Tracking Obscenities: Dalit Women, Devadasis, and the Linguistically Sexual

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Journal of Commonwealth Literature



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In his 1993 Dalit Panpaadu, Raj Gauthaman declares that Dalit writing should “outrage and even repel the guardians of caste and class” (qtd. in Holmström, 2008: xii). Writing by Dalit women has been exceptionally successful in achieving this goal, particularly in its representation of the sexuality and sexually-charged language of Dalit women. For instance, in Sangati, Tamil author Bama describes the difficult and deeply moving lives of Dalit women in south India. Although multiply subversive, Sangati is the most outrageous in its exposure of the sexual violence that often underpins the language of her female characters. Similarly, in her oral autobiography Viramma: Life of an Untouchable, Viramma repeatedly speaks in ways that suggest her embrace of that which, from an upper-caste and middle-class perspective, might seem vulgar, especially since it issues from the mouth of a woman. The present article theorizes this use of sexual language, arguing that it can be read as a powerful disruption of the feminine in that it refuses to play to patriarchal expectations about feminine decorum, and, as such, it models a defiance that mainstream feminism, rooted as it has been in predominantly middle-class values, might very well copy. To understand the contours of this defiance, I compare Dalit women’s bodily language, including that found in Sukirtharani’s poetry, to other expressions of Indian feminine sexuality: in Kamala Das’s biography and poems, and in the lyrics to devadasi songs.

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Hubel, T. (2019). Tracking Obscenities: Dalit Women, Devadasis, and the Linguistically Sexual. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 54(1), 52-69. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021989417717578