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 fourteen of the series.

— Art by Satwick Gade

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From its inception, through its developmental phase, to its current form, Ambedkari shahiri has changed both in terms of form as well as content. While the change with regards to form is a matter of innovation, the nature of the content has always depended on the socio-political world that the shahir who is writing it inhabits.

However, what has remained constant is shahiri’s impact on the minds of listeners, its ability to tell the story of a community whose primary objective is the annihilation of caste, and its potential to pave the way for a Prabuddha Bharat — the main aim of shahiri.

Changes in the shahiri narrative have taken place due to interactions between the Ambedkari samaj (community) and the rest of the society, whose lives are governed by caste norms.

At this crucial juncture, the shahir is a bridge between the history, present and future of Dalit lives; a soldier of the anti-caste movement, which is in crisis.

They are often fighting alone, only aided by their verses.

Kadubai Kharat, an artist residing in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, has recently become a sensation on social media platforms due to her voice, in which she sings songs about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Videos of her singing songs on the iktara have been shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Comments under her videos are genuine responses, often filled with emotion. Her strong, sharp and melodious voice holds together the past of the anti-caste movement and its challenging present.

In the opening paragraph of his remarkable article Is Music a Language?, Mark Abel writes:

Is music a language? Speaking of the ‘language of music’ seems to capture the sense that we have when listening to them or playing them that musical sounds are meaningful. But is it helpful to understand music in this way, is it consistent with historical materialism to do so, and does it matter?

This is true in the case of Kadubai’s work.

Her music seems to have a language of its own, seeped in history and politics, particularly the ideology of Ambedkar.

To further understand the meaning of Kadubai’s songs, one has to study them through the lens of historical materialism. In this sense, Omey Anand, an artist and a documentary filmmaker whose forthcoming project is Ambedkari Artist Kadubai, a documentary on Kadubai Kharat, her life, time and work, says:

“In Kadubai’s voice, there is a seed of rebellion, sprouting against the slavery that has existed for thousands of years. She represents millions of artists, despised, who still preserve art at its deathbed, despite residing outside the boundaries of villages or in cities, staying in Siddharth Nagar, Ashok Nagar, Bhim Nagar or Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar... Even today, though she sings songs of Babasaheb, she has to beg to survive. People only feel sympathy for her, because she is poor and a woman. They don’t respect her rights. However, she continues to sing Kafkaesque philosophy with her iktara.”

kadubai-kharat-1921

The sole child of her parents to have survived, Kadubai inherited the legacy of singing from her mother and father, who used to perform bhajans. After the demise of her parents and husband, she was left alone. To survive and to raise her children, she had nothing but her music. She began singing songs about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, and in return, she would receive a few pennies and some grain. Narrating the story of her introduction to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kadubai said:

“My parents used to sing bhajans of Babasaheb. Once I went to a temple of Gopal-Krishna and upon my return, my father asked me where I had gone. I told him that I went to listen to sampradayik bhajan. He asked me to come close and said: 'Where is God? Our God is Babasaheb, because he has liberated millions of human beings; he has taught the lesson of humanity. Singing even a single song of Babasaheb is significant. Do not sing songs about anybody else; sing only of Babasaheb.'”

Hunger and music characterised her life after she shifted to Aurangabad, where she now sings songs across Dalit bastis. Pursuing music when one is barely making ends meet is very different from pursuing it when the question of survival does not haunt one every single day.

If we listen carefully, Kadubai’s voice does not make us emotional. It puts to rest the confusions and incertitude within the anti-caste movement.

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Also read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen 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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