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 ten of the series.

— Art by Satwick Gade

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With the arrival of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar into the social and political life of India in the 1920s, the cultural politics of the country too, changed incredibly. Not only did he become the influence behind new, emerging narratives, but his ideas were also central to determining the anatomy of various art forms, whether it was the literature, the music or the shahiri that Dalits would go on to create.

The ideas put forth by Dr Ambedkar find a great presence in the life and work of Shahir Arjun Hari Bhalerao. The story of his jalsa, which features the ‘Ambedkari Jalsa Tadwalkarancha’ created by him, is a prominent example of how, in the wake of Ambedkar's anti-caste movement, music by Dalits imagined a humanitarian world for us — an idea which was missing in a world where the gruesome practice of untouchability was (and still is) prevalent.

Born on 1 December 1904, Arjun Hari Bhalerao grew up in a family of shahirs. During the 1920s, his uncle Laxman Bhalerao helmed a tamasha troupe which was famous in the region of Usmanabad, Beed and Latur. Wherever this troupe would go, Laxman Bhalerao used to take Arjun with him. Having been exposed to the life of tamasha artists, and subsequently to music, Arjun developed a keen sense of the music that was being produce by Dalits, as well as their lives and struggle. Such was the impact of the powerful narratives of anti-caste jalsas, like the Satyashodhak Jalsa, that he would not pay heed to the dangerous conditions around him.

In 1924, an epidemic of plague had taken its toll on the region he was living in. Even in such a situation, he made sure to be present at the Satyashodhak Jalsa of Ramchandra Ghadge, which possessed undisputed fame during this era. He once mentioned, “Four to five people used to die every day. The image of the light from the flames of the burning bodies, which could be seen from both sides of the river, was depressing. But I was so moved by this jalsa that I would use the light created by the flames of these burning bodies to find my way to it.”

Arjun Hari Bhalerao

But it was only in 1927 that he realised the jalsa's potential to bring about change in the society. In the same year, he was selected for a teacher’s training program in Pune, and the following year, he was appointed as a teacher in the village of Kasabe Tadawale. This was at the peak of Ambedkar’s movement. In the Tadwale village, a newspaper called Ambedkar’s Janata was being read dedicatedly, because it spoke about the suffering and issues of Dalits — it became their voice. Arjun Hari Bhalerao too was influenced by it, and he started writing as a result. Though he began by writing songs, he realised that the jalsa is a much more effective medium to disseminate Babasaheb Ambedkar's words.

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.

In spite of these difficulties, he and his jalsa continued to perform. He explored forms within the jalsa, such as 'wagg', 'gaulan' and farce. Sample one of the earliest 'kawans' he wrote:

Mahne Arjuna gulamgirichi! Hoti bedi annyachi!

Shikvun soda bal! Purana gela tumcha kaal!

(Arjuna talks about slavery! Of the shackles of injustice!

Educate your child ! your past destroyed by Puranas!)

It must be noted that the era when he performed with his jalsa was a time of radical social and cultural change among Dalits — a period when talking about caste injustice and attempts to promote education were nothing short of revolutionary.

Ekmekanchya warkhali! Kiti varsh vaya geli!

Eki nahi tumchi jhali! Jhali re seema!

(Living as inferior and superior! How many years have been destroyed!

We did not unite! This is the limit now)

Despite creating an influential body of work and being one of the shahir-cum-jalsakars who took Ambedkar and his ideas to the most marginalised people across villages, his work is still not known to many today. Dyanewshwar Dhaware, an author of Ambedakari Jalsa Tadwalkarancha succinctly explains the reason behind this. “From the period of Maharaki before the 1940s to the period after the 1960s, social life had been completely changed. Old occupations were abandoned. This community [Dalits], which used to work in the jalsa, was trying to adjust and adapt to the new means of livelihood. During these 20 long years, people who worked in the jalsa itself had begun to forget the times of the jalsa.”

As Babasaheb Ambedkar once suggested, even ideas die if there is no one to spread them. Arjun Hari Bhalerao died on 17 February 1992. If one examines the conditions he grew up and lived in, the music he created and the anti-caste movement he led, it can be said without a doubt that he will always remain a hero, regardless of the extent of his reach. He used music not just to entertain, but also to educate.

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Also read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine 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.

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