I always knew of Namdeo Dhasal. Now that he has passed away it has given an opportunity to dwell on him. There was something to the sound of that name that has always resonated with me.
I knew he was a great poet in the Marathi language, a sort of a renegade poet who did not use language to finesse life but to wound it. And in wounding it, he seemed to give it an opportunity for regeneration.
As Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre writes in her compelling tribute to Dhasal in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper Dhasal was “an archetypal Mumbaikar. Ever since he entered Mumbai at the age of six (from the Pur-Kanersar village in Khed Taluka), he accepted the city in its entirety. Living in the Dhor Chawl near the Golpitha red light district, Dhasal drew sustenance from a geography that few would have survived.”
Speaking of his early literary and physical proximity to the grimy underbelly of Mumbai, his famous poem “Kamatipura” takes its name from the red light district of the same name. The late Dilip Chitre, one of India’s foremost literary names, translated the poem into English with some powerful if discommoding imagery.
The nocturnal porcupine reclines here
Like an alluring grey bouquet
Wearing the syphilitic sores of centuries
Pushing the calendar away
Forever lost in its own dreams….
Tucking all seasons under your armpit
You squat in the mud here
I go beyond all the pleasures and pains of whoring and wait
For your lotus to bloom.
— A lotus in the mud
While I understand Marathi sporadically, I found Dhasal’s poetry hard to get a handle on because of his rather unique use of the language. But once you read Chitre’s translation, the original Marathi version becomes illuminated in all its brilliant unvarnished glory.
I knew of Dhasal as a political activist, as the founder of the Dalit Panther movement. It was in that context that I met him a couple of times in the 1980s. Even if one did not know about his poetry, one could tell that the man could grab words by the scruff of their neck and make them mean whatever he wanted them to mean.
Reading Sumedha’s piece, one gets the sense that Dhasal was as much a real person as he was a figment of his own imagination.