Bandhu Madhav: The Primogenitor of Dalit Literature

This was one of the two introductory essays to Marathi author Bandhu Madhav’s story collection Aamhihi Manasa Aahot (We too are humans), published in 1981. The other essay, written by Arun Kamble, was translated earlier and can be read here. The translator has secured verbal consent from Madhav’s family for preliminary publication of the translations.

Bandhu Madhav
Bandhu Madhav

Maharshi Vyas and Valmiki created immortal pieces of art in the form of Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively, and it is truly difficult to write authoritatively about these epics. Similarly, to speak about Bandhu Madhav’s—considered to be the origin point of Dalit literature—timeless writing from that period is extremely challenging for an inconsequential person like me. I would like to honestly admit that my own insignificance dawned upon me while reading his literature.   

Annabhau Sathe, Bandhu Madhav, N. R. Shinde, Kisan Baguji Bansod, Namdev Vatkar, C. B. Khairmode, and poet Deenbandhu were some of the early celebrities in the field of Dalit literature. Among them, one of the most active, capable, intelligent and celebrated participants in Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s revolutionary struggle was Bandhu Madhav! 

“Tell a slave that he is [a] slave, and he will revolt…,” this motto and its specific undertaking has shone prominently throughout Bandhu Madhav’s work: poetry and prose. His committment and literary cause (or poetic mission if you will) was to spread Ambedkarite teachings across Dalit homes. This is evidenced in his entire body of work. 

Another distinct facet graces his literature: an immense loathing for injustice, intense compassion for the oppressed, and a profound dislike and contempt for old traditions and practices rooted in religion. He wrote all that he and his ancestors witnessed, experienced, and suffered, in a sincere and fearless manner, in his stories. His stories are not formed solely in his imagination, instead, they materialise out of real Dalit lives. It does feel a bit preachy to say, ‘you are humans’ to those who have been stripped of their humanity for thousands of years. But it would be wrong to claim that his literature lacks artistic value on that account. More than mere artistic qualities and aesthetics, an intense attachment and affinity for his people shines in his literature. His stories are neither dull, nor lifeless. They are well-constructed and balanced. His description of nature is not long-winded nor do his stories tarry. Instead, they maintain a seamless flow, which carries the reader with it till the very end. And when the reader reaches the end, it causes them to introspect. They are forced to think for themselves, and to chart out their own path and interpretation.

The time-period in Bandhu Madhav’s writing is from three decades ago and his stories are located in rural settings: banks of the Krishna river, villages from Sangli and Kolhapur. His stories are predominantly based and developed in these two districts. For example, places like Pedgaon, Kavalapur, Bangaon, Buddhgaon and Vadinge, among others. Even today, reading his stories manifests the images, customs, traditions, and vicissitudes of human nature before our very eyes. And we can see how it resonates with the contemporary situation to a large extent.

Bandhu Madhav writes movingly about his experiences and sufferings during his childhood spent with his parents, grandparents, and uncles. He terms his stories as being inherited tales. I completely agree with it, but I’d go one step further and say they are immortal and historically important tales. His literature is the living repository of the types and modes of injustice suffered by the oppressed community at the time. Bandhu Madhav provides heart-rending descriptions of the pitiable state of watandars and balutedars under different systems of servitude: veth-bigari,[1]System of forced labour. mharki,[2]Services and duties ascribed to Mahars.  and baitan-baluta.[3]System of payment-in-kind for services and labour. However, he doesn’t stop there, and his stories go on to impart the elixir of Ambedkar’s teachings to his people… “Go on! Hit us! Commit countless atrocities and unending injustices against us! Persecute us! But we are not going to be scared anymore. We are not going to back down or give in. We are humans. We also have a right to live a humane life. We have realised this now, and we are willing to fight for it. We are ready to fight till our last breath, and struggle till the last drop of blood for that right!”

These fiery words exude self-awakening like a bolt of lightning piercing the all-encompassing dark. This is the true legacy of Bandhu Madhav’s literature. The world within his stories is imbued with a level of consciousness unmatched by anyone even today. His stories are the pride of Dalit literature, they are its crown jewels. The glorious precept of Babasaheb is, ‘we don’t want discarded scraps of rotis. We want a life of self-respect’. And Bandhu Madhav strived, through his poetry and prose, to inject it deep within the very core of the Untouchables. Every word in his stories is a call for awakening. It is a cry for the Untouchables to rise up in flames against injustices committed against them. And it is a means to rein in the unrestrained oppression by the Touchables. 

Whether it is the life of an individual or a community, ‘all is futile without education’. This is the second illustrious principle given by Dr. Ambedkar. This inspires illiterate parents to tell their son, “Mahadeva, you don’t have to cry like this. The practice of mharki already makes your parents cry. That is enough. You should not cry. Don’t live like this: shackled like a bull on hire.[4]बैत्या बैल Study a lot and learn to write… I will starve for days if I have to, but I will keep you in school. You have to rise up and smash the yoke: of Mahar life, of mharki, and of baitya.” This describes the hope an illiterate mother cradles for her child’s future.  

