Device capturing 500 years of Dalit musical history travels to varsities

The voices of unsung Dalit performers from rural Maharashtra ring out from the screen of a digital bookmobile, with songs that trace the history of Dalit struggle in the State for the last five centuries

Updated - March 18, 2023 09:28 am IST

Published - March 17, 2023 10:55 pm IST - MUMBAI

Bookmobile at TISS

Bookmobile at TISS | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A digital bookmobile carrying songs by unknown singers from the interiors of Maharashtra on anti-caste resistance, which are part of the State’s Dalit movement, is touring different universities in India for seven months. This week, it was at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai during its Bahujan Arts Festival.

The Ambedkar digital bookmobile — a trunk-like device with a screen — contains a compilation of Maharashtra’s history of social reform, accessing 400 to 500-year-old traditions of songwriting, performances and poetry against caste-based exploitation and untouchability. It is a history that speaks with multiple voices ranging from Saint Tukaram, Saint Chokhamela and Vamandada Kardak to contemporary, popular singers like Adarsh Shinde. The performances of 12 singers who have been singing anti-caste songs for many years plays on the device.

Changing the narrative

The project was conceived by public intervention artist, performer and educator Smita Rajmane and documentary filmmaker Somnath Waghmare. “In the digital space, be it media or academia, the image of a Dalit is always of a victim and historically Dalits are at the bottom of the society. Songs are an important part in the Dalit movement across the country,” Mr. Waghmare said, explaining the need for the bookmobile.

“Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has become global now, but the reason behind his popularity is not an academician who writes research papers in his room; the main people who contributed to his popularity are unknown singers. They spread his work, his life, his struggle through their songs,” he added. “That is why we have documented non-popular singers from rural Maharashtra and made a gallery of it because as I have observed, galleries are very Brahminical in their display in India.”

Reaching the common man

Discussing the main idea behind the project that has been in the making for the last four years, Ms. Rajmane said, “Only educated people have access to archives. The main idea behind the audio-visual bookmobile is to be accessible to the common people in public spaces. The trunk will travel to community halls, libraries, gardens, educational institutions in rural and urban areas where people can then hear the songs and see the singers perform.”

She said that they got lesser-known singers from different gatherings like the one at the Chaitya Bhoomi in Dadar, where Ambedkar was cremated, held on the occasion of his death anniversary observed as Mahaparinirvan Din on December 6. Other such gatherings include the one at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, where Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, held on October 14, and others at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, Mahad on March 20.

Raising awareness

The bookmobile has travelled to several universities in Maharashtra, Delhi and Bangalore. TISS is the tenth campus where it is open for public viewing and its next destination is the Ashoka University in the National Capital Region. The project received the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art’s public grant in 2019.

The duo hopes that the digital bookmobile will raise awareness around contemporary Dalit political song-performances and encourage discussion and dialogue around it.

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