The reason writers such as Raj Gowthaman and Urmila Pawar, or projects, such as Dalit History Month, have sought to rewrite or question literary history is that it has historically been dominated by upper caste writers. What has been internationally said of writers from the commonwealth or women writers can be said to be true of Dalit authors in India: what will be considered ‘literary’ or ‘literature’ in a period is often determined by those who hold power in society.
This doesn’t mean however that there is no resistance to ‘literature’. With India becoming a democratic republic, the resistance of Dalit authors also becomes more visible. The Dalit Panthers scandalise the world of Marathi literature, Bama creates a stir in Tamil writing, and this continues to go on. It is only with hindsight that many of these writers were accorded the place they demanded in literature, but today they inspire a generation of writers with their work. Here’s presenting 36 such writers that you should definitely read:
1. Namdeo Dhasal:
Perhaps the most iconic name in the world of Marathi poetry, Dhasal is also the most recognisable face of the Dalit Panthers, an organisation formed along the lines of the Black Panther movement in the United States.
Poet and critic Dilip Chitre described his first collection of poetry “Golpitha” (1972) thus: “It reveals whatever others would strive to shove under the carpet of poetry. This is my considered opinion more than three decades after its publication and I had no hesitation in writing that Namdeo’s poetry, from that outstanding start, is Nobel Laureate material.”
Dhasal was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999. In 2004, the Sahitya Akademi, while celebrating its Golden Jubilee, awarded him its Golden Jubilee Life Time Achievement Award.
2. Meena Kandasamy:
Translated into 18 languages, she is one of most famous feminist writers in India, who doubles as an activist. She is the author of two collections of poetry, “Touch” and “Ms. Militancy”, the critically acclaimed novel “The Gypsy Goddess” and most recently “A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife”.
Born Gummadi Vittal Rao, the Telugu balladeer dropped out in the first year of engineering college and took to folk singing. He took the pseudonym Gadar (now Gaddar by accident) as a tribute to the Gadar Party which fought the British rule in Punjab. Lakhs of printed copies of his songs have been distributed and sold over the last three decades. He might now join electoral politics.
4. Arun Krishnaji Kamble:
An activist and professor of Marathi at Mumbai University, Kamble was among the co-founders of the Dalit Panthers. Apart from his academic work, he also translated books of other authors and wrote poems. His most famous books are “Ramayan Sanskrutik Sangharsh”, “Dharmantarachi Bheemgarjana”, and “Chalvaliche Diwas”.
Born in a family of agricultural labourers, Bama Faustina Soosairaj donned many hats before she finally became a writer. She used to write poetry in college, but became a schoolteacher and a nun later to educate Dalit girls. It was after leaving the seminary in 1992 that she went back to serious writing. The semi-fictional autobiographical novel “Karukku” (1992) is her most famous work, although she has written more novels and short story collections since then. Originally written in the Tamil dialect she used to speak as a child, the novel created quite a stir, with Bama being prohibited from entering her village for seven months. When the novel was finally translated into English in 1998, Bama went on to win the Crossword Book Award in 2000.
6. Daya Pawar:
Born Dagdu Maruti Pawar, his searing autobiography “Baluta” became a sensation in the world of Marathi literature. Pawar published his first poem in “Asmitadarsh” in 1967. Both “Kondvada”, his first collection of poems, and “Baluta” were awarded by the Maharashtra government. Apart from poetry, Pawar published two collections of essays, a book of short stories, and the screenplay for Jabbar Patel’s movie “Dr Ambedkar”. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990.
7. Urmila Pawar:
Best known for her autobiography “Aaidan” (The Weave of Bamboo), Pawar works with feminist organisations in the Mumbai and Konkan regions. Among her acclaimed books are two collections of short stories, “Sahav Bot (Sixth Finger)” and “Mother Wit”. In 2004, the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad awarded her the Laxmibai Tilak award for “Aaidan”, but refused to accept it, saying that the “metaphors, images, and symbols in Marathi literature have remained tradition-bound”.
The co-founder of Navayana, a publishing house that focuses on issues of caste, he has founded many little magazines. He edited The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, and edited and contributed to “Waking is Another Dream”, an anthology of poetry on the Eelam genocide. “Venmous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics” is a collection of his non-fiction work.
9. Anant Rao Akela:
The 56-year-old native of Pahadipur village in Aligarh district studied only until class eight, but has written a dozen books. He sold his first work, an eight-page pamphlet titled “Ram Rajya Ki Nangi Tasveer”, at village fairs and in markets in 1980 on his own.
After he got inspired by Kanshi Ram to join the Bahajun Samaj Party in 1985, he also wrote poems that were recited at public meetings held by BSP leaders. Disillusioned with the party though, he joined the Bahujan Mukti Party in 2016.
