In February, Telangana-born academic and translator Chinnaiah Jangam was awarded the AK Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation by the Association for Asian Studies for his translation of a pioneering Telugu poet Gurram Jashuva’s Gabbilam: A Dalit Epic.

Jangam notes in the book that Jashuva was the only Dalit poet he had read in school, but as he studied further “references to [the poet] faded away from the syllabus”. In 1995, Jangam met Kancha Ilaiah at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, where the former was studying for an MPhil at the Centre for Historical Studies. Ilaiah helped him consider centralising his thesis on Jashuva, which was encouraged by his supervisor KN Panikkar. But the association with Jashuva’s work wasn’t going to end there.

As Jangam began carrying Gabbilam wherever he went and encountered multiple translations of the work during his research trips, he found it fit to translate the text to socialise and make its meaning “more accessible to non-Telugu audiences”, while keeping its rigorous anti-caste sentiments intact. The translation published by Yoda Press features, and is dramatised by, fantastic illustrations by Laxman Aelay, and the English edition of Gabbilam is a result of this endeavour.

In an interview with Scroll, Jangam, currently an Associate Professor at the Department of History, Carleton University, Canada, explains the contemporary relevance of Jashuva’s works, and mentions more anti-caste writers whose works one should be reading.

Could you share the significance you place in being awarded this year’s AK Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation? What does this visibility mean to you and the recognition of works by Dalit writers?
I think mine is the first translation of a Dalit text to be awarded the AK Ramanujan Prize. As Dalit writings and movements are getting global attention, even translations are seen as defining interventions in the intellectual sphere. Anti-caste writings are catching up with the anti-race writings, and they help in formulating intersectional theories of oppression and dehumanisation in the global context. The award makes Dalit writings visible to scholars in South Asia and beyond. There is a craving to know and hear the voice of indigenous communities like Dalits, aligning with the everyday aspirations of different social and grassroots movements. I believe this award affirms the arrival of Dalits in North American and global academia.

Along with me, Shailaja Paik received the award for her book The Vulgarity of Caste: Dalits, Sexuality, and Humanity in Modern India (Stanford University Press). This way, I feel honoured to share the stage with a fellow Dalit. Moreover, AK Ramanujan translated seminal anti-caste writings from Kannada, and he always inspired me. I feel humbled to receive an award named after him. I see this as a continuation of his legacy of anti-caste tradition, showcasing non-English writers’ creative contributions and visions to build an ethical and egalitarian world.

Unlike Gabbilam: A Dalit Epic not many works get translated multiple times, so there’s a little discourse on different renderings of a specific text from one language into another that help signal newer possibilities to read a text. While you do note what previous translations by Raja Rao and Kaki Madhava Rao of Gabbilam managed to do (and where they could have invested more attention) in the introduction to your translation, it can be argued that each person’s reading of a text could be different, for a translator’s positionality cannot be ignored. For instance, you cite how Narayana Rao’s “politics of subversion” removed “anger and the radical message” from Jashuva’s poetry. Considering this context, could you describe what helped you translate this text and your approach towards translating Jashuva’s work?
Multiple renderings / translations of a text enhance the meaning and understanding of the text. Also, there is a possibility that those translations will bring to life the regional, socio-historical, and literary contexts alive and enrich the readers with a nuanced understanding.

The context of Gabbilam as an epic text is unique as it shook the foundations of the classical Telugu literary sphere as the first Dalit text that not only met and exceeded the Brahmanical expectations of standards of language, [but was also] expressed in difficult classical meter to suit the complicated grammatical rules that were derivative of Sanskrit and Telugu both in thematic creation and content. The genius of Jashuva was that he desecrated the Brahmanical themes and contents by inserting a Dalit not as subservient but as a hero and rebel who refused to accept his dehumanisation. In addition, Gabbilam also makes claims for Dalits on history and the emerging nation as equal partners and imaginaries who have built the civilisations for centuries. Gabbilam represents Dalit excellence on par with Kalidasa’s Meghadūta in classical Sanskrit literature. This revolutionary contribution of Jashuva was not acknowledged by mainstream Telugu literary scholarship. Instead, he was looked down on with caste contempt.

