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Translating Tamil Dalit poetry.

FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, I have been involved in a project to translate Tamil Dalit literature into English. (Dalit is the collective term for the "untouchable" castes of India.) Even though I am bilingual and worked as a translator of essays and technical reports during my graduate-student days in India, before I began this project, I had almost no experience in translating Tamil poetry. Initially, I had planned on getting a professional translator to do the work involved and actually spent a whole summer in India meeting prospective writers and translators who expressed an interest in my proposed book. All the men I met were professors of English in city colleges who had translated Tamil Dalit writing before. Except for one, none of them were of Dalit origin, but then, neither am I. In fact, one of the initial reasons I felt uneasy about even trying to translate Tamil Dalit poetry was my uncomfortable awareness that I was attempting to take on the task of interpreting and illuminating voices of a culture that had for centuries been silenced by those belonging to my caste groups and class.

My early apprehensions were exacerbated by my search for translators from Tamil to English, as most of the men I met (and they were all men) made it clear that they too felt inadequate translating poetry, especially the slash-and-burn protest rhetoric of most modern Tamil Dalit poetry. Time poetical form was a strange new animal that none of them had ever tried to tame before, or so the argument went, and the consensus was that essays, short stories, novel excerpts, and even plays by Dalits were translatable, but not poetry. I should clarify that Dalit literature is an entirely new genre within Tamil literature, and Tamil scholars--many of them non-Dalit--find themselves scrambling trying to find a new poetics for this emergent literature.

The political and personal ramifications involved in identifying with the writings of a hitherto despised caste of people added to my difficulty in finding competent Tamil to-English translators of poetry. Clearly, translating poetry from one culture to another involves being sensitive to cultural registers. In the Tamil poems of N. T. Rajkumar (some of which appear in this selection), the references to the regional folk religion require not simply an understanding of the various names of the mother goddesses he lists but an easy sense of comfort within the folk culture described--rather like wearing a cotton sari as if it is part of one's skin and not a costume. Rajkumar is one of the more popular Dalit poets and has been published in both mainstream Tamil literary publications as well as Dalit publications. In a recent interview with me, he admitted that his choice of subject in the poems translated here in which he details the ancient injustices done to Dalit women and draws connections to the present--was deliberate, personal, and ultimately political. "I belong to the Kanniya caste: people traditionally associated with magic and exorcism within rural Tamil culture. My earliest memories are of searching for herbs in the forest, and of walking behind my father, carrying the materials needed for ceremonies." He delights in his intimate knowledge of time ways these Dalit women, who have all died violently, have been made into deities. "Our gods are jungle gods," Rajkumar argues.
 Their stories and even their statues are now being tamed to
 make them fit mainstream Hinduism, especially now, with
 the Hindutva movement aggressively taking over our local
 temples. These men find the statues of our gods too wild, in
 some elemental fashion, as if their very mode of address
 goes against the patriarchal bent of the Hindu scriptures. So
 our goddess statues, with their Kali-like, dark-stone images
 have been covered in sandalwood paste--as if by turning
 the black stone into yellow, the narratives could also be
 changed. The Hindu fundamentalists went so far as to even
 break off the tusklike teeth of one of the mother goddesses.
 There is nothing gentle or passive about our gods. Make no
 mistake, they are all ghosts.


In my translations of Rajkumar's poems, I chose to leave the original names of the folk goddesses intact, even though it is possible to translate the names into English. I was wary of making literal translations of poetry that show nothing but a kind of narrow, professional efficiency on the part of the translator.

So, I asked myself, as I began translating the Tamil into an English that I hoped would provide the reader with the same richness of the source text, dare I speak for the subaltern? Would I be able to deal with my limitations and restrictions--the result of a particular kind of upbringing, of my gender-, class-, and caste-based subjectivities, and of a carefully constructed cosmopolitan identity--and enter into the world of the modern Tamil Dalit poet? Are such boundary crossings possible or even desirable? Would I be able to translate not simply the words but also the passion, the visceral anger, the sarcasm, the truths of a different people who, I have been taught, are unlike my own? In identifying and exploring the differences in Dalit and non-Dalit situations, what sort of insights would I get into my own selfhood? Is such self-consciousness and self-reflection necessary in translating the words of another? Would I find the fissures and contradictions of my so-called mainstream Indian (and diaspora) culture magnified or diminished as I translate the poetry of the Dalits, who claim to define themselves over and against the same normalized culture to which I belong?

