On July 14, at an event titled “Performing Resistance: Tracing modern Maharashtra caste history through music”, the Godrej India Culture Lab team in Mumbai discussed a subject often brushed under the carpet.

The event comprised a screening of the documentary film Shahiri by Aashit Sable, followed by a panel discussion. The panel comprised tamasha scholar Ganesh Chandanshive, Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Dr Avatthi Ramaiah, and Shilpa Kamble, activist and author of Nilya Dolyanchi Mulagi. The discussion was moderated by theatre director Sunil Shanbag. The short session touched upon subjects like politics, Ambedkar’s philosophy, academia, some disturbing personal stories, and above all, the role of performing art in resistance.

The stage was then taken by artistes Kabeer Shakya of Dhamma Wings, India’s first Dalit rock band, the mother-son duo of Shahir performers, Nishant Shaikh and Keshar Jainoo Shaikh, and the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch. Performances included traditional forms like powada and qawwali, culminating with the rock band.

The four performances of the evening represented the scope of Dalit resistance art in contemporary times. But the musical story of Dalit resistance in Maharashtra started centuries ago.

Kabir Shakya’s ‘Jai Bhim Se’

Retrograde renegades

In Maharashtra, Chakradhar Swami was among the first well-known historical religious rebels. He lived in the 13th century and founded the Mahanubhav cult, which admitted people from any caste or class, and preached simple Krishna bhakti in the language of the masses. The Mahanubhavis, in their black robes and quaint manner, were viewed with distrust by the public and remained a niche organisation.

The vernacularisation of religion via bhakti and a critique of caste received a major thrust with Sant Dnyaneshwar, who translated the Bhagvad Gita into the Bhavarthadipika, popularly known as the Dnyaneshwari. This work was composed in the form of ovis or couplets, that made it perfect for singing rather than lecturing. Although he faced stiff resistance from the priestly caste, Dnyaneshwar set the juggernaut in motion.

From then on, Marathi became the language of the masses and the lingua franca for all Bhakti leaders. His successors, Namdev, Eknath, Tukaram and Ramdas all used it to compose various forms of devotional literature over the next few centuries.

The rebelling bards

Like Dnyaneshwar, many of these pro-equality champions were Brahmins. Many had to resort to a double narrative to separate their personal caste identity from the Brahmanical agenda and espouse the cause of the downtrodden. Their musical inventions such as bharuds, kirtans, bhajans, gaulans and abhangas served this purpose well, speaking as they did in the people’s tongue and manner. For example, Eknath’s bharuds were often dedicated to the Mahars or untouchables – the largest Dalit community in Maharashtra. They were often composed in the form of a dialogue between a Mahar and a Brahmin, and were replete with pitiful sociocultural references about the life of Mahars. For instance:

“I sweep the four Vedas
I haul the six shastras
I scoop up all the Puranas
And bring this garbage to the street of the sants .”

But Dalit voices, such as those of saints Visoba Khechar, Janabai, Savanta, Goroba, Kahnopatra, and Chokhamela, soon joined the ranks. Each of these saints wrote and sang of devotion to God, but their songs simmered with discontent and dissent. Anchored in the Varkari tradition, the narrative of resistance was continually played out between the three power centres of Paithan, Pandharpur and Pune as time moved from the medieval to the modern period..

Shivaji, secularism and shahiri

Yalgaar Sanskritik Manch - a typical street performance of shahiri.

Today, the legacy of Shivaji is torn between Brahmin academia on one hand, and extreme elements like the Sambhaji Brigade on the other. But paeans are still being sung to him by his Dalit admirers. When a young Dalit musician sings: “Mere Shiva tujhya saathi, mera imaan haazir hai/ tu jo kar de ishara, toh meri jaan haazir hai” or “My Shivaji, I shall give up my faith for you; and should you ask, my life too”, it speaks volumes.

