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English Translation and Wider Readership: First English Anthology of Bangla Dalit Poetry


English Translation and Wider Readership: First English Anthology of Bangla Dalit Poetry

Jyoti Biswas

PhD scholar

Dept. of English Studies

Central University of Jharkhand


The publication of Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English Translation (2019), from Ababil Books, Kolkata, edited by Asit Biswas and Shubh Brat Sarkar, is first of its kind in the quarter-old history of Bangla Dalit literature. Although considered virgin compared to the history of Marathi Dalit literature, Bangla Dalit literature now can claim to be the oldest Dalit literature with its millennium-old poetic heritage ranging from the time of Charyapada, the earliest extant of literary composition around 9th century AD till contemporary time. This English anthology brought out in public the hidden treasures from the dark chamber of Dalit history of Bengal. With hundred and thirty-six poems by ninety-six poets selected from different periods, this anthology has done two things: it has added a considerable value in the study of Dalit poetry in English translation alongside other notable Dalit anthologies, and expands the stretch of the study of Indian literature in English. The present paper will examine two things: evaluation of dalit sensibility, and the promises of English translation in the field of Dalit study that has already diversified Indian literatures, both English and vernaculars.


Poetry, English Translation, Anthology, Dalit Literature, Vernaculars, English Study

Translating a text from a source language (SL) to a target language (TL) is more than a linguistic transportation; it is the translation of a source culture into a target culture. The emergence of English as the global language makes it the most viable medium of communication between two different cultures. Indian readers receive writers like Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez through English translation, while A. K. Ramanujan introduced South Indian poetry to American readers through English translation. Karruku has been introduced in the postgraduate syllabus of English department at Calcutta University, while William Radice’s translation of Rabindranath’s short stories has been studied at Delhi University. This exchange of literary texts represent the contemporary ‘English translation culture.’ English being the commonly adopted target language (TL) in Translation Studies departments across academic institutes, the ‘act’ and ‘art’ of translation has widened its application among professionals and amateurs in India.

Although the academic establishment of Translation studies across Western universities has first emerged in 1970s1, the act of translation goes back to ancient time. The Chinese translations of Buddhist texts are well known. Ashvaghosa’s poem Buddhacarita (The Life of the Buddha) has been translated in the fifth century AD.2 Panchatantra or ‘Five Treaties’ was first translated into Pahlavi in the sixth century and in Arabic in 570 AD.3 Eminent Orientalists such Sir William Johns translated Sakuntala in 1789 and T. W. Rhys Davids founded the Pali Text Society to translate Pali texts into English in 1881 in London.  All these efforts primarily hint at bridging the gap between two separate cultures and their respective readers. Translation became intellectually and academically an important tool to accomplish it. In this sense, translation is the soundest medium of cultural exchange.

 Since 1990s, cultural turn in Translation studies has gained wider attention. The interlinked relation between translation and cultural exchange has added a considerable value and currency in Translation studies in contemporary time. The Polysystems theory formulated by Evan-Zohar reflects upon the diversity of poststructuralist study of humanities. Evan-Zohar argues: “no observer of the history of any literature can avoid recognizing as an important fact the impact of translations and their role in the synchrony and diachrony of a certain literature” (Kuhiwczak and Littau 16). Susan Bassnett  argues: “… translation plays a major role in shaping literary systems, that translation does not take place on a horizontal axis, that the translator is involved in complex power negotiations (mediating between cultures, as it were)…” (Kuhiwczak and Littau 14). Edwin Gentzler summarizes the cultural turn in the translation studies in 1990s and figures out two types of shifts: “… the shift from source-oriented theories to target-oriented theories and… the shift to include cultural factors as well as linguistic elements in the translation thinking process” (70). In this respect, English translation of Dalit literature can be seen as a potent tool to situate the texts in the global platform.

