Her raspy voice bursts out, almost drowning those of the others in the room, as she intones the choicest of abuses in Marathi. Soon, Urmila Pawar is giggling and everyone else in the room cracks up as well. Pawar is a noted Dalit writer and feminist, who has authored several critically acclaimed books, including her two collections of short stories, Sahav Bot Sixth Finger and Mother Wit. The year-old, who plays the titular character, has been performing the one-woman show for over 25 years.
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Editor's note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature.
Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits. It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system.
Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. It marked a resurrection of their experiential world, which had been appropriated by the pens of Savarnas.
Poems, stories, novels, biographies, autobiographies produced by Dalits established a new body of literature in which, for the first time, the downtrodden took centrestage. As this movement of literary assertion by Dalits grew stronger, the unseen side of India — the side that is brutal and inhumane — became visible to the world. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives.
Almost all of the writers who shaped the early theoretical discourse of Dalit literature were from Maharashtra and in this series, we revisit the lives and works of 10 distinguished Dalit writers from the state — and their impact on the literary world.
The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India.
Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste. The guiding force to arrive at such a position — to express themselves so daringly, with such illuminating clarity — can be seen in the history and the background for further struggle Dalit women created through their narratives and writings.
Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists.
The position of Dalit women as 'Dalit within Dalits', is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.
I remember sometime in , when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me.
Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book initially was not celebrated, but looked down upon.
As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world.
This incisive understanding showed how Pawar explored and experienced the twofold struggle — of a woman, and of a Dalit. Pawar did not stop with an autobiography, in exploring the nuances of Dalit life.
She also wrote two collections of short stories and one play, Vhay Mi Savitribai Yes! The play, in which Pawar has also acted, has been running for almost 25 years. Pawar has been one of the prominent members of the women's movement for decades in Maharashtra. Pawar — as a writer, and one of the strongest voices of Dalit feminism — has made her own place in the history of Dalit women and their contribution to the movement against caste.
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Dalit Writing in English Translation
Urmila Pawar is a Dalit feminist writer. Even though Dalit Feminism is understood to be the ideas of Dalit women activists and writers, the theoretical formulation of this discourse is mostly shaped by a few non-Dalit feminists and Dalit intellectuals. For example, Sharmila Rege has been considered to be one of the important figures in Dalit feminism. Thus, Dalit autobiographies and fiction occupy an important political position; as works of protest.
Editor's note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits. It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives.
How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words
Translating Caste is a significant addition to the literature of caste now available in English. These anthologies established the uniqueness of dalit writing in modern Indian literature, even as they drew attention to its conditions of production, to questions of style, genre, and resistance, and to the comparability of this corpus with the literature of indigenous and disadvantaged people from across the world. Though unexceptionable as a principle for putting together coherent anthologies or for directing radical movements, the strictness of the selection foreclosed the option of reading the dalit alongside other representations of caste, besides implying a disconnect between dalit politics and other struggles for freedom and rights in post-independence India. By widening the goalposts to include a broad selection of stories on the subject, Translating Caste avoids these constraints; and, if this allows the volume to place dalit literature within. Ramanunni shows the ubiquity of caste as an everyday social category despite the transformations wrought by class mobility. The variety of languages, locations, and caste identities is however at the service of a close historical interest. But there is another reason why Translating Caste is a significant addition to ongoing work on dalit writing.