On 10 April 2015, Damodar Hall, a multipurpose auditorium located in central Mumbai, that is usually reserved for conferences, weddings and the occasional play, was host to a very different type of spectacle. “We are not here to entertain you, we are here to disturb you,” thundered Sambhaji Bhagat, a Dalit activist, revolutionary balladeer, and the music composer for Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning feature film Court. An appreciative audience roared its approval. This was a promotional event for the film, which takes a critical look at the Kafkaesque mechanics of the Indian state’s repression against social and cultural activists.
Bhagat—who composed and sang two songs for Court—strutted across the stage with all the confidence and charisma of a man who has been doing this for more than 30 years now. During the three-hour event, he alternated seamlessly between beguiling humour and fiery rhetoric. He disarmed the audience with his razor sharp wit before striking them with songs about casteism, imperialism, and those who had been left behind by the processes of globalisation and capitalism. Bhagat is a self-proclaimed Ambedkarite, and before long he had cries of “Jai Bhim” resonating across the room. Court had won 18 international awards and the coveted National Award even before its theatrical release on 17 April, but it was clear that this show had only one star, and that star was Bhagat.
An affable and flamboyant man, with shoulder-length locks and a warm, booming voice, Bhagat is a prominent figure in Maharashtra’s Dalit and Left circles. I first met him in 2012, when I interviewed him for a dissertation on the history of Dalit protest music in the state. Since then, I’d run into him at protests and cultural events across the city, and spoken to many young activists who think of him as an inspiration and a father figure. The day after his Damodar Hall performance, I spoke to him over the phone to learn more about his life and his work.
Bhagat’s initiation into radical politics happened in 1979, when he moved to Mumbai from Mahu, an isolated village surrounded by thick jungle in Maharashtra’s Satara district. He worked at a vadapao cart in Dana Bunder and slept on the streets.
“I wanted to study,” he told me, “but studying without working wasn’t possible.”
The owner of the vadapao cart, who also hailed from Mahu, saw Bhagat’s potential and helped him get admitted into Ambedkar College at Wadala. He also got him a room in the Wadala’s Siddharth Vihar hostel, the birthplace of the Dalit Panthers movement and, before it was recently torn down, a hotbed of Dalit and Left activism. “When I joined the hostel, the Dalit Panthers movement was dying out, but its remnants were all over the place,” Bhagat had recalled to me in a previous interview. “Many rooms had revolutionary poetry and paintings adorning their walls.”
It did not take long for Bhagat to become immersed in Dalit and Left Politics. But his first real brush with cultural resistance occurred around 1980, while on his way home from an employment exchange in south Mumbai. At Churchgate station, he ran into a clutch of young men and women performing a street play. They were part of the Avahan Natya Manch, a left-wing agitprop group that was an offshoot of a students’ union called the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana. At the time, the group consisted mostly of upper-class students from elite institutions, but that was soon to change.
“I only saw half the play, but I was intrigued that you could do a play on the road,” Bhagat said. “That alone was a big thing for me. In the middle of the performance, the police came and started manhandling these young boys and girls and took them away. I saw what happens to those who speak the truth in this country. I was impressed that these people weren’t scared of the state or the police.”
Bhagat tracked the students down and joined Avahan. Soon afterwards, they saw Vilas Ghogre performing at a slum in Mulund. Ghogre, an Ambedkarite singer, used to eke out a living as a ghost song-writer for night-time contests between Qawwali performers. After joining Avahan, together with Bhagat, he turned the group in a new direction. Heavily influenced by Annabhau Sathe—a Communist folk poet and member of the Lalhawata Kalapathak (Red Flag Cultural Squad),whose Dalit identity was central to his poetry and music—they took the traditional Dalit music they had grown up with and infused it with the revolutionary ideas of the Left. At a time when many cultural activists had abandoned traditional music in favour of styles borrowed from the film industry, Bhagat and Ghogre were reinventing and revolutionising Maharashtrian folk forms such as the powada, bharud and gondhal.
