Dalit shahirs of Maharashtra: From Bhimrao Kardak to Sambhaji Bhagat, tracing a legacy of anti-caste music and poetry
The Dalit shahirs of Maharashtra were the poet-musicians of the anti-caste movement, who took Dr BR Ambedkar's idea of the annihilation of caste to the people
In the series Dalit shahirs of Maharashtra, poet and translator Yogesh Maitreya writes about the poet-musicians of the anti-caste movement, who took Dr BR Ambedkar's idea of the annihilation of caste to the people. The series describes how Ambedkarite shahiri and Ambedkari jalsa also reestablished Dalit culture and music as legitimate art forms, which were until then suppressed under Brahminical hegemony.
Born in 1904 in the small village Kasabe Kunabe in Nashik, Bhimrao Kardak would go on to become one of the first shahirs. He identified himself as a practitioner of Ambedkari jalsa, a radically changed form of the erstwhile tamasha. Of Kardak’s legacy, Maitreya writes that the jalsa was the musically rendered cultural assertion of Ambedkar’s movement, which had by then begun to take root in the political and social domain.
The year was 1937. At Kasarwadi Dadar (in then Bombay), a meeting was held to discuss the upcoming Indian provincial elections. Bhimrao Kardak and his troupe of shahirs were part of this meeting, as was Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Kardak and his troupe took to the stage and sang:
“Haa Paisa Deyil Dhoka, Haran Karel Tumchya Manuskiche
Maara Paisawar Ek Laath; Babasahebanna Dya Mat
Niwadun Aana Asemblit, Jay-Jay Gajwa Ambedkari
(This money will deceive you; it will destroy your humanity
Kick on this money; vote for Babasaheb
Elect him to Assembly; roar and echo Ambedkari victory)”
Ambedkar was thrilled. He walked up on stage and profusely thanked Kardak, saying: “What else can I add? (The) jalsa has said all of it. Ten of my meetings and gatherings are equal to one jalsa by Kardak and his troupe.”
In this account of the work of Lokshahir Anna Bhau Sathe, Maitreya describes how the poet’s shahiri became a lens through which the masses, who were otherwise prohibited from reading and writing, could view their own subordination and get a sense of anticipated liberation from the caste system.
He describes Sathe's poetry as the sound that became instrumental in deconstructing Brahminical myths, highlighting the oppression prevalent even in posh, urban, so-called educated spaces in the city of Mumbai, and embodied the pain of Dalits who migrated from the villages to the cities, in search of a life of dignity.
According to Sharad Patil, a noted scholar of the Marx-Phule-Ambedkar schools of thought, “Fakira is the best novel by Anna Bhau Sathe. To show that the cactus-like boundary line between the colonies of Mahar-Mangs (untouchables) including Fakira, and Kulkarni-Patil (Savarnas) was that of the class system instead of caste system, is the responsibility imposed on this communist Mang writer. During the time of Fakira, certainly, the caste system was much stronger than the class system in villages in Maharashtra. But, since it was imposed on the mind of Anna Bhau that the suffering of an untouchable peasant is equal to suffering of the touchable peasant in terms of its class, unsurprisingly, his talent was unable to trace the source of caste-class sufferings.”
Wamandada Kardak, a poet and singer born in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, sang with such zeal of the anti-caste movements of Buddha, Kabir, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar that he reformed the minds of hundreds of people, enabling them to understand the caste system and changing forever their perspective towards life and society.
Maitreya throws light on the profound social messaging embedded in Wamandada’s writing, a body of work marked by immaculate vocabulary, ‘effervescent’ metaphors, seeped in historical context.
A considerable amount of his writing, as some scholars estimate, is still left unpublished. But if one were to look at those songs and poems which are available today and study them through the lens of literary theories and frameworks, one will be forced to confess that translating his literature into a foreign language — in this case English — is much too difficult. He created many images and metaphors which were hitherto unheard of in the domain of literature, and of course, in music.