For example, the revolutionary Telugu Marxist poet Srirangam Srinivasa Rao (popularly known as Sri Sri) called Jashuva an Upakavi or a second-grade poet. Jashuva experienced discrimination, and his writings were glossed over for a long in Telugu literature, left aside in the non-Telugu public sphere. Raja Rao and Kaki Madhava Rao, as Dalits, aptly realised this suppression of Jashuva in Telugu and tried to get the revolutionary aspect of Jashuva’s writings beyond the Telugu reading public. I read both their translations with a keen eye and understood the limitations of those translations. I feel they both knew the radical meaning of Gabbilam and translated it to convey the meaning to the English public. I will never doubt their sincerity and commitment, but as they were not academics, their translations did not convey the text’s real meaning. I felt that Gabbilam needed to have a scholarly rendering that tried to convey the true meaning of the text and its content and context for the audience beyond the Telugu public sphere.

Moreover, as neither translation was in circulation, I wanted to make Gabbilam available for non-Telugu readers and show the scholarly world that the power of Dalit texts not only to challenge caste but also [to] redefine the meaning of literary texts that are written with the purpose of social transformation, not the entertainment of elites and continuation of the status quo. This is where it is crucial to understand the role and purpose of the translation. I had to point out the diminutive translation of Velcheru Narayana Rao because he became the face of Telugu literature in North America, and scholars see him as a standard bearer of literary translation.

It is essential to point out the dilution of the content in his translation as it blunts the sharpest critique of Brahmanical conservatism and attempts to co-opt Jashuva into the normative tradition of Telugu writings. For him, translating a few poems of Gabbilam is part of his career-enhancing goals. It is not driven by an agenda of social transformation or an engagement with critical dialogues and transformations in Telugu literature regarding content, style, and meaning. As a historian and literary scholar, I see every text as a context and purpose that must be brought out in the analysis, translation, and reading. For too long, the caste-privileged scholars in South Asia presented Brahmanical conservatism as a postcolonial native alternative that fuelled the rise of Hindu fascism, and the only way we contain it is by reading revolutionary texts like Gabbilam.

In addition to being an exacting blow on hyperlocal Brahminical ways of the everyday world of the time, Gabbilam was also a work that challenged the normative of producing poetry as you note in your response. Could you highlight what helped his craft disrupt the literary circles of the time not only because of his defiance but also because of the superiority of his literary inventions and experimentations?
Jashuva was not allowed to learn Sanskrit, and he self-taught by reading classical epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. That resulted in his expulsion from the Christian community and loss of employment as a schoolteacher. Moreover, he was unable to collaborate with Brahmin Pandits to learn Sanskrit as he was scorned because of his caste. He learned Sanskrit as an act of revenge against all the humiliations he faced, and his revolt was to challenge the status quo, i.e., Brahmanism, which tied and valued poetry written and spoken by only Brahmins. It is uncanny for a caste-oppressed Jashuva to follow the dominant normative Brahmanical mode of writing poetry.

Moreover, Brahmin pandits devalued prose form to keep their monopoly over literature, even though progressive Brahmin reformers like [Kandukuri] Veeresalingam, Gurajada Apparao, and Gidugu [Venkata] Ramamurthy championed prose and the everyday language of the people, writing in classical Telugu was the only way for Jashuva to prove himself as a poet. Still, he was conscious of his social roots and location and brilliantly brought and used everyday words of unlettered people to beautify poetry and celebrate the humanity of the oppressed people. He wrote in his introduction (interestingly in prose) that he chose Gabbilam keeping Meghadūta of Kalidasa in mind and said unlike elites who use swans and clouds, they are not accessible to oppressed poor like an untouchable and used a stigmatised bird that represents the Dalit predicament as a messenger. Contending a classical Sanskrit text celebrated by ruling elites for centuries is not a mean task. It needs a lot of courage, and Jashuva showed it by disrupting the classical flow of poetry centred on the lives and romances of gods, goddesses, and ruling elites. In his defiance, he revealed that ordinary and stigmatised lives were worthy of poetry. He did so with a marvellous expression that made celebrated classical poets of his time acknowledge his talents and felicitate him with the highest honours in the field.

Poet Gurram Jashuva.