Subodh More, a cultural activist and a member of the Jaguar group, a street theatre collective, told me, “After Annabhau Sathe and [fellow Red Flag Cultural Squad poet-singer] Amar Sheikh, if anyone has worked towards finding and re-creating the traditional folk tunes, the traditional folk forms, then that work has been done by Vilas and Sambhaji. They brought creativity back into the movement.”
Between the early 1980s and early 1990s, Avahan’s members took their mix of street theatre and folk music across Maharashtra, walking from village to village. Alongside their performances, they spent time studying the economics and culture of each village, and used the knowledge they gained to further refine their message and their music. They participated in a number of movements, including protests against slum demolitions; the Namantar Andolan, a Dalit movement to change the name of Marathwada University in Aurungabad to Dr Ambedkar University; and the textile mill strikes in Mumbai in 1982.
“Datta Samant, a trade union leader, was a good friend of mine,” Bhagat told me. “I would go [to the mills], and talk about the ground realities. He liked it, but occasionally he would curse me also. ‘Saale, tu mere dimaag mein yeh kachra daalta hai’”—You put this garbage in my mind.
It was around this time that Bhagat and Ghogre met Gaddar, the revolutionary Telugu balladeer who would become a mentor to them both. “I was in jail with Gaddar, whom I call my elder brother,” Bhagat said, referring to a short stint the two did in Chattarpur’s Barrack No. 9 in 1987, after the police picked them up following a performance.
“With him I have done a number of all-India tours, and he educated me. My understanding of politics and the world, I learnt at his side. Even when he was underground, we have stayed together in pretty awful circumstances.”
Both Gaddar and Avahan had links with the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People’s War, which later morphed into the People’s War Group. However, the nature of those links is deeply contested. Bhagat himself downplayed them when we spoke. “We were singing about open democratic rights and the rights of our people,” he said. “I don’t care if the party was there or not, we lived with our people and sang about them. I’m philosophically connected with all Marxists and Ambedkarites, but I’m not connected to any party.”
Whatever the nature of those links might have been, by the 1990s Bhagat—like many other Dalit activists in the Left—was increasingly at odds with the Party line, particularly on how to deal with caste. The Left ignored caste in favour of a class lens, but Dalit activists believed caste was deeply embedded in the social, economic and cultural structures of Indian society, and needed to be tackled head-on. This ideological divide played out within Avahan as well, precipitated by the group’s decision to expel Ghogre for performing at non-movement events, including those organised by the Republican Party of India, in order to support his family. As this divide deepened, it brought about the slow disintegration of the Avahan by the mid 1990s.
“I don’t think it was any one person’s fault,” Bhagat said. “This was a slow process, because an ideological stagnancy had come in, and when that happens such things follow.”
In 1997, Ghogre committed suicide four days after a police fired on and killed ten residents of Ramabai Colony, in north-east Mumbai, who were protesting against the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. The loss of his friend and partner affected Bhagat deeply. By this time, the two had become very popular within and outside Maharashtra, and had attained the status of lokshahirs—people’s balladeers. Now it was upto Bhagat to carry on the work alone.
At Ghogre’s funeral, Bhagat and a number of other activists from across the progressive spectrum, who were increasingly under attack from the BJP–Shiv Sena government, decided to put together a broad programme of cultural unity. This would result in the Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan, an alternative cultural conference held in Dharavi, in opposition to the Brahmin and Maratha dominated Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, or All-India Marathi Literature Conference. The conference brought together Dalit and progressive writers, musicians and performers from across the state, and led to a resurgence in cultural activism in Maharashtra. It also allowed Bhagat to transcend his roots within the radical Left and immerse himself in broader progressive and Dalit movements.
Vidrohi grew at a rapid pace for a few years before it splintered due to ideological differences. Throughout, Bhagat’s popularity as a balladeer for the masses continued to grow. In 2004, he started his own group, called the Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa. The Jalsa’s membership keeps changing, with Bhagat as the only permanent fixture. It performs Bhagat’s songs of cultural resistance all across Maharashtra, particularly in villages and slum communities, not just challenging casteism and the state but also taking the present Dalit leadership to task for failing to deliver on its promises.