Dalit literature can be treated as a poststructuralist phenomenon in Indian literary culture. It has become the voice of those whose voice had not been heard before. It has become a secure platform for dalits to cultivate their creative and intellectual potentiality, a cultural capital that has always been thought to be the monopoly of upper castes. Written in vernaculars, Dalit literary culture has an immense potentiality of getting translated into English through which it can reach to wider readership and gain a profitable market.  Prof. Kancha Iliah argues that unless Dalit culture will recognize English as its own language, it will remain domestic.4 In the project   of English translation, there are both hope and concern. The relation of marketing and sale with Dalit literature will turn profitable if the translated texts, whether autobiography or anthology of poetry, have been included in the syllabi of schools and universities. Although it seems promising that English translation of any dalit writer’s autobiography or collection of stories will secure for him more fame and popularity, the willingness of dominant publishing houses for publishing dalit writers is very crucial. Meena Kandaswammy once wrote in her blog that “Big media houses which own major publications only rarely give opportunity to dalit writers… So I want to tap the power and enormous outreach of internet.”5 Despite this politics of publication, few publication houses have focused primarily on texts written by dalit writers, such as Navayana Publications Pvt. Ltd. Ababil Books, a reprint of Books Way, Kolkata has done a great job in publishing the very first English anthology of Bangla Dalit poetry in 2019. 

In the field of translation of dalit writings into English, The Poisoned Bread (1992) edited by Arjun Dangle is the first to appear in the market and draw the attention of the English-speaking readers. By the time Poisoned Bread has brought great success, many such anthologies have been published in the same decade and thereafter. An Anthology of Dalit Literature: Poems (1992), edited by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot is another milestone. The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing (2012), edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan introduces the readers with great resources of dalit writings preserved in Tamil. The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing (2016), edited by K. Purushotham and others, Malayalam Dalit Writing (2011), edited by M. Dasan and others represent the rich heritage of dalit writings of south India. Two more English anthologies have to be mentioned, No Alphabet in Sight (2011) and Steel Nibs Are Sprouting (2013), both of them edited by K. Satyanarayana and Sushi Tharu. The first one covers up new dalit writings of Tamil and Malayalam, and the second of Kannada and Telugu. All these anthologies have been warmly received by scholars as well as general readers, thus preparing the solid ground of English readership across India and beyond. More than that, these English anthologies have multiplied the work of translation in the field of Dalit studies as well. 

Our present anthology, Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English Translation has primarily focused on verse compositions in Bangla. Although the rise and development of Dalit literatures in different vernaculars is a cultural phenomenon of contemporary time, the root of this kind of literature can be traced in texts of medieval period too. The entire approach made here is to look back in the past and discover the hidden texts and their authors that bear the hallmark of Dalithood, a stage of self-realization and dignity.

The genesis of Bangla poetry is traceable simultaneously with the genesis of Bangla language itself. Haraparsad Sastri discovered many palm-leaf manuscripts from the royal court of Nepal in 1907 and published them under the title Hazar Bochhorer Purano Bangla Bhasay Bouddho Gan o Doha6 (Thousand Years Old Buddhist Songs and Hymns in Bangla). Those songs and hymns were dated back to 9th century, the time of Pala dynasty in Bengal and Bihar. The subsequent research on those songs and hymns, popularly known as Charyapada established the claim that those Buddhist songs and hymns are the oldest record of Bangla language. Since they were songs and hymns, the Charyapada can certainly be recognized as the earliest collection Bangla verse composition. The editiors, write: “Charyapada, containing 48 songs, was composed by Dalits on Dalit subject; it is a work that has Dalit persona. … Among the poets several belonged to Dalit communities and some of them also composed works in Bengali…” (xvi). Manohar Biswas, the most representative dalit writer comments “out of the eighty-four siddhas [Charya poets], forty-three (sic) were from Dalit communities” ( 87).

Based on the argumentative observations furnished above, it is certified that Bangla Dalit poetry has its roots in the Charyapada, a linguistic and cultural product of 9th century AD. Having established that, the millennium-old Bangla Dalit poetry then can be classified and arranged into different periods. The following is the periodization of Bangla Dalit poetry: Old period (9th to 12th century), Medieval period (12th to 18th century), Colonial period (1757- 1947), and Modern period (1947-till date).

