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‘We Are Here to Disturb You,’ Says Dalit Artist Shambhaji Bhagat

At IIT Gandhinagar, Dalit artist-activist Shambhaji Bhagat and his troupe sang songs of protest, turning performance into resistance.

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Sambhaji Bhagat at IIT Gandhinagar. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Gandhinagar: “We are not here to entertain you, we are here to disturb you,” said Shambhaji Bhagat – a line with which he opens many performances.

At Jasubhai Auditorium in IIT Gandhinagar, Bhagat, a Dalit activist and artist, and his troupe performed ‘Songs of Protest’ on March 21.

What did it mean to have a Dalit artist like Bhagat in a space like IIT? In a conversation before the show, he put it simply, “Students’ movements have many faces today. In a space like IIT, where the best of minds come to study, this is no less than a movement. Students are aware of the situation of the less fortunate and are here to listen to songs that tell tales of them.”

Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who was also invited, acknowledged the same. “I have been invited here to speak here on many issues but I want to congratulate the students of IIT for having an artist like Sambhaji Bhagat here,” said Mevani at the outset of his 15-minute speech.

“If I had not read Kafka or Marx in my student life, the slogan ‘gay nu puchdu tame rakho, ame amari zameen apo’ (you keep the cows tail, give us our land) would probably not have come to me,” said Mevani, talking about the slogan that he coined during Una Asmita Yatra in August 2016, stressing how student movements shape minds.

In a hall packed with a young audience, Bhagat and his troupe opened with a song on the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.

“This song is what we call and ode to the legendary freedom fighter,” said Bhagat.

Bhagat began with a Marathi song that narrates the tale of women and farmers, effortlessly alternating between captivating and fiery rhetoric matched with equal wit.

An artist of many causes, Bhagat, in his unique way, spoke about issues like demonetisation, cow vigilantism and increasing pseudo-nationalism.

“They tell us to shout Bharat Mata ki Jai. But they don’t know that it is us who are the true people of the soil, of this country, and our brothers have cultivated this soil for ages to produce food that they eat,” said Bhagat on stage as his troupe followed with the lines of a song.

Aisa bhedbhav kyu hai re bhai (why is this so unfair).”

“I am a son of the soil. I was born in a village in Maharashtra where I have seen the struggles of my people as I grew up. As I tried to understand their struggle, I realised they are true people of the soil, this country belongs to them. I have been singing their songs for more than 30 years now,” Bhagat said in a conversation before the show.

“The society I grew up was caste ridden and for Dalits especially, there was not much scope for something like entertainment – a situation that has, sadly, not changed much after so many years,” he said.

Bhagat and his troupe at IIT Gandhinagar. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Bhagat and his troupe at IIT Gandhinagar. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“However, we do hear voices of dissent these days and that is the beginning of a promising change,” he said referring to the Una movement that built up in Gujarat after Dalit youth were flogged.

“I see hope in the new faces and young leaders, be it universities in Delhi or the Dalit movement in Gujarat. But what I see is, movements fail because we lack unity. All causes are related, we should stand together,” added the artist.

Bhagat, turns his cause into words. And his words have the desired effect as he turns it into performance with his troupe singing a song depicting the struggle for jal, jungle, zameen (water, forest and land) in Jharkhand.

Gaon chorab nahi,
Jungle Chorab nahi
Mai mati chorab nahi
(We shall not leave our village,
We shall not leave our forest
We shall not leave our mother our land)

The jovial and flamboyant artist had a unique answer to every question and seemed undaunted in his stand.

As Bhagat concluded his show, he had his audience captivated with themes from history, politics and even economics as his baritone resonated within the auditorium..

“Internet pe baithe hai bhai
Jumbo jet pe baithe hai bhai
Khali pet baithe hai bhai
Factory gate pe baithe hai bhai
Wo acting karte hai bhai
Aur hum fighting me marte hai bhai”

(They sit on internet, brother
They sit on their jumbo jets, brother
We sit with hungry stomachs, brother
We sit at the gate of the factory, brother
They are acting, brother
And we die fighting, brother).

Here’s a video of his performance last year at Jantar Mantar.

Excerpts from the interview:

Is it a good time to be an activist-artist? Many have been jailed or have charges against them.

I have been asked to stop my performance and have been jailed many times. That doesn’t stop people like us or dampen our spirit. Yes many are being slapped with charges and the attempts to curb the freedom of expression have increased off late, but as they say we have work to do and the show must go on.

Will singing songs bring about a change?

If I say only singing songs would bring any concrete change, I will be wrong. For a social change, a society needs political revolution. But songs spread the message and that is important. Historically, music has been a mode of protest. For ages, regional folk music has been about the joys and sorrows of the people. It creates a new culture and in our country, most issues are cultural and hence a cultural revolution is also important. The forces working against peoples’ movements have changed many faces. Today they are the faces that identify themselves with the Hindutva wave. With time our songs also change. We don’t retain a form of music as it is. We take a form, research it and write new lyrics pertaining to an issue and thus songs of protest are made.

Why do think the attempts to curb freedom of speech have increased off late?

When you sing songs of people and their reality, they get scared. Women are getting raped, Dalits are still restricted to menial professions like manual scavenging, our songs are about them. We are not asking for money, we ask for the lives and dignity of our brothers and sisters.

We know times are changing with advent of social media. We have launched a Youtube channel called War Beats where we upload our songs. I know this is not my regular audience, we are also catching up with the change.

Damayantee Dhar is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to The Wire.