Updated: August 31, 2021 8:29:41 am
Almost all social movements in India, whether left or right, feminist or Adivasi, are led by people from historically dominant castes. The only exception is India’s Dalit-Ambedkarite movement, which has never accepted our oppressors as our leaders or heroes. And yet, our movement wholeheartedly embraced Gail Omvedt, a white American woman who came to India in the 1970s for her PhD. In the last few days, since Omvedt passed away, all the messages that I have seen on Bahujan social media and WhatsApp statuses have been in tribute to her. We are all grieving. I feel as if my mother has died.
I began to shoot a documentary film on her and her husband Bharat Patankar in 2017, just after my first film on Bhima Koregaon (The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: An Unending Journey) had released. My family’s village is 15 km from theirs and I have known them and their daughter Prachi for almost a decade. After three years of closely following them for the film, it hurt to shoot Omvedt’s last rites on Thursday.
I had the privilege to meet her in my first year of BA, when I attended a cadre camp organised by Patankar. It was the first time I had seen a white woman, that too speaking fluent Marathi. A friend told me that she was Patankar’s wife and a professor and activist who worked for our cause. I was curious about why I had never heard of her before. The next day, I went to my college library and asked for books she had written. The librarian gave me her book on Babasaheb Ambedkar. That book, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, transformed my life. I knew then that I would always work for social justice.
From then on, I saw her regularly at protests, rallies and meetings for the rights of Dalit-Bahujans. I went to Pune for a Master of Arts in Communication Studies and began to work with the camera. I wanted to make films on our issues and document our Bahujan people. I saw that the so-called mainstream media and cinema purposely ignored Dalit-Bahujan icons and we did not have any documentation of our leaders, writers and activists. My first idea was to make a biopic on Omvedt and her work, but I felt it was not yet the time, so I made the Bhima Koregaon film instead.
Soon after, I asked the couple for permission to make this film. From then until the pandemic lockdown began in March 2020, I would periodically follow both of them in their social work, shooting their interactions, meetings and speeches. This was when I saw the side of her that went beyond the scholar and activist. Though she was always the centre of attention at meetings and rallies, she never cordoned herself away from people. As much as she spoke and wrote for Dalit-Bahujans, she also treated them equally, not as if she was doing them a favour. When farmers and labourers, both men and women, met her at rallies or protests, she spoke with them kindly and patiently. She listened to them and was accessible.
It was this, along with her academic stridency, that led to her complete acceptance by the Dalit-Bahujan communities. In 2018, the Delhi-based Dalit rights NGO had organised a conference called Dalit Women Speak Out at the Savitribai Phule Pune University. The group invited Dalit women from across the country to speak. Omvedt was the only non-Dalit woman to be invited as a special guest.
In the last few years, as her health declined, I saw Patankar patiently care for her like a child. They were devoted to each other. I recorded five interviews with her, as well as many more with Patankar about their life and work. I knew, as I shot footage for almost three years, travelling with her and sitting by her side, recording the two of them singing progressive songs together and trying to capture every movement, that her time was running out. My film is in post-production and will be released in six months. It is painful to know that she will never see this visual tribute to her incredible work for India’s Dalit-Bahujans.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 30, 2021 under the title ‘Finding her people’. Waghmare is a documentary filmmaker and a PhD scholar at TISS, Mumbai