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Joya John: Plays of Datta Bhagat

Hummingbird in rain. Credit - markthalman.com

Articulations of Dalit Selfhood in the Plays of Datta Bhagat

It was through a recent performance of Vijay Tendulkar’s Kanyadaan in Habitat Centre that was to forcefully highlight the highly contentious relationship between representation, the position of the playwright and audience response for dalit identity. At a specific point, when the Dalit protagonist manhandles his upper caste wife, a member of the audience turned to a friend seated next to her and remarked about a well reputed family of her acquaintance whose daughter had similarly married a “harijan”, “of course he went on to join the IAS”, she said. The purpose of the comparison was not clear, partly because of my underdeveloped skills of eavesdropping, but also because the trajectory of this love-story was not strictly compatible with that of the play (the fact that no such bitter results accrued from this alliance) and soon the performance drew her back to the task of interpreting the characters in the play. Was I witnessing a casteist response to the play? Was the play, casteist because it generated such a response in its audience? How did the play produce a dalit and non-dalit selves for its audience? I was to read later that when this play was performed it generated much controversy and in one meeting dalit activists even hurled a shoe at Tendulkar for his depiction of dalits in the play.

An originary moment of dalit literature, specifically dalit drama, is one that is still being constituted and recovered in Dalit discourse. For drama that testifies to a modern dalit consciousness, an originary moment is often traced to the 1960’s and early 70’s in Maharashtra. However this moment is also a misnomer of sorts because as dalit playwrights themselves assert a certain prior moment of the dalit drama is linked to the Satyashodak jalsas and Ambedkari jalsa of pre-independence India. Most of these playlets were open air performances that were staged in urban and rural areas and were linked to reform-attacking superstition and rituals and inculcating self respect. Most of these performances also drew on folk forms and folk songs.

However the credit for modernizing the folk form and using it in a specific form that Vasudha Dalmia identifies as “[T]he folk form being left more or less intact but used primarily to carry an explicitly political message”, goes to Anna Bhau Sathe. Sathe as a newly canonized figure of dalit literature ,however, uncomfortably strides two different now constructed as opposing political orientations (dalit and communist) .In 1944 Anna Bhau Sathe, Amar sheikh and D.N. Gavhaukar formed the Lal Bawata Kala Pathak (Red Flag Artistes Troupe). Most of Sathe’s compositions which borrowed on the form of the tamasha and were called Loknatya critiqued the Congress, explained Marx’s ideas and the differences between the communist, socialist and the nationalistic Congress’s ideas. These plays would be staged in worker’s chawls. In his novels and stories apart from these themes Sathe addressed inequalities of caste. Sathe would himself go on to join the Communist Party of India. In the canonization of Sathe in dalit discourse we see the logic of a certain erasure at work. It is in Sathe’s compositions that expressly talk of caste oppression that he qualifies as a Dalit writer. The criterion of belonging to an untouchable caste, Matang in Sathe’s case, is important for establishing his credentials. Sathe’s work can become an important site to assess the reasons for a bifurcation between mobilization against social forms of injustice with the criterion of the birthmark of caste on one hand and economic oppression (communist) on the other. The consolidation of this template of dalit discourse is crucial in understanding the issue of authenticity and representation in dalit literature. 

Dalit critics have stressed that the subject position of the dalit writer is always communitarian, a dalit middle class is always still tied to its community. Discussing the limitations of Tendulkar’s drama, Datta Bhagat in his essay “Dalit chetna aur Marathi Dalit Rangmanch”, refers to him as middle class writer and therefore subject to certain myopia. Bhagat stresses that the depiction of dalit subject matter is not necessarily a criterion to decide whether the work contains true dalit consciousness. The depiction of lower caste characters and the strategies of form (whether revolutionary or reformist) have been the central concern for dalit critics. What then is dalit consciousness and why does it achieve such an axiomatic quality when it comes from a Dalit playwright?