The Charyapada is the only literary and linguistic extent in Old period. The editors have selected three poems from Charyapada: poem no. 10, 14, and 28 composed by Kanhupad, Dombipad, and Shabarpad respectively. These three poems, according to them, bear the closest affinity with dalit theme. More than that, the composers of them belong to dalit communities too. Poem no. 10 is about the speaker’s yearning for his beloved Dombi who lives outside the city. The speaker identifies him as a kapalik, a person who lives in the burning ghat and does his ascetic and tantric practices:

Outside the city there’s, O Dombi, your hut to live in,

You go on touching shaven headed Brahmin.

O Dombi, I long for you, your love’s sacred,

I’m Kanhu-Kapalik, yogi nude, without hatred. (3)

 In poem no 14, the speaker urges him to steer the boat straight and with speed so as to cross the river of life. Here, life is metaphoric to the river, Ganga-Yamuna and the mortal body the boat. Spiritual yearning is the central theme. Poem no. 28 is the best among all, dealing with physical love and spiritual urge simultaneously.

In the medieval period we see the flourishing of ballads, folksongs most of which were composed by dalits. To historicize the medieval period’s intricate socio-cultural nature and the rise of major literary genres, the editors have observed:

When the tyranny of the oppressive caste-based society increased, there were several counter cultural revolutions sweeping across the Indian subcontinent,… by saints like Namdev, Ravidas, … Chokhamela, Tukaram, Kabir, Lalan Fakir….While the dominant political forces used religion and scriptural texts as tools of social control and political dominance, folklores, folk performances and the songs of saints, fakirs, and bauls circulated the remnants of the past tradition that favored the egalitarian principles upheld by all the religions of Indian subcontinent. (xvii)

The long standing Islamic rule played a crucial role in laying down the foundation “of non-Brahminical, non-Sanskrit literatures along with alternative religious beliefs in Bengal” (Introduction xvii). In this background, we have to study the Dalit poetry of medieval period.

            The poems vary both in thematic treatment and form. “Sula’s Bhajan” is great piece of devotional song composed around fifteenth century. Sula was a native of Bengal and born in a Dalit family. Sula’s bhajan or devotional song is directed to Krishna. Her urge to redeem her from any disgrace, here disgrace for being a lower caste is naïve and ardent:

            Little I know how to invoke, or to sing,

            O God, save me, my name, let no disgrace bring.

            Despite her not, O God, this Chandalini7 says

            For a place near God’s blessed feet, Sula prays. (14)

            The rise of folklore is perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon in medieval Bangla literature. Dinesh Chandra Sen compiled and edited most of the folktales and folksongs in his Eastern Bengal Ballads: Mymensing (1923). Dinesh Chandra Sen writes “The high cultural level reached by the people of Eastern Mymensing is manifest in their folk-lore and ballads” (xxvii). The editors selected few excerpts from some of the great ballads composed by dalits on dalit themes. Mahua The Gypsy Girl by Dvija Kanai, Malayar Barammasi by Kavi Kanka, Kanka O Lila by Raghusut are some of the jewels of medieval Bangla folk literature- all contributed by dalits. In all these ballads, the theme of intercaste love affair on one hand and the caste rigidity and orthodoxy causing the tragic end of love on the other are dealt with from a deep concern of social and cultural segregation. But the characters have shown a greater humanitarian qualities rather than being conservative. The Brahmin landlord Naderchand fell in love with Mahua, a gypsy girl in Mahua; and Kanka was looked after by his Chandal8 foster parents in Kanka O Lila. Among all the ballads compiled in Eastern Bengal Ballads, Sen recognizes Mahua as the crown of all ballads and hails the poet Dvija Kanai born in a Namasudra caste for his excellent poetic discipline. The ballads selected in the present anthology not only deal with intercaste love, but also represent the contemporary social reality.

