Tag Archives: Jai Bhim

Sambhaji Bhagat- ‘Power grows out of #music’


Sambhaji is both a rebel and a political Soothsayer’

• Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat •

By Ramu Ramanathan, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, Dated 10 Nov 2012

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh


IT IS a gupshup with Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat organised by friends. Sambhaji is being felicitated for the Marathi International Film & Theatre Awards (MIFTA), which he bagged in Singapore for the music-design of the play, Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla. A rag-tag crowd sits in a circle. Theatrewallahs, trade unionists, scribes, socialists, Dalit Panther and Vidrohi cadre and tomorrow’s shahirs.

Sambhaji says, “We are the children of our age, and we inhabit a diminished space. Our genes have a past and a caste. Ambedkarites have been labelled as today’s bad boys in Maharashtra. All that we say or do is under surveillance.”

But Sambhaji also known as “Maharashtra’s Gaddar” is not cowed down. He swears by Dr Ambedkar, “Hum Babasaheb ke bachche hain.” This cry has thwarted hecklers and Right-wing mobs. He guffaws, “They understand that I am no liberal or a socialist. They know only a real Ambedkarite can counter them on the streets.’’

Then he summons the god of humour and belts out a powada (ballad). The motley audience sings along. The words reverberate. It is about political oppression expressed through folk harmonies.

Years ago, I met another legend: the Late Shahir Atmaram Patil. His poetry, songs and powadas were socialistic and secular. Shahir Atmaram had said, “Jo abhyas nahi karega, usko kya pata hoga?”, referring to the political misappropriation of Shivaji by Right-wing parties in Maharashtra.

I asked: Why did this happen? Why didn’t we prevent it?

Shahir Atmaram smiled: Shivaji ensures votes. Art doesn’t.

Sambhaji follows this tradition of the shahirs (people’s poets from the Tamasha lexicon) in Maharashtra. He says, “After every war, someone has to tidy up. Things won’t pick themselves up, after all.” Which is how his play Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla came into being.

Sambhaji says he had a lot of misgivings about staging the play since it would be denied a genuine run of shows due to its “Jai Bhim” tag.

Till date, the play has been staged more than 50 times, including housefull shows in the Shiv Sena and MNS heartland of Dadar and Parel. Sambhaji says, “Initially, the going was tough because of its provocative content and title.” But the team refused to show the script to anyone and went ahead with the shows. The response has been stupendous from the intellectuals of Maharashtra to locals who throng to see the show in small towns of Maharashtra and present Sambhaji and his team “a gift of bakri and mutton rasa”. Sambhaji says, “These are the true supporters of the play. They spread the message. Today, the problem in Maharashtra is that gratuitous art has become the norm. Anything other than that means indictment either from the State or from angry demonstrators.”

Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla has a simple intent: to reclaim Chhatrapati Shivaji from a militant Right-wing mascot to being “a Raja of the Shudras” and highlight his administrative abilities. The play directed by Nandu Madhav transpires in the here and now. Shivaji is no more and while Yama is escorting his atma back toswarglok, he goes missing. The musical piece performed by 17 farm workers from Jalna often lacks narrative coherence, which it makes up for with a pastiche of the absurd, and focusses on who owns Shivaji and why. Now that the play is ‘a critically acclaimed hit’, commentators are hoping it’ll be ‘the game-changer’ the Dalit movement is seeking in Maharashtra.

‘Sambhaji’s performances are cock-a-snook against cultural Stalinists’

It’s been an arduous 50-odd years on this planet for Sambhaji. From a small town near Panchgani, the son of a gifted cobbler, he gravitated to the local RSS outlet for his initial schooling. It was only when he reached Mumbai for further education did he realise he had been “indoctrinated”. His comrades in arms at Sidhartha Hostel ensured a change in ideology. He de-programmed his system. He was asked to read Ambedkar and Marx in English. He did so. A major achievement for a hinterland boy, who could barely formulate a phrase in Marathi.

Since then his life has entailed performances in the slums of Maharashtra for huge audiences. There was a stint in Nagpur jail in the mid-80s for being a Naxalite. These days, he teaches in a school. When he is not teaching, he protests. He lends his voice for Sudhir Dhawale or Kabir Kala Manch. Every time I watch him perform, I realise it is a tad difficult to simplify his body of work into glib phrases. When asked how and why does he raise these uncomfortable questions about our times in his songs, he says, “I’m not for sale, that’s why.”

But it’s not so simple. His performances are cock-a-snook against the cultural Stalinists; who have carefully choreographed the notion of what art is in this country. Sambhaji does not fit into the official paradigm. For one, he is a rebel. The other thing is, he is also a political soothsayer. When he sings his all-time favourite, “Inko dhyaan se dekho re bhai/ Inki soorat ko pehchano re bhai”, you wonder why we were not paying heed. He seems to have anticipated our political problems quite eloquently.

