VOICES OF OUR TIME – Setting the word alight

Protest poetry resonates at a meeting hall at Ramabai Nagar on Saturday, and a Gujarati literary journal is launched on SundayPoetry Inquilab!

The police posse survey the scene at the DB Pawar Sabhagruh at Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar on Saturday. But instead of lokshahirs (singer-poets) belting out protest songs, there is Vi vek Sonar, a disciple of Hariprasad Chaurasia, rendering Raag Hansdhwani on a flute.It does not resemble a typical Vidrohi Sammelan of the1990s, with lathi (stick) and ghongdi (a rough, blanket-size cloth), and beef and pork on the menu. The police exit. The music becomes loud again. It’s a memorable moment.

Sudhir Dhawle, editor of Vidrohi magazine, says, “Some people say the songs are loud. They are not subtle, nor are they art. But the words speak out what is in our minds. Every time our rights are crushed, it is the powadas and chakkads that reflect what is happening socially and politically. Be it the Dalit Panther Movement, Vidrohi Chalwal or Naxalism.” The session is a call for action following two decades of apathy after the mass killing at Ramabai Nagar, Ghatkopar East, on July 11, 1997. Audience members recall the horror: how the locals awoke at dawn to the sight of Dr Ambedkar’s desecrated statue. In one hour, the State Reserve Police Force platoon headed by PSI Manohar Kadam was on the site. An hour later there was firing. Ten left dead. Many injured.

Not much has altered at the neglected basti, wedged between Godrej’s Vikhroli campus and the gentrified community in Ghatkopar West.

Sudhakar Olwe’s black-and-white photographs remind us of the brutality and how the residents were deprived of justice. It was in protest of the injustice that Lokshahir Vilas Ghogre committed suicide in 1997.

His death, like research scholar Rohith Vemula’s death at Hyderabad Central University, was a sign of protest, and a cry for Dalit unity.

The unity is something which resonates in Vivek More’s poem Vitambana. For the past few years, More’s work in the bastis has been about retelling the stories and annihilating caste.

Poets Mayank Saxena (Hindi) and Shilpa Sawant speak of the political paralysis. They join the dots. It was Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar two decades ago. It is Alwar and Dadri and Khandawali now. How no one is addressing the real concerns of the Dalits and minorities in this nation. Nitin Chandanshive, the dangalkar kavi, picks up from where the protest movements have left off. His angry poem concludes with how his illiterate mother prefers one book, the Constitution of India, to the other Holy Books.

There are groups from all over Maharashtra including Aurangabad and Chandwad. Some groups like Kabir Kala Manch in Pune were born in the post-Godhra era, others post-Khairlanji.What is interesting is how the Ambedkari Jalsa subsumes and overtakes folk as a genre for promoting social awareness. Bombay Lokal from Nallasopra, like their counterparts from Dharavi, highlight the emergence of hip hop and beat to provide a voice to disenfranchised youth.

It’s a fitting tribute to the memory of Vilas Ghogre, who reinvented lok shahiri in the tradition of Amar Sheikh and Annabhau Sathe, and adapted it into cutting-edge protest politics.

To understand his role, one must examine his work with the Aavhan Natya Manch in the 1980s. The group included protest songs by Ghogre in their street plays. And the presence of Ghogre meant the staging became less Brechtian and less elite in its structure. This is the tradition of the shahirs. When Nishant Shaikh and 84-year-old Shahira Kesarbai Jainoo Shaikh receive the Lokshahir Vilas Ghogre Smriti Puruskar from Shantanu Kamble, they speak of the contribution of the shahirs in the ’50s. She then sings Dongari Shet Maza Ga.Kabir Kala Manch and the other groups join in a rousing chorus.

Sumedh Jadhav, an old-timer from the Dalit Panther Movement, says, “We need more of this. Writers, poets, shahirs, comrades, Jai Bhim Sena. There should not be a single vacant day -every chawl and basti should be holding functions of one kind or another.“

Some of this has begun. Last week saw seven Shahiri Yalgaars and Ambedkari Jalsas in Mumbai. And except for one programme at the Godrej Culture Lab, all the others were below mainstream surveillance. Kesarbai receives a standing ovation. Since 1958, she has been singing onstage. In 1973 she married Lokshahir Sheikh Janu Chand on the stage in Akola. People had bought tickets for a show. In front of a full house, they conducted a ceremony as per Hindu rites. It was May Day.

That’s the power of the movement. Poetry Inquilab!