Monday, January 4, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Balladeer of the mean streets

Balladeer of the mean streets
Jyoti Punwani

4 January 2010, 03:20am ISTText Size:|Topics:mumbai university
Balladeer of the mean streets

His father, a cobbler whose shoes were much in demand among the
Panchgani elite, could never have imagined that his son would one day
be a visiting lecturer in Mumbai University, a special invitee at
Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science and a star performer at the
Pune Festival. Last weekend, as he presided over the Lok Kala Ani Lok
Sahitya Sammelan at Warud, Sambhaji Bhagat remembered his days as a
hotel 'boy' in Panchgani, working as he schooled. The lok shahir (folk
poet) credits his success to Dr Ambedkar, but his song asking the
Dalit God to step off his pedestal and give a new direction to Dalit
politics which has imprisoned him as a cult figure and a vote-getter,
reveals a mindset quite different from the regular Ambedkarite.

Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat's autobiography ends with his imprisonment as a
Naxalite in Nagpur Jail in 1986. He is no longer one; but his
understanding of politics remains similar to theirs. What is different
fortunately for him and his audiences is his style of getting his
message across. Imperialism, fascism, globalisation, capitalist pigs,
the exploitation of the proletariat—all the leftist jargon is
transformed into a riveting performance in Bambaiya Hindi in his hit
ballad 'Inko dhyaan se dekho re bhai/ Inki soorat ko pehchano re

If there was to be a ballad that voiced the thoughts of the millions
of poor Indians whose voices are rarely heard, it would have to be
Sambhaji Bhagat's composition. A bitingly sharp satire on the
Establishment, the song, written more than a decade ago, is always
contemporary. Sambhaji is constantly changing it, incorporating the
latest political situation, the latest ad jingle. It started off as an
expose of the Ayodhya movement—today, it mocks the many Babas on TV as
much as it shows up the ugly face of development.

It was a chance encounter outside Churchgate station in the '80s that
changed Sambhaji's world. He had come to Mumbai to join college. "I
used to roam around Dharavi, dreaming of writing a book on the
terrible conditions there and my solutions to end them, and sending it
to Indira Gandhi. She was after all, our ruler, and I felt she could
solve the problem,'' recalls Sambhaji. Then he met the people who made
him realise that Indira Gandhi was part of the problem. He happened to
see a street play being performed outside Churchgate station by
Aavhaan Natya Manch, one of the pioneers of the street theatre
movement in Mumbai, and knew he had to join them.

Aavhaan's ideology was far Left, its founders upper-class
English-speaking students from Elphinstone and St Xavier's. In
Sambhaji, they found the kind of talent they lacked, recalls advocate
Sanober Keshwar, whom Sambhaji calls his 'guru'. "He is a born
performer,'' says Sanober. "He enriched Aavhaan with his talent for
music and writing in the people's idiom.''


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