Born in a Bahujan shepherding family, 29-year-old Tagulla Gopal was awarded the Kendriya Yuva Sahitya Puraskar 2021 for his collection of poems, Danda Kadiyam.

Poet Gopal in a checked-shirt
news Literature Wednesday, January 12, 2022 - 16:58

“All the beauty of your luminous dark complexion would appear in your bun as you tuck hairstick' after tying it up.''
— Song of Meat Curries

"How unfair is it to find a tree or tank thinking that it is unbearable grief!?
Life would contain grief, hide it in the stomach and share it with those who hear the language of your heart.
Ease the basket of grief!"
— Basket of Grief

Born into a shepherding family, Tagulla Gopal captures the nuances of the Bahujan working-class and their grief through these lines in Danda Kadiyam, a collection of poems. The 29-year-old poet went on to bag the Kendriya Yuva Sahitya Puraskar 2021 for this collection of poems in the Telugu language. Literary critics have hailed Gopal’s Danda Kadiyam as a literary piece carved straight out of the life and struggles of Bahujan communities such as Yadavas (shepherds) and Yerukalas (pig rearers).

Gopal hails from Kalakonda of Madgula in the erstwhile Mahbubnagar and the present-day Rangareddy district of Telangana. His parents Krishnaiah and Yellamma are peasants. “Most of the poems from the Danda Kadiyam are sketches of the identity and life of my father, forefathers and many others. The poems are nothing but revisiting and memorialising their lives. I always wanted to show the unseen life and ignored beauty of the typical Bahujan caste communities,” Gopal describes to TNM.

Take the poem ‘Song of Meat Curries.’ In this poem, Gopal delves on the dignity of labour of a Yerukala woman, who weaves baskets using branches of the Indian date tree. Besides, for most Bahujan communities, meat is synonymous with celebration, and hence you find the presence of meat in their traditional songs. The young poet talks about how she becomes her husband’s “song of meat curries” when he brings his hunt/catch. Gopal also touches upon the discrimination she faces due to her caste identity. He asks the woman, who only knows how to love everybody, to predict a future (Yerukala women are considered to be fortune-tellers) where there are no caste/religious discriminations.

The cover image of Gopal's collection of poems, Danda Kadiyam

Through his versatile diction and folksy vocabulary, which have become his signature style, Gopal talks about his coolie mother, father and forefathers, who sustained the family by sheep grazing; his favourite ganji (rice soup), and his village, which keeps inviting him for Bonala Panduga, a traditional folk festival.

The poetry book's title, Danda Kadiyam, too, holds crucial social and cultural significance. Similar to how certain ornaments are symbolic of certain cultures and communities, Danda Kadiyam is a classic bracelet designed to be worn on the bicep, sported especially by men hailing from the Yadavs and Kuruma communities.

When asked why he chose that as the title of his collection, Gopal tells TNM, “It not only depicts the life and contributions of our forefathers but also connects to a life that is rarely found in popular culture. Most of my poems are collections of the lives and imagery of the Bahujan life, from joys to miseries. I didn’t write it with a preconceived idea, but with the flow of context.”

In his poems, Gopal draws certain words that are only familiar to shepherds — bingi chevula gorre (floppy ears of a sheep), tella gorre (white sheep), machalla pilla (a lamb with white spots), and sode meka (a weak goat). This is the impact of one’s identity on literature, he says. “The social, cultural, spatial identities and language, and symbolism that is familiar to the poet or author would permeate into the literature one produces,” he adds.

For Gopal, poetry is part of life. His interest in reading Telugu poetry and an eventful childhood as a shepherd and cattle grazer opened up a canvas to paint his literary thoughts, ranging from small naanis (short prose-like poetry) to poems and padyams (classical version of Telugu poems). Before publishing Danda Kadiyam in 2019, Gopal wrote Teerokka Puvvu, a collection of naanis, in 2016.

Gopal’s interest in Telugu literature was first encouraged by his Telugu school teacher and later on the Kavi Sangamam group, an online Telugu literary platform. Owing to his family’s poverty, Gopal had to work as a cattle grazer for two years when he was in Class 6 and 7. At the time, Gopal used to be irregular to school, which is when he was drawn to oral literature and folk music practised within his community and his village. Fascinated by the people’s skills at weaving songs using real-life imagery and personal histories, Gopal learnt singing and writing.

Later, with his teacher Raja Vardhan Reddy’s assistance, Gopal joined a government residential school at Nagarjunasagar and completed his schooling. He completed his Diploma in Education in Hyderabad and went on to work as a primary school teacher for two years in the city. In 2012, he became a government school teacher after clearing the competitive exam. All along, Gopal’s literary journey advanced as he kept reading and engaging with diverse Telugu literature.

Gopal shares that his association with books is like a refugee seeking shelter in times of misery. “I believe reading a variety of literature will pave the way to understand the world in a different light, which will reflect in our writing as well.”

Today, his poems bring to life the struggles, identity, language and defiance to injustice — yet another signature style of Gopal’s poetry. “Poetry lives in some corner of every person’s life before life gets turned into poetry,” he asserts in the foreword of the collection.

Many of Gopal’s poems have been published in Telugu dailies and appreciated for their quality and usage of metaphors and language that is commonly seen in the Bahujan process.

The poetic caricaturing of the lives that Gopal described in Danda Kadiyam has amused several senior literary figures, who appreciate the language, structure, diction and metaphors he has used. Some critics, on the other hand, view Gopal’s tone in the poems as mere submissions and pleadings to the oppressors.

When asked about it, Gopal says, “Calling an injustice as injustice is also a rebellion and I did just that. Each one will have a different expression.” He refers to his poem about the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic tribal girl in Kathua, where he asks the victim to smile at her memorial, which he wryly calls ‘Holy Bharat’ instead of the girl’s name. In another poem, he asks upper-caste men to kill the hunger from the ghettos of “the untouchables” with the same hands that hanged a man for stealing mangoes.

For young poets like him, Gopal has some suggestions for writing poetry or creative writing. “We should read more to understand more. We should read a wide range of literature to expand our minds if we want to write prolifically and originally.”

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