Lok shahirs, the thorns on the side of the Maharashtra government, are inspiring a new generation to take on the system

Sandhya, clad in a yellow sari, sits in her tin hut in Pune’s Bhavanipeet slum. “Before every performance my kids promise that they’ll never take up arms, that they’ll instead change the world with their duff (drum),” she tells filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in the documentary Jai Bhim Comrade. Sandhya is the mother of the lok shahir Sheetal Sathe who was booked by the anti-terror squad in 2013 for being a ‘Naxalite’.

In 2002, a bunch of students appalled by the genocide they had witnessed in Gujarat came together to protest in the way they knew best, through music. The group — that included Sathe — called itself the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). And their form of protest was described by the audience as ‘lok shahiri’.

In the style of ‘tamasha’, the shahir or poet also acts as the narrator. He is normally written in as a witty chap with a funny bone, adding humour to the narrative. If you add the preface lok to shahir, the poet becomes a ‘people’s poet’. But being a lok shahir these days is serious business, for they are fast disappearing. “Ambedkarites are today’s bad boys in Maharashtra. All that we say or do is under surveillance,” says Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat.

No conversation on lok shahiri would be complete without a mention of ‘Maharashtra’s Gaddar’ Lok Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat. He is responsible to a great extent for the re-invention of this tradition as a form of protest akin to that of noted lok shahirs Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh. Bhagat, the son of a cobbler from Mahu, is now perhaps one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Maharashtra government. But he is resilient; he refuses to give up his duff and his mission to “educate, agitate and organise” even after multiple stints in jail.

Bhagat is not somebody you can fit into a mould. He came to Mumbai indoctrinated with the ideology of the RSS, but that changed when his comrades at Siddhartha Hostel (also the birthplace of the Dalit Panther movement) introduced him to the works of Ambedkar and Marx. Here was a man now exposed to both sides of the spectrum, an anomaly in the system. His work started with Avahan Natya Manch in the 80s and 90s. He went with the late lok shahir Vilas Gohre from village to village with music and street plays, educating the masses. In turn, the duo learnt about economics, caste and culture. In the process, Bhagat and Gohre inspired a new generation to learn about lok shahiri.

Dhamma, a 28-year-old lok shahir from Satara with a penchant for colourful scarves and a Master’s degree in theatre, used to tour with Bhagat and now runs his own group called Yaalgar. Dhamma’s father is a shahir, and so was his father. “Satara is home to a lot of intellectuals and free thinkers. I was in Class X when Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was shot for questioning superstition, so I started working to create awareness among my people.”

“So where is the movement now?” I ask him. Dhamma says it is still very much alive and kicking, but some of the comrades have been taken out by ‘tatti’. The government’s sanitation programmes — the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan under the United Progressive Alliance and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan under the Bharatiya Janata Party — recruited multitudes of lok shahirs and theatre artists to educate the masses on sanitation. “My own father switched from writing on Ambedkar to writing about s**t because the latter paid better. This was a setback, but the movement is once again picking up pace.”

The next time I meet Dhamma, it is at a basti in Ambedkar Chowk, Kranti Nagar in Kandivali, where Yalgaar is performing in the middle of the street. The kids are all lined up and made to sit in front, while the adults are scattered looking at the 10 kurta-clad figures in front of them with curiosity. The shahir tells the tale of how he has travelled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to figure out which business is the most lucrative for him, only to realise that there are more temples than schools across the nation. This has now led him to invest in the ‘ghanta’ business. To test the profitability of his newfound business, the Shahir positions his stall outside a temple, where an old man with a white beard is speaking to his ‘mitron’ inside — each time the old man makes a point, he tests his ‘ghanta’.These voices are a rarity, especially after June 2011, when Deepak Dhengle and Siddhartha of the KKM were picked up by the police. The rest of the members of the group, including Sathe, were forced to go underground after repeated police threats. Sathe and her husband were booked by the anti-terrorist squad for being Naxalites when they protested outside the State Assembly in April 2013. Sheetal was finally granted bail on June 28, 2013, on humanitarian grounds and the rest of the group was granted bail in January this year. The have now been acquitted of all charges. The police have now begun to catch wind of Dhamma and his comrades. Last week, they reached the university campus where the group often meets. “Aren’t you afraid, especially after what happened with KKM ?” I ask him.

Dhamma looks at me and smiles; the sudden silence in the room begins to feel loud.

Gaurangi Dang is a literature graduate from Delhi University who likes to tell stories.