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Towards an Alernative Aesthetics

Chitra Panikkar

By M. Dasan , V. Pratibha, P. Pampirikunnu and C.S. Chandrika
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 322, Rs.595.00


While documenting the creative and critical expressions of Malayali dalits from the beginnings of the 20th century to recent times, the volume under review remains sceptical of upper caste consciousness and historiography. In the General Introduction brilliantly conceived and foreworded by M. Dasan, he exhorts the readers towards framing an alternative aesthetics to appreciate the pieces presented in the volume which may not respond well to standard aesthetic norms of measurement. There is passion and anger in Dasan’s editorial voice as he questions Kerala’s developmental and welfare discourses that never addressed the plight of the dalits, and reduced them to perennial victims and outsiders. A tongue-in-cheek comment is often reserved for the upper caste reformers of Kerala who were ‘progressive within their own community and reactionary outside it’. The useful Introduction spans the early dalit movements in Kerala starting with Ayyankali’s project of emancipation, and the emergence of the Nair subjectivity which at a later phase gets constituted as the Malayali sensibility. It vehemently criticizes the blind spots in the Land Reform Bill of 1969 which left the dalit agricultural labourer in Kerala landless, and traces the Kerala dalit’s specificity to the experience of having been conditioned by a dream that was transnational, anti-imperialist and anti-bourgeoisie, a dream supplied to the dalits by the grand narrative of Marxism. Dasan characterizes the Kerala dalit as one who has lost faith in the dream and in the builders of the dream. Left to their own resources to seek out a path of emancipation, the challenge is—will Malayali dalits finally make it? The editors are hopeful, and so can we be, the readers, after going through this wonderful compilation of literary and discursive pieces wrought in the dalit imagination. Each selected section of writing (from Poetry to Criticism) is adequately historicized and prefaced. The Poetry section is rich with thoughts not encountered in mainstream Malayalam writing. And these thoughts are effectively communicated through eminent translators. One is tempted to quote some of the lines: ‘On a Sabbath day / when God was on holiday / Out of their settlements were they / driven out, dispossessed’ (Kaviyoor Murali) ‘But somewhere someone’s land is broken, / in some hovel / a livelihood is smashed to bits. / But the poetry of resilience / rises from the empty pots.’ (Raghavan Atholi) ‘Amma today / is just a battered kanjibowl / a few grains of rice / and many tears.’ (Sasi Madhuraveli). ‘...

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