            The life and works of Lalan Fakir (1774-1890) is of special interest to the readers of Bangla literature. He is the greatest baul, composing songs that reflect the crude reality of caste-based Bengali society of his time. Eight of his songs have been selected here, expressing futility of caste prejudice on one hand, and preaching humanitarian values on the other. In one of his songs, he sings:

            In an absurd and strange manner,

            All are holding caste’s banner;

            To work for truth, no one is ready,

            All display its futility… (17)

In another song, he longs for a just human society where caste or religious discrimination will disappear, and people will discover a common humanity among all.

 In the colonial period (1757-1947), Great social reformers and educators, Harichand   Thakur (1812-1878) and Guruchand Thakur (1846-1937) led the anti-caste movements in Colonial Bengal. Born in a lower caste family, Harichand went on to become the Patitpaban (savior of downtrodden) with his Matua9 religious movement, a major religious reform among the dalits of East Bengal in the second half of 19th century. Sri Sri Harililamrita (The life and Miracles of Lord Harichand) is the founding text of Matuaism. It is a long verse biography in rhymed couplet written by Tarak Chandra Sarkar (1853-1913) and published in 1916. Guruchand Thakur (1846-1937), the worthy son of Harichand, carried out his father’s legacy in the field of social reform. His reformist activities in the field of education among the dalits of Bengal made him a canonical figure. Sri Sri Guruchand Charit (The Narrative of the Life of Guruchand Thakur), written in rhymed couplet by Mahananda Haldar (1899-1972) and published in 1943 is, like Harililamrita, another seminal text. Guruchand Charit is more revolutionary. It exposes the caste-based discrimination inflicted upon lower castes and vivifies the Namasudra movement in the time of twentieth century. The caste prejudice and deep hatred upper castes maintained towards lower castes get exposed in the following lines:

            You know Namasudra are uneducated.

            Illiterate that is why we keep them suppressed.

If they go to school they will learn

            Then we will lose our admiration. (57)

These two texts have now become a rich repository of Dalit history and culture in Bengal. As mentioned earlier, the Matua faith has given rise to a new religious/bhakti literature in Bengal. Widely known as Hari Sangeet (Songs dedicated to Harichand) numerous songs have been composed on the life of Harichand Thakur. Aswini Kumar Sarkar (1873-1929) was perhaps the earliest and most representative among composers. Although spiritual in theme, these songs promote social awareness as well as morality to the followers of Matuaism. Raicharan Biswas (1878-1938) was one of the earliest dalit poets who tried to revolutionize his fellow people against social discrimination. His Jatiyo Jagoran (National Awakening), published in 1921, is now considered a canonical poem in the history of Bangla Dalit poetry.    

The foundation of Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha (Bangal Dalit Literary Association) in 1992 is a decisive moment in the contemporary Dalit culture in Bengal. This is the very first organized platform set up exclusively by dalit writers and activists of Bengal to perform both literary and social activities with an ideological and cultural solidarity. Manohar Biswas, one of the founding members of BDSS and the most representative of dalit writers gives a detailed account of how the association came to existence: “The birth of Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha took place after the tragic suicide of Chuni Kotal, a tribal student of Jhargram.... 16th August, 1992 was the darkest day in the history of Bengali people- the day of her suicide…. Her suicide took place because of her inability to bear with the burning flame of caste discrimination” (18).  

            Chaturtha Dunia (The Fourth World), a biennial literary journal published since 1994 has become the mouthpiece of BDSS. Dalit writers have got a literary journal of their own to cultivate their creativity in a descent, dignified manner. The history of Bangla Dalit writings since 1992 have gained widespread recognition, and readers have got writings of some prominent poets and writers, such as Manohar Mauli Biswas (b. 1943), Jatin Bala (b. 1949), Achintya Biswas (b. 1955), Dhurjati Laskar (b. 1961), Debashis Mondal (b. 1961), Kalyani Thakur Chanral (b. 1965), Nikhilesh Ray (b. 1971), Asit Biswas (b. 1972) and many others.

