The burning intellectual who powerfully used the term ‘Dalit in his poetry
It is common in English scholarship and other writings to find references to Mahatma Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) as the first modern public intellectual in India to use the word Dalit in Marathi to name the caste communities of the Untouchables. . Part of the reason is that Jotirao Phule is widely regarded as one of the key voices inaugurating modern India’s political movements against oppression based on caste, gender and religious difference.
When I started a project involving Jotirao Phule’s poetry last year, I expected to find references to Dalits or uses of the word such as dīnadalit (private and broken), paddalit (oppressed), dalitoddhār (elevation Dalit) in his work. But I have yet to find instances of the word or related phrases in the published literature available from Jotirao Phule. The references can be there; I haven’t found them yet.
However, I found these terms used in the publications of another Phule.
This is Savitribai Phule (1831-1897), wife and political partner of Jotirao Phule. The two worked side by side to open educational institutions for women, Shudras and Dalits in the second half of the 19th century in Pune. When Savitribai Phule is mentioned in academic and public contexts, she is rightly praised as a pioneering educator. Indeed, the government of Maharashtra recognized this fact in 2014 when it renamed the prestigious University of Pune to Savitribai Phule Pune University.
Savitribai Phule is often referred to with the deserved epithet, “Krantijyoti” or the light of revolution. This honorary title not only recognizes her extraordinary and courageous work in the field of education, but also signals her powerful, layered and strident political thought that she expressed through her extraordinary writing.
Yet Savitribai Phule, the writer and thinker, the ardent scholar and author in her own right, is an aspect of her legacy that is often overlooked. This is surprising because Savitribai Phule articulated through poetry many of the same ideas that Jotirao Phule would express in his many writings, but through his own perspective and distinctive poetic voice. Nor is it commonly mentioned that she published her first book in 1854, which may be 15 years before Jotirao Phule’s first mass-market publications in 1869, as shown in her collective works.
It is in this first collection of poetry by Savitribai Phule in 1854, a collection of poems entitled Kāvyaphule (“Flowers of poems”), that she first used the word Dalit.
The word appears in the last poem of the collection, a poem in which Savitribai Phule imagines a dialogue between her and Jotirao Phule. The poem, in the poetic abhaṅg form, depicts the couple watching the sun rise together in the morning. As with other poems in the collection, Savitribai Phule uses metaphors from the natural world to express injustices in the human world.
In this poem, the “dark night” is a metaphor for the ignorance imposed on women, Shudras and Dalits, a repressive condition favored by the “owl”, the creature who prey on its victims in the dark, a metaphor for oppressive forces and intentions. In contrast, the morning sun and the call of the rooster are a metaphor for knowledge and humanism, represented by butterflies and birds, the dawn of a new era of opportunity for women, the Shudras. and the Dalits in the words of Phule.
In this poem, Savitribai Phule places the word Dalit in the voice of Jotirao Phule. Here is a small part of the longer poem in the original Marathi followed by my translation. The original poem here and the one below are both taken from the Maharashtra government edition of his work edited by MG Mali and published in 1988:
खरे तुज बोला। अंधार॥
महार। जागे झाले ॥१०॥
अमानुष व्हावे। ॥९ १॥
कोंडला कोंबडा। आरवतो॥
पहाट सांगतो। लोकांना तो ॥९ २॥
What you say is true – the darkness has retreated. ||
The Shudras and the Mahars are awake. || 10 ||
The owl’s inhuman wish is
May the poor (dīn) and the broken (dalit) endure ignorance. || 11 ||
The rooster is in a cage, and yet it crows,
Announce to the people (lok) a new dawn. || 12 ||
Savitribai’s arrangement of poetic language aligns “the Shudras” in line 10 with the “have-nots” (dīn) in line 11, and the Mahar people in line 10 are also associated with the “broken” (dalit) in the line 11. She lists the two communities – “the Shudras and the Mahars” who are also “the needy and the broken” – again in line 12, this time under the name of “people” or lok. It is the audience for her poetic work, “the people” as she understood them, the destitute and the oppressed: women, Shudras and Dalits.
It is to be noted that although this first instance of the word Dalit is found in a poem composed and published by Savitribai Phule, in the poem itself the word is imagined by her to be pronounced by Jotirao Phule. Perhaps Savitribai Phule placed this word in Jotirao Phule’s voice to suggest his own use of the term in oral or public contexts. This association of the word in the poem may be what has led some scholars and others to attribute the original socio-critical uses of the term to Jotirao Phule.
