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 four of the series.

— Art by Satwick Gade

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“My beloved audience! I should meet you; while going I must tell you this:

I should die while singing; and death should also listen to my songs.”

— Vithhal Umap

The Jabbar Patel-directed movie on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) made a special place in my heart when I watched it a decade after its release. For me, it wasn’t the story, or performances but a song that made this movie memorable. The song was ‘Bhimayichya Lekrane, Ramajichya Wasarane’. It was sung by Shahir Vitthal Umap in his solid, enchanting and vibrant voice — often referred to as ‘Pahadi Awaaz’.

Shahir Vitthal Umap rescued some of the old genres in the Shahiri tradition

Having known him through his songs, powadas, bharuds and acting, I was thrilled to view his body of work through the lens of cultural transition and theoretical elevation of the anti-caste movement in the field of culture and literature. Through his highly creative body of work, Shahir Vitthal Umap almost rescued some of the old genres in the Shahiri tradition and tirelessly performed them to keep them alive. More importantly, with his songs, he captured the richness of a culture which was once despised as 'low'; he touched that which was ‘untouchable’ in the cultural domain. His Koligeet (song of Kolis) “Ye Dada Aavar Ye” is one of the most prominent examples which bought him fame as well as the love of a global audience. For his contribution to the world of shahiri and music, he was awarded the first prize at the International Folk Music and Art Festival at Cork, Ireland.

Born in (then) Bombay in 1931, Vitthal Umap had picked up songs/shahiri as his life very early — he must have been 7-8 years old at the time. He continued to sing and perform till 2010; in fact, he collapsed and passed away while on stage, during a performance at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. For almost 70 years, Vithal Umap sang for the people, sang of their joys and pain, keeping Ambedkar’s anti-caste ideology at the centre of his art. His was an unparalleled life that contributed to the rich quality of literature in the discipline of Ambedkarite shahiri.

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Poet, scholar and writer Mahendra Gaikwad illustrated the legacy of Vitthal Umap in the book Dalit Shahiri, writing: the “songs and folk songs [of Umap] have brought prosperous days to the Marathi literature of shahiri. His songs recorded in 1963 have gained so much popularity. Folk songs like, ‘Ye Dada Avar Ye’ or ‘Fu Bai Fu Fugadi Fu’ and other Koli songs, gan and gaulan were hummed by so many Marathi people. Vitthal Gangaram Umap's name should be mentioned with significance when it comes to the conscientised people in Maharashtra through shahiri [sic]. Through his shahiri, Umap has exposed the neurotic inequality within the orthodox Hindu tradition and convinced people with the truth. Vitthal Umap analyses the material and real conditions within society. Through his art of shahiri, he preserves humanistic values.”

Seeing society changing over 70 years, while preserving shahiri — the music of the anti-caste movement — was the work of a genius whose prime concern was to provide music to the neglected aspects of life, found at the Brahminical margins of culture. Vitthal Umap was this genius. Through his music, Umap infused new enthusiasm in the world of shahiri by touching on the small aspects of life. Today, the anti-caste movement and its music is going through a phase in which a lot of skeptical mutations are taking place thanks to the presence of technology. Technology seems to dissolve the existence of the essentials of shahiri, in terms of its instrumentalism and the forms as well as it effects.

Vitthal Umap infused new enthusiasm in the world of shahiri by touching on the small aspects of life

Homi K Bhabha said, “When historical visibility has faded, when the present tense of testimony loses its power to arrest, then the displacements of memory and the indirections of art offer us the image of our psychic survival.” The struggles of the anti-caste movement started with resurrecting and rewriting history, amid circumstances such that Dalits were not allowed to write their history. Shahiri as an anti-caste music, at this juncture, has become a resurrection as well as a revival of Dalits’ identity in history — if not in its pages, then surely in its music. Vitthal Umap’s contribution to the world of shahiri can only can only be heard and felt if not read. Because his music, more than throbbing in your blood, goes to your mind; it becomes a thought.

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Note from the writer: The song presented with this article was originally written and performed by Lokshahir Vitthal Umap. Since this song isn't available in the audio format, it has been composed and performed by Charan Jadhav for the purpose of this series. This is an acknowledgment of his contribution.

Read part onetwo, three and five 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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