As far back as I remember, we have always had Ambedkar’s picture on the wall in our house. For me, the picture has always represented the struggle, a path towards equity and my identity as a Dalit.
As a community, we celebrated three important days every year. 14th April – Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birth anniversary), Dhammachakra pravartan din (Dussera) – The day when Ambedkar with almost a million of his followers converted to Buddhism. We, the first and second generation of Dalits in the cities, through these celebrations invoke Ambedkar in the current context. But there was a generation before us, who laid the groundwork for the movement started by Ambedkar and enabled some of us to elevate socially, politically and most importantly economically.
The generation I want to unearth is the generation of my grandfathers’. This generation lived through the horrors of casteism, atrocities and Ambedkar’s era.
I want to talk about my Grandfather (Father’s father).
He never went to school. He used to work at the electrical boiler in the Indian railways’ factory. My grandfather’s generation was in awe of Ambedkar. They saw him as their savior and they knew that their participation in the struggle is equally important as Ambedkar’s leadership.
While looking for the songs from Dalit movement for my master’s dissertation, my father mentioned that my grandfather was in Ambedkari Jalsa troupe. While I was too eager to get my hand on his poetry, none existed. Due to lack of schooling, he couldn’t read or write. So somebody else had to do the writing while he would come up with poetry in his mind.
My grandfather’s engagement with the movement started after Ambedkar’s call for conversion to Buddhism. He used to be a part of Tamasha troupe in Manmad, a small town in Nashik district in Maharashtra. He sensed the urgency and importance of using his skills for more than just entertainment. He and his fellow friends started Ambedkari Jalsa troupe. The cultural protest and rebellion through songs in jalsa and other popular, folks songs marked the beginning of identity, self-respect and power struggle in Maharashtra. They followed another Dalit stalwart leader Dadasaheb Gaikwad, after Ambedkar’s death. Through their songs, they would highlight the fight for equity, right to lead a respectful life and Ambedkar’s mission towards the emancipation of dalits and annihilation of caste. Their jalsa troupe went on to perform and enlighten people for the next two decades.
Here is one of the most popular songs about Ambedkar:
उद्धरली कोटी कुळे भीमा तुझ्या जन्मामुळे
Crores of families uplifted Bhima (Ambedkar) due to your birth
जखडबंद पायातील साखळदंड
तडातड तुटले तू ठोकताच दंड
झाले गुलाम मोकळे, भीमा तुझ्या जन्मामुळे
(Iron braces in our legs
Unshackled the moment you hit
Slaves were freed, Bhima due to your birth)
काल कवडीमोल जीणे वामनचे होते
आज जुळे जगताशी प्रेमाचे नाते
बुद्धाकडे जग हे वळे, भीमा तुझ्या जन्मामुळे
(Until yesterday Vaman (the poet), led life of no value
Today I’m connected with the world by love
The World is moving towards Buddha, Bhima, because of your birth)
— लोकशाहीर वामनदादा कर्डक
Songs produce memories. Music is an important experience that brings to the surface emotions and thoughts that later become memories and it also evokes certain images and memories of the past. Through songs and poetry, the Dalit community preserves its memories of oppression in order to continue its fight against that oppression. Today neither my grandfather nor his songs exists. I am left with his memories and a sense of regret that his next generation failed to document his work, his stories of struggle.