To the Presses

Jotirao Phule and the history of Marathi print culture

Courtesy - Siddhesh Gautam
Courtesy - Siddhesh Gautam
30 September, 2022

THE FIRST FEW PAGES of Jotirao Phule’s Gulamgiri or Slavery, published in 1873 and widely considered to be his most important text, opens with a dedication to “the good people of the United States as a token of admiration for their sublime disinterested and self sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery”—a reference to the abolition of slavery in the United States, in 1865, that sets the tone for the text’s arguments. Phule goes on to quote Homer on slavery and two Western writers on the detrimental role of Brahmins in Indian society.

This is followed by a preface written in English, which was intended for the colonial authorities and written in the formal prose style already customary in English but not yet in Marathi. He gestures to the mythical lineage of the Brahmin community and the spiritual basis of their authority over non-Brahmins but interprets these myths in the context of new developments in history and anthropology, as well as early findings on Indo-European migration into India. He also describes this retelling of the traditional Puranic narrative as “the history of Brahmin domination in India.” Then, quoting from the Manusmriti, he describes how Brahmins perpetuated caste by suppressing non-Brahmins and extracting their labour. The preface ends with a petition to the colonial authorities, who, Phule hopes, “will ere long see the error of their ways, trust less to writers or men who look through high class spectacles and take the glory into their own hands of emancipating my Sudra brethren from the trammels of bondage which the Brahmins have woven round them like the coils of a serpent.”

A Marathi introduction follows this English preface. As the text switches between languages, it retains its prose form but now addresses a non-Brahmin Marathi readership instead. Continuing in the same vein as before, Phule writes of how Brahmins tricked non-Brahmins into serving them while retaining control over their resources in a spiritual and secular sense. He then writes of developments in the West, where slavery was abolished.

Karthik Malli is an independent researcher and writer whose work focusses on the intersection of language, writing, history and identity in south India.