On 6 December 2022, 12 major factions of the Karnataka Dalita Sangharsha Samithi (DSS) that broke away over two decades ago (because of increasing internal heterogeneity and complexity) came together. This was heartening to the Dalit community, which is facing unprecedented oppression from dominant castes in recent years.
Had Siddalingaiah been alive today, the Dalit poet would have been delighted to see his years-long dream getting realised. His untimely death came at a time when the Dalita Sangharsha Samithi, which he co-founded, is finding the right direction. If he had survived Covid-19, he would have been on the threshold of entering his 70th year today, 3 February.
Dalit and Bandaya movements
He played a pivotal role in shaping the Dalit and Bandaya (literary) movements in Karnataka. His early poetry inspired a generation of activists. Siddalingaiah the poet (3 February 1954 – 11 June 2021) remains relevant because of his commitment to social justice and intense rebel poetry of the late 70s.
“The political fury and rage that have gone into his early poems and songs were also a reflection of the inner emotional state of the Dalit movement,” says writer and filmmaker NS Shankar, who has watched him from close quarters.
Siddalingaiah was the first Dalit poet to receive Karnataka’s highest literary recognition — the Pampa Award. He is also a recipient of the Nadoja award conferred by the Kannada University, Hampi, and the Karnataka Rajyotsava award. Last year, he was conferred the Padma Shri posthumously by the Government of India.
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Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri
Siddalingaiah’s notable works include Holemaadigara Haadu (which he wrote in his pre-university days), Saaviraaru Nadigalu, Kappu Kaadina Haadu, Meravanige, Nanna Jana Mattu Itara Kavitegalu, Kudiva Neeliya Kadalu, and Ooru Keri — a three-part autobiography.
These three volumes of his autobiography are testimony to what he believed in terms of education and empowerment of Dalits.
Siddalingaiah received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his Ooru Keri.
The first part of Ooru Keri was published by Akshara Prakashana in 1996 as a part of Akshara Chintana literary and cultural series. It was ideated to find alternative analytical thinking systems and create substituted decolonial thinking. Noted scholar and thinker DR Nagaraj was the chief editor of this series.
He dedicated the first part of his autobiography to politician Ramakrishna Hegde, who he said propagated value-based politics.
DR Nagaraj, who wrote a detailed blurb for his close friend’s autobiography, described Ooru Keri as Badavara Naguvina Shakti (power of poor men’s laughter).
“Siddalingaiah handed over the first 30 pages of Ooru Keri to me and I read that in his room, at Legislators Home, while Dalita Sangharsha Samithi workers were arguing fiercely with him. He was pacifying them with his balanced low creative tone, which was almost similar to the tone of narration in the writing. Siddalingiah was not speaking in a voice typical of a politician. That was his signature style,” writes Nagaraj.
He adjudged Ooru Keri as one of the best autobiographies in Kannada. Its first part is on the Dalit poet’s childhood and college days.
“In his younger days, Siddalingaiah was a fierce speaker. Once he demanded a separate state for Dalits. Noted writer and thinker Devanuru Mahadeva wanted to see the activist who dared to make such a revolutionary demand. Mahadeva imagined a middle-aged personality with a white beard and eyes spitting fire. But he was disappointed on seeing a timid poet with his short frame, smiling like a child,” NS Shankar recalls, while speaking to South First.
Faced hardships in childhood
Born in Magadi taluk of the present Ramanagara district, Siddalingaiah faced hardships at the hands of the upper classes. He had his early education in different villages of the district.
He was a voracious reader from his childhood days. The poet himself admitted to spending most of his time in Bengaluru Central Library in Cubbon Park. “He was more seen in libraries than the classes,” says L Hanumanthaiah, Dalit writer and Rajya Sabha member.
He obtained his master’s in arts from Bengaluru University and started working as a research assistant at the Centre for Kannada Studies at Bengaluru University.
He joined Bengaluru University as a lecturer and rose to the post of director of the Centre for Kannada Studies and headed the Kannada Book Authority and Kannada Development Authority. He chaired the 81st Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana held at Shravanabelagola.
The Dalit poet, who was influenced by Ambedkar and Lohia, became a Member of Legislative Council (MLC) for two terms.
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He wrote film songs too
Though known for his fiery poetry, it is surprising that Siddalingaiah wrote a romantic song for Dharani Mandala Madhyadolage, a Kannada movie, directed by Puttanna Kanagal in 1983.
He wrote under the pseudonym of Aaditya and later won a state award for the same.