Finally, a year later, I sat down with several poems and began working the words, painstakingly stumbling through a language that assumed new forms in the hands of the Dalit poets, evoking a beauty that was elusive and at the same time strangely familiar. To my surprise, I found the diction, nomenclature, and references of the Dalit poems tapping into my memories, making connections with other, half-buried texts that I had classified, cataloged, and forgotten in another life. The architecture of the poems at times reminded me of sights I had seen somewhere else, rather like going to a place you had never been to before and recognizing it from a movie you saw as a child. I read the poems with the intention to translate in the forefront of my mind; but even as I strove to wrestle with the meanings of individual words, their combined effect, and my own choices in picking and choosing the stress points of the poem, I kept feeling that many of the forms and subject treatments echoed other poems I had encountered in a different context.

For instance, I was looking through a collection of Tamil folk songs (the poems most closely identified with Dalit culture in the traditional sense), when I came across a particular verse from the Raja and Rani Dance, the most popular of all Tamil folk musicals. The song is an introduction, and it plays as a welcome song, a common feature in all Tamil folk musicals.
 Wonderful betel leaves--these
 betel leaves are from Verahanoor--I
 bought these betel leaves--but if
 they aren't enough for you,
 Don't leave me sad, Sir
 Don't stand there
 All mad, Sir.'


I had heard these very words, in a similar construction with the same raw, folksy beat, in a popular song by Ilaiyaraja (a Dalit musician, poet, and composer) from a 1980s Tamil movie. The story is set in a village, and the hero sings about betel leaves, incorporating the same sly humor and the conversational, immediate, and dialogic elements of traditional Tamil folk songs. Once I made the connection between the Dalit poetry I was reading and the compositions of Ilaiyaraja, many elements about the form and function of the poems fell into place. Rather like hearing a classical piece from Beethoven in a Disney cartoon, I realized that through Ilaiyaraja, who is renowned for placing working-class lyrics dealing with rural life at the center of Tamil popular music, I already had an education of sorts in folk composition that would be invaluable in my efforts to translate modern Tamil Dalit poetry.

It is important to understand that the vernacular or colloquial Tamil of the spoken language is very different from the rhythms and vocabularies of classical high Tamil, which is defined as a legacy of the ancient poets and is the Tamil taught in schools, spoken in public forums, and used within mainstream Tamil culture. Sangam vallartha Thamil, or "the Tamil that has been developed by the ancient Tamil Academy," is a common rhetorical argument of the poets and critics seeking to categorize classical Tamil as a rarefied and exclusive discourse similar to Sanskrit. Written Tamil follows the same rigid rules of grammar of classical Tamil called Senthamil or Standard Tamil. Working-class themes, wordplays, improvisations, and the recognizable "looseness" of rural Tamil compositions have no place in the lexicons of Standard Tamil. And as folk art in rural Tamil Nadu is traditionally performed by men and women belonging to the Dalit castes, the differences between Standard Tamil and the colloquial Tamil of folk lyric is understood in terms of high and low culture. "'We sing whatever comes to our month,' remarked one folk singer when he was asked how songs are composed." (2) Such a blatant disregard for the predefined formulations of classical Tamil, and the resultant unexpectedness of the spoken language, serves to marginalize the folk-art form. Within the rigid hierarchy of Indian cultural formations in which the factors of caste, religion, gender, class, and region determine the identity and placement of individuals--the cultural compositions of those regarded as low or untouchable also assume the same characteristics.