In her analysis of the Gujrati dalit short story Rita Kothari draws our attention a narrative strategy often used by the dalit writer: 

Does an urban dalit elide over his ‘nuclear’ and urban identity in literature? Does the need to represent and speak for/with his community make it imperative to affiliate with a rural, feudal history of anger? If the stuff of an urban dalit’s life is not mirrored in his literary preoccupations what gives rise to that dichotomy and what sustains it? The long historical memory, often harking back to mythological narratives, allows the dalit writer and undifferentiated dalit selves to place themselves in longue dur`ee of dalit oppression without questioning the way the form blocks an interrogation into which dalit voice finds expression at the expense of another.


The play that was to achieve much critical acclaim for Bhagat is – Aavart mistakenly translated as “Whirlpool”, by its translators. I was informed that “vortex” would have been a more appropriate title. The play was written in 1978 and follows the use of two traditional forms of the dindi and the tamasha. In a telephonic conversation I asked the playwright what was the impetus behind using this form. Mr. Bhagat informed me that this was a format that was “popular”. Another reason was that these were forms that are identified by their lower caste Mahar practitioners. When questioned on the success of the performance he said that it was unfortunately not comprehendible for its rural audiences. The play was however more successful in its urban folk avatar on the proscenium theatre and saw some very famous directors like Satya Dev Dubey and Amol Palekar direct it. The play Whirlpool is set in the backdrop of the pilgrimage of Pandharpur. The play begins with characteristic verbal banter between the Vidusak and Sutradhar, who talk about a new subject of the tamasha/loknatya, – dalit consciousness. Through their circuitous movement (a technique through which the players transpose their audience to various locales) various moments in history are telescoped into one story of dalit oppression and ends with a trial that fails to dispense justice even in the present to the murdered Manohar who rises like a phoenix and claims himself to be a kind of everyman figure of the dalit oppressed throughout history. The play ends with the Sutradhar and the Vidusak revolving in a vortex that takes on a Beckett like no-go situation with the two characters unable to move due to the restrictions of the proscenium stage which prevents them from leaving. This for Bhagat becomes symbolic of an incipient dalit consciousness that is waiting to express itself but cannot due to a history of murderous silence. The figure of Manohar, an educated dalit youth, can fluidly change into the Mahar agricultural laborer robbed of his privileges of Baluta.

The story “Promotion” by Arjun Dangle is an excellent point from which to deconstruct this seeming homogeneity in dalit experience. The story revolves around a white collar dalit protagonist who is very smug and self satisfied and shuns his poor dalit relatives and his past. He is however shocked out of his complacency when his own child is discriminated at school. The narrative emplotment therefore carefully elides the difference between the upper class and lower class dalit selves by showing how the middle class might believe it is not a victim when it actually is. The errant middle class dalit self is brought back home by making its realization of its own oppression a predicament for all Dalits. Conscience, guilt and rage, cynicism and social responsibility all adjuncts of middle class topography shape the contours of such dalit articulation. The play “Whirlpool” critiques certain trends in dalit politics – The Gandhian cap that has become a stock feature of corruption, due to lighting effects looks blue – the colors of the Republican Party. Within the economy of the play however this does not in any way destabilize the truth claim or representative status of the univocal dalit voice. The tropes of corruption and upper caste violence and the quest for equality and justice resolve the question of the impoverished dalit to the realm of constitutional politics and the law where, in the struggle for resources, it is his more articulate middle class self that will represent him. 

