On 10 April 2015, Damodar Hall, a multipurpose auditorium located in central Mumbai, that is usually reserved for conferences, weddings and the occasional play, was host to a very different type of spectacle. “We are not here to entertain you, we are here to disturb you,” thundered Sambhaji Bhagat, a Dalit activist, revolutionary balladeer, and the music composer for Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning feature film Court. An appreciative audience roared its approval. This was a promotional event for the film, which takes a critical look at the Kafkaesque mechanics of the Indian state’s repression against social and cultural activists.
Bhagat—who composed and sang two songs for Court—strutted across the stage with all the confidence and charisma of a man who has been doing this for more than 30 years now. During the three-hour event, he alternated seamlessly between beguiling humour and fiery rhetoric. He disarmed the audience with his razor sharp wit before striking them with songs about casteism, imperialism, and those who had been left behind by the processes of globalisation and capitalism. Bhagat is a self-proclaimed Ambedkarite, and before long he had cries of “Jai Bhim” resonating across the room. Court had won 18 international awards and the coveted National Award even before its theatrical release on 17 April, but it was clear that this show had only one star, and that star was Bhagat.
An affable and flamboyant man, with shoulder-length locks and a warm, booming voice, Bhagat is a prominent figure in Maharashtra’s Dalit and Left circles. I first met him in 2012, when I interviewed him for a dissertation on the history of Dalit protest music in the state. Since then, I’d run into him at protests and cultural events across the city, and spoken to many young activists who think of him as an inspiration and a father figure. The day after his Damodar Hall performance, I spoke to him over the phone to learn more about his life and his work.
Bhagat’s initiation into radical politics happened in 1979, when he moved to Mumbai from Mahu, an isolated village surrounded by thick jungle in Maharashtra’s Satara district. He worked at a vadapao cart in Dana Bunder and slept on the streets. “I wanted to study,” he told me, “but studying without working wasn’t possible.”
The owner of the vadapao cart, who also hailed from Mahu, saw Bhagat’s potential and helped him get admitted into Ambedkar College at Wadala. He also got him a room in the Wadala’s Siddharth Vihar hostel, the birthplace of the Dalit Panthers movement and, before it was recently torn down, a hotbed of Dalit and Left activism. “When I joined the hostel, the Dalit Panthers movement was dying out, but its remnants were all over the place,” Bhagat had recalled to me in a previous interview. “Many rooms had revolutionary poetry and paintings adorning their walls.”