Essay: Uttam Bandu Tupe - Writing the Dalit oppression
A panellist at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago was described as “a New York based Dalit superstar”. William Dalrymple, writing about the 2010 JLF, spoke of “a whole raft of Dalit writers such as Kancha Ilaiah, Bama and OP Valmiki, whose writing highlights the raw power of pain, anger and affirmation”.
In what seems like a response, Dalit writer Ajay Navaria had once said, “I have seen this madness with some people – they want to express their Dalit identity in every situation. Maybe they want to profit from it in some way...Why can’t Dalits have a normal life too? We are not ‘Dalits’ 24 hours a day.”
Reading these variegated views, I am reminded of my meeting years ago with a writer who did not have the luxury of not being Dalit 24 hours, who was never invited to lit fests or seen as a superstar. As he told me, “We Dalits are like animals. The moment we are born we are on our own. There is no support system. We are constantly made aware that we are apart.”
Uttam Bandu Tupe died last year; it was an unsung death. When his play Zulwa was staged by Marathi stalwart Chetan Datar in the early 90s, we lauded the experimental work for breaking new ground. But were we even aware of where the writer of the play lived or what he did to put food on the table?
He lived in a slum on the Mumbai-Pune Highway and worked as a peon at a government office in Pune. A slight man who stood with eyes averted to the ground – a habit his station in life had forced upon him – he stayed silent for a long time. Our meeting soon turned into a group discussion where other peons joined in. We sat on the hard floor in the scorching heat, unmindful of the crawling ants, as we drank sugary tea. He started speaking with more confidence, the confidence he imbued his characters with.
“Mother, should I tell you the truth? Had your goddess been really powerful, why would she force us to beg? Whenever they need us, they use us and then throw us like a betel leaf…I don’t want to rely on Yellamma anymore and spoil the life of my child…Burn that goddess and its masque.”
That’s how the young protagonist of Zulwa forced into the profession – and trying to save her daughter from a similar fate – confronts her Devadasi mother. To get completely involved, Tupe stayed in the border areas of Karnataka dressed as a woman. He also lived for two years among the devadasis to create a body of work dedicated to their plight. He had to plumb the depths, even if it meant spending 40 days over a mere 35 lines. “Written,” as he said, “with my blood, in anger, with a sense of loss over the injustice.”
He was not surprised that his play got a good response in a metropolis like Mumbai. If such a paradox were not enough, those he wrote about often could not read. His own language was more accessible to the ‘literate’ public, the kind who would cringe at the pus oozing out of his prose. He had no place for bandaging raw expressions or wasting time on technical flourishes.
Tupe had detractors. In the book Thoughts and Philosophy of Dr BR Ambedkar, CD Naik accused him of creating “tradition-subservient literature” that is harmful because such writers “depict life artificially and deliberately”.
How artificial could the 16 novels, several short stories and poems, mostly in folklore lingo, be when they were about the very dirt flung at him? He had seen it all as a child in Satara where, while taking the cattle to graze, he watched his people being beaten up, he saw them weep. Every whiplash became an inspiration.
Writing did not pay much but he had found his voice and made his peace with turmoil. He sought an audience in an inclusive way as though he was afraid his own words would spit back at him.
Vijay Tendulkar has quite rightly been acknowledged for his remarkable exposé of the caste and power systems in works like Ghashiram Kotwal, Shantata! Court Chaalu Aahe, Kamla, Ardh Satya, but his social status and literature were at odds with each other. Tupe did not have to be committed to a cause; he was the cause. He knew the reality – that he may have talked about freedom, but it was only for the rich and powerful. The poor worked and the rich reaped the benefits.
More than any other, it is Dalit writing that takes the personal as the political seriously because its existence itself is about becoming one with what wrenches and tugs at the entrails.
In the poem New Delhi, 1985, Namdeo Dhasal wrote:
“The needle probes for the artery;
Enemies of poetry gather in your city.
Your town is cursed with power;
Roses flow in this stream of blood;
The waters of your Yamuna stand exposed.”
It was in this New Delhi that he received the Padma Shri. One argument suggests that you need to become a part of the system to expose it. But the system does not reward every rebel. Some like Uttam Bandu Tupe remain pariahs, doomed to explore darkness in the darkness.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey