The term subaltern was first used by Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci to refer to a group of people in society who are oppressed by a ruling elite class that holds the basic right of participation in the making of history and culture of the same nation. Scholar and critic Gayatri Spivak used the term in her works to portray the deprived class in Indian society.
Subaltern studies scholar Y. Srinivasa Rao believes that today the subaltern seem to have reached a stage where they have acquired the ability to claim cultural independence from mainstream society and look for ways to build a counterculture. “To build a counterculture, the first step for the subaltern is to trace the history of their ancestors,” said Rao, while speaking on the topic ‘historicisation of mythical asura’ at Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai recently.
“Deprived of a language in which literary texts were produced, the subalterns, for long depended on Hindu mythological texts in which the native naga/Dravida kings were mythicised as ‘asuras’ or ‘rakshas’,” said Rao, an assistant professor Bharathidasan University.
He said contrary to the narratives of ‘mythical asuras’ in Hindu religious texts, the subaltern intelligentsia provides them historicity by presenting them as native rulers fighting and protecting their people. “The metropolitan subalterns (intelligentsia) are aware of these counter narratives. But they have only recently realised the political, cultural and social functions of these narratives built by first generation intellectuals,” he said.
Rao says the metropolitan subaltern today is obligated to execute two processes — popularising the counter narratives of their ideological masters like B R Ambedkar, Periyar and Jyotirao Phule and strengthening existing narratives by applying new tools of historical analysis. “This would result in de-mythicalisation of the ‘asuras’ and provide them the needed historicity without which the counter narratives would not last long,” he said.
Iranian scholar Al Biruni, too, in his description of 11th century India, had termed the depiction of asuras in Hindu texts as absurd. “The territorial distribution of north India for Hindu devas (suras) and south India for the non-Hindu asuras found in Vedic texts and projection of ‘asuras’ as godless non-believers occupied with things harmful to the world and beyond exposed the inbuilt absurdity of mainstream narratives,” he said.
“This geographical allocation was rejected by Ambedkar and Phule,” Rao said.
A primary responsibility of the metropolitan subaltern, Rao said, would be to introduce the narratives of their ideological masters to the peripheral subaltern (the layman). “The exercise would not be difficult as today’s peripheral subaltern is much more informed and capable of making a right choice. In fact, the peripheral subalterns have been worshiping ‘asuras’ for a long time, especially in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Bengal, Karnataka not as gods but as their ancestors and heroes. The metropolitan subaltern, most of which is drawn from educated peripheral subaltern are contributing to the development of a model of culture that is non-religious and non-ritualistic. When we observe the way the peripheral subaltern have been celebrating Dasara and Diwali in the above mentioned states, it is clear that the they are celebrating asuras as historical figures, not as gods. This is the new culture that suits to the subaltern of the present and future.”
Courtesy : The Times of India