Year 2020 is a memorable one in the rich archive of Dalit history. It is the centenary of India’s powerful voice, Tukaram Bhaurao alias Anna Bhau Sathe. Anna Bhau, a literary invention that came out of the roughened parts of Dalit bastis, was born to landless peasants on August 1, 1920, in the segregated ghettos of Maangwada, an abode of the Maang castes in Wategaon, Sangli district of Maharashtra.
Anna Bhau’s life is fascinating and inspirational. As was the case with many west Maharashtrian Dalits of the time, Anna Bhau trekked to Mumbai on foot along with his father in the late 1930s to work as a labourer. Upon arrival, his untouchable caste status, clubbed with an oppressive working environment, attracted him to the Communist-led working-class movement that talked of poverty and oppression. Under its influence, Anna Bhau started to experiment with literature, more importantly, songs, poems, ballads that spoke of urban wretchedness, longing of home, and workplace exploitation.
Anna Bhau’s writing decentered the universe and politicised the human expression. He was one of the earliest Indian writers to have braved the waters of political fiction. His characters were highly speculative and not lofty. They were dark and polemical. They were there to change the material condition. And the time for that was now. It was not meant to be kept hanging like one of those patient characters of leisure in romantic novels.
Whatever Anna Bhau experienced he shaped it in words. His writing was one of the experienced. His award-winning novel, Fakira, dedicated to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, depicted a strong character of the Maang community. It was through these efforts that Anna Bhau found a way to demonstrate to the world the unique ability of his community that was skillful, hardworking, industrious, artistic and deeply religious.
Maangs in Maharashtra constitute a sizable percentage of the Scheduled Caste population. Historically, Maangs have often stood in defence of justice. A predecessor of Anna Bhau, another Maang, Lahuji Salve, was one of the main heroes of Phule’s education movement. It was upon the muscle and strength of Lahuji that Phule fronted all the physical attacks that were hurled at him and his wife, Savitri. Lahuji helped recruit many Dalit students for the Phule schools. Phule’s adoration of Lahuji and salutations appear in the records and reports to the British government.
Prior to the renaissance of Dalit literature in the 1960s, Anna Bhau had initiated the genre of novel writing, Dalit short plays, and theatre in the Marathi literary sphere. Anna Bhau was essentially the father of Indian creative writing who broke the bones of hierarchical disciplines with a firmness of his wrist and dazzling creative mind. After him there weren’t many in the literary sphere who took upon the cudgels of diving into aforementioned genres all at once.
Writers with dominant caste names added a Sanskritist touch to their vernacular and became prominent thinkers while Dalit voices like Anna Bhau, Baburao Bagul, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, J V Pawar, Daya Pawar, Waman Nimbalkar, Sharankumar Limbale and many others of the pantheon were snubbed for their language, tone and tenor. Anna Bhau and other writers of the Dalit Panthers cared less as their style predicated on their love for their people, language and culture. They paved a path for people like me to be confident and brave in my own skin without seeking approval of the dominant mediocrity set as standard.
Under the influence of another great leader of his state, Dr Ambedkar, Anna Bhau wrote the famous song ‘Jag badal ghaluni ghaav, sangun gele mala Bhimrao (Take a hammer and strike a blow to the world, that’s what my Bhimrao told me)’.
Anna Bhau’s stint was short lived as he died in his government allotted Siddharth Nagar house in Bombay on July 18, 1969, at the age of 49. By the time Anna Bhau breathed his last, he had 35 novels, 13 short stories, 3 plays, 1 poetry collection, 14 Tamasha folk art, 1 travelogue, 10 Powadas to his credit, and 4 more were under preparation. His seven novels were made into films, of which one won a national award and two won state awards.
In addition to this, he had enormous write-ups in journals, magazines, poetry and other forms that continue to be excavated. He was perhaps the only Indian writer of his era who wrote feminist novels with Dalit women as protagonists like in ‘Vaijanta’, a Tamasha performer.
Anna Bhau is probably the only creative writer whose statues are found in almost every big and small town of Maharashtra and outside. Anna Bhau’s two-and-a-half decades of active literary life was political enough that made him the frontrunner of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement.
Anna Bhau’s poetry, aided with the thunderous notes of Amar Shaikh and D N Gavhankar, awakened the consciousness of Maharashtra politics, like in their “Lal Bawta Kalapathak”. However, in Maharashtra, like everywhere else, it’s the urban, upper-class Brahmins who are self-congratulated as the founders of Maharashtra.
Anna Bhau had friends in the elite circles of glitz. His good friend Balraj Sahani, the famous actor, had offered to sponsor his trip to the Soviet Union for a World Conference of Intellectuals for Peace, at Wroclaw in 1948. But Anna Bhau couldn’t go because the government refused to issue him a passport. Anna Bhau’s versatility, courage and command over various art forms has prompted comparisons to none other than Shakespeare, as B N Gaikwad, a leading scholar of Anna Bhau and English literature, successfully argues.
In 1961, Anna Bhau produced the first travelogue written by a Dalit, My trip to Russia. He also wrote poetry, ballad, screenplays, short stories, songs, plays, and columns. His writings were translated into multiple Indian, Soviet and European languages. An Anna Bhau omnibus remains a long overdue project. Similarly, Anna Bhau’s contribution as a literary scholar, organiser and creative writing wizard is not yet acknowledged beyond the boundaries of Maharashtra and more so in the English language world.
However, the Dalit public sphere rightly acknowledged this towering intellectual and invited him to be the inaugural speaker at the First Dalit Literary Conference on March 2, 1958, in Dadar, Mumbai. It is in this fiery speech that Anna Bhau thundered that the “earth is balanced on the palms of Dalits”. This speech is a monumental testament of Dalit pride.
Anna Bhau matured the purpose of literature to serve the Dalit cause. “A Dalit’s life is like pure spring water that trickles down from rocks. Observe it closely and then write about it”.
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column