Most of the poems selected in this anthology have been taken from contemporary poets who are members of BDSS. The contemporary poems have multiple dimensions to offer, that in many ways differ from Dalit writings of colonial period. The Dream Peddler of Debashis Mondal is a sharp critique of popular imagination of ‘Indian Nationalism’, highlighting the irony lying behind the appearance:

Those who said, “This Freedom is fake”

They are all kings now

Those who said, “Look this king is nude”

They are king’s coteries now

Those who told, “Break and smash the black hands”

They now are … N. R. I.s


Only Meher Ali of our locality

Is very stupid


At the deep dark night when everybody is asleep

Meher Ali shouts

“Beware! Beware! Everything is fake.” (142)

Kalyani Thakur Chanral’s The Caste Without a King exposes the reality of upper caste politics on one hand and calls for a social awakening on the other. Marichjhapi of Hrishikesh Halder portrays the barbaric killing of thousands of innocent dalits living at Marichjhapi island in Sundarban by Communist government of West Bengal in 1978-79. Laxmi Mandi’s Lalgarh vivifies the local tribal community’s daily way of life spent amidst the ongoing process of deforestation and other existential threats. Her Aboriginal can be read as the poetic certification of dalit ethnicity and culture in Bengal:

            We’ve cleared the jungle

                        Prepared farming land

            We love and respect

                        Our native country.

            We’ve dug ‘n made farm-land

                        But no farmers we’re

            Work as farm-labours

                        We are the poor tribes. (149)

Manohar Biswas’s You Are My Poems is a celebration of dalit creativity. It hails the physical and cultural world of dalits that, according to the poet, is fertile enough to make dalits creative. Manju Bala pays homage to Chuni Kotal in her poem Chuni, the Crimson Flicker; Pallabi Mondal’s No Surrender is a protestant utterance to through challenge to the oppressor; Nikhilesh Ray vivifies the plight of daily workers in the characterization of one Soren Mahali in his poem of same title; Sudhir Mullick personifies his poem that “stay here/ At some dusty corner of this platform.” In his The Untouchable Poem; Prosenjit Ray brings out the plight of a “Banana seller’s daughter” in his Female Struggle of Life; Swapan Biswas portrays grim face of social exclusion in his Rohit Vemula’s Death and Thereafter. He asks a fundamental question “Who thought, how many times Vemulas die?/ Since time of growing sense at every step/ How many deaths they die, if occasions come?” (196).

Apart from short-length free-verse poems, this anthology includes few long poems composed in the dialogic form. Then themes have been drawn from the Mahabharata. In Hindu mythology, Akalabya and Shambuka10 represent the world of the downtrodden people. In this sense, the dalit characters have made an imperishable mark on the pages of Mahabharata and Ramayana, two Hindu epics celebrating the killing of dalits and tribals in the name of religious duty. Manohar Biswas’s Ghatotkach-Hidimba Dialogue and Asit Biswas’s Chitrangada- Babhrubahan Conversation are two such poems interrogating the dominant Brahminical narrative that has suppressed dalit characters. In the first poem, Ghatotkach and his mother Hirimba reflects upon their abandonment and identity crisis caused by Bhima’s rejection of Hidimba as his worthy wife. The subjugation of womanhood by patriarchy, loss of dignity and identity of a woman, and the question on the ‘identity of a father’ for Ghatotkach are major thematic treatments the poet has aptly brought out. In the second poem, Babhrubahan raises serious allegations about his father Arjun’s immoral character and irresponsibility. To him, Arjun is no longer a hero, but a villain who has cheated on his mother and spoilt her dignity. Babhrubahan’s rebellious character epitomizes the protestant character of contemporary dalits in many ways.

The readership of Dalit writings is limited in any Indian vernacular. In this context, English Translation is the most productive exercise. Bangla Dalit writings have not yet received wider readership because of lack of English translation. Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English Translation has brought out a rich harvest of Dalit poetry that can certainly fill up the gap of English translation on one hand, and invite wider readership in the harvesting field of Bangla Dalit literature on the other.


1 Third International Congress of Applied Linguistics was held in Copenhagen in 1972. James S. Homes’ paper “The name and nature of translation studies” was presented there. Homes asked for a separate discipline in the name of Translation studies. See en.wickipedia.org/wiki/Translation_studies.

