In the titular poem of his anthology Sudirsukta—“Hymns of a Shudra”—Vishnu Surya Wagh writes as a Sudir, or a “Shudra”:
Being servants we were powerless
Slaves of your daily wage
We swept your verandas
And from our foreheads dripped a lifetime of diamonds
We are those Shudras
Enough with this darkness
We aspire to bright dawns
Shambuk gave us our anthem
And Tukaram his pen
Jyoti is our light
And Bhim our voice
We’ve sharpened our weapons
Our war cries will seize the sky
We are the Shudras!
In Konkani and Marathi literary circles, Wagh is well known for his various roles—writer, poet, cartoonist, journalist, editor, orator and politician. (For me, this includes his role as my uncle.) His political stances, too, are known to many, and defy classification. Wagh has always been a vocal critic of right-wing politics and oppressive caste hierarchies. In 1998, his Marathi-language play, “Tuka Abhang Abhang,” about the life of the seventeenth-century Bhakti poet Tukaram, became the subject of much discussion in Goa and Maharashtra. In a crucial scene in the play, Wagh depicted Tukaram being murdered by a group of Brahmin priests.
In 2011, the writer surprised many by joining the Bharatiya Janata Party in Goa, and was elected the member of legislative assembly from the St Andre constituency in the 2012 state assembly election. Despite his membership, Wagh continued to oppose the BJP government in the state and criticise its policies. He was seemingly reprimanded for it, too—in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the chief minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly stripped the writer of his position as the head of the Kala Academy, the state’s leading cultural institution. He was later reappointed to the position, in April 2015.
In August this year, Wagh and Sudirsukta, his hitherto mostly unknown anthology of free-verse Konkani poetry, became the centre of a controversy in Goa. In the book, which was published in 2013, Wagh mounts a critique of the caste system and the historical oppression that the bahujan samaj—a term referring to a loose conglomeration of oppressed caste groups—in Goa has faced at the hands of the upper-caste and landed elites, chiefly the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, the state’s powerful dominant caste group. Wagh dedicated his book to the “hollow independence of fifty-odd years” that has “failed to restore the rights of the laboring masses.” Several years after its publication, the anthology has stirred intense anger among the Goad Saraswat Brahmins, many of whom believe that the poems portray them in a harsh light and constitute an insult to their community.