How did Wamandada Kardak, who was barely educated in the academic sense, manage to create such a rich and impactful body of work? He seems to offer an answer to this question:
“Bhimvani padali majhya kaani
Tich tharali majhi gaani”
“(The voice of Bhima Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar echoed in my ears
That has become my songs)”
His voice, known often as the pahadi awaaz, captured the richness of a culture that was once considered ‘low,’ writes Maitreya of Vitthal Umap whose koligeet (song of the fisherfolk of Maharashtra) won him a global audience, leading up to him winning the first prize at the International Folk Music and Art Festival in Cork, Ireland.
Umap sang for the people for almost 70 years, of their joy and pain, bringing a certain newness to shahiri by talking about the neglected aspects of life while keeping the philosophy of Ambedkar at the centre of his work.
The Jabbar Patel-directed movie on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) made a special place in my heart when I watched it a decade after its release. For me, it wasn’t the story, or performances but a song that made this movie memorable. The song was ‘Bhimayichya Lekrane, Ramajichya Wasarane’. It was sung by Shahir Vitthal Umap in his solid, enchanting and vibrant voice — often referred to as ‘Pahadi Awaaz’.
Having known him through his songs, powadas, bharuds and acting, I was thrilled to view his body of work through the lens of cultural transition and theoretical elevation of the anti-caste movement in the field of culture and literature. Through his highly creative body of work, Shahir Vitthal Umap almost rescued some of the old genres in the Shahiri tradition and tirelessly performed them to keep them alive.
Born in Buldhana into the Beldar caste, a chance meeting with Babasaheb Ambedkar at the age of 19 left an everlasting impact on Uttam Mule, writes Maitreya. When the poet witnessed in Nagpur Ambedkar’s denunciation of his caste and his conversion into the Buddhist faith, he chose to remain in the city forever.
Mule’s songs reveal the impact this one act against the caste system had on his mind. He noticed that dishonesty was used as a weapon to preserve Brahminical hegemony. This account highlights the brilliance of the poet who, as is the case with many artists, continued to remain unrecognised for the longest time, in spite of his vast contribution to the repertoire of Dalit music.
In the days when the audio cassette was the only means through which one could listen to recorded music, there were barely any cultural programs at Buddha Vihara in my basti in Nagpur where the songs, ‘Buddha Gautam Ka Sandesh Jag Ko Sunaye’ and ‘Ye Buddha Ki Dharati, Yudd Na Chaye, Chaye Aman Parasti’ were not played.
Despite the limited resources available in the cultural domain, and before the spread of ‘technology’, our festivities were made complete and meaningful by these songs. I remember waking up to bright and sunny mornings on 14 October and 6 December every year, and listening to these songs which were sung in a high-pitched voice and played on a loudspeaker fixed at the dome of the Buddha Vihara.
These two remarkable and enchanting songs were by Uttam Mule, a poet, composer, and singer. He remains distinct because he made Ambedkar and the Buddha both the imagery and the philosophical base of his literature, and more specifically, his music.
What Nagorao Patankar’s shahiri captured was not only the ideology of Ambedkar, but also a struggle for identity and the tenets of Buddhism that placed human beings, rather than caste, at the centre of the social sphere. He debunked the notion, Maitreya notes, that intellect and academic rigour were defined by one's education and went on to teach numerous artists.
His songs were a manifestation of the idea that where caste acts as a barrier towards accessibility and ability, Dalit shahiri can be the instrument that gives identity and history to a community whose culture was long appropriated by the Brahminical classes.
Nagorao Patankar had a great deal to teach people; he was among the shahirs to illustrate the social, cultural and psychological mutations taking place in society and also within individuals. The Buddhist conversions by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had had a huge impact on the lives of those who witnessed it and followed suit. The conversion to Buddhism brought back the human being as the centrality of social life. Nagorao Patankar wrote:
Sada Satya Margi Pawale Padavi
Swahtala Swathachi Mahatti Kalawi
Dwesh Bhav Lobh Kaam Krodh Maya
Tujhiya Krupene Saree Jalawi
(The feet should always tread on the path of truth
One should know the significance of oneself
Hatred, greed, lust, anger, delusion
All should vanish with your efforts)
Maitreya writes that apart from marking the beginning of anti-caste music in India, Ambedkarite shahiri was also an important means of freeing music and art from Brahminical hegemony. Prakash Patankar’s legacy in this context is thus an illustration of how music becomes a driving force of change.