2 The Chinise translation was made by Dharmaksema, a Buddhist scholar in 420 AD.  See Cowell, E. B. The Buddha Carita or the Life of the Buddha, Oxford, Clarendon 1894, reprint: New Delhi, 1977.

3 The first translation in any non-Indian language is in Middle Persian, better known as Pahlavi in 550 CE by Burzoe. This became the basis for subsequent Syriac and Arabic translation. See Olivelle, Partick. Panchatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom, Oxford UP, 2009.

4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xfdUzqMpN8&t=6s 

5 (http://sotosay.wordpress.com/ by Karmakar, accessed 18 May 2012).

6 Haraprasad Sastri’s discovery is a landmark in the study of Bangla Language and literature. See Chatterjee, S. K. Origin and Development of Bengali Language. New Delhi, Rupa, 2002.

7 Daughter of Matanga, a native Chandal king. RabindranathTagore mentioned Matanga in his dance drama Chandalika.

8 According to Swapan Kumar Biswas, Chandal was a non-Aryan, indigenous group of people. They were no longer a part of Hindu society. It is only in the Sena dynasty (mid-12th century to early 13th century) that it was given a derogatory meaning. See Biswas, S. K. The Chandals of India: A Democratic Movement. New Delhi, Gyan Publishing, 2013.

9 It is a major religion in Bengal founded in the second half of 19th century by Harichand Thakur with millions of downtrodden people of East Bengal, majority of them are among Namasudra. It is also known as Namasudra movement.

10 Akalabya is a tribal archer in The Mahabharata and Shambuka is a Sudra sage in The Ramayana. Both of them become victims in the hegemonic Brahminical society.

Works Cited

Biswas, Asit and Subha Brat Sarkar. Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English      Translation. Kolkata,  Ababil Books, 2019.

Kuhiwczak, Piotr and Karin Littau, editors.  A Companion to Translation Studies. Multilingual Matters, 2007, p. 16.

ibid, p. 14.

Gentler, Edwin. Contemporary Translation Theories. Multilingual Matters, 2001, p. 70.

Dangle, Arjun, editor. The Poisoned Bread. Hyderabad, Orient BlackSwan, 1992.

Anand, Mulk Raj and Eleanor Zelliot, editors. An Anthology of Dalit Literature: Poems. New Delhi, Gyan Publishing House, 1992.

Desam, M. et al., editors. The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing. New Delhi, OUP, 2011.

Ravikumar and A. Azhagarasan, editors. The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing. New Delhi, OUP, 2013.

Purushotyham, K. et al., editors. The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Driting. New Delhi, OUP, 2016.

Satyanarayana, K. and Susie Tharu, editors.  No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India. New Delhi, Penguin, 2011.

… Steel Nibs Are Sprouting: New Dalit Writing from South India. New Delhi, Penguin, 2013.

Biswas, Asit and Subha Brat Sarkar. Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English      Translation. Kolkata,  Ababil Books, 2019, p. xvi.

Biswas, Manohar Mouli. An Interpretation of Dalit Literature, Aesthetic and Movements: Through the Lens of Ambedkarism. Kolkata, Chaturtha Dinia, 2017, p. 87.

Sen, Dinesh Chandra, editor. Eastern Bengal Ballads: Mymensing. New Delhi, Gyan Publishing, Reprint, 2004.

Biswas, Asit and Subha Brat Sarkar. Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English      Translation. Kolkata,  Ababil Books, 2019, p. 3.

ibid, p. xvii.

ibid, p. 14.

ibid, p. 17.

ibid, p. 57.

Biswas, Manohar Mouli. “Introduction.” Shatobarsher Bangla Dalit Sahitya, ed. by Manohar Mouli Biswas et al., 2nd ed., Kolkata, Chaturtha Duniya, 2019, p. 18.

Biswas, Asit and Subha Brat Sarkar. Dalit Poems, Songs and Dialogues from Bengal in English      Translation. Kolkata,  Ababil Books, 2019, p. 142.

ibid, p. 149.

ibid, p. 196.