The demise of two outstanding , organic intellectuals who served the cause of annihilation of caste and the destruction of capitalist system and highlighted a number of burning social problems in Tamil Nadu and the rest of the world passed largely unnoticed or ignored by the mainstream media , while activists in Dalit , Periyarist and Communist movements could pay rich tributes to them only through zoom meetings as the entire state was submerged in the electoral campaigning of the political parties for the just finished local body elections.
Vellore Rathinasamy Joseph Prabalan, popularly known as Priabalan was born as 7th child of a Tamil Christian family in Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh. After finishing schooling there, Prabalan did a technical course in ITI, Guindy Chennai when his family members moved to this Metropolitan city and lived with them till he passed away at the age of 74 on 14th February. He joined a cycle tube manufacturing Company as a Machinist and became an active Trade Unionist which resulted in his dismissal from service on flimsy grounds. Though he emerged victorious in the legal battle and won back the job, he soon resigned from it and began a long career of being a mentor, associate and comrade-in –arms in anti-caste, civil rights, feminist and environmental movements. In 1970s he opened a book shop in Mylapore, Chennai considered to be the citadel of the most orthodox and elitist section of the Brahmins and ironically named it as ‘Oasis’. Quite a few decades before the advent of internet, Flipcart and Amazon, it was this book shop where Prabalan made available to the readers with a wide range of interests, anti-caste, Marxist, Ambedkarite, Periyarist, Feminist, environmentalist and the third world literature. Surrounded by heaps of books, he would majestically sit in his chair and politely offer the books to his customers- cum- comrades ( more often than not for free to those who could not afford to buy them) while initiating these readers into reading, discussing and understanding some of the issues which were until then quite foreign to them.
He would link up the anti-caste intellectuals with the Marxist ones and the latter with Feminist and environmental causes. In 1995 his bookshop was a space for the grass root activists, fisher folk, civil rightists, environmentalists , progressive intellectuals and academics who formed a Committee to Struggle Against Thapar-Dupont Nylon 6.6 manufacturing company allowed to be established by Jeyalalitha Government in a northern town of Tamil Nadu. Rejected by many State Governments on account of the notoriety of the US based multi- national Company Dupont in its role of causing immense environmental and ecological damages in whichever countries it had its foot prints, it together with its Indian Comprador Thaper succeeded in making the AIADMK Government its host. The Nylon 6.6 fiber used in making the aeroplane tyres needed immense quantity of pure water rendering the town where it was to set up and hundreds of villages surrounding it dry and desolate zones. The struggle met with severe state repression but succeeded in sensitizing many on the left to the importance of environmental issues.
Inspired by the international situation of 1970s, Prabalan too dreamed of being a witness to an all India Revolution, but even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dramatic changes in the erstwhile Socialist Countries, the triumph of neo-liberlaism, the decline of the left movements across the globe, he remained convinced of the ability of the oppressed and working masses in transforming the world in their image. Like Anand Teltumbde, he too believed that the Dalits were the ‘organic proletariat’ of this country who ought to be leadng the revolution. Insisting on the agency of the Dalits, he participated in a number of seminars, symposiums across the country and abroad and played an important role in the Dalit Intellectual Collective with Dr C.Lakshmanan and others. His well thought out original ideas and suggestions were completely free from any formulaic or sectarian overtones. Though he was a member of a devout Chrstian family, his vision had never been teleological but was rooted in the possibilities of here and now. Self-effacing as he was, he shunned publicity and craving for the limelight but chose to remain till his last moment a teacher and mentor to scores of activists or as Mao once described himself ‘ a monk with a leaky umbrella’.
Dalit Subbiah, who followed Prabalan to the grave two days later was a pedagogue, writer, poet, balladeer, composer of music and a vocalist. He was born in a family of poor Dalit agricultural workers in a village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu notorious for the atrocities on Dalits perpetrated by the members of a caste which during British days, was one of the ‘notified tribes’. Subbiah’s father had two wives. As the first one bore him only two female children, the prevailing patriarchal culture that cut across the castes, required him to have a son. His second wife, born deaf and dumb, bestowed to this world, a son who would not just mesmerize his listeners with his songs but awaken them to see the realities of oppression based on caste, class and gender.
