In rural Maharashtra, one man is battling casteism and changing mindsets through multiple art forms
Yashwant Kamble is a house painter, sculptor, barber, tailor, and mason, among other things. He has won more than 50 awards for his social reformation and exemplary artwork, all the while fighting casteism.
This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
“Paintings reduced casteism,” says 70-year-old Yashwant Kamble proudly. “I am an artist,” is how he describes himself while working on his next sculpture.
Yashwant is a house painter, sculptor, barber, tailor, mason, farmer, carpenter, sketch artist, poet, storyteller, singer, director and plays the harmonium, keyboard, guitar, dholaki, tabla, flute and bulbul tarang.
Renowned as a ‘multi-talented’ artist and a social reformer, there lies a series of untold stories of casteism which inspired him to pick up multiple art forms. He is from the Korochi village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district where casteism played out for several centuries.
The biggest loss of life
One of Yashwant’s closest friends Narayan* (name changed) who belonged to an upper caste always faced backlash from the family for being friends with him. A few months after his marriage, Yashwant invited his family for lunch. “His wife figured out that I am from a lower caste,” says Yashwant. Immediately, Narayan’s elder brother asked Narayan to break off their friendship. This led to a heated discussion between the siblings which eventually died down only to resurrect later.
“That year during Diwali (the late 1960s), I took sweets to Narayan’s house and started helping him with the preparation of sweets,” says Yashwant. This incident was not received well by Narayan’s elder brother. “It led to a fist fight between the siblings with the elder brother left injured and bleeding,” adds Yashwant.
Traumatised by the incident, Narayan (in his early 20s) stayed at Yashwant’s house for four days, after which he committed suicide. “I was so disturbed and affected that I went to my sister’s house (in Miraj town) for a month. I couldn’t understand what was happening,” says Yashwant.
This was one of the events which exposed him to the casteist roots of the society. He now decided to battle casteism using art as a medium. “Friendship never dies and there is no caste in it,” he says.
Battling Casteism: One art form at a time
“In the late 1950s, no one in the village used to cut the hair of us Dalits, Matangs, and Chambhars,” recalls Yashwant. Anant Kamble, a Dalit from the community, took it upon himself and started the service of hair-cutting. Fifteen-year-old Yashwant would observe him and pick up the art soon. For several years then he would cut the hair of the community members and wouldn’t charge any money.
Shivram Mane, a fellow villager, worked as a barber in the military. Yashwant and his friends once stormed his house and asked him about the conservative practice which he followed. “Why don’t you cut the hair of our community members? This is your wrongdoing,” they said. “People would threaten me if I cut your hair,” he replied.
Yashwant would continuously appeal to him to give up this orthodox practice. Over the years, Anant started offering haircut services to Dalits, but behind closed doors. Within a couple of years, the practice was completely banished from the village. “We never threatened him. We kept asking him the right questions,” he recalls as he looks back at one of the biggest victories in battling the first layer of casteism.
Sketch artist and painter
Immediately after Class 10, he started working as a clerk in the nearby sugar factory. After five years, he started his own art shop in the Ichalkaranji town where he would sketch and paint according to demand. After a decade, he had to shut down the shop-cum-studio and start working from his home. “In these 10 years, people started knowing me because of my artwork. I have never printed a visiting card since there’s no need for it,” he says.
Five decades ago, Yashwant was painting the walls of an upper caste family in Korochi. “During those days, the teacups for Dalits were kept in the cattle shed and I was asked to bring a cup from there,” he remembers. Left furious by this incident, he denied their offer of tea, saying that he didn’t drink tea and left for home. “The person then inquired with one of my relatives and found that I liked tea. Immediately, he realised his mistake and apologised,” he adds. Later, the same person took Yashwant to his house and asked him to choose from any of the cups.
In the early 1970s, he was asked to draw a few paintings in the Jain temple of the village. “I would start working late in the night after 11 pm as there would be no one to disturb me then,” he says. The work would stretch till the early hours of the morning, after which he would fall asleep in the temple. “The temple’s gatekeeper would ask me to move away every day, saying that people will come for their prayers and it will look bad if I stayed here,” he adds.
Yashwant wouldn’t react to the gatekeeper’s casteist statements. “Once a Jain monk praised my work, but a few women passed comments about my caste. Immediately, the monk yelled at the women,” he says.
In the late 1980s, one of the upper caste men from his village asked Yashwant to draw a god’s picture on the wall. The moment he began drawing, there was a stiff opposition from the man’s family. “He then asked me to draw a landscape painting,” recalls Yashwant.
He painted the walls and doors of more than 500 houses with landscapes, designs, and cartoons as well. “Now people get all their walls painted, but leave one wall for my artwork,” he says proudly.
Sketching for him did not happen by accident; it started way back in Class three when he drew a sacred fig which looked ‘realistic’. This drawing motivated him to become a sketch artist. Later, he cleared the elementary and intermediate drawing exams with an A grade.
