Ambedkar Jayanti: A selection of Dalit literature, from Maharashtra's shahirs to contemporary songs of resistance
On Ambedkar Jayanti, a selection of Dalit literature ranging from the songs of Maharashtra's shahirs, to the works of radical writers in Maharashtra like Nagraj Manjule and Namdeo Dhasal, and works by contemporary writers
Naked display of dissent straddles the boundary that separates fear from revolution. For India's Dalits, this proclamation of dissent has assumed many forms, both passive and combative. It has mutated over the millennia before BR Ambedkar prodded the word Dalit into mainstream consciousness, and transformed anew since then.
Some things have not changed — songs remain the sinew of Dalit protest in almost all its configurations. And the lyrics that sew these together continue to serve as a manifesto of resistance.
"When I write poetry, I bring into it my very being, my lived experiences, and my dreams. My poetry is thus simply, my poetry. This, however, does not take away the fact that my poetry is written, not only from the place of me being Dalit, but also woman, Christian, Tamizh, and others. I invite the reader to understand this nuance, without which my art cannot serve its liberatory purpose."
"At an age when they should be flying kites, the children of my community begin earning their daily bread. I too have suffered the acid burns of a caste system that is thousands of years old. The pain of the anti-reservation movement in Gujarat as well as elsewhere, has accumulated within me and reveals itself as poetry. They are not mere descriptions of events or analysis or just passing things. They are a search for roots, too."
"As women coming from the next generation, who have better voices and the strength to stand tall and express the multifaceted oppression faced by our women through our writings, we face acute criticism from men around us, including Dalit men. Men from our own community dictate terms to us about what to write and what not to, or try to peep into our personal lives and don’t hesitate to attempt personal attacks or to push us away from writing."
"I grew up in Nagpur in what was an untouchable ghetto that later became a Buddhist colony. Having studied at Dr Ambedkar College in Nagpur, I moved to Mumbai to pursue my Masters' degree. When I moved away from home, the contradictions I was seeing around me led me to write. We are all social beings after all. You can affect the society much the same way it affects you. In my work, I write about my life, my family, the society, the oppression, drama and the victories."
"I’m very glad to say that I’m born a Dalit. But, to call me a writer or a Dalit writer is a choice left for the reader to make."
Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits.
It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives.
More than being read, Manjule's poems are meant to be reflected on. The biggest contribution that Manjule’s poetry made to Dalit literature is creatively connecting the sociology of oppression to intimate subjects like love and sexuality. It has freshly made people aware that love can also be conducted with intelligence.
Having undergone his political tutelage during the time of the Dalit Panthers, Arun Kale mastered a different tone for his poems. He could see the tragedy as well as strength of a Dalit activist at the same time.
Perhaps, no poet in history has bestowed as much faith and trust in the power of verse than Namdeo Dhasal. His poems are powerful songs of rebellion as much as a theory of liberation from the mental slavery imposed by caste. If his poetry captured the subtleties of growing up as a Dalit, his politics as a Dalit Panther was far more clear and profound with a vision that only a few had dreamed of.
As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership.
The tradition of 'shahiri' in Maharashtra is many centuries old. Towards the end of the 18th century, under the influence of Mahatma Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, this musical art form was transformed into a weapon of the masses against the oppressive caste system. By the 30s, the ‘Satyashodhaki jalsa’ was in decline, but a powerful new force emerged in its place: ‘Ambedkari jalsa’.
It encompassed the teachings and philosophy of Dr BR Ambedkar in the form of songs. For almost a century, many Ambedkarite shahirs have helped hone it into an anti-caste tool.
Dr Bhagwan Thakur, author of Ambedkari Jalse, notes that Bhimrao Kardak belonged to the “first generation of Ambedkari shahirs”. Kardak was perhaps the first shahir to even identify his performance as Ambedkari jalsa. Kardak’s music not only busted myths imposed on the masses in the name of religion, but also presented a vision of a casteless society — one that was based on equality, liberty and fraternity.
Wamandada never kept himself away from the people. He visited hundreds of villages and wrote thousands of songs and poems during his halts, thereby leaving behind his literature for the people he spent time with. People who could not attend school or did not know how to read and write became acquainted with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and his teachings through Wamandada.
Born into a family of shahirs, Pakash Patankar’s life illustrates how music that is against irrationality and prejudice, when projected through those that are historically exploited, becomes the epitome of change. Six days after the death of his father Nagorao Patankar in 1972, Prakash performed in his stead at a shahiri programme in Nagpur. As acclaim poured in for the son who had taken over the father’s mantle, Pakash said, “Song is not a means of livelihood for me [sic]. It is a weapon to bring awareness in society.”
At a time when technology has enabled the propagation of Brahminical values at a mass scale, Sambhaji continues to perform in slums and neglected neighbourhoods across Maharashtra. Though he is a playwright and writer too, he is an Ambedkari lokashahir first and foremost. The purpose of his shahiri is the creation a society where people are treated equally — a Prabuddha Bharat — and have basic rights and liberties; where people will interact with each other respectfully. His words have also helped to heal wounds.
Shahir Adarsh Shinde is a third-generation singer from his family. He was born into the tradition of Shinde-Shahi (which roughly translates to ‘the regime of the Shindes’). He embodies the change that the world of Ambedkari Shahiri has undergone. Not just this, he has managed to carve a place for Bhim Geete (songs about Ambedkar) in modern popular culture. The Bhim Geete he creates every year, which gain at least half a million views on Youtube per song, is a good example to understand how the ideology of Ambedkar can be disseminated using technology and the internet.
Kadubai Kharat, an artist residing in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, has recently become a sensation on social media platforms due to her voice, in which she sings songs about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Videos of her singing songs on the iktara have been shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Comments under her videos are genuine responses, often filled with emotion. Her strong, sharp and melodious voice holds together the past of the anti-caste movement and its challenging present.
Often centered on the teachings of the Buddha and Ambedkar’s movement against caste, Uttam Mule's songs firmly found a place in the hearts and minds of people. That these songs would later be sung by hundreds of other singers and shahirs shows how influential and powerful his compositions were. Throughout his life, he faced financial struggles. His songs were sung by reputed, established singers such as Udit Narayan and Kavita Krishnamurthy, but he remained unrecognised, and was gradually rejected by them. He was never given due remuneration for his work.
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