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Opinion: Ambedkar lives on in rural women's songs

Babasaheb Ambedkar brought much-needed hope to Dalits by showing them the path of education and embracing Buddhism. Photograph: (Others)

Pune, Maharashtra, India Dec 06, 2017, 05.13 AM (IST) Namita Waikar

"My house is being rebuilt, so we are living in my mother’s home," says Lilabai Shinde of Lawarde village in Mulshi taluka, Pune district, when we visit her in April 2017. She is the only daughter of Jai Sakhale, a singer from the grindmill songs database, who had lived next door to her. After showing us her mother’s framed photograph, Lilabai wraps it neatly in a newspaper and puts it in a tall tin box used to store grain. Seeing our puzzled faces, she explains: "There are no nails on the walls of this house."

On our visits to meet the singers whose work is in the database, we realise that many are related by birth or marriage. Some are mothers and daughters, others are sisters or sisters-in-law, and still, others are mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Lilabai’s mother, who passed away in 2012, left behind ovi that were featured in The farmer and the rain song in May 2017.

Lilabai and her mother both contributed couplets to the grindmill songs database (Others)

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The original grindmill songs team had handwritten seven ovi by Lilabai, but they had not been recorded on audiotapes. So during our visit, we requested that she sing for our camera. Though reluctant at first, she eventually agreed. She took us to the grindmill in the roofed courtyard outside her home and sat down before it. She held the bamboo stick that turns the mill’s wheel and sang 11 ovi in praise of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in Mhow, a cantonment town in what were then the Central Provinces (today’s Madhya Pradesh). A social reformer, political leader, jurist and the architect of India’s Constitution, he died on December 6, 1956, in Delhi at the age of 65.

Babasaheb Ambedkar fought lifelong for the rights of the oppressed. The essay The Annihilation of Caste (1936), widely considered his magnum opus, was an integral part of his crusade to bring justice to the underprivileged castes and to affirm the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. ‘Educate, agitate, organise!’ was his message to his followers.

Babasaheb Ambedkar brought much-needed hope to Dalits by showing them the path of education and embracing Buddhism. It was a way out of the oppression of caste-based Hindu society, which branded them ‘outcastes’ and ‘impure’.

On our visits to meet the singers whose work is in the database, we realise that many are related by birth or marriage. Some are mothers and daughters, others are sisters or sisters-in-law, and still, others are mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Lilabai’s mother, who passed away in 2012, left behind ovi that were featured in The farmer and the rain song in May 2017.

The grindmill songs of Lilabai Shinde

Watch video: Lilabai Shinde and her neighbour sing that Bhim has now become the king of Indrasabha, the council of gods in heaven

 

These ovi express the reverence and gratitude that many Dalits, especially women, have for Dr Ambedkar. But they do so in a very personal way – he is affectionately called Bhim, Bhimbaba, Bhimraya or Babasaheb. They also express pride in Dr Ambedkar’s achievements, and the desire to be treated with respect and to be seen as equals. 

Bhim is my gurubhau [teacher and brother],” sings Lilabai of Dr Ambedkar. For her, he is a guide, a confidant, a brother. (People of different sexes or castes nurture such relationships without the fear of societal opposition. If the man is a gurubhau, the woman is a gurubahin, that is, a teacher and sister.) Lilabai sings that she feels so blessed, her pestle may as well be made of gold. Taking Bhim’s name, she says, brings sweetness to her mouth; she feels “purified” (and no longer "untouchable") just thinking of him.

The temple of Buddha has a golden door, says Lilabai in the fourth couplet, and that her son is very devoted to the Buddha. The singer’s mother, we learn, hurriedly wore a white sari to take diksha from Babasaheb, to embrace Buddhism.

Lilabai at the grindmill just outside her home (Others)

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In the fifth couplet, the singer asks: “Who calls us outsiders?” She means: Who calls us "outcasts"? Bhim, she reminds us, has made all Brahmins his brothers-in-law. (This is a reference to the fact that Dr Ambedkar’s second wife Savita was a Brahmin.)

In the sixth ovi, Lilabai, who wants to buy jasmines to decorate Bhim’s turban, asks a woman gardener, “What do you have in your basket?” In the seventh, she says that on the train that’s arriving (a symbol of progress) are stalks of tur (a legume), which symbolise honour and prosperity, while the “Marathi people” dispose of animal carcasses. In this ovi, she vents the anger many Dalits have towards the upper castes – generations were compelled to clean up and remove animal carcasses and many are forced to do so even today. The train with stalks of tur signals progress and a future of respect for Dalits while the “Marathi people” refers to the upper castes who have forced Dalits to do menial, degrading work.