In high school (Hatkanangale village) his drawing teacher, the late Vilas Aparaj, asked him to refrain from using an eraser while sketching. Yashwant kept ignoring his advice. “When I used an eraser for the fourth time, the master slapped me and asked me to leave the class,” he says. Later that day, Vilas said, “You should have control over the pencil. Anyone can erase and sketch.” After this, he has never used an eraser in the thousands of sketches he has worked on till date.
While working at the sugar factory, he was always entrusted with the responsibility of decoration for festivals and plays. In a play titled Apradh Mich Kela (I have committed the crime), he played the role of a labourer which caught the attention of renowned Marathi director Anant Mane. “Anant taught me about facial expressions and emotions,” said Yashwant.
Inspired by Anant’s gesture, he started a small theatre group in the village at the age of 22. By this time, Yashwant had established himself as a sketch artist and painter and this helped him find members from other castes. During the festival of Mahashivratri, this group would go on to perform a play titled Asrunchi Jhali Phule (Tears turned into flowers) directed by Yashwant himself, which would catch everyone’s attention. Within a few months, seven theatre groups were formed in the village under his guidance.
Before the practice sessions, all the groups followed the ritual of touching the master’s feet. They would praise the book from which the play was adopted. After a few days, Bapu Chavre, a senior villager asked everyone to touch Yashwant’s feet, as he was the director. “All the upper caste people hesitated to do this. Bapu made them bow down their heads on my feet and said ‘Caste is not important in any art form,’” recounts Yashwant. These plays, which had members from all castes, helped him in the process of bringing down casteism.
Yashwant and his friends couldn’t afford to buy musical equipment as students. “We used to play music with the metal boxes and would go the Vitthal temple to watch other musicians,” he said. He would always try playing the harmonium in the temple, but was yelled at for intervening. When the harmonium player would be absent, Yashwant would get a chance to exhibit his skills.
At the age of 15, he and a dozen of his friends founded a music band named Samaj Sewa Gayan Party which initially had a lot of Dalit members. This was the first Dalit music group of the village. “Slowly a lot of people from other castes started joining the group,” he added. The group members would cycle to the villages of Hatkanangale taluka and perform songs based on the teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Today, only a couple of the old members are still alive.
After the group’s success, a lot of people from other villages started inviting Yashwant to help them start their own music groups. They would also perform classical music and carry out the music rituals after someone had passed away. He has written 250 songs on alcoholism, social awakening, casteism and Ambedkar.
Teacher and writer
He read Ambedkar’s biography in Class eight, which motivated him to work for the community. For 35 years every day, Yashwant taught moral stories, sketching, and craft to hundreds of children in the village. Earlier, only the Dalit children would attend his sessions, but soon children from all castes started coming in.
Later, he started writing short stories for them and has written over 100 children's stories which are yet to be published.
As the digital printing technology reached the small towns, Yashwant felt the need to learn other art forms to make ends meet. He started sculpting using sand, mud, cement, and Plaster of Paris.
In the late 1980s, the community members decided to buy a statue of Buddha to be installed in the community space. “The members managed to collect Rs 10,000 and they went to Nagpur, but couldn’t afford to buy the costly idols,” says Yashwant.
He then brought a few sacks of cement and mud, and started working on his first statue. Within a month’s time, he managed to sculpt the idol of Buddha which was the starting point of his sculpting career.
To date, he has created more than 50 idols of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Buddha, Annabhau Sathe, Shahu Maharaj, to name a few across the towns and villages of Kolhapur, Nagpur, Mumbai in Maharashtra, and Belgaum in Karnataka (they are all between two and nine feet tall). People from the upper castes started observing his work, which initiated a conversation and helped in combating casteism.
A constant support system
Yashwant’s mother, the late Putlabai, used to sell chilies in the nearby villages and towns. “Earlier there were no hospital facilities in the village, so my mother used to help other women with medical care during the childbirth and didn’t charge any money for it,” he says. He credits his mother for creating an environment of humanity which inspired Yashwant to battle casteism.
His father, the late Chandrappa, who worked as a farm labourer, used to entertain the farm labourers with his jokes. Occasionally, he would make toys shaped like bullocks out of mud. Yashwant grew up seeing this and eventually become a renowned sculptor.
His wife, Chhaya Kamble, 58, has also been a source of inspiration for him. Chhaya has been helping the village anganwadi as a teacher for 22 years now. Before the inception of the Government Anganwadi, she taught kids independently for five years without charging any fees. She also taught stitching to more than 25 women for 35 years.
“Right from the start, I’ve seen him working for the people. Even I got used to it and started helping him with the artwork,” she said with a wide grin. “My family always supported me and believed in the work I was doing. Today, everything has become possible only because of their support,” he says.
Yashwant has won more than 50 awards for his social reformation and exemplary artworks. People have started calling him 'Painter'. “Even today, casteism exists in various forms,” he says. Yashwant has only one advice for everyone, “Cultivating friendships will bring down casteism.”
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