The Polyphony of Dalit Criticism in Malayalam

Dr Ajay Sekher

The contemporary critical practice that evolves within the Dalit writing in Malayalam is vibrant with a variety of voices and divergent perspectives. There is an increased presence of people from all walks of life cutting across age, gender and community here. The diversity and difference that exist in the socio cultural life of the marginalized also get reflected in their intellectual and cultural interventions.

We have intellectuals engaging with historiography, literary and cultural criticism, social and political commentary, activist propaganda and other modes of critical enquiry. Though they differ in various issues and points of view the ideological underpinning is the social justice and democracy paradigm embedded in the works of Dr Ambedkar. The significance of Ambekar is that the democratic movement he led was a historic act for regaining the voice and agency of the subaltern in India silenced and crushed for many millennia (Omvedt). It was a radical attempt to break “the silences of centuries that brood over the history of invasion and colonization” as Toni Morrison puts it while looking at the history of racism in her Afro American context (Morrison).

The intellectual legacy and cultural trajectory of Ambedkarism in this critical context is not just a 20th century development but a culmination of more than two millennia old indigenous resistance against barbaric invasions and cultural colonizations. The most eloquent articulations of this protest can be identified in the challenge of Buddhism against caste and Brahmanism, the pre Buddhist Kapila, Charvaka and Ajeevaka traditions (Sekher). The Sramana tradition of various schools of Buddhism and Jainism became the rock bed of alter-native epistemologies and cosmologies in India. It is all the more relevant in South India and Kerala that was part of the ancient Tamilakam.

All our epics the Silapatikaram, the Manimekhalai etc. were Buddhist and Jain masterpieces (Pavanan). Most of the major temples now in the custody of Savarnas or the self-fashioned cultural elites of Kerala, that are more than a millennia old, were Buddhist and Jain ones brutally Brahmanized through extreme forms of violence, persecution and systematic cheat (Valath). Onam and Maveli again hint to this erased historic truths. Sahodaran Ayyappan also known as “Pulayan Ayyappan” reminds us about this suppressed past in his poem “Onappattu” (Ayyappan). The culture and tradition of the whole of India especially south India and Kerala in particular were based on Buddhist, Ajivaka and Jain Sramana teachings. Pivotal importance was given to Dharma or ethics and egalitarian human dignity in these traditions. The Ajivakas, the Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sufis have also historically contributed to the development of the composite culture of Kerala (Ramachandran).

Ambedkar considered the Buddha, Kabir and Phule as his teachers. This again explains the great genealogy of counter hegemonic resistance in India cutting across time and space. So the moment one chooses to adopt an ideological affiliation to Ambedkarism she chooses this long Bahujan legacy of intellectual and cultural struggle against Aryan invasion and Brahmanical epistemology and cultural hegemony.

This is the cultural juncture in which a Dalit intellectual like K K Kochu intervenes in the production and dissemination of knowledge, especially in something referred to as history. His ongoing project to reread and rewrite the history of Kerala from an indigenous perspective is a critical subversive project to de-legitimize mainstream history that is encoded in the epistemes and semiotics of hegemony. It evolves from the Dalit realization that the academic mainstream often reiterates and reproduces hegemony. It is a struggle, in this hegemonic context to develop a perspective from below, “a frog’s perspective,” as contemporary Afro-British intellectual Paul Gilroy had it (

Kochu traces the presence and indelible imprints of basic communities from Sangham era onwards and critically marks the onslaught of invasion in the fifth and sixth centuries A D. The loss of land and the beginning of slavery is thus scrutinized in hindsight. His deconstructive reading in canonical Malayalam literature is also remarkable. He had aptly pointed out the absence of Dalits in Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, a pioneering novel in Malayalam and the Sudra-centrism of Malayalam cinema (Kochu). His contributions largely fill the vacuums and gaps found in the mainstream historiography and cultural criticism in Kerala today.

Another important writer-activist in the field of Dalit-Adivasi movement is K M Salimkumar. He is a leading intellectual and orator apart from his critical writings on contemporary social and political processes (Salimkumar). He is an ardent critic of anti subaltern policies of the state as well as anti democratic tendencies in the middle classes. His studies on the shortcomings of the implementation of reservation policy, reservation and private sector and social commentaries on important political developments that affect the excluded are valuable as far as participatory democracy and inclusion in our society is concerned. His political critique is pungent and literally nuanced.

K K Baburaj’s interventions in the field of Dalit literary criticism are commendable. He struggles to formulate a Dalit theoretical stand point position in his analyses. His studies on Pattathuvila, V K N, K J Baby and other luminaries in Malayalam are atypical (Baburaj). His intense engagement with language, the obsessive indulgence in idiom, the struggles to delve deep into theoretical inter-discourses and philosophical obscurantism often expel the common readership but appeal to the specialized. He has also touched upon popular film and music in his critical exercise. His mature contributions are yet to come.

