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

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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.

VilasGhogare-intext

To survive in the city of Mumbai, Vilas worked as vegetable vendor, sang at various social and religious gatherings, became a saree artisan, and worked at a rubber stamp factory. He also imitated Mohammed Rafi’s voice and performed at an orchestra to earn a living.

During this time, he met Kamal, the woman he would go on to marry, who belonged to Chamar caste. Despite some opposition from his relatives, he married her, and when she was seven-months pregnant, both she and the child died. It was as though his entire life collapsed before him, and frustrated, he went back to Pune.

This pain, however, did not stop him from pursuing his life's calling: shahiri. Soon after this, in 1971, he wrote his first song. His early songs were about his vision and his understanding of labour through the lens of politics. He portrayed the dreadful life of the workers that he observed up close, since he was a worker himself in Mumbai. He also spoke of his life as a Dalit — a life that he had inherited. In one of his songs, he writes:

सुखकर्ते तुम्ही, दुखहर्ते तुम्ही

धरती उभी हि तुमच्या श्रमा

शेतमजुरांनो, मुजरा घ्या तुम्ही

(You, the bringer of happiness, the destroyer of suffering

The earth stands on your labour

Oh peasant! Accept this salute)

(Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)

Until 1997, Vilas wrote many songs, which were unparalleled. He was a member of the Avhan Natya Manch, for which he performed until his death. His songs depicted not only the sufferings of workers across castes, but also the triumph of their labour. He would perform with his iktara on the streets of Mumbai, in the slums, and in front of the gates of factories. His songs also attained popularity in the Dandakaranya region. His music helped him to remain optimistic amid the struggle to live a life of dignity.

On 11 July 1997, many Dalits were killed at Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar, Mumbai after the desecration of a statue of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. In broad daylight, SRPF soldiers fired at these Dalits. Vilas visited Ramabai Nagar for four days after this incident, and saw the aftermath of these killings.

Perhaps he couldn’t bear to see the rise of inhumanity and caste cruelty in society. On 15 July 1997, he committed suicide at his home. But before hanging himself, he wrote on one wall of his home, with blue ink: Ambedkari Ekta Jindabad (Hail Ambedkarite Unity). He died, but his songs, which became a documentation of the struggle and triumph of Dalits, continue to live on.

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