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The Songs of Gulab Bai

A scholarly book reclaims a wealth of human stories about Dalit women in UP of the 19th-20th century

Written by Usha Rai | June 11, 2016 1:13:36 am
The Gender of Caste – Representing Dalits in Print, The songs of Gulab Bai, Book review, Usha Rai book review, Charu Gupta book, Charu Gupta author, Dalits, Book on Dalits, Chamar,Pasis, Women Dalit, Dalit women, UP, Uttar Pradesh, UP Dalits, Uttar Pradesh dalits, indian express book review The word Dalit is a dignified, modern way of addressing “low caste” men and women.

Book Name – The Gender of Caste – Representing Dalits in Print

Brand Wagon Conclave

Author – Charu Gupta

Publisher – Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University

Pages – 336

Price – Rs 895

This is a well-researched, scholarly book that gives deep insights into the travails, the anguish and the spirit of the Dalits. It traces the struggles and assertions of the Dalits over 150 years, drawing extensively on newspaper articles, magazines and the Indian gazettes. The focus is largely on Uttar Pradesh, though there are examples and references to incidents and protests by Dalits elsewhere.

Dalits constitute around 22 per cent of the population of UP, with chamars (associated with leather work) being the largest group, followed by pasis (watchmen and toddy tappers, branded as a criminal tribe by the British). A substantial number of Dalits, particularly the chamars, were agricultural peasants. Many continued to provide begar (free labour) for the zamindars and this became increasingly common between 1870 and 1920.

Part of the Ashoka University History Series, the book comes out at a time when there is resurgence in the Dalit movement, fuelled by the suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohit Vemula. There is a lusty Indian flavour to the book because Charu Gupta draws extensively on Hindi literature and writings. The Gender of Caste invites readers to rethink the history of caste from a gendered perspective.

The word Dalit is a dignified, modern way of addressing “low caste” men and women. They were earlier referred to as achhut (untouchables), depressed classes or Harijans. The book begins with a quote from ‘Achhut Ank’, a special issue on Dalits published by Chand, the leading Hindi journal of north India in May 1927. “It is the story of those sisters who are subject day and night to the sexual passions of oppressors in front of their parents and brothers;…it is the horrifying story of extreme poverty… it is the moving story of the desolation of Hindu religion and Hindu society; and it is the story of the rise of Islam and Christianity in India; it is the heart rending story of silent tears, soundless weeping and speechless suffering.”

Dalit women were presented as vamps, victims and viranganas (brave women) in a variety of print genres. Though dependent on the chamar dai (low-caste midwife) for new life, the upper castes saw them as unhygienic and lascivious. Subsequent reformist literature redefined Dalit women as suffering figures — victims deserving redemption. The ideal Dalit woman was epitomised in the figure of Shabari, who worshipped Ram in the Ramayana. In some writings, Dalit women were also shown as militant figures, fighting beside the Rani of Jhansi and in the rising of 1857.

Dalit men were shown at different times as effeminate or criminal by colonisers and upper-caste Hindus. When the Dalits became active in the anti-landlord movement in eastern UP, led by the Kisan Sabha in the 1920s, and the anti-beggar movement of 1940, they were perceived as a threat and branded as violent.

Later, Dalit men were shown as having distinct identities, rights and manhood because of their work in the army and in politics. Dalits were recruited into the colonial army and it is said that the Bengal army, led by Lord Clive in the battle of Plassey, consisted largely of chamars, dusadhs, dhusias, doms, dhanuk and pasis, all Dalits. They benefited from the army service where they tried to emulate the martial traditions of the upper-caste Kashtriyas or warriors.

The book also looks at the conversion of Dalit women to Christianity and Islam as an assertion of their independence, to improve their position in the caste hierarchies, gain respectability in society and for love. There have been arguments that conversions did not lead to straightforward emancipation of Dalit women. It often implied adoption of norms consonant with upper-caste Hinduism and Victorian Christian values, which put hurdles in the Dalit women’s range of activities. While mass conversions to Christianity were often for education and sartorial desires, there were conversions to Islam across UP, as it was seen as a “religion of equals.” In 1925, a Muslim zamindar of Etah announced that if the outcastes converted to Islam, he would give them 500 bighas of land and have roti-beti ties with them. Apprehensions expressed by high caste Hindus, the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha were reflected in the print publications as well as in the public sphere. They feared the “terrible calamity” of declining Hindu numbers on account of Dalit conversions to Christianity and Islam. This led to a shuddhi (purify and convert untouchables) campaign in UP to “reclaim” victims and protect the “faithful.” Conversions were also seen as numerical loss of child-bearing wombs for the Hindu community.

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Interestingly, Gupta chronicles that even after conversion, the women continued to worship their goddesses. Sithala, Loni Chamarin, Pochamma of Andhra and Bhumiya Devi were the dark-skinned goddesses representing the sacred, destructive and dark side of the feminine. Dalit women’s lives were enriched by their dance and songs, often lusty, earthy and naughty. They sang kajris and participated in lavanis, raginis and kathas, learnt from mothers and sisters while cooking, washing, or stitching. Later, these songs seeped into the nautankis, a popular form of entertainment in eastern UP, and were belted out by Gulab Bai, a Bedia Dalit, and among the first to enter the largely male entertainment space in 1930. She became so popular that many believed that her earnings were more than that of the district magistrate.

The large-scale exodus of Indian workers for plantation work in Fiji, Trinidad, Natal and Mauritius gave an opportunity to Dalit women, especially widows and single women, to move out, earn good money and some respect despite various hurdles to their employment. Many of these Dalit emigrants were from UP. For reformers and nationalists, this was problematic. When Kunti, a chamar from Gorakhpur, alleged an attempted rape by her white overseer in April 1913, there was an outcry about the “indentured daughter of India” and this was reflected in the writings of Maithilisaran Gupt, Premchand and popular women’s magazine Stri Darpan.

Achhut ki shikayat (An untouchable’s complaint), a poem by Hira Dom, published in Saraswati in 1914 was hailed by scholars as one of the first published Dalit writings in Hindi, but Chhot ki Chor (Thieves of the subordinated) appearing in the Hindi magazine Kanya Manoranjan in 1915 was one of the earliest stories by a Dalit woman, Mohini Chamarin. The narrative in Awadhi is about extreme poverty, livelihood struggle and a Dalit widow bringing up three sons by toiling in the fields. The author has put in painstaking academic work and translated a wealth of human stories from Hindi to English.

Usha Rai is a veteran journalist and writes on developmental issues

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