An evening of protest music and poetry outlined how Maharashtra’s Dalit movement has found its backbone in music and poetry through the years.
Music is a universal language, and it’s been a part of the Dalit protest movement in Maharashtra since the times of Ambedkar and shahirs. With changing times, the voices have adapted to suit the modern society. With rock and fusion as well as modernist lyrics to their songs, the shahiri, jalsa and powada musicians have brought their struggle for equality to the youth.
At a cultural evening comprising songs and talks at the Godrej Culture Lab on July 14, these exponents of their crafts spoke about and demonstrated the power of music to take the message of equality across to the people.
As an introduction to the evening, there was a panel discussion consisting of tamasha scholar and shahir, Ganesh Chandanshive, Tata Institute professor Avatthi Ramaiah, and activist and author Shilpa Kamble. Theatre giant Sunil Shanbag moderated this session that outlined how songs and poetry can be used to get the crux of the Dalit movement. The evening then segued smoothly into a demonstration of their arguments as artists took to the stage to sing out their stories of protest and suffering.
“How far can caste consciousness be brought about through poetry?” Sunil threw the question open to the entire panel, and the answers were all along the same lines. It was Avatthi, who perhaps explained it best. “There is a Marathi story, which speaks of a bird with a beautiful singing voice. The bird is pierced with a thorn straight to the heart. But the song it sings out in its pain is the song that reaches out to people. So it is with Dalit poetry and music,” she explained.
One such exponent of music who performed later in the evening was Kabeer Shakya of Dhamma Wings, a band that uses music to advocate equality. He pointed out some of the essential problems in our society. “Today, many use the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj for propagating separatist ideas, but he was essentially one of the most secular rulers to ever rule. There is a small village near Raigarh, which consists of an entirely Hindu population. But there’s a dargah there, and the villagers observe all the Muslim festivals. When I asked them about why they celebrate these festivals, they said that it was Shivaji Maharaj, who first started the tradition in the area and they have been following it through the generations. That is who Shivaji truly was. That is the spirit we need to inculcate today,” he exclaimed.
His speech was aptly followed by a qawwali performance, praising Shivaji, while Kabeer took the mic, later on, to belt out a mix of rock and roll and rap to emphasise his message of equality. Another topic he brought up was how the Kohlis could be given employment opportunities in the Navy. This point was illustrated with a traditional Kohli dance, showing how they would like to be a captain in the navy. “The boy who played the role of the captain had a grandfather who fought in the Indian Navy and died a martyr before the Indian independence. If anyone has the right to these jobs, and the qualifications for it, it is these people,” Kabeer confessed, after the show.
The other performers, who included famous shahirs Nishant Shaikh and his mother Keshar Jainoo Shaikh, and the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch, managed to raise goosebumps with their moving performances.
“We are not here to entertain you. We are here to disturb you,” said Dalit activist Shambhaji Bhagat at the end of his guest performance. And the audience was definitely left with something to think about.