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 two of the series.
— Art by Satwick Gade
Jacques Attali says, “Music is more than an object of study. It is a way of perceiving the world. A tool of understanding.”
With this proposition, if we look at the birth of shahiri and jalsas in Maharashtra, then the one thing we notice is that music – as a composition of sounds – was given a ‘social’ consciousness through shahiri. By this, I mean that music by Ambedkarite shahirs has been used to break down the shackles of social prejudices and norms, which prohibited them from ‘understanding’ life through ‘reading’ and ‘writing’.
In this sense, music also became a tool to deconstruct Brahminical myths which were deeply embedded in society, thus subsequently paving the way for music to be assertive in terms of depicting the dark side of Indian social life — totally fractured and paralysed by the presence of caste in the minds of people. Shahiri, as I see it, helped to repair the minds of the people to a great extent, by singing an anti-caste tune.
In a time when the masses in Maharashtra could not understand the world through the written word, music, as an articulation of pain and ‘anticipated’ and felt liberation, became the lens through which they understood the world and the oppression within it.
Not just this, music also transformed into an aspect of significance for them. Lokshahir Anna Bhau Sathe's contribution to conscientising people — through his unparalleled shahiri, his songs, and of course, his vast body of work — is immense.
He was born in 1920 into the Matang caste (also known as Mang). Years later, even when his parents migrated to Bombay in search of better prospects, Anna Bhau was still witness to the brutality of caste and capitalism, even in urbanised city spaces. The harsh world of Bombay turned into a classroom where he could learn, and it shaped the music he would later create. As someone who was barely educated but possessed vast amounts of talent, music for Anna Bhau became not only a tool to ‘understand’ but also to assert, to fight against caste and capitalism. He was probably the first shahir to expose the source of oppression in Mumbai, which can be found in its posh localities. In ‘Mumbaichi Lawani’ he writes:
"Mumbait Unchawari! Malabar Hills, Indrapuri
Kuberachi Vasti Tithe Sukh Bhogati! Paralat Rahnare!
Ratnndiwas Rabnare! Milel Te Khaun Gham Galati!
Foras Road Teen Batti! Golpithi Nakyawarti
Sharir Vikun Kitiaik Pott Bharati!
(In Mumbai, at the top, there is Malabar Hills, Indrapuri
There is the colony of Kuber, sunk in bliss; those live in Parel
work hard throughout day and night, eat whatever they get and sweat it out;
at Foras road, Teen Batti, at the corner of Golpitha
how many bodies are sold and surviving)"
But his most powerful song was the chakkad called 'Majhi Maina Gawawar Rahili' (My Maina has been left behind in the village) which was, more or less, written during the Samyukt Maharashtra movement (United Maharashtra) that influenced a majority of the people, convincing them to see Mumbai as an integral part of Maharashtra.
This chakkad, which was performed across Maharashtra and even in Delhi, caused a wave of change. While Gandhi had advised youngsters to move to the villages, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar strongly emphasised on and suggested that the untouchables should move to cities.