#Sundayreading – Dalit Voices against Caste discrimination in a Metro


Class act
Mumbai’s ruthless complexity and lure of social media make a heady mix for a new breed of Dalit poets.

It goes like this. We don’t want war/we don’t want bar… shall I sing it, instead?” Kabeer Shakya, 29, wonders.

Our nod is his cue to break into rap, keeping his voice low to skip grabbing the attention of guests at the Fort cafe where he is seated.

“..we have to go far/to the wisdom of a star. Use your wisdom/to get the freedom/unknown of the caste/we must found the kingdom,” he spits bars from Jai Bheem Se, his thick-soled floaters keeping beat.

It’s a song he wrote with Ashit Sable in January this year. Released in March, it’s their first new composition to be made public after their album, Legends of Bodhisatva, released in 2012. Its video, shot at Kuda caves in Tala of Raigad district, also features the other four that make up their three-year-old musical outfit, Dhamma Wings – drummer Swapnil More, bassist Rahul Kamble and rhythm guitarist Rohan Zodge. Finding support was relatively easy. Sameer More, “a friend’s friend” at an editing lab, helped direct and clip it.

Playback singer Shaan sang one number for the album, as did Indian Idol 4 contestant Prasenjit Kosambi. Sanjivani Gawai of S4 Entertainment released it. The reactions, he terms, encouraging. Sales were recorded from UP to UK, and uploading Jai Bheem Se on YouTube even earned them a fan in California. “Sandeep Chauhan, a software engineer, has offered to help with the next video,” Shakya says. It has enjoyed 17,000 views and 900 likes.

On weekends, he switches gears from founder of a Navi Mumbai IT firm to singer, as do his bandmates, all music teachers. Schedules demand even more vigorous juggling on Buddh Purnima and Ambedkar Jayanti, like on April 13 this year. Dhamma was invited by the Samajik Nyay Vibhag to perform before a crowd of 5,000. On April 25, they held court at a BMC garden in Hiranandani, Powai.

Where you won’t find them is at a live gig club. “We don’t write to entertain over drinks and eats. Our songs are to educate those who are stuck like elephants in mud pits. We want to tell them, wake up and grow. That’s why you’ll find us singing in slums, far flung villages like the one in Yavatmal where a lone home had a TV set.”

At a time when the Supreme Court has refused to quash the trial against former Bombay Port Trust clerk and poet, Vasant Dattatray Gurjar, who is facing obscenity charges over Gandhi Mala Bhetla, his 1,000-word poem lamenting the destruction of Gandhian values, a group of young protest poets are garnering popularity. They sustain a tradition strengthened by late Namdeo Dhasal and Narayan Surve, LS Rokade and Trymbak Sapkale, while keeping the focus squarely on Mumbai; the city they survive.

Caste in a metro

Like passionate Dalit writer, Baburao Bagul, who tried making sense of life in Mumbai’s slums in his 1969 poem, Maran Swasta Hote Ahe (Death is getting cheaper), Nisaar Zalte finds the city he decided to make home, a complex beast.

“Mumbai offers the impression that it doesn’t support caste politics. It does. Except, the feudal structure has been replaced by a capitalist one,” says Zalte, 29, fresh from releasing his first collection of 35 poems, Mhatari Melyache Dukkha Nahi. Young members of Republican Panthers of India, the cultural wing of political outfit Republican Party of India, that helped publish it, performed to his poem Metro City at the launch at Marathi Patrakar Sangh.

Ithe bhandwali baapjade/tula banvu paahtayt shanghai/tyasathi amhala kela jatay/beghar…bedakhal/aamhi maatra bichare/astitvachya antim yuddhakade jhuklele/… najarkaidi (The capitalists want to make you Shanghai/They are cleaning us (the poor) and not poverty/We are helpless/Our struggle is for survival. What we are getting is surveillance), they sang.

Back home in Devbhane village of Dhule, Maharashtra, Zalte lived with his parents and two brothers – one, a garment unit worker, the other a handyman. He was a frequent contributor to Nagpur-based Vidrohi, a radical magazine edited by Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale. “Incidents of sexual violence were common. If a lower caste individual eloped with someone from a higher caste, you’d expect an honour killing. When I arrived here in 2006, I expected to be in a more considerate, liberal space,” says Zalte, who belongs to the Mahar community, a caste-cluster to which Ambedkar belonged. “When the issue up for discussion is reservation, we get stereotyped. They have you believe you aren’t competent enough,” says the Arts graduate who begins a Masters programme in Dalit and Tribal Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences this month.

“Discrimination in the urban milieu is subtle, unlike in the interiors,” says writer-translator Shanta Gokhale. “In government employment circles, those who hold positions via reservation are often referred to as the government’s son-in-laws. It’s a phrase that travels.” She offers the example of activist-writer Urmila Pawar, who in her autobiography, Aydaan, speaks of how her daughter’s friend’s mother, on discovering that they were Dalit, requested her to not feed the Maratha child.

To counter this, the young Dalit voice chooses poetry.

Verse as winner

Mumbai playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan says Maharashtra’s partiality towards poetry and song to stir social conscience dates to the 1880s when lok shahirs or poets specialising in the tamasha folk form used festivals like Ganeshotsav and later, spaces outside mill gates, to reach their working class audience. “They’d challenge British authority and press for issues pertaining to social reforms, including education for all,” he says.

Gokhale calls poetry and short stories, both popular with Maharashtra’s Dalit activists, chosen forms because they narrate the protagonist’s experience powerfully. “And their language is aggressive. The reason it rarely sits well with a genteel mind is because they are telling the middle class to f*** off. Their message cannot be spread in namby-pamby writing. They write the way they speak.”

