Close to 50 years after his death, poet, activist and writer Annabhau Sathe (1920-1969) continues to have a looming presence in Maharashtra’s socio-cultural life. Innumerable roads, neighbourhoods, street corners, gardens, community spaces, and libraries across the state’s villages, towns, and cities are named after him. Political parties, irrespective of ideological colour, venerate Sathe, giving him a place of prominence alongside BR Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule – two other key icons of the Dalit community.

Sathe was born on August 1, 1920, in Wategaon village, part of present-day Maharashtra’s Satara district. He was one of the founding members of the Lal Bawta Kalapathak, the cultural wing of the undivided Communist Party of India, and played a key role in helping Maharashtra’s statehood movement attain critical mass, eventually leading to the formation of the state on May 1, 1960.

Sathe’s literary career spanned a little under 30 years, during which he wrote 35 novels, 14 short story collections, 24 loknatyas or people’s plays, 12 screenplays, two proscenium plays, one travelogue, and innumerable songs and poems. Sathe’s emergence as a key icon in contemporary Maharashtra owes as much to his oeuvre as an artist as it does to the churnings of caste-based social order and the possibilities opened up by the Constitution that provided for affirmative action for the oppressed sections of society.

Annabhau’s world: A frog, close to the ground

As a youngster born into the untouchable Matang caste in Maharashtra, Sathe not only inherited radical ideas of equality before God irrespective of caste as expressed in innumerable Warkari abhangs (a form of devotional poetry sung in praise of the Hindu god Vitthala), but also a range of popular performative traditions. In The Life and Work of Annabhau Sathe, the only English book on the activist-writer, Milind Awad notes that Sathe’s caste used to play the dholki and tuntuna folk instruments in traditional tamasha performances. Even today, many artists in traditional tamasha performances come from this caste group.

The Sathes migrated from Satara to Bombay in 1931, on foot, over a period of six months, following a crushing drought in the countryside. Once in Bombay, Sathe undertook a range of odd jobs, including that of a porter, security guard, babysitter, hawker and mill worker, among others. He learnt to read by following sign boards on shop fronts and streets, and within a short span of time, became an active participant in the Communist movement.

In a few years, he blossomed as a shahir or poet-performer, and began composing songs and plays for the Lal Bawta Kalapathak, where Amar Shaikh and DN Gavankar were his close comrades. In the song Majhi Maina Gavawar Rahili, which gained immense popularity during the struggle for statehood, Sathe used the figure of the beloved as a metaphor for Maharashtra; like the pining lover, Maharashtra was incomplete without Mumbai.

In the introduction to a collection of short stories, he held forth on his vision as a writer. “The life I live, see and experience is the life I write about,” he wrote. “No bird am I to fly on the wings of fantasy. I am a frog, close to the ground…”

Cinema was one of Sathe’s early indulgences in Bombay. As an adolescent informal worker in the city, Sathe was enamoured by (silent) films, and spent a chunk of his meagre wages on buying cinema tickets. During the course of his literary career, he wrote 12 screenplays, and several of his novels were adapted into films.

Among his most famous and oft-quoted lines is a couplet (Pruthvi Shesh nagachya mastakavar tarleli nasun/Ti Dalit, Kashtakarachya talhatavar tarleli ahe) where he says that the earth rests secure in the hands of Dalits and workers as opposed to being balanced precariously on the hood of a thousand-headed serpent, as is claimed in Hindu mythology.

“The artist that lives with the people is the artist the people stand by,” Sathe told a gathering of writers in 1958. “Art is like the third eye that pierces the world and incinerates all myths. This eye must always be alert and must always see for the people.”

Churnings of caste: An icon emerges

Sathe’s literary output, his role in the statehood movement and his commitment to the people earned him grudging recognition from members of Maharashtra’s cultural elite. Within a few years after his death, his short stories were included in the state’s middle school curriculum, thus providing newer generations with an entry point into his life and work.

