June 20, 2021

Karnataka: Siddalingaiah’s Revolutionary Poems will Continue to Inspire Toilers

VJK Nair

REVOLUTIONARY Kannada writer,Siddalingaiah died on June 11, 2021 at the age of 67, after battling with Covid19 for over a month at Manipal Hospital, Bangalore. He is widely known as a Kannada Dalit poet and a revolutionary writer. He, along with few others, pioneered a literary trend known as ‘Dalitha-Bandaaya” (Rebellion) in 1970-80s. He played a leading role in Left-progressive literary-cultural movement in Karnataka and has been an important cultural leader. He was a Kannada teacher by profession and held various positions in Bangalore University and head of state cultural bodies like Kannada Book Authority, and Kannada Development Authority (with a cabinet minister status). He won several top literary awards and was a member of Karnataka Legislative Council for two consecutive terms during Janata party rule.

Siddalingaiah was born in a poor dalit family in a village of Magadi Taluk in Bangalore’s rural district and that later migrated to Bangalore City. He was a bright and talented student and started writing poems when he was in High School. He was also known as a keen debater in his student days. His early influence was that of Ambedkar, Periyar and rationalist leaders. He entered activism leading a Dalit student/youth group, that emerged in the 1970s in Sreeramapura, Bangalore. Siddalingaiah held night schools to help poor Dalit Students. The first public activity they initiated was the struggle in defence of Basavalingappa, a dalit minister in Devaraj Urs’ cabinet, when he was subjected to an attack for his public statement in 1978 that much of Brahminism-dominated Kannada Literature is ‘bhoosa’ (cattlefeed). He was also known for the radical steps to ban manual scavenging in the state.

Dalit students led by Siddalingaiah launched struggle in defence of Basavalingappa at Government Arts and Science College, Bangalore in 1977-78 period and it was taken up by dalit students and progressives in Mysore, Tumkur and other parts. These students were physically attacked by upper caste students and faculty members. Simultaneously there was a move to throw them out from Gopalswamy Hostel (his mother was a safaikarmachari there) in Sreeramapura. The working-class movement in Sreeramapura led by the CPI(M) unit there lent active support to the inmates of Gopalaswamy Hostel.  His activism and the development in the period shaped Siddalingaiah as a poet speaking for the oppressed people and acquiring class consciousness.

The political situation of Karnataka and India in the seventies, made an imprint on Siddalingaiah and left marks in his works and activities. Seventies was distinct for leftist posturing by Indira Gandhi with radical steps of nationalisation of banks and industrial sectors, abolition of the privy purse, slogan of ‘garibihatao’, liberation of Bangladesh and simultaneously the formation of United Front governments by Left in Kerala and West Bengal, the struggle between the genuine forces of the Left and the Left posturing of Congress faction led by Indira Gandhi.  In Karnataka Devaraj Urs represented the Indira faction, who initially brought together the forces opposed to the political domination of upper caste lobbies of Vokkaligas (Hanumanthaiah& others) and Lingayats (Nijalingappa& others) and tried to implement Lohiaite concept of caste struggle, by forging a coalition of backward classes, scheduled castes/tribes, Muslims etc. In this background, Basavalingappa (referred earlier) emerged as a dalit Leader. A dalit gaining prominence as cabinet minister, was not taken kindly by the upper castes.  Basavalingappa hobnobbed with Ambedkarites and had a vision to develop  Neo-Buddist institutions.  K H Ranganath, another dalit leader in Congress also worked to realise Ambekarite Neo-Buddhist Goals.  The anti-authoritarian movement had already split the Congress and brought about a political realignment.  In Karnataka the upper caste groups in Congress-O and Jana Sangha, who were joined by socialists, coalesced into Janata Party.  Devaraj Urs on the other hand could bring the backward classes together. The Bhoosa movement must be seen in this background.

Sreeramapura, was a centre of textile workers, with a strong presence of the Communist Party from the immediate post-independence period.  It was the communists who organised the textile workers and occupied lands and formed what is known as Swathathrapalaya behind the Mysore Mills.  In the post-emergency period, the working-class movement had gained ascendancy with CITU led unions in Mysore Mills and Minerva Mills, whose workers were living in Sreeramapura. The Sreeramapura local committee could therefore actively assist the dalit groups when they came to the fore with the Bhoosa movement. This period also witnessed the struggle of the dalit workers of Tathuguni Estate, owned by Devika Rani and SvetloslaveRorich, who were originally organised by Suryanarayana Rao and P Janagannath, and upon their arrests led by V J K Nair.