In an Interview given to the Tamil Journal ‘Dalit Murasu’ in 2006, Dalit Subbaiah said his first music teacher was his father who used to sing lullabies to his male child as his disabled mother could not do this. Though as a baby in the cradle Subbiah could not have made out what his father was doing, later as an young boy he had the joy of listening to many a folk songs his father used to sing for him. On the other hand, the uncanny noise emanating from the vocal chords of her mother and her muted cries, according to him, were the everlasting bonds that tied him to his mother. He also recalled with pride his memories of her powerful hands and limbs which enabled her to effortlessly wade with so much speed through the mud and water with bundles of rice seedlings intended for transplanting on her head without losing her balance and pass them on from a distance of 30 feet to her fellow workers in the rice field. Subbiah’s first teacher was his own father, who would spread our handfuls of paddy on the ground in front of his house on which the young son’s tender fingers would be guided to write the alphabets. Gifted with a golden voice, Subbaiah would soon begin joyfully singing with his father and relatives when he helped his parents in harvesting, threshing the paddy and while going for fishing.
The given name of Subbiah was ‘Pichai’ meaning ‘alm’. Naming the male child born many years after the marriage as ‘Pichai’ and the female child ‘Pichaiammal’ has been a practice quite common amongst parents of many castes in Tamil Nadu (including in some cases Brahmins) as such a child is considered to be a long awaited gift from the God propitiated with many prayers and offerings. It was one of his teachers in the local primary school where he studied – a Dalit Christian – changed his name as ‘Subbiah’ much to the chagrin of the caste Hindus since the suffix ‘Iah’ ( meaning ‘elder’) is the one with which the Dalits were expected to address them with reverence and awe. The teacher had to pay a heavy price for violating this caste code: His elder daughter was raped by a thug from the dominant community.Though the criminal was arrested and jailed, the unbearable shame fell upon the family forced it to leave the village.
Subbiah recalled in that interview many forms of humiliation and physical attacks he experienced at the hands of the Caste Hindus –his school mates, the youngsters as well as the elders in the village. In his village, the Dalits who violated the norms and rules of Caste Hindus that defined what kind of dress the Dalits should wear, what forms of language with which they should address these oppressors, and in which street they should walk and with what gestures and postures, were subjected to the most humiliating forms of punishment: they would be summoned to appear before the ‘Panchyat’ of the caste Hindus before whom these Dalits should prostrate and beg for pardon, only to be let off after paying a fine for the ‘crime’ they had committed.
Subbiah had to walk six miles a day to study in a Government High School, and was constantly harassed by the fellow students from the oppressor caste of his village. But he also found many students including the female ones from the ‘upper castes’ warming up to him. He could also captivate the minds of hundreds of students and of most of the teachers by his mellifluous voice with which he sang devotional songs (he later admitted that he did not know at the time the meaning of these songs which he learnt by rote) and entertained some of his teachers privately by singing some of the popular film songs. After he finished high school studies his father , so determined as he was, decided to send his son to the college and sold his meager belongings to raise some money but it was the generous help of Subbaiah’s maternal uncle who saw the young man through the College studies. While Subbiah was attracted to Periyar and his thoughts during his school days, he was initiated into Marxism after he joined a college in Madurai. After obtaining a Masters Degree he studied Law in Bengaluru. He accepted a job in a NGO for his living. Part of his work in this NGO consisted of visiting villages across the state to study the prevailing conditions there. It was during those days he gained a firsthand knowledge of the caste, gender and class based oppression that manifested in crude as well as in subtle forms and thus began his life long career of being a balladeer of the downtrodden masses. He got a job in a Government High School and married to Subbulakshmi, who grew up in Malaysia. They named their first son Spartacus, one of the heroes whom Marx adored and the second son Gorky after that great Russian Revolutionary writer from whom Dalit Subbiiah drew inspiration for his cultural activities.
