• Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat •
By Ramu Ramanathan
HUM BABASAHEB KE BACHCHE HAIN
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.
SHIVAJI IS UNDERGROUND
Years ago, I met another legend: the Late Shahir Atmaram Patil. His poetry, songs andpowadas 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.”
‘Sambhaji’s performances are cock-a-snook against cultural Stalinists’
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 to swarglok, 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.
EDUCATE, ORGANISE, AGITATE
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.
THIS IS HIS MISSION.
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