In the last three ovi, the singer laments the loss of Dr Ambedkar. He may be no more, she says, but he is the king of Indrasabha, the council of gods in heaven governed by Lord Indra in Hindu mythology. She offers rice to God, feeling thankful that the precious Bhimrao of the Dalits, their gold, is now in heaven.

The final ovi tells us that after his death, Bhimbaba’s body was taken away in a car and as the vehicle moved, people walked behind it. This also symbolises the path chosen by many Dalit followers of Dr Ambedkar. Like him, they left the Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism. And following in his footsteps chose to educate themselves so they may live free of oppression.

??? ??? ????? ??? ???? ???????        bhima bhima mha?u bhima majha gurubha'u
?????????? ???? ???? ???????? ????       son'yacya sa?ayi dete tanda?ala ghavu

??? ??? ????? ??? ?????? ???         bhima bhima mha?u bhima sakharaca kha?a
????? ???? ??? ??? ??????? ???????    dhyana yeta mani go?a jhalyata datada?ha

?????????? ???????? ???????? ????           bud'dhacya mandirala son'yaci kava?a 
???????? ?????? ?? ???????? ???         majhyahi ba?ala la'i bud'dhaci ava?a

???????? ?????? ????? ?? ??? ???            pa??ha?ya sa?ila nesate ga? gha'i gha'i 
???? ???????? ?????? ???? ???? ??        baba sahebaci dik?a gheti majhi a'i

?????? ?????? ???? ????? ???? ????     amacya lokala ko?a? mha?e vale vale 
?????? ?????? ?????? ?? ???? ????      amacya bhimani bahma?a ga? kela? sale

????? ??? ?????? ?????? ???              ma?i?a ba'i tujhya ?opalita ka'i 
???????? ???????? ??? ???? ???               bhimacya turyala ikata ghete ja'i

??? ???????? ?????? ???????           ali agi?aga?i ga?ila turaka?hi 
?????? ???????? ??????? ??? ????? ????? majhya bhimacya rajyata ?hora va?hati mara?hi

???? ??? ???? ???? ????? ???? ????           mele bhima baba ko?a? mha?e mele mele 
??????????? ???? ?????????? ???? ????             svargyata gele indrasabhece raje jhale

??????????? ???? ???? ???????? ???             vargicya deva tula tanda?aca? va?a 
???? ??? ???? ??????? ??? ???? ????       mele bhima baba svargi ahe amaca? sona?

???? ??? ???? ????? ????? ???                bhimarayaca ala ga?ita maita  
???? ????? ???? ???? ????? ????           mhora calala maita maga calala rahita

Bhim, Bhim, I say, Bhim is my gurubhau [teacher-brother]
I pound the rice with a pestle of gold

Bhim, Bhim, I say, Bhim is like a chunk of sugar 
I think of him and my teeth are sweetened

Bhim, Bhim, I say, Bhim is like a packet of sugar 
By taking Bhim’s name my body is purified

The Buddha’s temple has a gold door
My son is very devoted to the Buddha

She wears the white saree hurriedly –  
My mother takes diksha from Babasaheb

Who says to our people 'Outsiders! Outsiders!'
My Bhim has made all Brahmins his brothers-in-law

O gardener woman, what [flowers] do you have in your basket?
I want to buy jasmines to decorate Bhim’s turban

Here comes the train, which has stalks of tur 
In my Bhim’s kingdom, the Marathi people dispose of the carcasses

Bhimbaba died – but who says he is dead?
He has gone to heaven and become the king of Lord Indra’s council

God of heaven, an offering of rice to you 
Bhimbaba is dead, our gold is in the heaven

Bhimbaba is dead, his body is in the car
The car goes ahead, people follow behind

Performer/Singer: Lilabai Shinde

Village: Lawarde

Taluka: Mulshi

District: Pune

Caste: Nav Bauddha (Neo-Buddhist)

Age: 60

Children: Three sons and a daughter

Occupation: Rice farmer

These songs were recorded on April 30, 2017.

This article was originally published on 05/12/2017 on the People's Archive of Rural India.

Image Credit: Samyukta Shastri

(Disclaimer: The author writes here in a personal capacity).

Namita Waikar

Namita Waikar is a writer, translator, and the managing editor of PARI. She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager.

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