The period of Maratha and then Peshwa rules from the 16th to the 18th century witnessed great change. Tamasha performances became the focal point of Marathi culture by the 18th century. Sub-forms included shahiri, lavani and powadas. Incidentally, both the words, tamasha and shahir(i) are Persian in origin. Most of these itinerant performers belonged to lower castes such as Mahars, Kolhatis, Malis, Kunbis, and Marathas. We know from daftars or official records that performances of Dalit shahirs were commissioned by the Peshwas of Pune to perform for Brahmin courtiers as well as to entertain labourers and tenants.

Tamasha is understood to be an umbrella term that encompasses the many folk entertainment forms of Maharashtra. According to Tevia Abrams’ essay in the book Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance:

“The philosophical and aesthetic scheme of tamasha incorporated three basic elements: (1) the entertainment tradition, expressed through love longs (lavani) and dramas and evoking very often the romantic and comic rasas; (2) the more serious propagandistic tradition, extolling the rasa of bravery (vira), through strongly masculine ballads (powada) performed by the great poet-singers (shahirs) and their accompanists and (3) the devotional tradition, steeped in the bhakti transcendentalist movement, which inspired folk troupes to express moral truths through witty songs and dialogues.”

While lavanis lent their loud and colourful idiom to Bollywood, shahiri became the choice of many a revolutionary from the 19th century onwards. Freedom and class struggles were perfect for the medium of shahiri. Lokshahirs, or people’s poets, like Amar Sheikh, Annabhau Sathe and DN Gavankar blazed the trail in the pre-Independence period, and were succeeded by shahirs such as Atmaram Patil, Shahir Sable, Sahir Pharande, and Shahir Hinge. This breed of firebrand poet-singers, mostly from the Mahar and Mang communities, lent their voices to several socio-political movements such as for the linguistic rights for Maharashtrians, the Free Goa Movement, the 1962 Chinese invasion of India and the Indo-Pak wars. Their organisation, named Lal Bawta Kalapathak, was inspired by Marxian and Ambedkarite philosophy.

Dr Ambedkar was not too enthusiastic about the tamasha tradition. He considered it just another form of exploitation of the downtrodden. But tamasha and shahiri performers loved their leader dearly, and partly adapted their song to his message. Such adaptation and artistic innovation has given birth to a whole new genre of music called Bhim Geet. These are mostly composed in Marathi and eulogise Dalit icons such as Bhimrao Ambedkar, Shivaji Maharaj and Gautam Buddha.

Tarannum Baudh’s ‘Baba ka Rath’

In the present day, both traditional shahiri and contemporary styles coexist to render the messages of social equality. The poetry of Namdeo Dhasal and the ballads of Sambhaji Bhagat continue to inspire young Dalit musicians to take the cause forward. However, shahiri as a performance tradition is doing poorly, and its depiction in the recent award-winning film Court isn’t too far from the truth.

Dr Avatthi Ramaiah, professor at the Tata Institute of Social Studies, disagrees: “The influence of digital media today is deep, particularly in the minds of younger generation, who are not very aware of folk arts. Therefore, the Dalits not only need to modernise and digitise their folk art but also resort to multiple modern digital media to reach out to more people across the nation.”

Artistes like Kabir Shakya seem to understand this. The musician, who also performed at the Godrej Culture Labs event, formed his band Dhamma Wings in 2010. His song Jai Bhim Se is a YouTube hit, as are some of his other rap and rock style compositions. He is loathe to people referring to Dhamma Wings as a Dalit band. He wants simply to be known as a musician trying to highlight the plight of a certain caste.

His is a growing tribe of internet-savvy youngsters such as Ginni Mahi from Punjab, Hemanth Kumar and Tarannum Bodh from Delhi University, and US-based Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Each bypasses the traditional media’s disinterest and hopes to be heard in the democracy of Youtube. It’s time they were.

Ginni Mahi’s ‘Danger Chamar’: