Lok Shahiri

A Dalit Protest Group Scales the Walls of Caste with Song

Yalgaar takes music out of the echo chamber and into the satsang.
April 24, 2018, 2:30am
Image: Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch

Two years ago, a group of young musicians were invited to perform at Ruparel College in Matunga, Mumbai on the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. But when the artists greeted the organisers with a Jai Bhim namaskar, “their expressions were funny,” recalled singer Dhammarakshit Randive in a recent phone interview. According to Randive, “the RSS has a considerable influence in Ruparel, and many professors are connected to the Sangh.” Perhaps they expected tokenistic song-and-dance without much political punch.

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Once the performance began, said Randive, “things were fine. Being good at comedies and political satire, we normalised the conversation by aligning our message to the people present. The conversation shifted to how casteism affects everyone, and how upper-castes are also victims of casteism.”

Randive, 29, is the charismatic centre of the shifting, 15-member group of artists and activists that constitute the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch. Taking its name from the Urdu word for a sudden attack, Yalgaar seeks to reinvent and spread lok shahiri, the folk music of Marathi singer-poets.

Lok shahiri emerged from the tradition of marginalised musicians performing in festivals or upper-caste weddings, to become a powerful aspect of Dalit protest movements. Using lok shahiri—often combined with modern musical elements, art and theatre—Yalgaar wants to effect another change, taking its message against caste, religious fundamentalism, gender discrimination and other forms of inequality to a broader audience.

Dhammarakshit Randive (right) and other members of Yalgaar. Image: Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch

Based in Mumbai, Yalgaar began by performing at slums and Dalit colonies, but consciously decided to expand to upper-caste audiences. Randive’s wife, Swati Uthale, 28, told me, “We came to the conclusion that that it is the upper-castes who need to change, not Dalits. So we go to their festivals, even at the cost of something like Ambedkar Jayanti.” Yalgaar performs at Hindu occasions (often dominated by Marathas), such as Shivaji Jayanti, Durga Utsav, Ganpati, and the birthdays of saints like Kabir, Ravidas and Sant Tukaram. “We tell the audience it’s not us speaking about the ills of casteism, it’s the saints they revere,” Uthale said.

Randive and Uthale live in an apartment in Kandivali, the unofficial headquarters of the group, with two other core members, Siddarth Pratibhawant, 25, and Pravin Khade, 24. Randive comes from a family of lok shahirs from Satara and grew up learning the art from his father, even performing on All India Radio as a child. In Mumbai, he was involved with a street performances and social work before eventually forming Yalgaar in 2015 with some theatre students he met at the University of Mumbai.

"I remember going to the weddings, being told to sit outside the venue and not being allowed water from the same container as the Marathas."

Yalgaar’s performances are influenced by Ambedkar’s speeches, but also by a long line of poets, from Tukaram, to Vaman Tabaji Kardak, Malika Amar Sheikh, Jyotiba Phule, Annabhau Sathe, Sambhaji Bhagat and Sheetal Sathe. Yalgaar finds inspiration in folk songs sung by the nomadic and labouring communities of Maharashtra, especially places which have a lot of lok shahiri, like Sangli, Jamkhed, Satara and Kolhapur. "A number of lok shahirs have been sweepers, mill workers or fourth-class government servants,” said Randive.

Yalgaar has also collaborated with other protest musicians like Morche Par Kavi and Indian Folk Band. They’ve joined hand with “The Banned” for the song “Baar Baar Fenko”, which went viral after demonitisation, and are collaborating again on a song about privacy issues associated with India’s unique identity number, Aadhar.

In recent years, Yalgaar’s performances have addressed events such as the Una lynchings, the death of Rohith Vemula and the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed. “The suicide of Rohith Vemula was a sign that exploitation of Dalits has not stopped, but its nature has changed,” said Randive. “I have once been told by a girl that I look like a Dalit. I mean, how does a Dalit look like?” With discrimination on so many political and personal fronts, each member of Yalgaar has his own motivation for joining.

For example, Khade, who comes from a family steeped in lok shahiri, grew up in a village in Jalna district witnessing the untouchability and separate wells for Dalits that still pervade the Marathwada region. “I remember going to the weddings,” he said, “being told to sit outside the venue and not being allowed water from the same container as the Marathas. I altogether stopped going to weddings to avoid the humiliation”.

"Why are young Dalit artists consigned to the queue and backstage at film sets? Why are they given roles only as light-men and spot boys?"

Pratibhawant, who is from Dhule, is an aspiring actor and such a staunch follower of Ambedkar that he even recently convinced his family to remove a decades-old temple from their house. He kept hearing stories of casteism in the artist circles of Mumbai from his brother and cousin, both writers. “Nobody will say anything directly,” he said, “but it comes across. One of the purpose of Yalgaar was to create a separate aesthetic, rather than being a part of the one which gives us the roles of thieves, where trained actors and singers are shown the door because of their surname, and where people are judged by the inflections of their speech. Why are young Dalit artists consigned to the queue and backstage at film sets? Why are they given roles only as light-men and spot boys?”

Siddharth Pratibhawant performing. Image: Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch

Uthale, who comes from a family of social activists in Satara, has perhaps the most dramatic story. Her father, the founder-member of a social and cultural organisation called Rashtriya Kranti Dal, was mentored by the famous rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar. Her mother had helped inter-caste couples marry, even performing the kanyadaan on one such occasion.