Anyway, even if Jotirao Phule used the term somewhere in his published work, given that his widely published work could follow that of Savitribai Phule by a few years, it would probably still be Savitribai Phule who was the first of the two. to use the term inn in a very similar way to the way it is used today.
After Kāvyaphule, Savitribai Phule did not publish her own words again until after her husband’s death in 1890. In 1891, she published Bāvannakaśī Subodha Ratnākar (“A Bounty of Fifty-Two Gems of Wisdom”), a collection of 52 poems that serve as a eulogy for her husband, one poem for each week since his death the previous year. Like with Kāvyaphule, in this latest book of poetry, Savitribai Phule filled his verses with images and references to Jotirao Phule, seeing him as a visionary at the end of a historical progression from a time of darkness to a time of light, of liberation and knowledge for women, Shudras and Dalits.
In this latest collection of poems, Savitribai Phule used the word Dalit again, this time referring to a key moment in his life together with Jotirao Phule. In 1868, on the property of their house in the Gunj Peth district of Pune, we remember that they opened their private well or cistern (vihīr) to their neighbors from the untouchable castes: Mahars, Mangs and others. One can visit the house of the Phules and see this well / cistern today.
In a striking verse contained in one of the poems in this collection, Savitribai Phule recalls this moment, which she presents as a model for the ethical and humane treatment of others. Here is the original Marathi couplet and my translation:
: च्या विहीरी महारास वाटा
मनुष्यत्व दावी तयाचा सुवाटा
दलीतास आदेश सद्बोध साचे
भूतो चमत्कार जोती युगाचे ।। ।।
Share your wells with the Mahars.
Show humanity through generosity.
This is the right state of mind with which to deal with the broken (dalīt).
Such wonders did not happen until Joti’s time. || 41 ||
In this poem, as in the previous one, the word dalit (written here dalīt) is used to describe the Mahar people within a socially progressive politics that insists on treating people with a sense of “humanity” ( manuṣyatva). The second person address to the reader or listener of Phule encompasses an audience not only composed of Brahmanic or “high caste” society, but also of the other Shudras of Phule.
Indeed, Savitribai Phule addresses this book of poetry himself to his other Shudras, putting at the beginning these lines: “With a deep feeling, Savitri speaks to all the Shudras” (वदे सर्व शूद्रांस सावित्री भावे) [Verse 4]. In this poem, Savitribai Phule asks his fellow Shudras to freely share their wells with their Dalit neighbors to show their humanity.
As in the above poem from Kāvyaphule, here again, Savitribai Phule connects the humane treatment of the Mahars / Dalits to the life and work of Jotirao Phule along a metaphorical timeline from darkness to light, night to day. A constant message in Savitribai Phule’s poetry is that the “wonders” of breaking down caste barriers – here between Shudras and Dalits in particular – are due to the activism of Jotirao Phule. The effort to ensure that people remember this message is at the heart of Savitribai Phule’s latest book of poetry.
My aim in this short piece has been to locate Savitribai Phule in the genealogy of the powerful word, Dalit, and to highlight its importance in the history of movements against caste and gender injustice in India. I am not trying to displace or reduce the importance of Mahatma Jotirao Phule in this genealogy or in any other way. As I pointed out, this would go completely against the intentions of Savitribai Phule in his poetry, which serves to praise Jotirao Phule. Savitribai Phule systematically positions Jotirao Phule as a central, even inaugural, figure in the history of a liberation policy aimed at eradicating caste patriarchy in India.
However, what I have tried to do here is to show that the reverse must also be true: that the revolutionary work and thought of Savitribai Phule must have profoundly influenced not only the thought and activism of Jotirao Phule, but also the very struggle for the rights of women, Shudras and Dalits in India in the 19th century and today. If we are to maintain Savitribai Phule’s legacy as a pioneering education activist and teacher, we must continue to explore what she still has to teach us, even today.
Christian Lee Novetzke is Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Washington and writes a book on the poetry and thought of Savitribai Phule.
Acknowledgments: For the critiques on some aspects of this article, I thank Jayadev Athreya, Krishna A. Athreya, Radhika Govindrajan, Tejas Harad, Anup Hiwrale, Shobha Kale, Sunila S Kale, Shraddha Kumbhojkar, Shailaja Paik, Heidi Pauwels, Rohini Mokashi- Priti Ramamurthy, Anupama Rao and Surajkumar Thube.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Gail Omvedt (1941-2021).