immune disorder. He had been in and out of hospital since he was diagnosed with cancer. His funeral will be held on Thursday.
“Dhasal shook up the white-collar authors and readers by his style of writing. He understood the power of literature in raising a voice against atrocities on Dalits. We have lost an aggressive Dalit leader,” said Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.
Dhasal was born on February 15, 1949 in a village in Pune district. His father was a butcher and he grew up in the slums of Kamathipura.
While working as a taxi driver, Dhasal was drawn towards the socialist movement in Mumbai. His first collection of poems Golpitha was published in 1973.
With some others, he formed a radical organisation called Dalit Panthers on July 9, 1972 inspired by the American 'Black Panthers.’ In 1973-74, the Panthers openly challenged the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, both ideologically and on the streets.
The Panthers’ manifesto broadened the definition of the word Dalit. He redefined the term to include all exploited groups, including women, irrespective of their caste, as Dalits. This created discontent within the organisation and some Panthers parted ways with Dhasal, accusing him of propagating a Communist outlook.
Sidelined by the Dalit movement, Dhasal was welcomed first by the Congress and then by the Shiv Sena. He even went on to support the Emergency and his poem on Indira Gandhi was published by then Chief Minister Shankarrao Chavan. Though he was never a member of the Sena, he regularly contributed to the party’s mouthpiece Saamana . Dhasal was active as a writer till the very end. His last poem on Nelson Mandela was published on January 11.
“His political journey was a disaster. But we cannot deny his contribution as a poet,” said Subodh More, his associate since the 1970s.
Dhasal’s incisive poetry and equally sharp prose encompassed a wide range of voices from Mumbai’s underbelly. He wrote about the sexually exploited, the ugly and savage, the criminal and the nefarious. His work earned him the Padma Shri and the Sahitya Akademi’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Eminent poet and close friend Dilip Chitre who called Dhasal the poet of the Underworld wrote the introduction to Golpitha . In an essay, Chitre wrote that the work occupied “a position equal to that of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ not only in Marathi but in pan-Indian poetry, and it could have been written only by a Dalit.”