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Poet Siddalingaiah: ‘Wrote with Incandescent Rage, Subdued Humour’

Kannada writer KS Bhagwan reminisces his time with Dalit poet Siddalingaiah who died of COVID on 11 June. 

Updated
India
3 min read
Kannada Poet Siddalingaiah was a staunch critic of the caste system.  
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“When I first saw him, I was captivated,” said Indian Kannada writer and rationalist KS Bhagwan, recollecting the first time he met renowned Kannada poet and Dalit activist Siddalingaiah. In 1975, Bhagwan was invited to an event at Central College in Bengaluru, where he saw Siddalingaiah on stage reciting one of his famous poems.

“He began with ‘Ikrala, Odirla’ (Thrash and Kick), a poem that sent a chill up every Dalit’s spine,” said Bhagwan, explaining that the poem narrates the ordeal of Dalits, who are physically assaulted. Bhagwan said that he immediately walked up to Siddalingaiah and appreciated the aggressive tone in his work.

The fiery activist, who co-founded the Dalitha Sangarsha Samithi (DSS) in Karnataka, died on 11 June of post-COVID complications after he contracted the virus in May.

‘Many Found a Voice in Him’

That confrontational tone in Siddalingaiah’s poems would make anyone sit up, said Bhagwan, adding that each Dalit person, who remained closeted in fear, would find a strong voice in the late poet’s works. In fact, through Hole Madigara Hadu, which is the ‘song of untouchables’, Siddalingaiah gave a new identity to Dalits, said Bhagwan.

When Bhagwan heard the news of Siddalingaiah’s demise, he “was shattered”. “It was very painful,” he said.

Siddalingaiah with his mother
Siddalingaiah with his mother
Image Credits: Accessed by The Quint

Siddalingaiah would often visit Bhagwan at the latter’s residence in Mysuru, Karnataka. “He was a man who loved fighting for his cause as much as he loved eating meat,” said Bhagwan, quickly reflecting on Siddalingaiah’s characteristics. “His nature was in complete contrast with the combative nature of his writings. He was humorous and warm to everyone around him. In fact, despite being a man of his stature, he always had a listening ear - be it to friends or students or even fellow writers,” added Bhagwan.

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Inspired by Ambedkar and Periyar

While stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi have fought for India’s independence, Siddalingaiah wrote revolutionary poems like ‘Yarige Banthu, Ellige Banthu Nalavaththelara Swathanthra’ (Who got it? Where did they get? No Freedom for the oppressed). “The poem narrates how the oppressed class has never tasted freedom despite India being independent,” said Bhagwan. “This Dalit poet knew how to delve deep inside the world of pain and oppression. And that worked well in reflecting reality,” he continued.

Poet Siddalingaiah was a voice for a generation of Dalits who cowered under caste oppression.
Poet Siddalingaiah was a voice for a generation of Dalits who cowered under caste oppression.
Image Credits: Accessed by The Quint

Siddalingaiah drew inspiration from personalities like Dr BR Ambedkar and Periyar, said Bhagwan. “Well, Siddalingaiah was no less a personality. Many have read his works and have been inspired.”

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‘Will Miss Him Dearly’

What Bhagwan liked about Siddalingaiah is the feeling of mutual admiration that they had for each other. “Siddalingaiah made it a point to compliment me with respect to my writings as well. I remember the time that he personally visited me to talk highly about one of my works, Shankaracharya and Reactionary Philosophy.”

Siddalingaiah’s autobiography was known of its stark depiction of caste reality.
Siddalingaiah’s autobiography was known of its stark depiction of caste reality.
Image Credits: Accessed by The Quint

There is, however, one thing that Siddalingaiah regretted. “When he was elected to the Legislative Council in the 1980s, many found him to be favouring the ruling party netas. The fact that Siddalingaiah was getting to be more a politician and less a reformer, wasn’t very pleasing. But my friend has expressed remorse later in hindsight,” said Bhagwan.

All said and done, Siddalingaiah championed the movement against Dalit atrocities, said Bhagwan, adding that the world of Kannada literature will miss him dearly.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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