Interview: What Inspires People to Visit Ambedkar's Memorial Every Year?

The Wire speaks to filmmaker and academic Somnath Waghmare, whose documentary 'Chaityabhumi' shines a light on the aspirations and motivations of lakhs of people who travel to Mumbai on December 6.

Mumbai: On December 1, 2019, a young PhD scholar, Somnath Waghmare, decided to spend six days with his camera documenting the crowd visiting Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s memorial ‘Chaityabhoomi’, situated in the heart of Mumbai city. It was initially meant as an academic process to document the visit of several lakhs of Ambedkarites to the memorial, their aspirations and reasons to continue visiting the city every year. But it has now taken the form of an hour-long documentary film called Chaityabhumi.

Waghmare – who is pursuing a PhD at the Media and Cultural Studies department of Tata Institute of Social Sciences – already has a film under his belt, called The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: An Unending Journey. The new film is promoted by director Pa. Ranjith’s Neelam Productions. On December 6, Ambedkar’s death anniversary – which is observed by his followers as Mahaparinirvan Divas –Waghmare spoke to The Wire about the upcoming film.

What inspired you to make the documentary film Chaityabhumi?

I did not imagine this would become a film. Every year, I visit Chaityabhoomi and see lakhs of people travel from different parts of India to Mumbai. Dr B.R. Ambedkar passed away in 1956 but visitors who have never seen him are drawn to the city each year. The emotions and the love for the man are unparalleled. I simply wanted to capture the day’s events on camera. This was more of an academic exercise and documentation of the annual visit. But at the end of the six-day shoot, having interviewed several people, I was convinced that I should process the footage and present it as a documentary film. 

Ambedkar is perhaps the only leader who manages to move the masses, even so many years after his death. Lakhs of Bahujans gather at Chaityabhoomi each year but this phenomenon is largely neglected by the Indian media.

Actually, there has been an interesting shift in the past few years, especially since the new Ambedkarite generation found an active footing in the online space. A few years ago, major English publications would reduce the Mahaparinirvan Divas to a “traffic snarl”. Invariably, every year, a photo would be carried in newspapers with a caption claiming the city traffic went for a toss because of the crowd. Barring a few regional papers, no one would even care to check what inspires such a deprived class to travel miles on this day. But today, they are fully aware that they can’t get away with such insensitive, mindless coverage. Ambedkarites will hold them accountable and call their casteism out promptly. You find a slightly informed news coverage now. 

Somnath Waghmare. Photo: By arrangement

Can you share a little about how you went about researching and filming for the documentary?

Before Chaityabhumi, I had filmed for months at Bhima Koregaon (for his earlier film). After spending many hours at these places, I realised that there is a pattern to the crowd that gathers here. It is not just Chaityabhoomi or Deekshabhoomi that people visit. Almost every district has a place or two of historical relevance. You will see similar congregations of Bahujans across these places. I wanted to capture what drives people to travel every year; their attachment to the revolutionary leader.

There is no political motivation behind this, it is pure emotion. Such a massive gathering, however, continues to be ignored by the state. Most arrangements are made by volunteer groups like Samata Sainik Dal and Bhartiya Boudh Mahasabha. The day has a strict schedule and events are organised at the pre-decided time. My film captures all these activities and how volunteers manage the day’s events meticulously. 

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You mentioned that you began this as an academic exercise but later converted it into a film. What exactly was the objective behind this academic work?

Close to 10 lakh people – largely belonging to the Dalit community but also from the OBC community – visit Chaityabhoomi every year. Social scientists obsessively study the two communities. I would say, Chaityabhoomi is the best place to study the socio-economic realities of the Bahujan communities. From December 1 onwards, people – mostly from northern states – travel to Mumbai. People from other regions follow. They stay close by, at a sprawling public park called Shivaji Park and spend close to a week in the city. Most of them are landless labourers, who travel in passenger trains with just a pair of clothes and dry food packets. Many Nepalese and Sri Lankans too visit Chaityabhoomi.

For the entire week, many book and music stalls crop up in the area. Folk and street artists perform here. People with limited means happily spend all their earnings on anti-caste books and music. It is a sight to behold. 

Along with the intention of making a film for the community, I am also hoping the film will also help researchers and academics in the future. 

Your last film on Bhima Koregaon is available on YouTube. It has been widely appreciated. What are your plans for Chaityabhumi?

Since this film is promoted by Neelam Productions, I am hoping to find an appropriate OTT streaming platform to release the film. I just want to take the film to as many people as I can.