The poet furthered the legacy left behind by his father, Nagorao Patankar, keeping Ambedkar’s philosophy at its roots, performing and singing again and again to impress upon people the message of abolishing exploitation, using music as a channel to speak of suffering, and emboldening the community to seek absolute and complete freedom.
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.
Mashalwalya N Shivraja
Mashal Pudhe Dav
Kalya Ratitun Jayach Aahe rr
Lai dur Majhya Bhimach Gao
(Oh, N Shivraja, a torch bearer
Show the torch further
We have to walk through dark night
Far is the home of my Bhima)
For Prahlad Shinde, music from an early age was associated with grief: his parents would sing kirtans (devotional songs) on the streets to earn their daily bread and Shinde would accompany them.
So when Dalit shahiri and music became a viable career in entertainment, Shinde not only sang multiple verses about the Ambedkarite movement but also recorded folk and devotional songs, as a means of securing a livelihood.
Maitreya brings forth this duality in Shinde’s music:
The question of recognition and dignity had always been central to the lives of Dalits. Singing songs of Brahminical aesthetics brought Prahlad Shinde money and fame. But the “recognition” came from Ambedkarite masses.
The Ambedkarite masses — sizeable consumers of literature — consumed music as well. The advent of technology in the Indian music market made music producers (members of upper castes) meet this demand on a large scale. Prahlad Shinde made his choice: He sang (other) songs when struggling with hunger and poverty, but he also sang the songs of Ambedkarite/anti-caste movement.
B Kashinand spent a lot of time with Nagorao Patankar, writes Maitreya — days which would impact the songs and poems he would go on to write. At a time when Dalit artists were denied access to technology, Kashinand’s songs were recorded by cassette companies, and he continued to work silently, away from the spotlight and from public recognition.
His belief in creating a Prabuddha Bharat (enlightened India) was reflected in his songs, his dream of an egalitarian, caste-less society. Kashinand’s work married the facts about Dalit identity and oppression with the larger idea of the exploitation of people across the world.
B Kashinand belongs to that generation of artists whose ideological inspiration and influence was Ambedkar’s thoughts, which was deeply embedded in their music, thereby shaping the country’s discourse.
Though he was originally from Amaravati, he came to Nagpur with his mother when he was a child. In this city, Ambedkar's movement had a profound impact on him and convinced his mother that education has the power to change their lives. When he was seven or eight, he learnt the Marathi alphabet and did not receive any schooling beyond it, in terms of learning in the traditional sense. He lived in Pandharabodi, Nagpur until his death in 2014.
He spent a substantial amount of time in the presence of shahir Nagorao Patankar, who was also from Nagpur. Patankar’s company would leave an impact on the songs and poems he would go on to write. Patankar also sang some of the songs which he had written.
Arjun Hari Bhalerao grew up in a family of shahirs, and his uncle, who helmed a tamasha group, would take this little boy with him wherever the troupe travelled, exposing the poet early on to the music as well as the struggle and oppression of the Dalit community. The advent of the Ambedkarite movement and the philosophy of its leader Babasaheb Ambedkar eventually found a voice in the songs that Bhalerao would write later in life.
In writing about his contribution to Dalit culture, Maitreya explains that while Bhalerao did write songs, he believed the jalsa would be a much more effective way of disseminating information and continued organising performances exploring various forms such as wagg, gulan and farce, in spite of fierce Brahminical opposition.
Kasabe Tadwale was the village of many tamasha artists. However, many of them had to move out of the village in order to survive and take up any sort of job that came their way. Hunger was thus an impediment to achieving an anti-caste vision. Bhalerao perhaps realised this. The formation of an Ambedkarite jalsa wasn’t an easy task. He had to first convince artists about the ideas he was intending to perform, and then he had to make sure that practice sessions would be regular. Despite the lack of adequate funds and costumes for performances, Bhalerao was determined to form a jalsa that would spread Ambedkar’s words to the people. But the obstacles he faced weren't just material ones. In 1947, he and members of his jalsa had a close brush with death during a performance in the district of Latur. When Brahmins and Marathas in the region found out that the jalsa was going to be performed, they were ready to attack those who were directly associated with it and those supported it.