The militant dalit protagonist, who engages in ventriloquism, for his poorer dalit self can be seen in Bhagat’s other play “Routes and Escape Routes” an excerpt of which is now included in the B.A. Programme course for Delhi University. Bhagat makes the play a discussion between its two main protagonists Satish and Arjun. While Satish, is a professor in a college, Arjun his student is the son of a maid. The immediate source of conflict between the two arises over how to redress government apathy over the construction and distribution of houses for the poor flood victims. While Arjun resolves to take the houses by force to resettle only dalit families, Satish reminds him that since this move would alienate those flood victims who were not dalit but also poor, Arjun should exercise self restraint. Satish offers his own idea of a cooperative housing society for dalits as a potential solution. He asks Arjun to refrain from taking the law into his own hands and to follow constitutional means to rectify social wrongs. It is interesting to note that Arjun with his working class background cannot see that government apathy applies to the poor dalits and non dalits. That consciousness would have turned Arjun into a working class hero but not a dalit one. Satish’s supra caste stand, is also progressively dismantled in the play by the events that ensue from the forced takeover. In the play casteist and conservative mentalities win out, whether it is in Satish’s own students who fail to imbibe his liberalism or in the violent clash between the poor flood victims of the two communities. Satish tacitly accepts the limitations of his own very idealistic view which means accepting the impossibility of the dissolution of caste identities and Arjun is redeemed as someone who is not given to meaningless violence and knows his responsibility to civil society. The failure of idealism and humanism is essential for the form to reconstitute caste consciousness albeit through an apparent pessimism. It is a clever play because it can construct caste mentalities as unsurpassable in order to critique humanism and so elide a critique of a middle class dalit protagonist by bringing it within the purview of overarching dalit victimhood. The pessimism inherent in the play allows Bhagat to retain leadership within a middle class dalit purview and curtails the articulation of working class militancy within constitutional limits. When Arjun does critique the middle class complacency of Satish, it is only in the form of reminding Satish that he too has been the victim of casteist mentalities. Through this the play re-establishes the homogeneity of dalit oppression much like in Dangle’s “Promotion”. The memory of caste makes invisible any cleavage that might exist between the ways social location is experienced materially by various dalit selves. 

Dalit drama is yet to receive sustained critical analysis in mainstream theory. However a lot can be derived from the way dalit literature as a whole has been received within critical apparatuses. The primacy to self experience (Swaanubhav) is according to the critic Bajrang Bihari Tiwari a hallmark of dalit discourse. This technique of dalit narrative therefore makes redundant the traditional technique of a literary work which is Parkaya-Parvesh. The concept of Parkaya Parvesh can be compared with the term Verstehen/empathy (German for understanding). This is the ability of the work of art to draw us in and experience the narrative from within it. Such a method makes primary how agents understand themselves. Bajrang Bihari Tiwari seems to posit Parkaya Parvesh in opposition to Swaanubhav. This opposition would make possible the distinction between a non dalit writer’s empathetic depiction of dalit experience and the dalit writer’s self experience. I have tried to show however that for the middle class dalit writer the fiction/performance of self experience does engage in ventriloquism for its dalit other. Perhaps the singular most important understanding of dalit aesthetics by Sharan Kumar Limbale is the best place to problematize a certain hegemonic reading of the dalit text. Limbale stresses the univocal nature of dalit literature since it is never about the individual but the community. This reading is however premised on a certain falsity. If we were to return to that moment when the spectator of Kanyadaan was produced as a non dalit spectator of the play we see that the problem with that response was precisely the way the play provided her a prism from which to view all dalits negatively, including the IAS Officer. What was more disturbing was the way the performance could make her memory of a similar scenario from her life a tool in interpreting the play, when it might not have had anything in common. The dalit protagonist in the play and the IAS Officer who is also a dalit are one and the same. While contending this reading, in its own production dalit literature assumes the same universality with an inversion of value. This claim to universality of the dalit text/performance allows the dalit IAS Officer to empathize with the performance as if it was his own experience. The dalit playwright – the performative selves and the spectator are placed in the same continuum of “this is what we experience”. The hermeneutic sealing off of dalit from non dalit is achieved. The consumption of this by a non dalit interpretative community is then possible/desirable because it has only to re-broker a relationship with its alienated dalit but eventually middle class self.

Within postcolonial frameworks we know that the idea of nationhood has been subjected to critique. Within dalit discourse, two broad ideas govern how dalits as a community should look at this idea of the nation. One has been to demand the inclusion of dalits within this proclaimed nationhood through the extension of bourgeois democracy. The other has been to critique this individualizing modernity through the idea of the community. Kancha Ilaiah constructs dalit-bahujan community as an ontologically separate category from Brahmin-baniya consciousness and V.T. Rajshekhar compares caste to ethnicity and advocates separatism. Both these positions are however premised on their own idea of a universal dalit selfhood. 

