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 thirteen of the series.

— Art by Satwick Gade

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Sambhaji Bhagat needs no introduction. Among the shahirs of the past and present, he is the most discussed by the Marathi and English media. At a time when technology has enabled the propagation of Brahminical values at a mass scale, he continues to perform in slums and neglected neighbourhoods across Maharashtra. He is the voice of the anti-caste conscience.

Because his ideological standpoint is Ambedkarism, his work has widened the horizons of Dalit art. His music enabled the people to understand the complexities of oppression in a simplified manner. Sambhaji's work is the result of and an example of the intersection of music and ideology, thus making it an educative tool — even for upper caste people whose worldview is coloured by caste-based prejudice. For him, there is no separation between art and politics; in fact, as a shahir, his art is his politics.

Born on 1 June, 1959 in the district of Satara, his perspective towards using music for a cause was shaped by listening to Dalit artists. However, it was only in 1979 when he came to Mumbai to study that he was initiated into the ‘politics of art’. He had the songs; Mumbai nurtured his vision.

Initially, he was exposed to leftist politics, and later, to the Ambedkarite movement. This time period marked the decline of the Dalit Panthers and the rise of the Namantar Movement. It was a time of intellectual churning, and many shahirs had to re-think their approach towards art.

With this realisation, Sambhaji Bhagat went back to the basics of Ambedkari jalsa: Shahiri should reach the last man, the most marginalised, in the society.

After spending a year in the city, he was witness to members of the Avhan Natya Manch (of which Shahir Vilas Ghogare was also a member) performing a street play in Churchgate on a humid day. He was thrilled at the performance; for him, it was not just a cultural phenomenon but also profoundly political.

sambhaji-bhagat-1921

Though he is a playwright and writer too, he is an Ambedkari lokashahir first and foremost. The purpose of his shahiri is the creation a society where people are treated equally — a Prabuddha Bharat — and have basic rights and liberties; where people will interact with each other respectfully. His words have also helped to heal wounds.

Through the course of his impactful career, he has written powadas, bharuds, plays, songs, poems, and an autobiography. The Marathi play Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla, which has received an excellent response — full houses across the year — was originally conceptualised by him. He also wrote the songs and composed the music for it. The play is historic, because it is a retelling of the original story of Shivaji, which was appropriated by right-wing political outfits in Maharashtra.

As a departure from what previous Ambedkari shahirs had done in their careers, he also wrote songs and sang them for a Marathi movie, Nagrik. He was instrumental in the making of the movie Court, which won a National Film Award in 2015. Though the story is told from an upper caste location, the fact that he and his music in the movie stand for the anti-caste movement is still evident.

When writing about him, many savarna writers and journalists have often reduced him to labels — ‘Dalit artist’ or ‘Dalit singer’ — never according him the recognition that they would give to non-Dalit artists.

In a conversation I had with him in 2015 (which was published in Roundtable India), he told me:

“Post-modernism is eroding the significance of ideology... What we must do? We should not interfere in the work others are doing. People must be engaged in creative endeavours... People criticise me, but I respond to them through my plays, songs, poetry, and through my art.”

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