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 one of the series.
— Art by Satwick Gade
A meeting and a song
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.”
Shahiri and jalsa
Jalsa — which involves singing, staging plays and at times, presenting monologues to the accompaniment of musical instruments made by Dalits — is a radically changed form of tamasha. The tamasha (often unwittingly referred to as folk art), was historically performed by Dalits (men and women), especially the Mahars in Maharashtra.
Under the garb of entertainment, the tamasha had an exploitative cultural past — as caste-based occupations always kill personal ambitions and aspirations to pursue a life beyond caste. This needed to change. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar offered the Mahars a purpose for the musical tradition they had carried for centuries.
Kardak was perhaps the first shahir to even identify his performance as Ambedkari jalsa
The tradition of shahiri itself goes even further back — to the time of Mahatma Phule and the advent of his Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873. Satyashodhaki jalsas were noted for their fiery attacks on Brahmins, Hindu gods and irrational, irrelevant Brahminical tradition. However, the Satyashodhaki jalsas were on the wane after Mahatma Phule’s death, when Ambedkar stormed the public consciousness in India around 1927. Within a short period of time, Ambedkar’s movement for the annihilation of caste became the guiding force behind these jalsas, and the new form of Ambedkari jalsas emerged.
Bhimrao Kardak was born on 11 November 1904 in the small village of Kasabe-Kunabi in Nashik district (Maharashtra). When it was time for him to attend school, like other Mahar children, Kardak too had to sit outside the classroom where lessons were held. He also faced the scorn of upper-caste students.