An introduction: Maharashtra’s tradition of ‘shahiri’ is several centuries old. In the last few decades of the 18th century, under the influence of Mahatma Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, it was transformed into a musical weapon of the masses, against the caste system. By the 1930s, the ‘Satyashodhaki jalsa’ was in decline, but a powerful new force had emerged in its place: ‘Ambedkari jalsa’. Ambedkari jalsa represented the teachings and philosophy of Dr BR Ambedkar in oral form, accompanied by songs. Over a journey that is close to completing a century, many Ambedkarite shahirs have helped hone shahiri as an anti-caste tool. This series on Maharashtra’s shahirs explores the lives and work of 15 greats.
This is part fifteen of the series.
— Art by Satwick Gade
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’).
His grandfather Prahlad (who has been featured in this series) began his own journey as a singer when two questions haunted his existence — those of hunger and survival. His career took off at a time when life was harsh and society was hostile towards Dalit artists, but he was successful in composing and writing songs about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar which espoused strong anti-caste politics.
His father Anand was an equally distinguished singer, who sang many songs outside of shahiri, which were meant for entertainment. He carried forward Prahlad Shinde’s legacy, bringing immense fame and fortune to the family.
Adarsh Shinde is the culmination of this tradition, and music has a very different purpose for him.
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.
Born in 1988 in Mumbai, Adarsh has been trained in what is inappropriately called ‘classical’ music, unlike his father and grandfather. By the time he had begun working, his family had already acquired fame and financial success in the Ambedkari community and outside it. His career started with an album where he sang alongside his father and uncle Milind Shinde, and he rose to prominence when he participated in a singing reality show on the Marathi TV channel Star Pravah.
So far, he has sung more than 1500 songs, many of which were for Marathi and Hindi movies. He has been a recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contributions to film music.
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.)
In this song titled 'Navhat Milat Potala', he pays tribute to Ambedkar and the struggle he led to emancipate Dalits from the slavery of Brahmins — both of the body and the mind. It also provides an anecdotal history of the Mahar community. In 'Bhimrao Ek Number', he writes about the unparalleled greatness of Ambedkar, at a time when the lives of many historical figures are presented in a distorted manner. While film music was a means to earn a livelihood, Bhim Geete were a responsibility, a commitment for Adarsh Shinde.
Hitherto, the reach of Bhim Geete in terms of its audience was always limited, but with advancements in technology, these limitations seems to have been increasingly erased. As a result, both the art form and Adarsh Shinde were able to capture the imagination of more people.
The music he sings of Ambedkar must be understood through the lens of history and the materialist framework of analysing art. In his comparative study of Adorno and Voloshinov, Mark Abel in his article Is Music a Language? says:
Adorno’s conception of how the relationship between the individual and society is embodied within music and art represents an important intervention in that debate which seeks, like Voloshinov, to avoid the pitfalls of both extreme subjectivism and objectivism.
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.
It helps us to understand the nature of ‘the language characteristic of music’ and its impact, because music converses in a language, inherited within sound, with people, resulting in people feeling like they are a part of community.
They also identify with their own history, which is otherwise erased by Brahmanical agencies. Given the nature of society in India, which is brutally divided along caste-lines, where Dalit artists like Adarsh Shinde have been historically made invisible and erased, his rising as a significant voice gives Dalits a sense of identity and belonging — a feeling that has been lost in the midst of the crisis in the politics of the Dalit community.
Also read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen of this series.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.