“I don’t want to talk of caste, I want to break it,” declares Ginni Mahi, the 17-year-old Punjabi folk-cum-pop singer from Jalandhar who has been making waves. Her latest track ‘Fan Baba Sahib Di’ (‘Ambedkar’s Fan’) proclaims her admiration for the architect of the Constitution and his emancipatory thoughts and writings. “I sing of Guru Ravidas, Guru Nanak, Kabir and Ambedkar. Their message was of equality and they called for an end to caste discrimination.”
Mahi is just one of a new generation of performers who are reinventing the music of the Dalit movement by mixing existing folk traditions with Western genres and attracting newer and younger crowds of listeners.
The Dalit movement has, down the years, given birth to many shairs (poets), folk musicians and balladeers, who sing paeans to Babasaheb, spreading his message across the country, speaking of breaking the shackles of inequality and exploitative Brahminical structures. Much of this revolutionary music, for example, the vast repertoire of ‘Bhim Geet’ (Ambedkar songs) in Maharashtra, has been the lifeblood of rights agitations from the start. Today, the singers have bigger dreams. Mahi, for instance, dreams of becoming a playback singer in Bollywood. They see themselves as having a far more universal appeal than their older counterparts did. Not so long ago, playback singers and musicians were known to hide their caste identity. The new lot flaunts it. Their lyrics are from their history, their videos replete with Ambedkar photos and Buddhist iconography.
“Folk songs and poetry were the old methods of spreading the message of equality. Ambedkar praised poets for putting ideas across so easily,” says singer-musician Kabeer Shakya from Navi Mumbai, who, in 2011, founded Dhamma Wings, which he calls an Ambedkarite Buddhist gospel band. “Today, you have to convey the same thing in a modern way. The Buddhist community is well-educated. That’s why we have started composing music in English. We perform in colleges; rock and pop work. Even non-Buddhists like my music.”
But caste is never far away from Dalit pop. As Shakya says, “Our whole identity is because of Ambedkar.” Pointing to his single ‘Deewana Buddha Bhim ji ka’, he says, “I am from a backward community. Someone injected a sickness [of caste] in our community. A doctor [Ambedkar] came and cured it. I represent the cured generation. Naturally, I will be his fan, his deewana . You will find the same sentiment everywhere. Ambedkar is a symbol of struggle.”
The political character of the music resonates distinctly with the Black protest music of the American Civil Rights Movement. “All my art is political,” says Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a U.S.-based Ambedkarite singer. “I am a socially engaged artist. So, in all my mediums, whether film, song or photography, I am inspired by and rooted in struggle. As a singer, I chose rock and blues to express myself because it is an amalgam like me. They are traditions of resistance and when I sing, I sing from that place of grace, rage and wonder.”
As this feisty singer says, art has always been the bedrock of social change. And these singers know that. They know that art can move hearts.
When Mahi was studying in Hans Raj Mahila Maha Vidyalaya in Jalandhar, a classmate came up at lunchtime and asked her caste. “When I told her I was from the Scheduled Caste community, she asked ‘which sub-caste?’ I replied I was a Chamar, and she said Chamars are dangerous.” And thus was born ‘Danger Chamar’, the 2015 hit that catapulted Mahi to fame and marked her out as one of the most assertive voices in Dalit pop. The video has a tough-looking Mahi dressed in a black jacket singing in a run-down scrap yard with a bunch of men flexing their tattooed muscles. The song speaks of respect for all religions and is an assertion of the Dalit Chamar community that worships Ravidas. “We don’t need any weapons, we don’t fear any struggle, we are always ready for sacrifice.” Mahi explains the song’s lyrics and does a flawless impromptu rendition of it over the phone.
The strength of her contralto tones and the confidence with which Mahi sings is infectious. With six albums under her belt, Mahi talks of growing up in an Ambedkarite family that followed Ravidas, a Dalit saint from the 15th and 16th centuries. Mahi’s songs are powerful invocations of her icons. “As a singer, I thank Ambedkarji who gave us our rights. We owe it to him.”
In faraway California, Soundararajan is equally vocal. One of the curators of Dalit History Month, a radical history project, she recently campaigned successfully against erasing the mention of the caste system from textbooks in California. “My first song was a blues song about intergenerational struggle and the power of Dalit women. We should have all kinds of music in the Dalit repertoire. Traditional folk, rock, ‘filmi’ songs, reggae. Being Dalit is a unique and powerful window into the human experience that makes for great art.”
Back home, Shakya’s musical influences include the protest songs of Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. In college, he would play the guitar at cultural events and was in culture committees. After graduation, he met some Thai monks studying at the University of Mumbai and life suddenly took a brief turn into spirituality. “I became a monk for three blissful months at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. There, I saw a statue of Ambedkar and it made me contemplate my upbringing. I believed his thoughts were useful and they should be propagated.”
Using song as his medium, Shakya pieced together the five-member Dhamma Wings with pals. The guiding thought behind the band is to educate people about history and give them a positive mindset. “I read Ambedkar for two years. Reading Indian history was shocking for me; I realised the extent to which the history of Dalits has been suppressed. We have to reclaim our history. Till we do that, our progress will be hampered,” he says.
The band released its first commercial album ‘The Legend Of Bodhisattva’ in 2011, followed by singles like ‘Jai Bhim Se’ and a modern rendition of the late Wamandada Kardak’s famous ‘Chandanyachi Chayya’. They are now working on a rock album in Kannada and Gujarati. They have forged ties with musicians in various States and have done gigs in Hindi, Marathi and even Pali. Up north, singers Hemant Kumar Bauddh and Tarannum Bodh, both currently working on masters’ degrees in music at Delhi University, see themselves as part of the Dalit pop movement. Their latest album ‘Jai Bhim Lage Jab Nara’ is set to be released in DVD format under the T-series label. As Bauddh quips, “ Hum hai naye, andaaz kyun ho purana? [We are young, why should our style be old?]” .
Bodh is more militant. “Bollywood has many Dalit singers but how many sing about caste? We did not even have the right to speak, but today I am singing. My music is futile if I cannot complete Ambedkar’s mission. All of us want to give a new music to the country. As our community gets more vocal, new compositions are being written.”
Rohith Vemula’s suicide has lit a fierce new light in many of these performers, and the promise of a new chapter in Bhim Geet shines bright. Bauddh’s lyrics say it well: Ab tak jo hamare saath hua uska gum nahi/ Lekin ab jamane ko dikhana hai, hum kisi se kam nahi [We are not sad about what happened to us so far/ But now we want to show the world, we are no less than anybody].
Mumbai-based Rahi Gaikwad is an independent journalist. She writes on caste, human rights and general interest topics.