If we problematize dalit experience as a singular logos which governs all expression, we open up possibilities of deconstructing the narrative strategies of emplotment that give the dalit speech act its illocutionary power and coherence as a unitary dalit self. We open up the scope of understanding imaginations of identity that contest or disturb given ideas of dalit hood. The need to undertake this exercise arises from the very signs that dalit literary performative forms are showing. Both in the use of the realist drawing room drama and the use of folk there are remarkable similarities between Bhagat’s plays and that of non dalit writers. The folk form when revived by the dalit playwright is already distinct from its original practitioners. Its incomprehensibility for rural audiences is therefore indicative. Within both textual and performance contexts it has been the state and funding agencies like the Ford foundation that have recognized the dalit folk play. Bhagat was awarded by the Maharashtra government for his play Whirlpool. The form of the drawing room drama is similarly limited. In Kanyadaan and in Routes and Escape Routes it is in the middle class drawing room where individuals come to terms with a social crisis and reorient their positions. The plays of dalit writer Datta Bhagat located in urban settings set the agenda for a spectral viewing of the dalit other. Its largely middle class protagonists voice concerns not very different from mainstream middle class non dalit protagonists. The form allows for a generational conflict, to pose questions of social responsibility or to open out the insularity of the private to political issues. Positions on social agency are made to enter a dialogue with each other, impatient, violent voices clash with more restrained ones. The form sustains a rapprochement between these various voices. Through ventriloquism and the production of various dalit selves across time the dalit writer can elide the fissures in dalit selfhood. However it is in those moments of crisis, when faced with its own dalit other or a dissenting voice that the form of dalit articulation, though reconsolidated in Datta Bhagat, testifies to an unconscious acceptance of a betrayal.


A critique of the depiction of lower caste characters in Premchand’s story “Kafan”, by Dalit writer Om prakash Valmiki is one such instance. Published in a Hindi daily-Janmat(16-31 August 1994), Valmiki’s essay claimed that though the earlier Premchand wrote a number of stories depicting dalit consciousness, in his later phase, specifically when writing “Kafan”, Premchand betrays signs of Gandhian reformism and a feudal mindset. This is evident, according to Valmiki, in the way Premchand portrayed the Dalit protagonists Ghisu and Madhav. The absence of critical consciousness in them and the depiction of the ‘Chamar’ protagonists as wasted and lazy according to Valmiki confirm Premchand’s upper caste bias. Ghisu and Madhav’s “degeneracy” could be seen as an outcome of the circumstances in which they are placed or it could be read as symptomatic of their caste status. The discomfort with the grotesque comedy of “Kafan” is the indeterminacy of representation it seems to harbor.



Bhagat,Datta. Avart. http://www.georgs-home.com/drlitr//Avart.htm. Accessed on 26/12/07

--------------- “Dalit chetna aur Marathi ka Dalit Rangmanch”. Vasudha


--------------- “Routes and Escape Routes”,Drama Contemporary: Indian. Erin.B.Mee(ed.)(New Delhi: Oxford University Press,2002) pp 286-343

Dalmia,Vasudha. Poetics, Plays and Performances:The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006

Dangle, Arjun. “Promotion”. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Bombay:Orient Longman, 1994.

Ilaiah, Kancha.   Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra critique of Hindutva philosophy, culture and political economy(Calcutta: Samya, 1996)

Kothari, Rita. “Short Story in Gujrati Dalit Literature” http://www.ambedkar.org/research/ShortStory.htm. Accessed on 26/12/07

Limbale, Shravan Kumar. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature: History, Controversies and Considerations.

Rajshekar, V.T. Caste a nation within the nation:recipe for a bloodless revolution. 

(Bangalore:Books for change,2004)  

Tendulkar, Vijay. Kanyadaan.Reprint.Delhi:Manohar Publishing House,2002

Tiwari, B.B.2003. “Women in Dalit Discourse” (Translation mine), Kathadesh. Jan, pp.39-49


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