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Asserting identity and culture through song

In Ichalkaranji, a small textile town on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka, for the past 50 years, a group of 12 men and women have entertained village audiences with a series of musical performances one night each week. An unusual band of over 70-year-old members and mostly Dalits in their 20s, they carry large red-bound notebooks with Marathi songs scribbled in pen, highlighting the importance of equality and oppression. and the importance of freedom from rationality. They call themselves the Samaj Gayan Party, have day jobs (teachers, students, laborers, pions, farmers) and spend their leisure time traveling from village to village by bicycle or hired van.

There are many such amateur singers in Maharashtra, touring villages and spreading ideas of equality and self-esteem. Their singing and musical traditions are seeded with a unique and intangible cultural heritage. Widely popular in the village, but strangely lacking in the so-called mainstream consciousness.

In my work documenting the lives and musical traditions of the singers of these groups, in every Talka (cluster of 100+ villages) there are 5-6 such gaya parties (singing groups). found to be common. Their songs are rooted in the imagination and aspirations of their communities and locked into the local character of their land. Sample the following lines: Candianchi Chaya, Kaprachi Kaya, Maurich Maya Hota, Maja Vimuraya (Cool night sky, camphor body, mother’s love, dear Bim)

For communities that have historically faced barriers to accessing documented knowledge or have been coerced away from documenting their history, music offers an alternative means of asserting identity and culture. They create a reality of liberation, however fleeting, in a world where many of these singers and the communities they come from face daily instances of discrimination and prejudice. For example, Yashwant Kambul, who heads the Samaj Gayan Party. Kambur (75 years old) is a sculptor and BR he was called to the village to make small busts and statues of Dr. Ambedkar. This was seen as a sign of assertion and self-esteem towards the more dominant community and its cultural motifs. However, he faced slander and abuse as many of the songs referred to Ambedkar, his life and anti-caste philosophies. Often villagers boycotted the Dalit people, urging him to become a part-time barber and start cutting hair in Dalitwada. The musical traditions of these groups are centuries old, and the singers, in addition to speaking of reformers such as Jyotiva Pouleh and Ambedkar, have also spoken of the 14th-century poet Chokacamera and his 17th-century writer Tukaram. Poetry is often mentioned.

A common reference is the Marathi poet and playwright Wamandada Kardak. His approximately 2,500 poems helped spread rationality and anti-caste ideas among the poor and uneducated. Ambedkar used to say in his speeches that the only son by “Beloved Shahir” is equal to ten of his speeches.

As I grew up in the remote Malewadi village in the Sangri district of Maharashtra, my boyhood was enlivened by these musical evenings that opened the windows to dreams of a more equal world. Only by documenting these nameless artists and showcasing their enduring cultural heritage can we form a more rounded view of what Indian art truly is.

Somnath Waghmare is a filmmaker, PhD, and artist with Smita Rajmane on a current project documenting the anti-caste musical traditions of rural Maharashtra.
Views expressed are personal

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