Lounge Heroes | Sambhaji Bhagat, the poet of resistance
The anti-caste, anti-fascism activist talks about his poetry and the need for a revolution that’s both political and philosophical
Sambhaji Bhagat has loved the percussion instruments used in bhajans since childhood. “Even if I heard their sound in the middle of the night, I would get up and go to where it was coming from," he recalls. He could never go too close though. For in the 1960s, untouchability was a fact of life in his village of Mahu in Maharashtra’s Satara district. Bhagat, who comes from a landless Dalit family, was expected to keep his distance.
One day, however, he couldn’t hold back. A kirtan was being held in the village and Bhagat sneaked towards the musicians. On a mat next to them, he found a small tuning hammer. He picked it up and started using it as percussion. Halfway through the performance, it broke.
“A man saw this. He came and thrashed me. Then he took me to my mother and abused her too." The accident was his fault but the disproportionate reaction stayed with him. “I knew it was to do with my caste," Bhagat, 61, says over a Zoom call. “But I wondered, what does music have to do with caste?"
A decade later, he moved to Mumbai, enrolling in a commerce college on a scholarship, and found a room at the Siddharth hostelin Wadala. It was ahotbedof the Ambedkarite movement. There, Bhagat learnt about Ambedkarite socialism, caste-based oppression and the dangersof majoritarianism and fascism. He joined the leftist theatre groupAvahan Natya Manch, giving voice to issues through songs set to the beats of not one but three percussion instruments: the dholak, dholki and pakhavaj.
Today, Bhagat is one of the best-known lokshahirs, or “people’s poets", in Maharashtra. His songs would focus on themes related to caste, politics, corruption and extremism, appealing for a more just, equitable society. Today, he has gone further, trying to inspire a philosophical change in values among youngsters.
He started off performing in slums and villages across the state, in an effort to unite workers, farmers and disenfranchised communities. They organized street plays during major movements, like the Bombay textile strike years of the 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Abhiyan and the 16-year-long Namantar Andolan to rename Aurangabad’s Marathwada university to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada university.
Bhagat’s poetry has always embraced the slang and spoken tongue, preferring it to the literary. This is best illustrated in Yeh Hitler Ke Saathi, among his most famous powada (ballads), where Bhagat takes a jab at politicians and their ilk: “Bade jholar baithe hai bhai, bade seller baithe hai bhai, koi net pe baithe hai bhai, koi jet pe baithe hai bhai... (There are conmen, sellers, internet warriors, jet-setters)." Often, he stops mid-recitation to address his audience, switching seamlessly from verse to prose: “Every morning, a baba comes on the TV. He asks you to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Poora desh puncture hai aur ye hawa bhar rahe hai (The country is deflated and he’s blowing hot air)."
“Earlier, I would write a lot of abstract poems," says Bhagat. “I once read one to my mother. She said she didn’t get a word. What’s the point in writing if people don’t understand it?" After completing his graduation, he worked as a public school teacher, and was promoted to the Maharashtra state education board in 2012. He retired in 2017.
One of Bhagat’s enduring contributions has been to bring his art into the mainstream, be it activism in slums or independent performances on stage. Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa, a performance troupe of singers, writers and musicians that he formed in the early 1990s, attracted youth from across the state. In 2012, he co-wrote and composed music for the critically acclaimed playShivaji Underground In Bhimnagar Mohalla, highlighting the way the political right had misinterpreted the legacy of the 17th century Maratha king, known for his secular and inclusive values.
In 2015, he composed music for Court, a Marathi feature film loosely inspired from his life as a lokshahir. The film was later selected as India’s official entry for the Academy Awards.
Bhagat now lives in Mumbai with his wife, son and daughter. After decades of activism, he has a dispiriting assessment of his legacy. “I am glad that many in my generation don’t have to endure the kind of harassment my (Dalit) ancestors saw," he says. “But seeing the rise of fascism around us, I see that we failed to understand our people, their aspirations. We failed to create a viable political alternative. The ones we created sought power, not revolution."
This realization has led him to his most recent project: the Manuskichi Shala, or “school of human values", which he started earlier this year. Held once a week in Ambernath, Thane, the “school" uses poems, games and stories to help children, aged 10 and above, understand the values of love and unity, and look beyond caste and class barriers. “It’s something that I have learnt from my years of activism," he says. “I used to think political change is necessary but now I think that’s not enough. The crisis before the human race is philosophical. We need to understand why we are living, why we should live together, and how we can do so with nature."
The new avatar is a departure from his radical activism and firebrand politics. Has his disillusionment with the struggle softened his rhetoric?
In response, Bhagat narrates a story. In 2015, following the success of Court, elders in his village organized a felicitation ceremony for him. The lead speaker, Bhagat recalls, was a prominent politician from Satara. “In his speech, he was telling people, ‘Kaal amchya payakhali hote, bhakri magun khaat hote, kapde dile yanna amhi... (Until yesterday, he was under our feet, used to beg for food. I gave him clothes). I couldn’t understand: Was this event to felicitate me or insult me?
“Even if you succeed, some like to remind you that you were once below their feet," says Bhagat with a wan smile. “It is why we don’t just need to change our politics, but change from within."