Social scientist Chandrakant Puri, who chairs the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Contemporary Studies at the University of Mumbai, agrees. He thinks poetry’s rugged charm has worked effectively in the tribal and nomadic communities around Mumbai and Thane. A poet and shahir himself, Puri turned to music after mundane awareness programmes failed to pique curiosity. “With music, hundreds and thousands would gather. We address everything from the ill effects of tobacco to hygienic waste disposal, without a hint of preachiness,” he says.

Shakya saw this early. Leaning towards music and playing the guitar since he was a student at Chembur’s Acharya Marathe College, he knew he had barely a few minutes to get his message across. In 2009, he left his home in Kamothe, where he lived with his father, a retired BMC teacher, homemaker mother and siblings, to the crucible of Buddhism, Bodh Gaya in Bihar. For three months, he lived the life of a monk, seeking alms within a 10 km radius of the temple complex, surviving on one meal a day. He says, “I know I had to spread the message, and since the youth connect with music, it became my vehicle.”

Although Shakya and his contemporaries adopt a classic literary form, often, they reject its rules. Vaibhav Chaya, like his guru Namdeo Dhasal, has little value for prosody.

His poem Enclosed in File attacks police apathy towards caste discrimination, it’s lack of meter adding to its ferocity. He writes (translated by Maitreya Yogesh):

Into the black bag, friction with dog’s tongue/their half-torn foetus/ghostly bodies/uprooted shoulders/torn joints/much of these would be enclosed in a file/into the FIRs of police records/these should be searched anew.

The 26-year-old who has a day job with UI10, a firm that deals with media technology, social media and design, met Dhasal when he was an intern with a TV station. It was 2010, and Chaya was accompanying a journalist who was on assignment to meet the poet. “I said I was an admirer. He told me he didn’t want anyone who didn’t write poetry around him. He suggested I write frequently, sincerely. We met often with other members of the movement until he passed away last year,” he remembers.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Dhasal’s most iconic work, Golpitha, a collection of poems published in 1972, described life in the red light district where he spent his teens with his father, a butcher’s assistant, growing up among petty criminals.

Chaya, who dropped his last name in 2010 to adopt his mother’s first name, says the abuse he faced as a child was foundation for his stirring in adulthood. His father, a Class 4 railway employee was an alcoholic. “We lived in a ghetto in Vitthalwadi, Thane. He’d beat her. She bore him eight children before me. All of them died. My existence echoes her suffering.” His father left them when Chaya was two, never to return. “We filed a missing complaint. We never heard of him after.”

Despite the struggle, his mother took on a job as a booking clerk with the railways, ensuring Chaya went to school. Like his predecessors who were able to add power to Dalit writing with the spread of education thanks to institutions like Ambedkar-led The People’s Education Society, Chaya sailed through school and college to earn a BMM degree from Thane’s CHM College.

The specialisation taught him that social media was a miraculous tool for change. He began posting his prose and poems on Facebook where he now has 4,000 followers. His blog, Samyak Samiksha, where he discusses language, the politics of food choices including Maharashtra’s beef ban, and marriage, has collected 2.5 lakh visitors. “It was when Google representatives contacted me in 2011 to monetise my blog that I realised that my poetry was popular,” he laughs. It’s also what inspired him to publish his first anthology of poems, Delete Kela Sara Akash, in 2014. “It sold 1,000 copies on day one,” he says.

The crisis of identity

It’s evident that his goal is to go mainstream. Like Shakya, he refuses to be pigeon-holed. On a visit to Mumbai University where we meet him, he bumps into Loknath Yashwant, former MSEB official from Nagpur and poet. A heated argument over identifying as Dalit writer ensues.

Yashwant thinks certain terms, including ‘Ambedkarite movement’, restrict their recognition to Maharashtra. Chaya prefers not to be categorised at all. “By calling ourselves Dalit writers, we cut ourselves away from mainstream literature.”

Poet Arundhati Subramaniam says their dilemma is also that of the female writer. “As a woman artist, you find yourself in a rather curious double bind. You are led to believe that if you write about what’s termed a ‘women’s issue’, you are limited. If you write about other subjects, you are inauthentic. Basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t! I imagine there would be parallels here with the Dalit artist’s predicament.”

But for their choice of literary form, they get a thumbs up from veteran lokshahir Vira Sathidar, who movie-going audiences will remember from his recent performance in the award-sweeping Court. “They (poets) are products of a social system but they are also deeply attached to this modern city. It’s this intersection that leads to an interesting outcome,” says Sathidar, who holds workshops on poetry at government schools and colleges across the state. “I notice that in a class of 40, one child will veer towards poetry. Perhaps there is fear and embarrassment at play, because they feel it’s a medium that isn’t theirs in the first place. I hope this changes.”

See pics from top

Members of band Dhamma Wings;

Nisaar Zalte and Vaibhav Chaya’s books of poetry have sold out;

Poet-blogger Vaibhav Chaya (right) mobilises opinion and support through social media. His blog has 2.5 lakh visitors, and received an enquiry from Google, who was keen to monetise it;

Nisaar Zalte (extreme left), belonging to a Mahar family in Devbhane, attends a protest at Dadar station on June 1 against the assault on a Dalit youth in Shirdi for choosing a song in praise of Ambedkar as his ringtone;

Social scientist, poet and shahir Chandrakant Puri had to turn to verse to grab eyeballs when raising awareness about health and hygiene (R) Shanta Gokhale;

Kabeer Shakya, Dhamma Wings

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