Eminent Marathi litterateur and folk scholar Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere, known for his ground-breaking work on Maharashtra’s religious traditions, passed away on Friday after a prolonged illness. He was 86.
Dr. Dhere, was honoured with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1987 for his highly influential book on Lord Vitthal titled Shri Vitthal: Ek Mahasamanvaya (published in Marathi in 1984), was a veritable treasure trove on the lives and the influence of deities and saints in Maharashtra.
In more than a hundred scholarly works, Dr. Dhere asked vital questions on how the religious milieu in Maharashtra came about. Through his authoritative and scholarly works, he viewed the primacy of religious life in the State through an anthropological lens, etching brilliant, unconventional narratives of the religious history of Maharashtra and the Deccan Plateau.
His award-winning book on Lord Vitthal was brilliantly translated into English in 2011 as The Rise of a Folk God: Vitthal of Pandharpur by American scholar Anne Feldhaus and issued in Oxford University as part of a scholarly series on South Asia.
In Professor Feldhaus’ preface to the book, she says that Dr. Dhere contended that Lord Vithoba was “originally a pastoralists’ deity” who nevertheless united folk as well as elite forms of Hindu worship. Hence, the title of Dr. Dhere’s book referring to Lord Vitthal as ‘ek Mahasamanvay’ or ‘a grand converger’ or ‘synthesiser’.
The book, by tracing the origins of the cult of Vithoba and the connections with Buddhist and Jain traditions, is a contribution to the history of the Vaishnavite tradition and remains the most thorough work, in any language, to understanding the deity.
Apart from this, Dr. Dhere authored Chakrapani (1976), which traces the cultural background of Marathi literature when the Yadava dynasty was in the ascendant in Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka. His other important works include the Marathi Loksanskrutiche Upasak (1964). Translated as Performers, custodians and practitioners of Folk Culture , the path-breaking work is an exhaustive introduction to folk culture institutions.
Dr. Dhere was a virtual archive, tracking down the origins and the meaning of various religious cults in Maharashtra, as exemplified in his book Datta Sampradayacha Itihas (1958) or A history of the Datta cult , which he authored when aged just 28. He also penned an interesting short biography of the Machiavellian Minister and political thinker Chanakya.
He was an admired scholar, receiving the State Prize for nine of his works. In 1980, he became the first person to receive the D.Lit. from the University of Pune. Sripal Sabnis, president of All India Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, said: “He set high standards in literary criticism and research that would inspire generations of Marathi writers.” He is survived by his family including his wife, two daughters, one of whom is the noted author-poet Aruna Dhere, and a son.