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Sambhaji Bhagat: The bard of small things

Last updated on: March 17, 2010 13:49 IST
Image: Sambhaji Bhagat with his troupe
Photographs: Afsar N Ganesh in Mumbai

As the school bell at Sadhana Vidyalaya in suburban Mumbai rings out another day, history teacher Sambhaji Bhagat, 50, is as eager as his students to leave. He rushes to his room at the decrepit Siddharth Vihar Hostel where his friends, followers and students wait for him to embark on their trip to a slum pocket of Mumbai. The troupe gears to perform on the bylanes of the slum educating and creating awareness of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's ideologies among the Dalits.

"Every political party has an Ambedkar plank to serve its own agenda. The so-called Dalit leaders of today are jokers who have made a mockery of Ambedkar's ideology. Through our songs and performances we are trying to undo the damage done by the self-serving entities on the underprivileged section," says the Dalit Lokshahir (people's poet), a teacher by profession and bard at heart.

Bhagat has received no formal training in singing but has a lilting voice that can mesmerise listeners for hours. Bhagat is a teacher but others in his troupe are not so fortunate -- Asaram Umap who handles the dimdi (a small hand held drum) and flute is a rag picker; Sandeep Lokhande, the dholak exponent makes his livelihood as an instrumentalist; Babasaheb Atkhile is a promising young lad who also performs the role of a troupe coordinator. This motley group would not have not come together had it not been for their inspirational anchor -- Bhagat.

"Those in power have ensured that the Dalits do not come together. Though Dalits constitute the single largest community, the dominant powers are thriving on the divide and rule policy. The so-called Dalit leaders have been weaned away from the community by giving them lucrative positions and eventually they became part of the establishment," says Bhagat.

Born to a cobbler in the picturesque Panchgani in Mahableshwar, a hill station of Mahrashtra, Bhagat as a school boy was swayed by the drills of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But his heart and mind somehow failed to walk in tandem with the RSS idealogy. His feet carried him away from the drill sessions. From the far right he landed straight into the lap of the leftists. He was in his teens by then but the leftist ideologies proved to be too 'dogmatic',  and he quit. From the far right to the far left, Bhagat took on a new path that made him find his true identity.  He went back to his roots.

"Once educated and elevated in status, Dalits no longer want to associate with their community. To be accepted by the dominant class they become part of it," said Bhagat.

Bhagat sings about how Dalits are made to contend with empty rhetoric whereas the schemes meant for their upliftment is not implemented. "More than jobs the Dalits need land, which as per the law, they should have had the ownership by now. If the land to the tillers is implemented than several ministers from Maharashtra will lose their land," said Bhagat.

Bhagat's songs are peppered with no holds barred anti-establishment lyrics. The words are sharp but mellifluous in his tongue and are meant to cut through the ignorance of his people. He has not even spared his initial mentors -- the right wing outfits for their regressive religious ideologies.

"Once when I performed at my native Panchgani, my friends who went onto become leaders in the RSS were shocked to hear me say things which they knew was true but would never publicly accept,"  he says.

In keeping with his goals, Bhagat is planning a Dr Ambedkar Vichar Prasar Kendra, a think-tank to help the Dalits. He also plans to run a radio station that would air Dr Ambedkar's speeches and songs based on his ideologies.