Literary Review

An Orpheus in Hell

Namdeo Dhasal. Photo: Henning Stegmuller   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

“I enjoy discovering myself. I am happy when I am writing a poem, and I am happy when I am leading a demonstration of sex workers fighting for their rights,” late Namdeo Dhasal, poet, fiction writer, activist, columnist and editor once told Henning Stegmuller, the German photographer who was preparing an album of his photographs.

To me, like most of his friends and acquaintances who have experienced his generosity, the poet’s demise is a personal loss. He will no longer call me to say how happy he was to read my piece on him in Frontline or to thank me for having responded to his invitation to a poetry festival he organised in Mumbai — that landed him in debt — nor will I enjoy his and his partner poet Malika Amarsheikh’s warm hospitality at his Mumbai home. I first heard of him and translated some of his poems including the famous Mandakini Patel into Malayalam — I translated his later poems a few months ago for the Matrubhumi Weekly — in the 1970s when the Dalit Panther Movement he had initiated in Maharashtra hit newspaper headlines across the country. Dalit literature in Marathi was emerging as a major counter-literature with its own aesthetics that would simultaneously fascinate and unsettle mainstream writers and critics in the language. Later, we met on different occasions in different cities often in the lively presence of our common friend, the late Dilip Chitre, the Marathi poet, editor and translator who also translated selections from Namdeo’s different collections in Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underground (Navayana). Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and Dhasal formed a rare poetic trio — each different from the other and yet united by their rootedness in their native soil and language that co-existed with their untiring urge for stylistic experiment and innovation. We have lost all three poets who had together created an epoch in Marathi poetry to the same disease in a decade.

Namdeo grew up in Golpitha, a red light district in Mumbai and, even as a child, witnessed life in the raw that shaped both his understanding of the human predicament and his idiom that easily mixed words of abuse picked up from the street and the slum with phrases from the sacred poetry of the Marathi saints. For a busy activist, his output was impressive — seven collections of raw, raging, often surrealistic poetry that plumb the netherworld like no Indian poet has done before, two works of fiction and many prose works besides the articles he wrote for his column in Saamana. But he was essentially a poet whose poetry grew to become the authentic expression of the rage, torment and hope of a whole age of anxiety and unease.

Namdeo had spoken about his growing up in the village Pur near Pune — watching closely the seasonal performances of the tamasha troupe led by his uncles and grandfather and listening to the robustly ribald lavani songs, the melodious ovis, bhajans and lyrics sung by his mother, the shehnai, tabla and mridang played by his close family members and the readings at home from the Marathi saint poets. Namdeo also remembered the great wave of conversion to Buddhism that swept Pune after 1957, in the wake of the mass movement launched by Ambedkar. The reference library at Janata Kendra opened before him a vast treasure house of literature, complementing what he had learnt from his masters. His experiences of caste discrimination turned him into a rebel and an outcaste — he boozed, visited brothels and plunged himself headlong into life in the backyard of the city. He threw out all rule books and sharpened his weapons as a poet. He was a taxi driver with no fixed time for reading or writing; he wrote at eateries during brief intermissions. He followed his instincts, was indifferent to opinions and decided to be faithful to the nuances of the life that opened up before him in all its beauty and brutality.

‘Man, You should Explode’ from his first collection Golpitha is typical of his poetry that often appears nihilistic and destructive, but with an inner core of tenderness: “One should regard the sky as one’s grandpa, the earth as one’s grandma,/And coddled by them everybody should bask in mutual love/Man, one should act so bright as to make the Sun and the Moon seem pale/One should share each morsel of food with everyone else, one should compose a hymn/To humanity itself, man, man should sing only the song of man.”

‘Ode to Ambedkar’ is rich with evocative imagery. “For, at the very point of the needle, one is introduced to love and to the green blade of wheat/That sun flies like the New Year’s butterfly and spreads light,/That Sun grows parallel to railway tracks,/That Sun loosens the stone walls of universities;/It moves only from one freedom to the next”.

Lines like these remind the readers of a Pablo Neruda or a Cesar Vallejo with their raw force and sheer creative energy. At times, as in ‘Water’, the lines become soft and fluent like the lines of a folksong: “Speak water, what colour are you/Son, it’s like your eyes…/Tell me water, what your colour is-/Daughter, it is the colour of your thirst.”

At times the lines turn bitter with indignation, like in ‘The Orthodox Pity’: “The rising day of justice, like a bribed person, favours only them/While we are being slaughtered, not even a sigh for us escapes their generous hands.”

The idiom grows darker and more complex in later poems like ‘Approaching the Organised Harem of the Octopus’. Black becomes a positive colour as in the poetry of Senghor and the poets of Negritude. “We are all over the streets spread out long and wide as tar on the road”(‘By the Side of the Crucifix’). ‘Mandakini Patel: A Young Prostitute, My Intended Collage’ seems even more relevant today in the context of the beastly rapes that are reported daily and foregrounds the gory violence perpetrated upon a 16-year-old girl by a brutal society. The poet’s tone grows tender as he thinks of the girl: “Manda,/Your mind is neither ash nor marble/I feel your hair, your clothes, your nails, your breasts/as though they were my own/They reveal to me , within myself /colonies of the dead…” “The Self sheds its dead skin in water/Again a growing creeper climbs the new skin…Each thing unfolds its inner space”.

‘December 6’ is a powerful reminder of the crisis of our secular ethos. “Now/This city is no longer mine...Digging up dead bodies from the past the enemies are busy/Playing the politics of chastisement…Yesterday they murdered Gandhi/Now they want to put the whole nation to death…”

The poet is anxious about tomorrow when people would present nuclear warheads, instead of roses, to one another as symbols of love. He tells van Gogh, “You’ve forgotten to paint/One of the colours of the sun!” The poet’s testament is summed up in these lines: “The wicked have injured the earth/Poets know all about it/Only poets can save the Earth/from extinction.”

Namdeo’s poetry is personal expression as well as an expression of his traumatised community. His art has now apparently been freed from his activism, but will continue to bear the indelible marks of the love, pain and anger that had inspired and sustained the activist and his deeply human voice will ever demand to be heard on its own terms.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 1:57:04 PM |

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