Sunny M Kapikkad is a young fire-brand spokesman and activist-critic of the Dalit cause in Kerala. His writing and speeches are charged with the spirit of liberation and retribution. He is at the helm of all Dalit struggles in Kerala today, whether it is for land or for political rights. His critical practice is very much linked to his community work and social activism. He has plenty of years of experience in social activism at the grass root level and has widely published on Dalit issues (Kapikkad). He is again going to make the future of Dalit cultural politics in Malayalam a turbulent and happening space.

Pradeepan Pampirikunnu has also established himself as a Dalit critic operating in a fairly balanced academic framework. His studies and analyses done from a specifically Dalit perspective are illuminating and scholarly. His pioneering work on Dalit Studies is a unique attempt to historicize and critically textualize this new mode of writing in Malayalam (Pampirikunnu). The critical scholarship of Pradeepan is of immense value to the future developments of our field of enquiry.

Another young scholar and critic is V V Swamy. He is also active as a teacher, community organizer and social worker. He has compiled and edited the songs of Poykayil Appachan (Swamy). He has authored many works on the PRDS movement. His literary studies are tinged with sharp social and political critique. His writing is marked for its simplicity and clarity. His focus on education and the public sphere for analysis is again significant as far as the common people are concerned.

There are also plenty of new and upcoming youngsters in Dalit critical practice today. A Arun, K V Sasi, O K Santhosh, K K Shinymol to name a few promising futures. They all address and interrogate the issues of cultural exclusion and marginality in the context of caste and Brahmanism from their specific locations of culture within Kerala. Though they differ in their methodologies and ideological affiliations their thrust is to analyze sites of power and subordination. They try to deconstruct hegemonic and fascist narratives and worldviews. They resist hegemony and disseminate the cultural capitals to the denied and subjugated. They try to reread the canon and rewrite the aesthetics in an egalitarian and ethical manner. They are also providing critical backup to the new writing emerging from the Dalit authors themselves.

But unfortunately some of them are adopting an exclusive rather than an inclusive critical practice. They should get rid of their exclusivist fundamentalism that sabotages larger political formations, alliances and possible democratic futures. The visions and agendas of the Dalit writers should enlarge and encompass the greater questions of inclusive social democracy envisaged by the Lokayathas, the Buddha, Kabir, Phule, Ambedkar, Vaikundha Swamy, Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and others. They should not forget that they are the torch-bearers of this indigenous democratic tradition, the Bahujan or peoples’ culture in India. They should not be carried away further by the divide and rule strategy of Brahmanical imperialism (old and new) that has been enslaving them for the last three or four thousand years (Pandian). They are to be extremely vigilant about the cleavages projected by the Vamana ideology that covertly tries to create splits and schisms in the solidarity of the basic communities and aborts the radical brotherhood among the former untouchables and Chandals. If Sudras can de-link from the Brahmanical meta-referntial structure let them also join this great people’s movement, the Bahujan cultural politics and tradition of India.

The emerging critical writers should realize the importance of Dalit Buhujan solidarity, a broader liberating alliance of the people subjected and exploited by Hindu colonization for centuries. They must acknowledge and emphasize the fact that only such an emancipating alliance of the outcastes, women and non-elite minorities in India can effectively initiate social change, sustain democracy and resist cultural nationalism and fascism in Kerala and India in the 21st century. The challenges are complex and plural and so need to be the countering critical and democratic projects. This is the serious and strategic task ahead for the new Dalit critical writers.


Works Cited

Ayyappan, Sahodaran. Padya Krithikal. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Academy, 1991(1934).

Baburaj, K K. Mattoru Jeevitham Sadhyamanu. Kottayam: Subject and Language Press, 2008.

Gilroy, Paul. Small Acts. London: Serpent’s Tale, 1992.

Kapikkad, Sunny M. Desiya Purushan: Oru Dalit Vimarsanam. Kottayam: Subject and Language Press, Forthcoming.

Kochu, K K. Vayanayute Dalit Padham. Kozhikode: Poorna, 2005.

---, Ambedkar: Jivitavum Dauthyavum. Kottayam: November Books, 1988

---, Kerala Charithram. Kottayam: Subject and Language Press, Forthcoming.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Omvedt, Gail. Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.

---, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. New Delhi: Sage, 2005.

Pampirikunnu, Pradeepan. Dalit Padhanangal; Swathwam, Samskaram, Sahithyam. Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2007.

Pandian, M S S. Brahmin and Non Brahmin. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.

Pavanan and C P Rajendran. Baudha Swadheenam Keralathil. Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2008.

Ramachandran, Puthussery. Kerala Charithrathinte Atisthana Rekhakal. Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute. 2008.

Salimkumar, K M. Dalit Prathyayasasthravum Samudaya Rupikaranavum. Vadakara: MPS, 2008.

Sekher, Ajay. Representing the Margin: Caste and Gender in Indian Fiction. New Delhi: Kalpaz/Gyan. 2008.

Swamy, V V and E V Anil. ed. Unknown Subjects: The Songs of Poykayil Appachan. Trans. Ajay Sekher. Kottayam: IPRDS, 2007.

Valath, V V K. Keralthile Sthala Charithrangal; Thrissur Jilla. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Academy, 1991.


Images courtesy of and the internet.

Dr Ajay S. Sekher, Dept. of English, Govt.College, Kasargod, Vidyanagar.

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