Your scholarly introduction to Jashuva’s work masterfully presents the poet’s anti-caste politics and contextualises the socio-political environment in which this work was written and published. What is its significance and – in particular – its continued relevance in today’s time?
I must thank AK Ramanujan for this. Though I never met him, he remained an inspiration in undertaking this translation and writing a lengthy introduction. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva is a fascinating translation of Kannada Vacana’s poetry of anti-Brahmanical and anti-patriarchal content. The beautiful rendition of the radical content of the poems will be celebrated forever, and I want to follow in his footsteps. To contextualise Gabbilam as an epic historical text written in the context of anticolonial nationalism, I used anti-caste methods and perspective by paying keen attention to the anti-caste roots and historical struggles that have challenged Brahmanism and caste inequality and dehumanisation in Telugu-speaking areas. Even though Jashuva was a poet, his sense of history is mind-boggling. His poems in Gabbilam and other writings, like his masterful text on Persian scholar Ferdowsi (Piradousi in Telugu), demonstrate how he paid attention to persecution, discrimination, inequality, and oppression in history.

Moreover, in Gabbilam, he recounts the nature of oppression by mentioning specific events with exact geographical location and political context, tracing them back to ancient and medieval periods. Most importantly, he was particular in paying tribute to the anti-caste warriors’ imaginaries and celebrated their sacrifices in fighting against Brahmanical oppression and inequality. In this way, Jashuva scavenges the bowels of history to unearth the oppression hidden under structures such as palaces and forts that symbolise the power and glory of the ruling elites. He sniffs the smell of the blood of the oppressed castes that bound the bricks and mortars of those luxury palaces and reminds the Gabbilam, the bat, to heed those unnamed makers of history and acknowledge their sacrifices. As a historian, I feel it is my ethical responsibility to show the world how Jashuva, an anti-caste thinker, narrated history in a poetic form. Thus, his poetry can be viewed as a philosophical meditation on the history of erasing people’s voices and rewriting the history upwards.

As caste-heteropatriarchy has rarely left any business unimpacted, could you share if you believe that the largely upper-caste cadre of the publishing industry continues to – if not ignore blanketly – prioritise works that may not be as unapologetic, angry, radical, and ruthless in the ways they confront caste in their works? What would you recommend actors in the publishing industry could do to centralise stories from the historically cornered sections of society?
After living in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada for more than twenty years, I feel that caste-privileged elites in India are the most unethical people on earth. They refuse to acknowledge their caste privilege and interrogate their inherited caste privileges. I see from far, from a place like Canada, where there is so much moral reckoning about the anti-indigenous racism and the federal state trying to make amends and establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the systemic racism, colonial oppression, and dehumanisation.

I look at Indian print and electronic media and wonder whether there’ll ever be a moral reckoning at least an iota of self-reflection on their caste privilege. The entitlement with which caste privileges act in every sphere in India puts even the worst white racist to shame. This also applies to academic and non-academic publishing industries where caste-privileged elites act as gatekeepers and do not allow anti-caste writings that challenge the established elites to come into the mainstream. Instead, they recycle old Brahmanical knowledge as an anticolonial alternative. That does not mean I see it as the end of the road for a critical reflection on caste privilege.

As India entered a Hindu fascist phase under Narendra Modi, many caste-privileged elites saw anti-caste ideological position as an antidote to Hindutva. I must acknowledge these days, many progressives, especially feminist activists and writers across fields, are using their privilege to advance anti-caste movements and playing critical roles in anti-communal, anti-caste politics in India and abroad. They are helping us form intersectional alliances and acting as vanguards of progressive politics. Their conscious and well-meaning ethical commitment helped the anti-caste politics and brought the writings of Dalit and caste-oppressed people into the mainstream. In this case, I would like to mention Arpita Das at Yoda Press, who published Gabbilam, as an important ally of mine.

While Dalit History Month presents an opportunity to socialise anti-caste works that people should read, I was wondering if you have some reading recommendations that people must read around the year.
Yes, I can undoubtedly suggest that, as you know, the Marathi and Hindi translations dominate in this sphere. Kannada, Tamil, and Bengali translations of Dalit writings, especially life-writings, are coming up a lot these days. Telugu has some excellent Dalit writers whose writings were recently translated, viz. Yendluri Sudhakar, Gogu Shyamala, Jupaka Subhadra, Vemula Yellaiah, and Pasunoori Ravinder.

An illustration by Laxman Aelay from the book.