Noted poet Dr. Siddalingaiah, who passed away on Friday, was in the 1970s known for his fiery poetry that inspired a generation of not just Dalit activists, but also all those speaking up against the many forms of oppression. In later years, he employed laughter and irony as forms of resistance to great effect.
His early poetry and his later autobiography Ooru-Keri, which was described by critic D.R. Nagaraj as a work that showcased “the power of poor people’s laughter”, mark these two phases of his literary expression that have been recognised beyond the Kannada literary circles. Dr. Siddalingaiah maintained that he had changed his method of expressing anger, though his ideology had not altered.
Dr. Siddalingaiah was not only a poet, but also an activist and public intellectual all his life. A key figure in the Dalit movement of the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the co-founders of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti along with another prominent writer, Devanur Mahadeva, and Prof. B. Krishnappa in 1974. He also helped found Bandaya Sahitya Sanghatane in 1979. “He was a key person in bringing the Dalit consciousness to an entire generation. He showed us the world in a different way,” said Mavalli Shankar, a senior DSS leader.
The Dalit movement was fuelled by Dr. Siddalingaiah’s fiery poetry. “I travelled all over Karnataka spreading the cause and the movement. I saw the suffering of the people from close quarters, and as I was an emotional person it flowed out of me as poetry,” he had told The Hindu during an interview in 2019.
“Like the Africans say, Dr. Siddalingaiah seemed to also say that whatever you do, you can’t stop me from singing. His songs captured the imagination of Dalits and oppressed classes,” observed writer and critic Rajendra Chenni.
His early poems “Ikrla oadirla…”, “Nanna janagalu”, “Saviraru nadigalu”, “Yarige bantu, ellige bantu, nalavattelara svatantrya?” have today attained cult status. They seem to embody the spirit of D.R. Nagaraj’s slogan at the Bandaya literary meet, “Khadgavagali Kavya…” (let poetry be sword).
Writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa, who was Dr. Siddalingaiah’s teacher and later his colleague at Bangalore University, recalled the excitement when his first poetry collection, ‘Holemaadigara Haadu’, was released in 1975. “It was such a break from poetry as we knew it till then. It was an assertion of the subaltern that captured the imagination of a generation,” he said. His doctoral thesis, a study of village deities, based on which he later wrote ‘Avataragalu’, is also a landmark work in subaltern studies in Kannada.
His autobiography Ooru-Keri, written in three parts with the first appearing in 1997, marked a change in tone for the poet. “Dalit autobiographies in Marathi and Telugu are an unflinching recounting of hard realities. But Ooru-Keri stands apart in Indian Dalit autobiographies for the use of laughter, satire and irony as resistance,” said Dr. Ramachandrappa, who described Dr. Siddalingaiah as a great raconteur with an eccentric sense of humour.
However, in later years, Dr. Siddalingaiah was accused of becoming a “part of the system”, as he was nominated as a member of the Karnataka Legislative Council for two terms and occupied various governmental positions. Known for hyperbole, Dr. Siddalingaiah had once described B.S. Yediyurappa as a “modern Basavanna” and Siddaramaiah as a “modern Ambedkar” when they were Chief Ministers. He made waves when he, as a leading Dalit intellectual, released a book on the positive aspects of “Manu Smriti”.
Mr. Chenni said that though many disagreed with his later positions, Dr. Siddalingaiah remained an important voice and nobody else could have opened up the Dalit world, with it rich subaltern cosmology, like him. “Though he leaves behind a complex legacy, he will remain alive in his fiery poetry that is a staple for everyone fighting for their rights,” Dr. Ramachandrappa said.