Maitreya writes that in order to understand the inextricable relationship between shahiri and the Ambedkarite movement, it becomes crucial to study the work of Vilas Ghogare who would use his iktara to sing of those parts of the society that were neglected by the Brahmins.
A search for a livelihood took him to the city of Mumbai, where he found work as a vegetable vendor, a saree artisan and a labourer at a rubber stump factory. He would continue to sing at social and religious gatherings. When he began writing his own songs, they reflected his vision and understanding of labour in the context of politics, as well as the life of the workers that he had observed in Mumbai.
On 11 July 1997, many Dalits were killed at Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar, Mumbai after the desecration of a statue of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. In broad daylight, SRPF soldiers fired at these Dalits. Vilas visited Ramabai Nagar for four days after this incident, and saw the aftermath of these killings.
Perhaps he couldn’t bear to see the rise of inhumanity and caste cruelty in society. On 15 July 1997, he committed suicide at his home. But before hanging himself, he wrote on one wall of his home, with blue ink: Ambedkari Ekta Jindabad (Hail Ambedkarite Unity). He died, but his songs, which became a documentation of the struggle and triumph of Dalits, continue to live on.
One of the most well-known voices in the anti-caste movement, Sambhaji Bhagat’s work enabled people to understand the complexities of the caste structures and oppression they suffered in a simplified manner.
He listened to Dalit shahirs growing up, and perhaps that was why he embraced music as a tool to bring about change, explains Maitreya. Throughout his career, Bhagat wrote several powadas, bharuds, songs and plays which consistently embodied the message of an egalitarian India, where every individual has equal access to all basic rights and liberties.
The Marathi play Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla, which has received an excellent response — full houses across the year — was originally conceptualised by him. He also wrote the songs and composed the music for it. The play is historic, because it is a retelling of the original story of Shivaji, which was appropriated by right-wing political outfits in Maharashtra.
As a departure from what previous Ambedkari shahirs had done in their careers, he also wrote songs and sang them for a Marathi movie, Nagrik. He was instrumental in the making of the movie Court, which won a National Film Award in 2015. Though the story is told from an upper caste location, the fact that he and his music in the movie stand for the anti-caste movement is still evident.
Kadubai Kharat, an artist from Aurangabad, has recently risen as a powerful voice who delivers poignant messages about the past of the anti-caste movement and its challenging present.
Maitreya says that to understand her works, one must study them through the lens of historical materialism. Her music has a language of its own, while being seeped in the social and political ideology of the Ambedkarite movement.
Living in extreme penury, Kharat sings songs about Ambedkar’s philosophy, earning her a few pennies and some grain. Nonetheless she continues to play her iktara, perform her songs, and fortify the anti-caste movement.
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.
In writing about Adarsh Shinde, Maitreya describes how this third-generation singer carries forward the tradition of his grandfather’s Shinde Shahi repertoire of Dalit music, while also carving a niche for himself in the community through his renditions of Bheem Geete.
Trained in classical music, Shinde’s career kicked off with an album he sang for alongside his father and uncle, and soon, he began singing for Marathi and Hindi films. Maitreya writes of Shinde’s Bheem Geete that talk about the emancipation of Dalits, of the greatness of Babasaheb Ambedkar. He pursued Geete as a moral responsibility rather than a source of livelihood.
In a very short span of time, he managed to earn a name for himself in the Dalit community, and more specifically in the sphere of Bhim Geete. One song by him is extremely popular among the youth and is played every year in Dalit bastis across Maharashtra on 6 December and 14 April:
Navhat Milat Potala/
Aata Kami Nahi Notala/
Majhya Bhimachi Punyayi/
Angathi Sonaychi Botala
(There was scarcity of food/
now there is no scarcity of money/
because of Bhima’s efforts/
I wear the gold ring on my finger.)
All images: Artwork by Satwick Gade
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