10. Yashica Dutt:
Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir is her first book, for which she received the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2021. It is her personal story as a Dalit woman pretending to be of another caste, terrified of being found out and coming to terms with her identity. It is a heart-wrenching testament to the caste oppression Dalits face in India.
11. Baburao Bagul:
One of the pioneers of the Dalit Panthers, the Marathi writer shot to fame with his 1963 collection of short stories “Jenvha Me Jat Chorali Hoti”. His other major works of fiction were “Maran Sast Hot Ahe” (1969) and “Sood” (1970). He was awarded the Harinarayan Apte Award by the Government of Maharashtra in 1970. His fiction dwells heavily on the social and economic deprivation enforced by the caste system, as well as the revolt of those oppressed by the system.
12. Jatin Bala:
Born in 1949 in East Pakistan, Bala had lost both his parents by 1953 and had to bear the tribulations of the Bengal partition without the support of a family. Despite having to live in refugee camps, he educated himself.
The Bengali writer is the author of several anthologies of poetry and short stories as well as well as a novel. He also edited multiple periodicals from the 1970s. He has been awarded the Nitish Smriti Sahitya Puroshkar, Dabdaho Sahityo Potrika Puroshkar, Kobi Nikhilesh Sahitya Puroshkar, etc.
13. Ajay Navaria:
An assistant professor in the Department of Hindi at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, Navaria is a prominent face in Hindi literature. He has written two short story collections, “Patkatha aur Anya Kahaniyan (The Sript and Other Stories)” and “Yes, Sir”, and the novel “Udhar ke Log (People From the Other Side)”. “Unclaimed Terrain”, an English translation of his short stories was featured in a Guardian list of best books in 2013.
14. Ratan Kumar Sambharia:
Born in a village in the Rewari district of Haryana, Sambharia has been living in Rajasthan for over three decades. He has written five collections of short stories and three collections of play in Hindi, but his work has also been translated into Kannada, Marathi, and other Indian languages. He was awarded the Sahara Samay Katha Award by the Vice President of India for his story ‘Chapadasan (The Attendant)’.
15. Baby Kamble:
Kamble wrote in her spare time at the shop she ran with her husband for a living. She was motivated by the anger she felt when she read the mythological representations of repression by upper castes. Her autobiography “Jina Amucha (Our Life)” is now regarded as a pioneering work. An activist, she ran a residential school for socially backwards students in a village near Phaltan in Maharashtra until her death in 2012.
16. Leeladhar Mandloi:
Formerly the director general of Doordarshan and All India Radio, the Hindi author has published 35 books on poetry, literature, and culture. He has won several national awards such as the Samsher Samman, the Nagarjun Samman, and the Sahityakar Samman. He has also produced around 300 telefilms on short stories.
A school teacher in Viluppuram district of Tamil Nadu, Imayam is the author of three novels and four short story collections. He is known among Tamil readers for his novels “Koveru Kazhudaigal” (The Mules) and “Arumugam”. He is the recipient of multiple awards such as the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Association Award, the Agni Akshara Award, and the Autham Adigal Award.
18. Anita Bharti:
A writer and an activist, Bharti is known for her poems and stories. Most recently she contributed to and edited an anthology featuring 65 poets titled “Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein”. She has also written the biography of the social revolutionary Gabdu Ram Valmiki.
Bharti is the recipient of multiple awards and honours, such as the Radhakrishnan Shikshak Puraskar, Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman, Birsa Munda Samman, and Veerangana Jhalkari Bai Samman.
19. Kanwal Bharti:
Born in a poor family that had to work hard to educate him, Bharti started writing poetry at the age of 15. In 2008, his work was included in course books prescribed by multiple universities. An author of 15 books, he was awarded the Dr Ambedkar National Award in 1996 and Bhim Ratna award in 2001.
20. Manoranjan Byapari:
Having migrated from Bangladesh to West Bengal in the 1950s, Byapari was illiterate until his mid-twenties. Now he is a prolific author, having written 10 novels, more than a hundred stories, and an autobiographical novel “Itibritte Chandal Jiban”.
Having spent his youth in penury and without education, it was during a two-year imprisonment that Byapari taught himself the Bengali alphabet and started reading and writing. While working as a rickshaw puller after he came out of prison, he met the late Mahasweta Devi who asked him to write. His literary career started when he wrote an article ‘I pull Rickshaw’ for Devi’s journal Bartika in 1981.
21. Surajpal Chauhan:
A winner of the Hindi Academy Award, the Aligarh native is a prolific author of both poetry and prose. His poetry collections include “Prayas, Kyun Vishwas Karun”, and “Kab Hogi Wah Bhor”.
