dalit movement

In the verses of Dalit shahirs, you can hear the history of India’s anti-caste movement

Most shahirs are not part of the popular imagination because the means of producing culture are still dominated by upper castes.

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.

Play

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.

Play

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
Leave Maharaki
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.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The cost of setting up an employee-friendly office in Mumbai

And a new age, cost-effective solution to common grievances.

A lot has been theorised about employee engagement and what motivates employees the most. Perks, bonuses and increased vacation time are the most common employee benefits extended to valuable employees. But experts say employees’ wellbeing is also intimately tied with the environment they spend the bulk of the day in. Indeed, the office environment has been found to affect employee productivity and ultimately retention.

According to Gensler’s Workplace Index, workplace design should allow employees to focus, collaborate, learn and socialise for maximum productivity, engagement and overall wellbeing. Most offices lag on the above counts, with complaints of rows of cluttered desks, cramped work tables and chilled cubicles still being way too common.

But well-meaning employers wanting to create a truly employee-centric office environment meet resistance at several stages. Renting an office space, for example, is an obstacle in itself, especially with exorbitant rental rates prevalent in most business districts. The office space then needs to be populated with, ideally, ergonomic furniture and fixtures. Even addressing common employee grievances is harder than one would imagine. It warrants a steady supply of office and pantry supplies, plus optimal Internet connection and functioning projection and sound systems. A well-thought-out workspace suddenly begins to sound quite cost prohibitive. So, how can an employer balance employee wellbeing with the monthly office budget?

Co-working spaces have emerged as a viable alternative to traditional workspaces. In addition to solving a lot of the common problems associated with them, the co-working format also takes care of the social and networking needs of businesses and their employees.

WeWork is a global network of workspaces, with 10 office spaces in India and many more opening this year. The co-working giant has taken great care to design all its premises ergonomically for maximum comfort. Its architects, engineers and artists have custom-designed every office space while prioritising natural light, comfort, productivity, and inspiration. Its members have access to super-fast Internet, multifunction printers, on-site community teams and free refreshments throughout the day. In addition, every WeWork office space has a dedicated community manager who is responsible for fostering a sense of community. WeWork’s customised offerings for enterprises also work out to be a more cost-effective solution than conventional lease setting, with the added perks of WeWork’s brand of service.

The video below presents the cost breakdown of maintaining an office space for 10 employees in Vikhroli, Mumbai and compares it with a WeWork membership.

Play

To know more about WeWork and its office spaces in India, click here.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of WeWork and not by the Scroll editorial team.