The story of Gor Banjara through ‘Dhaavlo’

At a young age, Ramesh Karthik Nayak learnt that there was not much literature on his people, the Gor Banjara. In his adulthood, he seeks to change that and is winning prestigious awards in the process 
The story of Gor Banjara through ‘Dhaavlo’

HYDERABAD : erming the British Raj a knight in shining armour, many UK-based publications in the pre-Independence era would try to portray the imperialists as the ones guiding ‘heathens’ to enlightenment and bringing in development. However, the people who suffered under the rule of the Crown would speak of the famine, the torture, the subjugation and the lack of rights. The control of narrative plays an important role in determining whose story gets taught around the world and whose history is ignored, something those oppressed and in the margins have faced for millenniums.

For many indigenous tribes in India, who are often deprived of the limelight, the move to award Telugu writer Nunnavath Karthik, commonly known by his pen name Ramesh Karthik Nayak, with the 2024 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar on June 15 for his short story collection Dhaavlo came as an assertion of the tribal identity. It must be noted that he was nominated for the prestigious award for the past two years as well.

The 26-year-old is the youngest Telugu writer and the first tribal writer ever to receive the award. “Dhaavlo is the first-ever collection of stories about this community (Gor Banjara),” Nayak tells TNIE.

Written in 2020 and published a year later, Dhaavlo, which translates into ‘song of lament’, depicts the lives of the Gor Banjara tribe. Nayak, who comes from the same community, says that the idea behind writing the book was to bring out the tribe’s ceremonial culture and way of life to the outer world, something not present in the mainstream literature landscape.

“In the book, a 16-year-old girl wants to avoid getting married as she is very connected to her thanda (hamlet) and does not want to go away from her parents. In earlier days, around the 1970s, when Banjara people used to get married, they would migrate and never get to meet their parents again unless they bumped into them accidentally, which would be rare. And when they would do so, they would cry a lot,” explains Nayak, adding that the protagonist also learns the song of lament, a tradition that women from the community follow.

His fondness for literature started in the early 2010s, during his school days in Bodhan, in search of literature on Banjara people amidst the ongoing struggle for Telangana formation. “We used to get many holidays from school [during the Telangana movement], so I used to draw cartoons and write captions and chants. Later, our teachers in school used to teach us how to write poems and short stories. So this all gave me a space to read and let me know that I could be a good fit into this. Initially, I was fascinated with art, colours and sketches, but later on, I started searching for my identity and the literature on the Banjara people. But I found only a few short stories written before independence,” recalls Nayak.

Nayak hails from the Vivek Nagar tribal thanda in the Jakranpally mandal of Nizamabad district. He has written four books so far, including one in English. These are Balder Bandi, a collection of poems in 2018 that is taught in the fourth semester of the MA (Telugu Language and Literature) programme at Andhra University, Kesula (2022) and Chakmak (2023).

Unveiling the untold
Unveiling the untold

Obstacles on path to success

Despite his initial successes, the 26-year-old hit a roadblock as his parents did not want him to pursue writing as a profession. His father is a farmer, while his mother travels every day around 10 kilometres to Armoor to sell vegetables. As a result, Nayak decided to leave his home in 2016 and do odd jobs to achieve his dream.

“My parents did not acknowledge me as a writer and used to fight with me. I had joined a diploma course but flunked. Sometimes I even thought of killing myself. But finally, I left home in 2016. I have distributed pamphlets in the Medchal-Malkajgiri district, worked in catering sometimes and was employed as a helper at an AC mechanic shop and a printing shop,” recalls Nayak.

After he broke the news of winning the award, his folks were happy as well as worried. “They asked me what this award will give, and ‘why don’t you choose some other profession?’,” he shares.

On picking Telugu over English, Nayak says, “I started writing poems in English. But then thought that I stay among Telugu-speaking people so I need to write in that language to ensure that my words reach the margins of society. Still, there exist tribal communities that do not send children to school as they like to isolate themselves from the outer world.”

However, his confidence has not been deterred, and the Telugu writer is working on a compilation of stories on Banjaras of Telangana (named Thithri) with renowned professor Surya Dhananjay, who also hails from the same community. His favourite Telugu writer is Raavi Sastry.

In the future, Nayak wants to expand his writings on other tribes in Telangana. “I am also planning to write about Gond, Koya, Chenchu and other tribes. I don’t know much about them currently but can learn about them and record their history through a memoir or some other medium,” he asserts.

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