22. Raja Dhale:
Another founding member of the Dalit Panthers, Dhale is also known for his acerbic style. Although now having moved to activism, the Marathi writer edited multiple little magazines. He published “Atta”, a pamphlet-like ‘unperiodical’ in 1964,”Yeru” in 1967, “Tapasi” in 1968, and “Chakravarti” in 1969. His collection of poetry “Sthitichi Kavita (The Poetry of Circumstances)” was published by his own Atta Prakashan.
23. Raj Gowthaman:
He worked with Tamil literary magazines in the 1980s and became known as an intellectual in the 1990s when Dalit writers took on the orthodox writers in Tamil Nadu. His critical work dealt with Tamil literature from a Dalit perspective and questioned the literary history of the language.
24. Shantabai Krishnabai Kamble:
In the 1940s, she became the first Dalit woman teacher in Solapur district of Maharashtra. It was after she had retired from teaching in 1981, and when she saw the autobiographies of Dalit men being discussed in Mumbai, that she started writing her autobiography. “Mazhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (The Kaleidoscopic Story of My Life)” was published as serial in Purva magazine in 1983 and later also adapted for television as “Najuka”.
25. Dev Kumar:
Kumar started the Apna Theatre group in 1992 to arouse Dalit consciousness in Uttar Pradesh. His popular plays are “Daastan”, “Bhadra Angulimaal”, “Chakradhari”, “Sudharshan Kapat” and “Jamadaar Ka Kurta”.
26. Devanur Mahadeva:
The Kannada writer won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award in 1990 for his novel 1990. He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2011. In 2015 he returned the awards to protest rising intolerance in the country.
27. Aravind Malagatti:
A professor at Kuvempu Institute of Kannada Studies in Mysore University, Malagatti is the author of a dozen books of poetry, a collection of short stories, a novel, and two plays. This is apart from his research papers and books on literature, society, and culture. He is also the recipient of multiple awards, including the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award awarded to him for his autobiography “Government Brahmana”.
He was a founding member of the Karnataka Dalit Sangharsha Samiti and started writing poetry for performance in protests. He is the author of four poetry collections, two plays, and a book of essays. He has also written a book of essays, a doctoral study on folk deities, and his autobiography.
29. K Nath:
Born in 1945 in Duari village of Kanpur, the Hindi writer had to face tremendous hurdles due to casteism, including a falsely charged theft case. He is known for his autobiography “Tiraskar”.
30. Kotiganahalli Ramaiah:
Hailing from Kolar, he is a popular Kannada poet, who has also written plays, lyrics, and screenplays. He also founded a cultural group called “Adima Angala“. He was awarded for the dialogues he had written for the film “Gejjenada”. He is also the recipient of the Rajyotsava Award, the Karnataka Sahitya Academy award, and the Karnataka Nataka Academy award.
31. Gogu Shyamala:
She works on creating biographies of Dalit women political leaders and is a senior fellow at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. She has also published a collection of short stories in Telugu called “Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But…”.
32. P Sivakami:
Formerly an IAS officer, Sivakami is a critically acclaimed Tamil writer. She is the author of four novels and a collection of poems titled “Kadhavadaippu”. She also edits a monthly called “Pudhiya Kodangi”.
33. Omprakash Valmiki:
Born in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Valmiki’s autobiography “Joothan” is one of his most popular books. He is also the author of poetry collections such as “Sadiyon ka Santap” and “Bas Bahut ho Chuka” and short story collections such as “Salam” and “Ghuspaithiye”.
34. Debi Roy:
Born Haradhon Dhara in a Howrah slum, Roy had to change his name to survive the dominance of the upper castes in literature. He, however, went on to co-found the Hungryalist movement in West Bengal in the 1960s, and edited the first manifesto of the movement. He was arrested for obscenity after he published his first collection of poems “Kolkata o Ami (Kolkata and I)” in 1965. He is the author of ten books of poetry, three books of non-fiction, and also translates from Hindi to Bengali.
35. Bhagwan Das:
A research assistant with Ambedkar in the 1950s, Das helped found the World Conference of Religions for Peace in 1970, the International Dalit Convention in 1998, and worked relentlessly against casteism all over the world. Along with Lahori Ram Balley, who ran the Buddhist Publishing House in Jalandhar, he published a series of books of Ambedkar’s speeches in the 1960s. The books were edited and introduced by Das.
Historian Vijay Prashad describes his autobiography “Mein Bhangi Hoon (I am a Bhangi)” as “a window into the life and lineage of one person who fought against the idea that he had no history.”
36. Vijila Chirappad:
The Malayali poet has published three collections: “Adukala Illathaa Veedu (A Home Without A Kitchen)”, “Amma Oru Kalpanika Kavitha Alla (Mother Is Not A Poetic Figment Of Our Imagination)”, and “Pakarthi Ezhuthu (Copied Notes)”. The 2012 anthology of Indian poems by Oxford University Press features some of her work. Her poetry is also prescribed reading at the Kerala, MG, and Calicut Universities.