Sambhaji believes, “Power grows out of music. People respond to the words in a song. That’s why we need to take words to people. Too many big egos have ruined the movement. It’s important to re-organise.” This is what Sambhaji is seeking to do, as he concludes with Babasaheb’s words, “Educate, agitate and organise.”

Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright and director. A collection of his plays, 3, Sakina Manzil and Other Plays was published by Orient BlackSwan. He is a member of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee


Guerilla theatre under sniper attack

Deepak Dengle, of Kabir Kala Manch before his Arrest

Deepak Dengle, of Kabir Kala Manch before his Arrest

Are street-based theatre performances,one of the most mobile and least governable forms of protest,increasingly leaving its actors open to attacks 

Gitanjali Dang | TNN 

In May last year,two members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were arrested by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorist Squad for being pro-Maoist under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA),1967.While Dengle and Bhonsle are still in prison,other members of the group,including Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe,have gone underground.
India has a long history of muzzling street-based protest performances.If its not the government,then its political hoodlums.KKM,incidentally,is a group of Dalit protest singers and poets from Pune who convey their socio-political critique through songs and street plays.
Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat,a radical poet and political activist who has been singing songs of change for 30 years mentored KKM.Members of KKM were hurt by the Gujarat genocide.They approached me.Impressed by their dedication and intelligence,I agreed to help them.As KKM is Pune-based and I live in Mumbai,I visited them during weekends.I shared my thoughts on revolutionary and peoples art with them.I cant comment on their political affiliations but I know that they are like my kids.Several of them are gold medalists and they make better music than the likes of AR Rahman.
The most dastardly attack on street performances was on January 2,1989,when Safdar Hashmi,Communist playwright and founding member of Jana Natya Manch (Peoples Theatre Front),was brutally murdered while he was performing a play,Halla Bol,in a village in Ghaziabad.The Ghaziabad municipal elections were on at the time and the play was in support of the workers demands presented by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
In March the same year,M F Husain commemorated the leftist ideologue in his painting Tribute to Hashmi at an exhibition in Mumbais Victoria Terminus Railway Station (now Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus).Ironically,by 2006,Husain himself had to flee India as several cases were filed against him for his allegedly obscene paintings of Indian goddesses.
Although,contemporary Indian art,like in Husains case,has increasingly faced fascist reactions from the state,the ante of repression is perennially being upped for street performers.Earlier this month,Bureau Publik,Denmark a space aimed at understanding the new forms of resistance that have emerged in the US,the Middle East,North Africa and Europe opened a project titled,Revolution Happened Because Everybody Refused to Go Home.This telling title can be easily related to the perennial crisis faced by Indian street theatre artistes,poets and singers.The revolution,as it were,requires people to not go home but to stay on the streets.
Explaining the potency of street theatre,playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan says,Unencumbered by technology,the theatrical event needs only actors,a script and an audience.It is one of the most mobile and hence,least governable,of the performing arts.It can perform,move on,and perform again,concealing its whereabouts and activities. He takes the example of Telugu balladeer and activist Gaddar.He was supposed to perform in a crowded chowk in Nagpur.There was a siege situation.The police were out to arrest a man they perceived to be a threat to national security.When he finally appeared,he hollered a statement from atop a police van.This act could be called guerilla theatre and it actively opposes the governments war on impoverished farmers and farm hands.Such theatre sounded the first clarion call of opposition,long before other media.Gaddars theatre made it more mobile and less controllable than other performing arts.
Ramanathan is also a member of the KKM Defence Committee.It was initiated in May this year.Ironically,the committee came into being when prominent documentary Anand Patwardhan set aside the Rs 51,000 he was awarded by Maharashtra government for winning a National Award for his documentary Jai Bhim Comrade,2012.It took 14 years to make and follows the poetry and music of Dalits.
The project was set into motion,in part,by the 1997 death of Dalit balladeer Vilas Ghogre.In 1997,a statue of Dr B R Ambedkar was desecrated with footwear in Mumbais Ramabai colony.Police opened fire on the protesting Dalits,killing 10.Vilas Ghogre,a Dalit balladeer hung himself in protest.Appropriately,Patwardhans mediation on this subaltern tradition,ends with a segment on KKM.
The street as a performance arena predominantly belongs to Dalit and Left movements and the fort is held by contemporary groups such as Republican Panthers,Ambedkari Mission and Bharat Bachav Andolan.That said,journalist Javed Iqbal,whose been writing on peoples movements in India,believes that such movements are found wherever there are disenfranchised citizens, be it Mumbai  s l u m s o r  Chhattisgarh villages.