Dalit Subbiah set aside a part of his income to set up a cultural group, which went on giving hundreds of performances throughout the state. He wrote hundreds of songs combining the thoughts of Baba Saheb Ambedkar whose teachings he came to know only in 1992 , Periyar and Karl Marx. Till his last years, one could see his cultural group giving performances in the meetings and conferences of the Periyarists. Once he was confronted by some Dalit activists who were misled by a few intellectuals in Tamil Nadu into thinking that Periyar was anti-Dalit. They wanted him to stop singing the praise of Periyar. Dalit Subbiah retorted that he would rather wind up his cultural group and stop singing foreover. The stages from which his cultural group performed were invariably adorned with the portraits of Ambedkar on one side and Periyar on the other. His life and mission were a combination of Blue, Red and Black. “Vella MudiyathavarAmbedkar” (Ambedkar is unconquerable- https://youtu.be/7g79yiIEdYQ) and “Thamizhakathin Azhakiya mukam- Athu Periyar” ( The beautiful face of Tamil Nadu –that is Periyar) are the two songs through which he continued pay his tributes to these great leaders. His most famous song, repeatedly sought out by his admirers and sung by many other activists is the one that says that “ we would not submit to any one, we would not bow our heads, we would not be afraid of anyone, we would say we are Dalits” (https://youtu.be/3FYUmzn1o4c.Some of his other famous songs are also available in youtube.) He had a magical ability to convert through his songs the quotidian problems into universal themes and every line of his song was a rebuttal to the discourse of the Hindutva, casteist and capitalist forces. It is an unpardonable failure on the part of the Ambedkarites, Periyarists and the Marxists in making no effort to make him known outside Tamil Nadu, while such individuals and groups as Ghaddar (not for his current political beliefs and activities), Kabir Kala Manch, Jana Natya Manch and quite a few other Dalit and left cultural groups from other states are fairly well known amongst the activists here.
He groomed many artists –both women and men – and while glorifying the folk tradition of music, he was critical of some of the Dalit Intellectuals and activists who fetishised Parai, a hollow drum played by two sticks of different length and thickness which though played in the courts of Chozha and Pandiya Kings till the middle ages, came to be associated with the Dalits acquiring a caste symbol. He said such intellectuals would not have the parai played in their houses fearing it would betray their caste identity to their upper caste neighbours. Dalit Subbaih’s cultural group preferred to use many musical instruments as part of its belief in modernity. He was also equally critical of the notion that the songs and music originated only from the Dalits and countered it with the Marxist explanation of the birth of the music from the labor of the toiling masses. As a powerful singer with a resonant voice, he electrified his audience and charged them with revolutionary feelings. After embracing Marxism he was initially attracted to Naxalbari movement but moved closer to CPM circle, particularly to the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association and then became an active member of the dynamic Anti-Untoucahbility Movement, both floated by the CPM and changed his name as ‘Lenin Subbiah’. But most of his admirers-Ambedkarites, Periyarists and Marxists (including the author of this article) he could only be Dalit Subbiah as his preliminary concern has always been the annihilation of caste. It should also be mentioned that he never failed to assert his Tamil identity which he counterposed to pan-Indian Hinduism.
An extraordinarily principled man he was, Dalit Subbiah never sought out fame or publicity. His songs were his message. He shunned receiving awards or money from any party, organization or individuals. Soft spoken, affectionate and affable Dalit Subbiah and his family members lived a very simple life with his frugal income in Pondichery. His house had less than 600 square metre space. Many years of his suffering from diabetics led to the damage of his kidneys and whatever little savings he had was spent for his treatment. Admitted in a Government hospital in Pondicherry he bid a final farewell to this world on 14th February.
Jai Bheem, Lal Salam and Black Salute to our beloved Comrade Dalit Subbaih!
S V Rajdurai is a noted writer, civil rights activist and Periyar, Ambedkar, Marx scholar.