Internet pe baithe hain, bhai
Jumbo jet pe baithe hain, bhai
Khaali pet pe baithe hain, bhai
Factory gate pe baithe hain, bhai
Woh acting karte hain, bhai
aur hum fighting mein marte hain, bhai
They sit on the internet, brother
They sit on the jumbo jet, brother
We sit with our empty stomachs, brother
At the factory gates, brother
They do the acting, brother
And we die in the fighting, brother
– Sambhaji Bhagat
By the 2000s, Bhagat had expanded his interests beyond music and street theatre. He released his autobiography, titled Kaatal Khaalcha Pani, or Water Under The Rock, at the Vidrohi Sammelan in 1999, and started writing regular columns for the Marathi newspapers Mahanagar and Samrat. His column in Samrat, which ran from 2005 to 2008, was of particular importance to Bhagat. “I would start off by talking about larger political and philosophical issues, and then follow it up with a story and a couple of lines about how this issue affects me or the movement,” he said. “People would have group readings of the column in the village, and then call me, put me on the loudspeaker and ask me questions.”
He also started making inroads into mainstream Marathi theatre. His 2012 play Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla was critically acclaimed, and bagged him the Marathi International Film & Theatre Award for music design. The play, inspired by his experiences during the riots between December 1992 and January 1993 in Mumbai, looked at how political parties manipulate symbols for their own purposes.
“They stand in the shade of these symbols and project their own value systems on them,” he said. “The award is fine, but more importantly it brought about a new environment in Maharashtra. When poor people see it, and their misunderstanding of Shivaji”—a historical Maratha king who has been appropriated by the Hindu right as a nationalist icon—“is cleared up, they come to me and say ‘Dada, this is a great thing you have done.’”
Bhagat first met Tamhane, Court’s director, through Ramu Ramanathan, a common acquaintance of them both who is a journalist and playwright. Tamhane had read about Bhagat in a Tehelka profile, and was fascinated with the world of cultural activism and folk theatre. “So when I was working on the script, Sambhaji became one of the inspirations for the central character in Court, which is Narayan Kamble,” He told me over the phone conversation. “When it came to writing the songs, I thought who better than Sambhaji?”
“I thought it was a great thing that they wanted to make a film on this topic, and I should help them,” Bhagat, who has also helped with casting for the film, told me. “I’ve never seen or worked on a film like this before, so it was quite a new experience. It went very well, I think.”
In recent years, Bhagat has been using his stature as one of Maharashtra’s leading cultural activists to push for more research on and engagement with the caste question. He is currently working to set up a cultural and research centre for Dalits, funded by his earnings from performances. He also trains students in music, theatre and cultural activism, many of whom have gone on to form progressive movement groups themselves. The most well-known among these is Kabir Kala Manch, or KKM, a group founded in 2002 by Dalit students from Pune whose songs of revolution quickly gained popularity across Maharasthra and drew the attention of the entire country.
“They were students who wanted to do something after Modi’s genocide in Gujarat,” Bhagat had told me during our 2012 meeting. “They came to me and said they really liked my songs. I found that they were really good singers, so I helped them. When they started talking about real issues and they started organising people, they were branded by the police as Naxalites.”
In April 2011, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested the KKM members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle, along with five others, and charged them under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The charge sheet named four other KKM members, who went underground. The police claimed that the group was recruiting for the Naxalite movement. In April 2013, two months after the two arrested KKM activists were let out on bail, the others who were wanted, gave themselves up, hoping to clear their peers, and themselves, in court. The group’s president, Sheetal Sathe, was released on bail that June because she was pregnant. The other three are still in prison. As a part of the KKM Defense Committee, Bhagat regularly appears in court during their hearings.
On the afternoon of Bhagat’s performance at Damodar Hall, the Bombay High Court once again denied bail to the three KKM activists, who have now been in custody for two years. According to the KKM Defense Committee member Anand Patwardhan, while rejecting their bail petition the judge remarked that two years is not that long compared to a life sentence—implying that that is what the activists deserved. As Bhagat prepared for his performance, this must have come as a grim reminder that while Court is fictional, the kind of repression it portrays is all too real. For Bhagat, the KKM and countless others, the struggle goes on.