Meanwhile, in another story, Vithu Mahar’s wife sees her husband return empty-handed after a full day of chopping wood for the landlord.[5]Term used here is Ryot. She lashes out in frustration, “Damn the person who etched the fate of mharki on a Mahar’s forehead and condemned generations to live a beggar’s life. May his whore become widowed! May black dog shit on this deed of his!”

Such passion… such fire! Bandhu Madhav’s capable and fiery writing dazzles the reader and awakens him with passion. The reader is outraged as well, feeling sparks erupt inside him. And how could he not! We can clearly see and feel how Bandhu Madhav’s writing ably complimented Ambedkar’s revolutionary agitation.  And that is why  Ambedkar’s movement had become a steely front of the downtrodden and the oppressed. We can see this in his story, ‘Kadkav Tujha Daph.[6]Translation:  Let your tambourine thunder.

“Our Babasaheb tells us, if you act like a sheep, the wolf will surely come. Be like a tiger, and none shall dare cross your path…”

“Our Babasaheb tells us, we have a duty to uplift the people who we are born amongst” … “Annabhau, you are a poet. Why are you seated quietly? Get up! Pick up your tambourine and tun-tuna[7]Ektara: a one stringed instrument. and sing such blazing, powerful songs that they will awaken the masses in rage. Let every tap on your tambourine rouse a thousand brave hands to rise up and break the shackles of injustice and oppression. Stand up and let your tambourine thunder…”

Literature that is lifeless, that does not have sparks of education, is like an insipid okra sabzi. Did Bandhu Madhav’s community really need fantasy literature and art? He deftly put his finger on the pulse of the moment and skilfully sculpted appropriate literature for his downtrodden community. He deployed his literary skill to educate, enlighten, and agitate a community that was being crushed in the hell of slavery for generations. To accuse and criticise this literature of being propagandistic, would be both foolish and hypocritical. Any artist with a backbone is unaffected by the possibility of criticism, nor does he supplicate before these anxieties. It seems that Bandhu Madhav was undeterred by these concerns as well. 

Bandhu Madhav’s language is simple, easy, and clear. This is a rural language of the downtrodden. It is not an amorous language wrapped up in delicate gossamer. It is adorned like a coarse nine-yard sari, with rough unembellished layers of genuine Marathi life. Its beauty is innate and it does not lust for artificial trappings of rouge or talcum powder. This makes it the authentic literature of the oppressed community. It does not reek of obscenity. It doesn’t even have a whiff of the unreal. It has bloomed and blossomed on its own and glows like a lush marigold flower. It is also firm and sturdy like a rock. It presents the issues of Dalits in an effective manner and possesses the momentum of a chariot. This momentum carries the reader with it. The reader loses their sense of self and is moved by the story. We witness detailed and explosive accounts of the inhuman harassment, oppression and torture committed on the innocent Dalits by elite Hindus. Before this, no Marathi writer had found the plight of these downtrodden worth writing about. Bandhu Madhav painted these lives with his resplendent stories. These immortal works of art should have been extolled for enriching Marathi literature, but were not. This is regrettable.  

As Bandhu Madhav humbly notes about his writings, “I have written so many stories and poems until now … but in a sense, I haven’t authored any of them. There was always someone who inspired me, someone who gave me the energy, and someone who made me write these stories.”

What this implies is that just as Lord Krishna was the vigour, vitality, and inspiration for Mirabai’s life and poetry, the entirety of Bandhu Madhav’s literature draws strength and inspiration from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. His literature took Ambedkar’s teachings to the huts and homes of the oppressed, and the whole community developed the fortitude to offer any kind of sacrifice called for by Ambedkar. This is what made Babasaheb’s mobilisation famously strong and resilient. Just as the humble squirrel helped Lord Ram build his bridge, a similar role was played by Bandhu Madhav in the grand Ambedkarite movement. 

It would not be an exaggeration to dub Bandhu Madhav as the primogenitor of Marathi Dalit literature: the first to mould and popularise it. In fact, he was going to be felicitated—during Ambedkar’s lifetime and in his presence—as ‘a famous and capable writer of that period’ by the Dalit Sahitya Sanghatana[8]Dalit Literature Society on December 16, 1956. Unfortunately for Bandhu Madhav, Dr. Ambedkar tragically passed away on December 6, 1956. And the event planned in his honour could not take place. But the fact that Dr. Ambedkar, a great scholar (and Bandhu Madhav’s Great Leader), would turn his attention to and agree to attend this event bears testimony to the strength and popularity of his literature in the Ambedkar period. Bandhu Madhav’s literary service and achievements must have been truly stupendous and valued in that period.  

Teaching the oppressed the value of their humanity and inspiring the trampled to rise up: that is the essence of Bandhu Madhav’s brilliant literature! It would not be wrong to claim that sooner or later, he will be recognised and celebrated for his ‘everlasting literature’!

(Originally published under the same title in the Pari weekly dated January 15, 1978. Reprinted here.)


1 System of forced labour.
2 Services and duties ascribed to Mahars.
3 System of payment-in-kind for services and labour.
4 बैत्या बैल
5 Term used here is Ryot.
6 Translation:  Let your tambourine thunder.
7 Ektara: a one stringed instrument.
8 Dalit Literature Society

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