The public sector workers’ movement developed in the post-emergency period and the efforts of BEL comrades to develop contacts with progressive writers and literary critics of Kannada to reorient their work in commitment to Karnataka and its culture had enabled them to establish contacts with  G Ramakrishna, K V Narayan, Ki Ram Nagaraj etc., and later the literary activists of Bangalore University like C Veeranna and D R Nagaraj, all came together. M K Bhat, the state secretary during 1978-83 period, was a pioneer in developing contacts with these groups and during the initial days of emergency in 1975 itself Prasanna had come to Bangalore, formed the ‘Samudaaya’, and staged the play ‘Thayi’ (Gorky’s ‘Mother’). V J K Nair being guided by P Govinda Pillai and M N Kurup, had organised writers and readers forum, which helped many young Kannada writers and activists to come together. 

By the end of 1976, after V J K was released from prison, he took Siddalingaiah, D R Nagaraj, and Sudra Sreenivas to Desabhimani study circle state conference which was inaugurated by well-known Kannada writer, Shivaram Karanth.  Siddalingaiah’s poems were read by him there and one of his poems, ‘IkralaOdeerla, EenanmaklaCharmaEbrisala’ was translated into Malayalam by V J K and sung there which was greatly appreciated by the conference. They were then taken on a tour of Aleppy, Kerala. After returning from Kerala at the initiative of D R Nagaraj, Siddalingaiah and BaraguruRamachandrappa the first Bandaaya Sahitya Sammelan was organised in 1979. The motto of the Bandaya Sahitya was ‘Khadgavagali Kavya’ (Let Poetry become the Sword (in defence of the people)). 


Siddalingaiah’s intense revolutionary poems and plays were of this period - 1975-80.  Siddalingaiah’s anthology of poems ‘HoleMaadigaraHaadu’ (Songs of Pulayas&Maadigas) and ‘SaaviraaruNadigalu’ (Thousands of Rivers-joining the Sea of Struggles), both of which are full of poetic assertion in favour of dalits, oppressed and the exploited.  His poetry spearheaded the trend and tradition of radical dalit poetry which continues even today. Two of his plays ‘Panchama’ and ‘Nelasama’ (Flattening) both of 1980 also made a mark. His poems, plays, and other literary works were the ones that set the tone of ‘Bandaaya-Dalitha’ literary trend.

His plays, street plays, songs were taken to corners of the state by several state-wide cultural Jathas organised by Samudaya. His songs for plays ‘ChomanaDudi’, ‘Belchi’, ‘Thaayi’were quite popular.  His works asserted a determined combination of struggle against untouchability, caste oppression, and class exploitation. It is during this period, with his initiation, that the Karnataka Dalit Sangharsha Samiti was formed. He played an important part in organising Bandaaya Sahitya Sanghatane and Dalit Sangharsha Samiti by travelling widely in the state. He was closely associated with the CPI(M) in 1978-81 period, and later too continued his firm commitment and association with Left-progressive literary-cultural movements spearheaded by SamudaayaandBandaaya Sahitya Sanghatane.

Much time elapsed in mainstream literary circles to accept Siddalingaiah’s works. Thereafter he joined as a faculty member in Bangalore University‘s Kannada department and continued his literary pursuits. Political recognition came his way first by Ramakrishna Hegde making him an MLC. His speeches as an MLC in the two terms, collected and published in 1997 and 2008 in two volumes were highly acclaimed. Awards started pouring in from 1984 onwards.  His play ‘Ekalavya’, Autobiography ‘Oorukeri’ (translated to English also), ‘Avataragalu’ based on his research on village gods that he wrote in this period, are considered path-breaking. He presided over the 81st Kannada SahithyaParishatSammelanaheld at Sravanabelagola. He was a member of the executive body of Central Sahithya Academy.

His weakness for associating himself with power led him finally to associate with the ruling party as well. The trend of state ruling parties courting and co-opting influential cultural personalities and leaders of the people’s movements is witnessed from the initial days of the Janata Party government and continues to date. Despite this, Siddalingaiah’s contribution to the downtrodden and revolutionary spirit has survived through his works. His poems have become part of the many progressive movements in Karnataka after the 1980s such as the literacy movement, people’s science movement, etc. Even today his revolutionary poems are known widely, recited, and sung in practically every major meeting of progressive forces and toilers organisations. They continue to inspire the struggles of the toiling people.