But when Uthale announced her plans to marry Randive, her mother had trouble accepting the decision. “She asked, ‘How would a guy who sings on the streets provide you a good lifestyle?’” Uthale told me. “‘Why couldn’t you find a guy of your own caste?’ I think some relatives have manipulated her.”

"We don't want to preserve lok shahiri by keeping it in a museum."

After her wedding last July, Uthale sent her mother a six-page letter to apologise for hurting her, but they still haven’t spoken. On a recent phone call, “she picked up, listened to my voice, and hung up.” The couple is still hopeful though, and plans to pay the family a surprise visit to see what happens.

“Our parents say that they’ve paid for our education and got us our degrees,” Randive said, “Now it’s our turn to earn money, while pursuing our art.” Initially, the group pooled their resources to perform in urban slums and villages, passing around a dafli (tambourine), into which people deposited a rupee or two. Now, they charge the NGOs who invite them to perform, at least for travel expenses. “We don’t want to do any sponsored content,” said Randive, “so we are trying to create an alternate economy of sorts with NGOs who align with our political ideology.” The members supplement their income by organising workshops, teaching singing, theatre, street plays and communication.

Yalgaar jams with instruments not traditionally used in lok shahiri. Image: Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch

“We don’t want to preserve lok shahiri by keeping it in a museum,” said Khade. “We’ve begun to include elements of western music and qawwalis. We’ve used guitars and even some African instruments.”

This openness extends to Yalgaar’s members as well.“We have upper-caste and Muslims in our ranks,” said Randive, “and we keep raising issues related to the LGBT community too.”

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This embracing attitude isn’t without its risks, however. In one workshop in Satara, a middle-aged man came to the venue and asked to be taught singing, dance and theatre. “He spent three days with us and then disappeared,” said Randive. “A few weeks later, I saw him in uniform at a neighbourhood police station. The guy must have been recording us.”

"There are cops following us, asking us for our identity, taking down our phone numbers, and recording videos of our performances."

Anti-caste folk artists such as Sambhaji Bhagat and Kabir Kala Manch have a fraught history with the law; this February 20, Amnesty International even urged state governments in India to ensure the voice of Dalit protestors is not stifled. Randive told me “There are cops following us, asking us for our identity, taking down our phone numbers, and recording videos of our performances.” Yalgaar members claim they've been interrupted by minor skirmishes with cops several times, especially when protesting political issues like the murder of Govind Pansare, the suicide of Rohith Vemula and the Bhim Koregaon incident. Khade said he was personally threatened by the University of Mumbai security after one performance.

It’s not just the cops though, Khade insisted. “Once, in Haryana, some self-proclaimed gau rakshaks stopped us in the middle of a performance. When I tried reasoning with them, they asked me, “How much did Sonia Gandhi pay you?”

On February 21, in the midst of a performance on the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji in Mukhed, the group was talking about the secularism of Shivaji’s time being destroyed by political parties and communal organisations, when they noticed several audience members getting up. “There were many RSS people sitting in the front row, who left as soon as we began our performance”, said Pratibhawant. Randive added, “Probably they just wanted us to sing the praise of the saffronised version of Shivaji Maharaj that they have created.”

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In another instance in Mukhed, some people created a ruckus during a discussion about menstrual awareness. According to Randive, even some Ambedkarites don’t like Yalgaar much. “Baba Saheb’s legacy has been appropriated for religious/political purposes,” he believes. “His politics is being replaced by a kind of saffronised bhakti. Nowadays, some people are more concerned about how Ambedkar looked, what he ate and not his ideas. A prime example of this is when some group bathed his statue with milk in Rajasthan. We are against this misguided idolisation."

"Someone said our songs are more potent than the lectures they've been hearing for a long time."

But support also comes from unexpected quarters. In the same month, Yalgaar performed at Bhandup in Mumbai, a neighbourhood with a significant population of Muslims from Uttar Pradesh. “The stage was set in the middle of a street,” said Randive. “There were 300-400 Muslim bhai sitting in their skullcaps and kurtas. They thought we are going to perform some comedy or drama.” He laughed.“Then we started singing our songs, going on to talk of Prophet Mohammad’s message of equality and how they can continue believing in the Quran and Indian Constitution at the same time. We paused our performance during the Maghrib azan.”

It wasn’t Yalgaar’s first interaction with a Muslim audience (in Satara’s Muslim localities, they’ve helped people get ration cards and business permits, and inaugurated a Milad-un-Nabi celebration), but the Bhandup show was exceptionally moving. Khade recalled, “People came up to us, praised us, hugged us and took our phone numbers. Someone said our songs are more potent than the lectures they’ve been hearing for a long time.”

Yalgaar performs at Hindu and Muslim festivals, as well on secular occasions. Image: Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch

Music is an effective tool, Randive pointed out. “Baba Saheb once said that one song by Shri Vaman Kardak is more effective than 10 of my lectures.”

“The lok shahirs took Ambedkar’s message to every door through their songs,” he said, and Yalgaar wants to carry on the tradition beyond Dalit doorsteps. Various permutations of the group spend 10-12 days a month travelling to stages and streets in Maharashtra, as well as Chattisgarh, Goa, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan—singing revolutionary songs in the trains along the way. “My dream,” said Randive, "is to own a Yalgaar bus, in which we live, eat and travel across the country to spread our message.”

Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter.