Growing up as a child in the 1990s, I cannot remember ever coming across a performance of Dalit shahirs in my Dalit basti in Nagpur, even though the region has a rich history of it. My experiences in the basti were different. Each month and on special days such as Dr BR Ambedkar’s birth and death anniversaries, a troupe of old men from the basti would sing bhajans through the night at a Buddha vihara, a few metres from my home. Their energy was enchanting, and the two words that recurred most frequently in their songs were Babasaheb and Buddha.
They would sing through the night, tirelessly narrating stories after stories of Ambedkar and how he fought against casteism, and why he embraced Buddhism. It seemed that in their songs they had found the meaning of being and a sense of belonging.
This was not always the case, though. Before they embraced Buddhism, Mahars – the most downtrodden among untouchables in Maharashtra – had been denied public opportunities to articulate their rage. The first turning point came in 1873 with the advent of Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak jalsas, which added a reformist edge to the traditional form of street theatre featuring poet-composer shahirs. The next watershed was the inception of Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement in 1927. It was at this time that Ambedkari jalsa was born, and shahiri – now almost a century-old performative act of singing a story – acquired a truly rebellious form in which the world otherwise hidden from society was made visible. These songs, written and sung by shahirs in the language of the masses, became the most genuine companions of Mahars and a few other Dalit castes in Maharashtra.
Voices from the margins
Both Satyashodhak and Ambedkari jalsas emerged almost in the absence of any resources, but they gave, for the first time, the experience of oppression a significant place in the domain of music in modern Maharashtra. And while the shahirs’ performances were mostly limited to Dalit masses, the culture they established still remain significant. The reason for this is that shahirs were not only singing the songs but writing them too. Ambedkar’s education and his incredible writing became the central influential factor for these poet-performers. They came to realise that if the makers of history are not its writers, history is manipulated and stripped of their voices.
In this sense, Dalit shahirs with their songs and performances set music to the history of the anti-caste movement in India. A close study of shahiri in Maharashtra suggests that it has been one of the cultural tools of assertion against casteism and, over the past seven decades, it has transformed itself into a manifestation of the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. With their songs, shahirs not only highlight and decode material problems but also interrogate spiritual aspirations towards the existence of god.
Prior to Ambedkar’s work, activist, writer and poet Gopalbaba Walankar – who was associated with Jyotirao Phule in the anti-caste struggle – was trying to convey the plight of untouchables in Maharashtra to the British government with the hope of changing their condition. However, it was only in 1927, when Ambedkar launched Mahad Satyagraha, that agitational shahiri began to thrive.
Another reason for this, perhaps, was the gradual decline of the Satyashodhak jalsa and that many of its leaders, a couple of decades after Phule’s death, were inclined towards the politics of the Congress party. In Ambedkar’s philosophy and movement, jalsa had not only found new objectives but a vision for an egalitarian society. One of the leading shahirs and a pioneer of Ambedkari jalsa, Bhimrao Kardak, once said, “To convey the thoughts of Mahatma Phule and Satyashodhak Movement, Satyashodhaki Jalsa was created. Likewise, to spread the thoughts of Dr. Ambedkar among untouchable masses, Ambedkari Jalsa was created.”
The notable fact here is that before widespread literacy among untouchables, shahirs and their shahiri or jalsa created an anti-caste awareness. In these songs, they could imagine themselves free from the dependency of caste occupations. In fact, this is what Shahir Bhimrao Kardak wrote:
Manusakiche hakka milwa hakka, yach ghadi
Purva rudhi gulam bedi, taka toduni
Dhya ‘maharaki’ soduni
Bandhu chala jau hooo satyagrahala
At this moment, win the rights as human beings
Break the shackles of tradition, the chain of oppression
Oh Brother! Let’s go to Satyagraha
After this, there was a flood of shahirs in Maharashtra and thus, the music of anti-caste movement began to evolve. One of the most powerful shahirs, Annabhau Sathe, was from the Mang caste and had, for a long period in his life, remained communist only to witness the fallibility of Brahmin communists and their negligence of the issue of caste. But Sathe was a determined man who wrote powerfully about the anti-caste movement and Ambedkar’s philosophy. In the 1960s, Sathe dedicated his most famous novel Fakira to Ambedkar:
“Jag badal ghaluni ghav
Sangun gele maj Bhimrao”
Change the world with an attack
Thus, said Bhimrao
From 1927 to recent times, Maharashtra had given birth to many powerful shahirs, the most prominent among them are Shahir Bhimrao Kardak, Wamandada Kardak, Lokshahir Annabhau Sathe, Lokshahir Vithhal Umap, Shahir Vilas Ghogare and Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat, to name a few. Living a life dedicated to Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement, they were determined and unshakable. As Wamandada Kardak, an illustrious shahir, once wrote:
“Tuphanatale Dive Aamhi, Tuphanatale Dive
Uun, wara, paus dhara muli na aamha shive”
We are the lamps in the storm, lamps in the storm
We are hardly affected by the sun, the rain or the wind
All these songs were simple and powerful. Yet, most of these are not part of the popular imagination because the means of producing culture are still dominated by upper castes and classes. Nonetheless, their impact on the masses and in creating a conscience among people in Maharashtra is immeasurable. With their songs, shahirs reached to masses who were rejected in and by Brahminical imagination. To express what he felt after watching the jalsa of Shahir Bhimrao Kardak and his troupe, Ambedkar once said, “What more can I [say]? Mavashi from jalsa has said all of it. My ten meetings and gatherings and one jalsa of Kardak and his troupe, are equal.”