Ajabrao Ambhore, born into a Matang family in Amravati in 1949, came across a short story by Sathe while teaching in a school in the 1970s. “I was struck by how well I could relate to it,” Ambhore told “I looked for more of his writings and devoured them…I was under the impression that Annabhau was a Brahmin, for who else would write so profusely? Besides, Brahmins also use the Sathe surname.” Later, when he learnt that Sathe was a Matang like himself, he was filled with inspiration and awe.

Ambhore worked as a government school teacher but retired in 2007. He lives in Mumbai with his son, an officer in the Railways.

He was among the first generation of Dalits who reaped the benefits of free education and reservation in government services. In 1978, Matang government employees from various districts of Vidarbha came together to launch the Maharashtra Rajya Matang Samaj Sangharsh Samiti. This body was intended to voice their demands and secure their rights as government employees. “The RPI [Republican Party of India], and all other streams of Ambedkarite politics, were dominated by the Mahars, who considered us [Matangs] lowly,” recalled Ambhore, who was elected as principal secretary of the Samiti’s Amravati unit.

While Sathe became Ambhore’s inspiration for the social work he was doing as part of the Samiti, Ambhore struggled to locate a photograph of the writer. A chance meeting with Comrade Girgaonkar, the communist party’s key functionary in Amravati in the late 1970s, led to the discovery of an image of Sathe in the Communist Party of India office. “I made 1,000 copies of the photograph and distributed them at the Samiti’s gatherings,” said Ambhore. “Some were blown up and hung in walls and offices.”

Within a short span of time, these photographs started appearing in slums, villages and lower caste settlements. By the 1980s, Sathe’s photograph began appearing alongside that of Ambedkar and Phule on the dais in political programmes and social gatherings, marking his emergence as a key Matang and Dalit icon.

Differing, diffident claims

Most popular texts and oral narratives on Sathe paint him as a Marxist in his youth and an Ambedkarite in his later life. These texts see his songs, poems and plays as emanating from his Marxist leanings and including little direct reference to caste. The texts suggest that his novels and short stories, on the other hand, are born out of his moorings as a Dalit and are shorn of “utopic Marxist ideas”. In most texts, Sathe’s Jag Badal Ghaluni Ghav song is seen as a point of departure – essentially, an announcement of his detachment from Marxism and association with Ambedkarite politics.

A close reading of his life, literary works and speeches, however, shows this is far from the truth. For one, Sathe did not subscribe to the neat differentiation between Marxism and Ambedkarism. In his inaugural address at the Dalit Sahitya Sammelan in 1958, Sathe made it clear that there were overlaps and continuities between caste and class. He saw Dalits as a class comprising all oppressed sections of society, as opposed to a strictly identitarian category. Moreover, Sathe continued his association with the Communist Party of India during and after this speech, writing a column in the Communist Party of India mouthpiece Yugantar till 1961.

In addition, a lot of Sathe’s songs, poems, novels and short stories were written during the 1950s, as opposed to being staggered into two neat, exclusive phases. During this period, Sathe was living with his second wife Jaywantabai. They met courtesy organisation work for the party.

In fact, it appears that this division of Sathe’s life into two phases was foisted externally, after his death, to maintain an artificial exclusivity between Ambedkarism and Marxism. Civil rights activist and political analyst Anand Teltumbde dwells on this disjuncture and its role in withholding the unity of various oppressed sections in BR Ambedkar: India and Communism.

The artificial division, however, has stuck on, so much so that present-day activists see Sathe as belonging to one camp or the other. Ambedkarite as well as Marxist activists maintain that Sathe never met Ambedkar, contrary to several documented meetings between the two stalwarts. In fact, photographs from the 1956 ceremony in Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi, when Ambedkar and lakhs of his followers converted to Buddhism, show Sathe sharing the stage with Ambedkar while he was administering the oath to his followers.

That Sathe did not choose to join forces with Ambedkarite groups after this, even as he distanced himself from the Communist Party of India shows he saw little point in making enclosures out of ideological streams. If anything, he cast his lot with the people, choosing to write about the lives of the oppressed, stressing on their agency. This agency, apparent across Sathe’s large body of work, was not born out of fantasy, but was based on what he had seen and experienced. As the writer himself noted, “All my characters are real, alive.”