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 eleven of the series.
— Art by Satwick Gade
Shahiri and the Ambedkarite movement are interconnected and inseparable. When it comes to using art to disseminate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideas and philosophy, shahirs were at the forefront. Their music became the spirit of the anti-caste movement.
Dr Bhagwan Thakur writes in Ambedkari Jalsa:
“Folk art or the traditional tamasha has entertained the people and given them insight too, but kept them away from the idea of resistance against oppression. Hence, their material life never improved. But jalsas, with their social conscience and ability to inspire, as well as the Ambedkarite jalsas which evolved later, have tremendously transformed the lives of common people.”
(Translated from the original Marathi by Yogesh Maitreya)
One way to understand this inextricable relationship between shahiri and the Ambedkarite movement is to study the life and works of Vilas Ghogare. Born on 1 June 1947 in Pune, Vilas went on to witness life in all its intensity and cruelty. He was born into a house where his father Bhikaji Ghogare, influenced by Kabir, would play bhajans on the iktara (a one-stringed musical instrument). He died of excessive drinking when Vilas was all of three, leaving behind a legacy that Vilas would go on to inherit.
Like his father, Vilas used the iktara to sing of those parts of the society which were neglected by Brahminical eyes. After the demise of his parents, Vilas managed to educate himself till the ‘matriculation’ level (pre-university education), but could not finish the course. Nonetheless, he had already been introduced to the art of writing by then, and had begun writing poems. At the age of 12, he had begun to gather boys and make them rehearse songs, using a tinpot as his instrument — the same tinpot that he would use to carry water when he would need to defecate, in the open.
During the early 1960s, Maharashtra was going through social — but more evidently — political upheavals. Shahiri jalsas played an important role in the formation of the state of Maharashtra. Vilas was witness to one such jalsa of the shahir Jangamswami. He realised then that shahiri would become his life’s work and purpose. However, this journey of music and activism wasn’t going to be easy. In 1965, he was forced to move to Mumbai, in search of a job.