The history of Dalit literature can be traced back to centuries. But Dalit literary/cultural expressions were never taken into consideration due to the hegemonic nature of the field of literary production. The emergence of Dalit as a political category and identity coincide with the emergence of Dalit literature. Current researches by scholars reveal the widespread character of Dalit writings in various parts of India. Research also shows that Dalit literature had long before acquired a distinct language through its heterogeneous and plurivocal character which challenged dominant literary canons. Dalit literature acquired a recognizable identity towards the middle of the twentieth century. The term ‘Dalit literature’ – 'Dalit' meaning oppressed, broken and downtrodden — came into use officially in 1958 at the first conference on Dalit literature in Mumbai. The emergence of the Dalit Panthers (a political organisation formed in 1972 in Mahrastra) is a significant moment in the history of Dalit literature which was furthered by various political/literary movements across India.
Dalit literature for a long time was disregarded and not taken seriously in the literary circles. The publication of translations from modern Marathi literature entitled Poisoned Bread edited by Arjun Dangle with a prefatory note by Gail Omvedt had already sparked debates in the literary circles. Under the impulsion of such academics as Arun Prabha Mukherjee (York University, Toronto) who translated Omprakash Valmiki's Joothan (1997) into English in 2003 and wrote an introduction to it, the initial reluctance to accept new literary genres by the dominant literary discourses, has, over time, given way to wider acceptance and circulation of Dalit literature in and outside India. The recent volume on Dalit writings from two south Indian states No Alphabet in Sight edited by Susie Tharu and K. Satyanarayana, opens up a new debate on the long history of Dalit literature and its current prominence in the contemporary scene of literature and politics. It also shows how Dalit literature moves beyond the usual discourses of literary modernity.
The debate between Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), one of India’s foremost revolutionaries, an untouchable and a fierce critic of Gandhi, is a major event in Indian history. Ambedkar famously said ‘Mahatma, I have no country’. Fictionists like Avinash Dolas and others have explored the depth of this theme. This discussion between Ambedkar and Gandhi has provoked debates on nationhood and Hindu religion. The well-known book by D.R. Nagaraj, The Flaming Feet, is a case in point. Although untouchability was abolished with the 1950 Constitution of India (drafted by Ambedkar), Ambedkar’s experiences continue to be the lot of India’s 170 million Dalits today.
Dalit literature in its initial stages (and in a broader sense, even today) was identified as specific protests directed against everyday humiliations that individual dalits and Dalits as a community face. In this context, contradictions between Marxism and progressive literary movements (which works on larger abstractions) with Dalit literature (and Dalit movements) have to be taken into serious consideration. Most of the debates around/about Dalit Literature have failed to adequately acknowledge the new vocabulary of imagination and aesthetical sensibility produced by these literatures. Dalit literature cannot be reduced to an engagement with victimhood. In the hands of poets like S. Joseph, it has spawned new literary cannons by disturbing the usual language available in the pre-existing canonical literary circles. Dalit Literature today has established itself as a new mode of literary/aesthetic imagination and writing.
The fact that John Berger, Arundhati Roy and Joe Sacco saluted the publication of the graphic novel Bhimayana : Experiences of Untouchability (Delhi: Navayana, 2011), may be the sign that something is changing in the context of Dalit literatures. The visual, the literary and the political dimensions closely intertwine in this graphic biography of Ambedkar. The artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, together with Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand for the story, crafted a book that has broken new ground, not least because it did so in a controversial way. The publication of Bhimayana could be a signal that Dalit cultures are edging out of the restricted areas where they were formerly circumscribed. This could also be an opportunity to examine Dalit expression and literatures in a renewed way and from different perspectives.
Far from concentrating on the historical, social and economic circumstances of the untouchable communities that are described by Dalit writers or non-Dalit writers (such as Raja Rao, Arundhati Roy or Rohinton Mistry), the editors of the projected volume of PoCoPages encourage contributions that will foreground the following issues:
the linguistic questions linked to translation from regional Indian languages into English and other international languages; more generally the question of accessibility; questions linked to sub-Indian and international distribution; magazines, books and the web;
the attention Dalit literatures are getting outside the limited circles of activists in India and outside India; more generally the question of reception; Dalit literature and its readership; who writes for whom;
the generic questions linked to the literary choices made by the writers : poetry, short story, novel, autobiography, biography, graphic novels, photo-journalism, recorded oral narratives, theatre, etc; the poetics and politics involved in such literary choices;
the gender question: male and female writers; male and female readers; the relationship between caste and gender, in the specific context of the Dalits;
the relationship between Dalit literature and Dalit politics, including the impact of literature on the social situations faced by the untouchables; the transformative value of such literature and on what grounds;
the contact zones between Adivasi literature and Dalit literature;
the marginalisation of minority Dalit literature (Christian, Muslim, Sikh Dalit literature for instance);
the resistance that Dalit literature is facing from dominant literary groups and the legitimacy it is slowly being granted, or not;
the pitfalls of literary fashion and stereotypes;
Dalit literatures and the film industry (film adaptations, documentaries, etc);
the relationship between Dalit literatures and the Indian literary canon; the relationship between Dalit literatures and other literatures (postcolonial, African-American, subaltern and trauma literatures, etc); intertextuality within Dalit literatures;
the relationship between Marxism and Dalit literature, specifically in terms of how the questions of class and caste overlap and conflict; the perspective of Indian Marxists;
Dalit self-writings and their specificities; narrative voice and perspective;
last but not least, the problematics of inside and outside: writing on or from a Dalit perspective; the academic perspective and the non-academic perspective; the perspective of Indians, and Indian writers, of the diaspora; the Indian and the non-Indian perspective; bridging the western and the eastern perspective on Dalit writing.
PoCoPagesis a peer-reviewed series in the collection "Horizons anglophones" published by the Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée (Pulm). India and the Diasporic Imagination is the latest volume (2011).
General Editor : Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak (Paul-Valéry University – Montpellier 3, France).
This volume, to be published in 2013, will be co-edited with Joshil K. Abraham (Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi). Please submit a 300-word abstract with a short bio (200 words maximum) by January 31, 2012 to Joshil K. Abraham <firstname.lastname@example.org> and to Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak <email@example.com>. If the preliminary proposal is accepted, final essays (33,000 characters, spaces and footnotes included, bibliography on top) will be due by May 31, 2012.