Annabhau Sathe: The Voice of the Untouchables

The concept of untouchability is well-known. While contemporary times have simmered down the flames of this evil, the past was not so kind. Every school curriculum includes the names of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule. However, one name that remains relatively unknown outside of Maharashtra is Anna Bhau Sathe. In this document, we will explore what made him so special.
Annabhau Sathe: The Voice of the Untouchables

Annabhau Sathe: The Voice of the Untouchables

Anna Bhau, originally named Tukaram, was born in the Sangli district of Maharashtra. He hailed from the untouchable community of Matangs. Society was unkind and downright abusive to the untouchables, forcing them to perform odd and meagre jobs that provided no stable income or future. Additionally, the British government’s label of 'criminal tribes' did not help the situation.

Tukaram's family was slightly better off, with his father working as a gardener at a British man's house in Bombay while the rest of the family stayed in the village. During one of his father’s visits, Tukaram's mother suggested their son attend school. However, the curse of their birth followed them and Tukaram faced numerous rejections before finally being given a chance to attend school. Even then, he was burdened with the humiliation of his classmates’ orthodox attitudes. Tukaram eventually dropped out of school, unwilling to tolerate such treatment.

Life and its hardships became Tukaram's teacher. With the Great Depression hitting the US, the world economy suffered a huge loss, and India was no exception. Maharashtra experienced a severe drought, leading to a subsequent famine. Under these circumstances, people were forced to migrate to Bombay, their only hope for a better life. Tukaram's family also followed the trend, but the migration was not easy. They had no money for the journey and had to walk. They stopped at every village to perform odd jobs and fill their stomachs. After six months of a tiresome journey, the family finally reached Bombay.

Life in Bombay was bone-breaking, but it provided for the family. Relief came when Tukaram joined his relative Bapu Sathe’s tamasha troupe (folk theatre). The Matangs were trained singers and instrumentalists, and Tukaram's talent was well-suited for the group.

While performing in a village Tukaram was drawn to the enlightening speech of freedom fighter Nana Patil. His words made Tukaram realise that singing and performing alone would not awaken the conscience of the people. He identified the direct link between economic oppression and social discrimination. With these Marxist thoughts, Tukaram set out on the journey of becoming Lok Shahir or people's poet.

After gaining enough experience, Tukaram formed his own tamasha group, the Lal Bawta Kalapathak (Red Flag Cultural Squad). He travelled to remote villages of Maharashtra, using his performance to teach and communicate the urgency of freedom for the nation. At the same time, his works revealed the poor conditions of workers in the cramped chawls (shabby neighbourhoods) of Bombay. Tukaram, now known as Shahir Annabhau Sathe, appealed to the collective conscience of the people.

The British government soon banned tamasha troupes. Unemployed, Annabhau joined a mill, where he became an active member of the Communist Party.

No matter what he did, Annabhau's literary pursuits went uninterrupted. He indulged in a wide range of styles, including Lavani (folk song), Powada (a genre of Marathi poetry), short stories, novels, plays, and speeches. Annabhau's words always soothed the aching soul of the crowd.

Annabhau Sathe’s most illustrious work, the novel, Fakira, received the highest literary award from the Maharashtra government. The protagonist, Fakira, leads the masses in an attempt to save his community from the oppressive caste system and brutal British administration. Unfortunately, the government retaliates by arresting and subsequently hanging Fakira for rebellion. During his time in the mill, he also produced some emotional Lavanis, which depict the declining condition of the workers, both financially and physically. "Mumbai Chi Lavani" (Song of Bombay) and "Mumbai cha Girni Kamgar" (Bombay's Mill-hand) both vividly portray the exploitative nature of capitalism in Bombay.

Annabhau's down-to-earth soul never left the dingy neighbourhoods of Bombay, even when he had enough funds to build a luxurious house for himself. He believed that experiencing this reality would reflect the pain in his works and make readers connect with his words.

Today, his name continues to echo through every nook of Marathi and Dalit literature, making Annabhau Sathe the true Shahir, or people's poet.


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