It was a warm evening in the early 1970s in Rukadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. A 20-year-old Avinash More was sitting outside a temple dedicated to Vitthala, a Hindu deity believed to be an avatar of Vishnu. The bhajans being sung inside by devotees – all belonging to the upper caste – were clearly audible to him. “People from our caste [Mahar] weren’t allowed to enter the temples then,” recollected More.

One of the devotees inside was Bhosale Pandurang, a former school teacher of More’s. Pandurang walked up to his student, and urged him to sing in the temple. The decision did not go down well with the devotees but, since Pandurang was a respected member of the community, the voices of opposition died soon enough.

More sang two abhangs, or devotional poetry sung in praise of Vitthala. In the songs, thoughtfully chosen by More, the god takes the avatar of a lower caste man and helps other villagers. More’s fearless rendition left everyone spellbound. “[Someone said] he sings better than us,” recalled More. “This was the first time someone had challenged casteism in the village.”

More spent 36 years repairing faulty electrical cables as a lineman with the Maharashtra State Electricity Board in Kolhapur. Singing bhajans, alongside that, was his way of trying to mend a society divided along caste lines. Today, the retired 65-year-old has lost count of the number of upper caste homes he has performed in, in villages across Maharashtra. No one has ever stopped him. “How could they?” he asked, proudly. “My voice can make the dead walk.”

Avinash More and his wife Ujjwala. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.

More started singing bhajans when he was 15, but it remained a hobby because there were no career opportunities in singing for lower castes. Financial constraints made him drop out of school after class 10, and work as a farmhand for four years. During this time, More witnessed several disturbing instances of casteism.

“When I used to work on the fields of upper caste people, we weren’t allowed to take water from the well,” he recollected. “They used to serve it from a distance.” According to More’s wife, Ujjwala, the members of the lower castes had to step away from the road “when someone from upper caste was on the same path”. “Today there is no home in the village to which I haven’t been invited,” More said with a smile.

In 1976, More joined the Maharashtra State Electricity Board as a temporary line helper. Four years later, he was made a permanent employee, receiving a daily stipend of Rs 7.15 for eight hours of work every day.

A little over a decade later misfortune struck. While working on an electricity pole in Kolhapur, he met with an accident. “The electrical connection was not cut off while [I was] working,” he said. “I didn’t notice this and accidentally touched a live wire.” A 20-foot fall resulted in a back fracture. He was hospitalised for 10 days. After that he was shifted to another unit at the electricity board to handle basic complaints. He retired as an assistant lineman in 2012 and since then, all his time has been devoted to singing bhajans.

The Vithoba temple in Pandharpur where More has performed several times. Photo credit: Parag Mahalley/via Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic].

More has performed in many villages in the districts of Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara in Maharashtra. “I only sing ektari bhajans [devotional songs performed using a single string instrument],” he said. He has also been called to sing several times in Pandharpur, a pilgrimage town famous for its Vithoba temple, in Solapur district. “I don’t miss any chance to perform.”

How it started

More’s love for bhajans started when he was in his early teens. His father Ganpati More, who worked as a supervisor in the Indian Railways, was a proficient ektari bhajan singer. “A lot of singers from different parts of Maharashtra would come to our house and perform classical music. These songs were sung till late in the night,” he said. More would keenly follow these sessions. “I would never write the songs. If someone sang today, I would recite it to him tomorrow.”

Ramchandra Sakat, a classical singer from Pachwad village in Satara district, would often visit More’s house. “He inspired me to become a singer,” said More. “People wouldn’t leave their place if he started singing.”

A self-taught singer, More would practice unfailingly every day, much like his father, after he returned home from work. His mother, Shevantabai would sing with him.

The artificial nests and plants that More has built. Photo credit: Sanket Jain.

More’s repertoire is vast. He sings abhangs in praise of the Marathi religious poet Janabai, the sage Vishwamitra, Santh Chokhamela, who belonged to the Mahar caste, and Vitthal. He has also written a dozen songs on Babasaheb Ambedkar, and his contribution to India. More cites Ambedkar as his inspiration in battling casteism. “I’ve travelled [to many] places to collect some of the rare photos of Babasaheb,” he said. He enjoys reading books by Annabhau Sathe, Ambedkar and Gulshan Nanda. In his free time, he likes decorating the house with artificial leaves, plants and nests.

More has three children and his youngest, Aarti, accompanies him to many of his performances. She has started recording his songs on her phone. “Everyone in the village calls him Guruji or Maharaj [master],” she said.

Journey continues

After his performance at the Vitthal temple, More started getting invited to sing at other temples in the villages and slowly, in the homes of the upper caste villagers. While working with the electricity board in the 1980s, he would cycle to villages as far as 60 km away to sing. He would be given Rs 10 and a coconut. “We never sang for money,” he said.

Right through his musical journey, More was fortunate enough to enjoy the support of his colleagues at the electricity board. A senior colleague, Sadashiv Gaikwad, was an ardent music lover. In 1982, he took More to his hometown, Sondoli, in Kolhapur district. “He wanted me to perform a song there, but we didn’t have a harmonium,” said More. A villager belonging to the upper caste refused to allow them to borrow one. “He [Gaikwad] won a lottery on the same day, and immediately took me to Kolhapur city, where he bought a harmonium for Rs 615.” Gaikwad gifted the harmonium to More, which he uses even today.

The harmonium is More’s prized possession. The white keys have turned yellow, a reminder to More of how the times have changed. “In the past, we weren’t allowed to enter temples, today I perform in all the temples.”

Photo credit: Sanket Jain.