Grassroot Dalit Singing Tradition Keeps Ambedkar’s Philosophy Alive

From Chokhamela, the 13th century Mahar saint poet to Vilas Ghorge, meet the unexpected grassroots cultural activists keeping Ambedkar’s philosophy alive

Benevolence of Babasaheb (Ambedkar) is more than father and mother; 
the bread we eat, Babasaheb has signed on it. 

-Kadubai Kharat 

After the Durban conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, the question of caste and Dalit atrocities have attracted international attention of Human Rights forums. It has helped build transnational solidarity networks for the oppressed sections of society across the world.  Dalit activism, in fact, works at various levels – broadly the global and the local. Within the local sphere it works through a two tier system – one is the sub-mainstream level, called ‘civil activism’, and the other grassroots level, called ‘grassroots activism’. In academic elite spaces, the most known form is the ‘Dalit civil society activism’.  One can observe this through the way conferences are held and the way the problem of caste and Dalit is discussed in mainstream knowledge production.  

This essay elaborates the idea of grassroots cultural activism performed by singers in India and their question of livelihood. Dalit cultural activists have ranged from street and bhajan (devotional song) singers, who have used their livelihoods to spread the message of the Dalit community, to acclaimed writers and essayists, such as BR Ambedkar, who have been able to expand the livelihood opportunities available to the otherwise oppressed community in India. Gopal Guru in the introduction to his book Dalit Cultural Movement and Dalit Politics in Maharashtra (1997) writes that “the cultural tradition of the Dalits in Maharashtra did not receive due recognition by the Maharashtrian upper caste society.” But, their contribution in democratising society cannot be ignored.  

Dalit grassroots cultural activism can be said to have started from the time of Chokhamela, the 13th Century Mahar saint poet, who, along with Maharaki1, also worked as a construction worker. He used his Abhangas (devotional poetry) to assert his idea of equality in front of god, and also narrate his experiences of injustice and dogmatic exclusion through the cathartic recitation. During that era, when brahmins2, had complete control over knowledge production and dissemination, singing Abhangas was nothing less than an act of rebellion against the established hegemonic culture. Because of their devotional nature, the Abhangas also allowed Dalit singers to profess these subversive messages without much conflict with the upper caste. In general Abhangas were well received among shudra and ati-shudra community3. Similarly, all other Dalit-bahujan saint poets at the time were also working class people who contributed to strengthening the Dalit movement alongside their daily labour. Their cultural activism and livelihood struggles go hand in hand, and cannot be separated. This activism helped other Dalits to understand their oppressed condition and also gave power to fight against it. Chokhamela and the radical Bhakti movement thus set the context to understand grassroots cultural activism of the marginalised.  

This was carried forward in the modern era, by the likes of Jotirao and Savitribai Phule, who radically resisted against the Brahminical ecosystem and everyday exploitation of the Dalits. Jotirao Phule in his text Gulamgiri (Slavery) explains how caste society had barred Dalits from drinking water from public resources which generally were controlled by Savarna, or the upper caste communities. Historically, Dalits had no right even to walk on the street in broad day light. They were allowed to do only caste-assigned work, and they had to live on leftover food. Through the efforts of the Phule couple, and later that of B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit community was able to seek some degree of justice and freedom from such inhumane practices. Anti-caste songs in Phule’s time, called ‘Satyadhodhak Jalasa’ and now transformed as ‘Ambedkari Jalasa’, were used as a tool to disseminate the philosophy and teaching of what was imagined as an anti-caste society. By fighting for the rights of the socially marginalised people throughout his life, Ambedkar was able to spread the anti-caste philosophy, the quest for human dignity, and self-respect, which furthered grassroots Dalit cultural activism, by developing a consciousness among the oppressed untouchable castes.  

As their cultural expression evolved, it also began to generate livelihood opportunities for the Dalit community, in addition to the caste-assigned work of guarding, cleaning, washing, etc. Through their cultural activism they spread Ambedkarite ideology and constitutional philosophy into the social space in order make people aware of their rights. It is important to note here that they continued to work on humanising society through their everyday cultural activism, even as they lived their life and raised their families with minimal resources.  

Many Dalits who sing songs of Buddha, Phule, Ambedkar and other anti-caste thinkers belong to low income backgrounds, to whom the question of livelihood is an everyday matter. They are challenged by the many difficulties from access to education, to gaining economic stability, yet their commitment towards the movement remain unchallenged. Through their songs they attempt to spread the message of love, compassion, humanity and annihilation of caste. They keep the cultural activism alive through the oral history of the liberation of Dalits. Some of them are differently-abled people who sit at public locations like the bus stop to beg, but narrate the story of Ramai (first wife of Babasaheb) and Ambedkar’s struggle. In the early mornings some of the singers, who earlier used to sing bhajans of Gods and Goddesses, now sing to show how Ambedkar’s fight and struggle brought them out from the stinking chambers of caste. This growing awareness, in today’s context, could have also been furthered by the social and political expansion of the Dalit movement through education and other mean of cultural production such as cinema and social media. These people, who sing door to door or at the bus stop today, are not beggars. They are the grassroots Dalit cultural activists. Prahlad Shinde is one of the many such singers who used to sing Ambedkar’s song and beg, but later on became very popular and began to earn money from it. Three generations later, the Shinde family has prospered from the fame he received. He rose from a grassroots cultural activist to become a celebrity singer through these songs.  

Yogesh Maitreya who did a series for Firstpost on Dalit Shahirs of Maharashtra tried to highlight the question of livelihood of Kadubai Kharat who sings Ambedkari songs in bastis. He refers to Omey Anand, who is making a documentary on Kharat, as saying: “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.” 

Like Kadubai Kharat, singers who dedicate their life to the Dalit movement have to endure a daily struggle for their survival. They tend to lack formal education, but their knowledge about Ambedkarite philosophy becomes a tool to fulfil the hunger and the question of livelihood. Music itself is their instrument through which they attract people to listen and understand the human dignity and fight against caste.  

One may have read about the life of Vilas Ghogre, a Marxist-Ambedkarite who sacrificed his life during the protest against 1997 Ramabai Nagar massacre, and Gummadi Vittal Rao known as Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet who also comes from the Marxist-Ambedkarite tradition. Anand Patwardhan highlighted Ghogre’s and Gaddar’s commitment for Dalit movement in his documentary film Jai Bhim Comrade (2012). In the modern times, Ghogre and Gaddar have fused their songs with the public culture and folk performances in order to raise the quest of the livelihood of working caste-class masses. Though these grassroots Dalit cultural activists have energised the anti-caste movement the question of their livelihood is yet to attract the attention of mainstream elite spaces. 

In order to forefront their everyday struggle, there needs to be an effort towards mainstreaming grassroots Dalit cultural activism so that more opportunities will generate for them to connect with other local and the global resistance movements. The possibility of fusion between the mainstream and the margin will also give them certain kind of recognition. The government and other cultural institutions can make this effort. However, for Dalit communities, the question of livelihood becomes secondary as they fight for dignity and self-respect. Because caste society has historically always treated them as lesser humans, even if they achieve economic status, their social status will not change unless we change the mind of the people.  

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