Namdeo Dhasal: A poet of the underbelly4 min read . Updated: 16 Jan 2014, 01:07 AM IST
Namdeo Dhasal, the radical poet and founder of the Dalit Panther party, dies of illness at the age of 64
It’s not for his politics that Namdeo Dhasal will be remembered. Not perhaps even for the Dalit Panthers. He will remembered for his maverick spirit, for the poetry that writer Kiran Nagarkar says “gives it to you in the solar plexus, leaves you unable to breathe". Dhasal died in Mumbai early on Wednesday morning at the age of 64, losing a long, debilitating struggle with illness. He was fighting colon cancer but also suffered from a rare neuromuscular disease.
Speaking on the phone, Kumar Ketkar, the veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Marathi daily Loksatta, said Dhasal was a “complete rebel; he just wanted to be his own self". Ketkar had known Dhasal from the time the latter was a lodestar of Dalit politics, an uncompromising radical on the verge of founding the Dalit Panthers in 1972, an organization, as is apparent from its name, inspired by the political radicalism of the Black Panthers.
Ketkar spoke of a group of young, educated Dalits who were angered by “miserable lives of Dalits in Mumbai chawls despite the work of (B.R.) Ambedkar." They expressed that anger, that frustration through poetry, through verses given impetus and heat by protest. “Literature first, politics later," as Ketkar put it, a distinctive but appealing attribute for a political movement.
It’s a background that made Dhasal a darling of the Left, a radical icon. But Dhasal was not an easy man to co-opt. His support for prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and later for the Shiv Sena—he wrote a column for the Shiv Sena’s newspaper Saamna, and in Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 film Jai Bhim Comrade he is shown sharing a stage with Bal Thackeray—lost him many comrades.
The publisher, S. Anand, said in a phone interview that he would rather “savour (Dhasal’s) poetry than his politics". In 2007, Anand’s press, Navayana, published a comprehensive anthology of Dhasal’s poetry translated by the poet and critic Dilip Chitre.
Anand quotes the last three lines from Speculations on a Shirt, one of the poems published in that volume, as a way to explain Dhasal’s expansive, contradictory, sometimes ornery character: A human being shouldn’t become so spotless / One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt / One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin. Chitre, who died in 2009, wrote in an essay that his friend Dhasal’s judgement may have been flawed, that his politics “may have been errant", but that he was “transparent and direct, human and honest".
Ketkar believes Dhasal’s politics were misunderstood, that he had not shifted to the right but retained his core allegiances to the disenfranchised, the poor and the radical. “Essentially," Ketkar says, “the Shiv Sena was a loud and spontaneous movement of anger and protest. Dhasal wasn’t moved by the Shiv Sena’s ideology but by the fact that most of its members were working class." Even his support for Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Ketkar says, was because of her land reforms, her willingness to waive loans to villagers. His politics may have appeared “superficially incoherent, but he did not want to be disconnected from the masses, from their concerns".
The critic Ranjit Hoskote said in a phone conversation that Golpitha, his 1973 masterpiece, was “still startling in the manner in which Dhasal creatively profanes language, desacralizes it." Anand describes the same poem as “absolutely breathtaking", as still giving him goosebumps.
Golpitha, of course, is the Mumbai neighbourhood where Dhasal grew up, a rough, red-light district filled with prostitutes and small-time gangsters. His father was a butcher’s assistant. Dhasal’s formal education was erratic but he was an assiduous autodidact. Ketkar, recalling his meetings with Dhasal “back in 1970 or 1971", describes him as “extraordinarily, sparklingly intelligent. Not everyone was as well-read—Herbert Marcuse, Sartre, Camus, Angela Davis... he used to confront upper-caste academics in the colleges with the same books they used to flaunt their intellectualism."
It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of charisma Dhasal had, the appeal he must have held for his contemporaries. He was a radical poet in the Beat mould, except it wasn’t just a literary pose; he lived his words. Read, for instance, lines from one of the poems in Golpitha: Man you should explode / Yourself to bits to start with / Jive to a savage drum beat... Man, you should keep handy a Rampuri knife / A dagger, an axe, a sword, an iron rod, a hockey stick, a bamboo / You should carry acid bulbs and such things on you / You should be ready to carve out anybody’s innards without batting an eyelid". The words are an exhortation, a plea for necessary revolution.
His wife, Malika Sheikh, daughter of the Communist folk-singer and poet Shahir Amar Sheikh, was a partner on that revolutionary road. Theirs was a tempestuous, often troubled marriage. Dhasal was not an easy man. He contained, to borrow from Walt Whitman, multitudes. It is for that complexity, that unrefracted humanity, that he will be remembered.