Siddalingaiah’s prose, unlike his poetry, was humorous, mischievous, and full of youthful excitement and vigour.
He wrote plays such as Panchama and Ekalavya. One of his important works is Graamadevathegalu, a study of village deities in Karnataka.
Siddalingaiah the poet
Several of his works have been translated into English. His popular poems such as Yaarige Bantu Yellige Bantu Nalavattelara Swatantrya and Ninne Dina Nanna Jana Bettadante Bandaru were like an anthem for Dalits, which are being sung during protest meetings even now.
“His famous poem Ikrala, Odirla (Thrash, Kick) sent a chill up in every Dalit’s spine. The poem narrates the ordeal of Dalits who are physically assaulted, besides being mentally humiliated and assaulted,” observes NS Shankar.
It appears these poems are still relevant as not much changed in the situation of Dalits. It is a fact that this poem written by Siddalingaiah some four decades ago is relevant even now when the country is celebrating its 75th year of Independence.
Those who have only seen him in person will surely be surprised when they read Siddalingaiah’s poems. The reason is the difference between the poet’s persona and his poetry. His poems were considered rebellious and revolutionary, and his humility looks just a façade. Behind a veneer of politeness was his mischievousness.
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‘Some good things in Manusmriti’
Despite being identified as a champion of the Dalit cause, Siddalingaiah faced criticism from a section of the Dalit community and its leaders for occupying positions of power and allegedly compromised his ideals by “pleasing” those in power, especially the BJP.
“Manusmriti extols and reinforces every form of birth-based inequality — social, economic and gender inequalities that are inescapable and unchangeable. Professions too are determined and to be followed according to one’s birth, that is by the caste into which one is born. Participating in a programme to celebrate Manusmriti, Siddalingaiah acknowledged that ‘there are some good things that are practicable”. A section of the Dalit community is still upset with this,” says Indudhara Honnapura, one of the senior leaders of the Dalita Sangharsha Samithi.
Critics say he compromised with his ideals
Similarly, Siddalingaiah described former chief minister BS Yediyurappa as “Adhunika Basavanna’ (Modern-age Basavanna). BJP leader Amit Shah too has visited his house.
Another senior Dalit leader, on condition of anonymity, claims: “Siddalingaiah was an opportunist and compromised with his ideals after 1986, when the then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde made him a Member of Legislative Council (MLC). Siddalingiah dedicated Ooru Keri published by Akshara Prakashana to Ramakrishna Hegde in 1996. He was MLC for two terms (12 years) from 1988 to 2001. This shows his political acumen. In the beginning, he compromised with socialist leaders, and later with the BJP. Fighting for Dalits was always his second priority.”
When noted writer Devanuru Mahadeva declined to chair the 81st Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana held at Shravanabelagola over the lack of political will to make the mother tongue the medium of instruction, Siddalingaiah, who headed Kannada Development Authority and Kannada Book Authority, accepted the offer made by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat and chaired the Sammelana.
“This is how he compromised with his ideals and mother tongue,” says another Dalit leader.
NS Shankar also opines that though the Dalit poet was instrumental in founding the Dalita Sangharsha Samithi along with Devanuru Mahadeva, he turned into an opportunist in his later years.
“An MLC position was first offered to Devanuru Mahadeva by Janata Dal leader Ramakrishna Hegde. When Mahadeva refused to accept the political post for ideological reasons, Siddalingaiah accepted it. After tasting power once, Siddalingaiah’s ideological commitments started getting diluted,” NS Shankar says.
However, the majority of the Dalit leadership argues that the poet wanted to build a politics of cultural affirmation, rather than shape a simple social conflict. Being a member of the State Legislative Council for two terms, he raised many issues pertaining to the Dalit community.
Ajalu practice abolished
Siddalingaiah was instrumental in getting the inhuman Ajalu practice abolished.
The Ajalu system, which was being practised in some parts of Dakshina Kannada, treated Koragas as inferior. They have been at the receiving end of untouchability and casteist atrocities.
The Dalit poet raised the issue in the Legislative Council. Following a full-throated debate over inhuman practices in the name of tradition, the government finally banned Ajalu in all forms in Karnataka.
It is a fact that as a writer, throughout his life, he desperately tried to come to terms with the definition of Dalits offered by the dominant caste society. Siddalingaiah can be described as a poet who resisted through his works, which he wrote with incandescent rage and subdued humour.
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(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer, and film critic. He is the author of ‘Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema’. These are the personal views of the author)