Therefore, folk poetry is often shrugged off as a subculture, and, in many instances, it is

actively kept in the margins because of its class and caste origins. The riffs of "thanthana thana" (similar to the bebopping of Charlie Parker's jazz), heard only among the poor, usually "untouchable" working classes of rural South India, became an integral part of the Tamil lyrical heritage, mostly through the compositions of Ilaiyaraja. (3)

Now, as I translate Tamil Dalit poetry into English, I am struck again and again by how familiar I find the rhythms and even the subject matter of the poems. Many of the modern Dalit poems written in the past decade or so are protest poems, describing the ancient oppressions of the Dalit castes and their exclusions from the official discourses, especially the religious discourses, as illustrated by N. T. Rajkumar's poems. For the most part, modern Tamil Dalit poems resist the formulaic structures of classical poetry, rejecting the religious motifs and cultural motivations of what I would call the Bharathiyar mode. Let me explain. The standard Tamil poetry of the past century or so has been deeply dependent on the poetry of the most famous of Tamil poets of the twentieth century, Subramaniya Bharathiyar. A compatriot of Gandhi, Bharathiyar single-handedly modernized Tamil poetry to reflect the aspirations of the colonial Indian who was seeking to be free of the British presence on Indian soil. Like the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (who wrote the Nobel Prize-winning collection Gitanjali and translated it into English), Bharathiyar also combined nationalistic and religious themes in his poetry. For those educated in traditional Tamil, a close familiarity with the poetry of Bharathiyar is a given. Even today, in Tamil-speaking regions in India and the Tamil diaspora, the poetry of Bharathiyar is revered as the standard-bearer of both culture and language.

Significantly, the modern Tamil Dalit poetry I am translating owes very little to the legacy of the ancients or to modern Bharathiyar. Instead, it traces its genealogy from the alternative tradition of Tamil folk culture. This folk poetry, the base of koothu or folk drama, is ubiquitous in Tamilspeaking South Indian villages. Even though the rural community as a whole actively participates in the folk culture, claiming it as a subsect of Tamil culture, the koothu as a public spectacle has been most clearly identified with Dalit castes. The other forms of folk poetry (work songs, mostly) are also found, for the most part, in Dalit communities. As the Dalit castes in the villages are most often the landless labor, the work songs too become closely interwoven with Dalit life stories.

My translations of Rajkmnar's poetry are similar to folk poetry in terms of language and form. For his subject, however, Rajkumar chooses the marginalized narratives of local folk deities. The koothu typically deals with stories drawn from the Hindu Puranas and mairstream cultural and religious narratives. As Rajkumar admits, his poetry not only defines a particular kind of Dalit identity--one that goes against the traditional descriptions given to Dalits historically--but it is also a way of denying the fundamentalist Hindu agenda of current Indian politics. The goddesses of Kollangottu, Isaki, and Mudipuram Devi are not part of the Hindu pantheon, he claims--"They are spirit gods."

Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Editorial note: Special thanks to GARY MICHAEL TARTAKOV, Professor of Art and Design at Iowa State University, for bringing Savarkar to our attention and for his assistance in providing the artwork for this feature. For more on contemporary Dalit artists, see The Colours of Liberation (Dalit Resource Centre, 2000).

(1) K. A. Gunesekheran, Dalit Kalai Kalacharam (Chennai: Ragas, 1999), 16.

(2) James Theophilus Appavoo, Folklore for Change (Madurai, India: TTS, 1986), 18.

(3) For a scholarly analysis of llaiyaraja's oeuvre, see Pirem-Ramesh, Ilaiyaraja: Isaiyin Thathuvamum Alagiyalum (Ilaiyaraja: The philosophy and aesthetics of music; Chennai: Sembulam, 1998).

ANUSHIYA SIVANARAYANAN is Assistant Professor of English at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, where she teaches African American literature, composition theory, and postcolonial literature. She is currently translating materials for an anthology of Tamil Dalit writings.

SAVI SAVARKAR is a Dalit painter and printmaker, born in Nagpur, Maharashtra, in 1961, working and teaching today in New Delhi. He is unquestionably the visual artist in India best known as a Dalit activist. There are other Dalits exhibiting in India's international gallery world, but Savarkar is the only one with an international reputation whose work is outspokenly political in its subject matter and intention. Like most of the best Dalit literature, Savarkar's art is an expressionist cry for recognition of the inhuman treatment suffered by Dalits and, as in the works here, most particularly by women.
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Author:Sivanarayanan, Anushiya
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:2385
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