‘We do not believe that music and other forms of art are merely for the purpose of entertainment, we believe that they have a more significant purpose’ says Suvarna Salve, an Ambedkarite activist. Suvarna Salve is the lead activist and singer of ‘Samta Kala Manch’, an Ambedkarite cultural troupe and the cultural wing of Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement.
The Mumbai police had classified Salve as a “habitual offender” and was booked along with many other activists for protesting against the violence in JNU earlier in 2020. In the notice against Suvarna Salve, the Mumbai police had also demanded a surety of Rs 50 lakhs from her. Now as the whole country erupted in protests against the rape of the Dalit girl in UP’s Hathras, 24-year-old Suvarna Salve was served a legal notice at her doorstep on October 2 by the city police that prevented her from taking part in any of the protests in the city.
The below is a transcript of an interview (originally in Marathi) of Suvarna Salve.
How did you get involved in activism? What motivated you?
Suvarna Salve: When I was in tenth, I remember learning about the public assault of Mira Kamble, a young Dalit woman. During that time, my world was confined to school and home. However, this incident deeply troubled me and it was a starting point for me to question a number of things. I realised that even in a city like Mumbai, caste atrocities and discrimination exists. Once I became aware of them, I realised that this social reality needed to change.
Since I belong to a Dalit community, Babasaheb Ambedkar has always been a part of our lives especially during celebrations of important days. However, it was only after the incident that I started to think more deeply about the power of his work and decided to attempt to take his legacy forward. I hadn’t particularly thought of activism before, but I knew about the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement and had seen their performances and knew their work. I was deeply impacted by their activists and songs. I decided that this was how I wanted to have an impact on people and spread awareness about these social issues.
What is the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement? Is it political in nature?
Suvarna Salve: Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement is primarily a social organisation and if you mean electoral politics, then no, we do not contest elections. However, we believe in the politics of people’s movements, through which we can influence political processes. We have a political vision. The vision is to annihilate caste, class and patriarchy and as the cultural wing, Samata Kala Manch propagates this through various mediums.
Aside from that, when caste atrocities occur, Republican Panthers document those, find factual data, support the victim in legal proceedings and aid in creating social support. We also work on the various problems of the community. For example, when residents of Mahul area complained about their living conditions, we visited and spoke to them, stood by them and supported them in various ways. We also run a bi-monthly magazine called ‘Vidrohi’.
What is the central ideology of Samata Kala Manch and what are the objectives?
Suvarna Salve: We follow an Ambedkarite ideology and our objectives are on two levels. We view caste as an instrument of exploitation that is linked to our material conditions. We feel that the Brahmanical religion, ideas, thoughts and culture have strengthened the caste system among people and it maintains a cultural hold on people, thereby perpetrating the caste system. Therefore, our struggle is for raising consciousness against the Brahmanical ideology and challenging the cultural consciousness made up of the ideas of the four-fold Varna and Karma theories and conceptions of purity and pollution.
As for our medium, we take on from the legacy of Sant Tukaram, Sant Kabir, Phule-Ambedkarite Jalsas and forms of revolutionary art that have stood against the Brahmanical patriarchy, caste and class divisions.
We call ourselves a ‘cultural’ troupe particularly because we think that culture is revolutionary and can bring about a change in the social, economic and political structures. We are in pursuit of this change by using art, we do not believe that music and other forms of art are merely for the purpose of entertainment, we believe that they have a more significant purpose.
How does Samata Kala Manch work towards its objectives throughout the year?
Suvarna Salve: We make songs and poetry on issues like caste atrocities, gender inequality, inflation, unemployment and every other form of exploitation. Our effort is to reach out to large and various audiences. Generally, through the medium of campaigning, we perform in our neighborhoods, celebrate anniversaries of historical figures and organise events. We also take up current events and perform street plays and songs at various protests and gatherings to spread social awareness and voice our concerns. Our attempts are at reaching out to as many people using various mediums, for instance, we have our magazine and visual artists.
How do you convey your Ambedkarite ideology through songs? Could you give an example?
Suvarna Salve: We have various songs for different issues and it is not necessary that a song becomes Ambedkarite just because it has Ambedkar’s name in it. Our songs comment upon various issues in the society. To sing about the issues that Ambedkar worked for is a part of our ideology.
However, we do have some specific songs when we visit Dalit-Ambedkarite bastis, which are written specifically for an Ambedkarite audience. We have written songs on the struggle at Mahad and songs that relate to the audience, for instance,
kumbharacha chaak bhim,
Lavharacha bhaata bhim”
The above loosely translates to Babasaheb’s presence in the struggles of all oppressed castes. Using such songs, we try to communicate that Babasaheb is not merely a Dalit icon, his ideology is more than that, and it is an ideology for emancipation for all oppressed castes.
Would you say that the music you create is oppositional to the Brahmanical ‘classical music’?
Suvarna Salve: Yes, it is! The music we create, the songs we write are not for the purpose of entertainment, which is the major difference in our approach. Historically, classical music has been a way for recreation, a form of entertainment and a lot is written and theorised around it because those who dominated the society have had the power and resources to do so.
On the other hand for Dalits and marginalized communities, music and songs have been a way to survive, a medium to live and that is what sets our songs apart from other forms of classical music. People’s art–folk art–is neglected in our country; it never gets recognition as an art and is always compared to classical.
What is the significance of the costume you wear and the instruments you use during your performances?
Suvarna Salve: Each performer wears a blue kurta, which is symbolic of the Ambedkarite movement as a whole. Babasaheb Ambedkar gave us the blue flag and it is symbolic of the boundless sky. We wear a red odhni on our waist because the colour red is symbolic of the blood sacrifice by our leaders and followers of the Ambedkarite caste annihilation, women’s liberation and other movements. Our primary instrument is the Daf, which is a folk instrument that is less valued in Brahmanical music. It has historical significance to the Ambedkarite movement and is easy to carry. We also wear ghungroos to continue our movement’s legacy.
What are the roles and responsibilities that you have as a cultural leader, a lead activist of Samata Kala Manch?
Suvarna Salve: As a cultural leader, my primary responsibility is to recognize our member’s qualities, strengths and encourage them to work on those and sharpen them. For example, if someone is good at and likes playing Daf, I encourage them to continue learning it.
Shahirs hold some complex while going on stage, most of us also struggle with inferiority complex and as a cultural leader, I work towards and assist overcoming these with all the members. Many times, the audience lauds Shahirs the most and thus, it is important to not let the praise get to our head, I keep a check on these things.
People are accustomed to think of a certain kind of upper caste music as good. We listen only to particular kinds of music and as a counter to Brahmanical cultural practices, I believe that we need to both, continue to educate ourselves, develop our music and practice regularly.
In addition, I ensure that we have regular meetings, regular cultural practices and look out for various ways to increase our reach and develop the various mediums that we use to convey our message, for instance, stand-up comedy or painting and other avenues through which, we can expand our movement.
Finally, to ensure the political education of myself along with all the members, I keep updated with various cultural movements and Shahirs and ensure our presence in protests and gatherings of the marginalised and minority communities.
Having said this, I would like to stress upon the fact that as an organisation, we believe in collective decision making, collective leadership and not centralized power, likewise I don’t believe in putting a single person on the pedestal.
How is Samata Kala Manch funded?
Suvarna Salve: We get invited to perform at various programs and celebrations of historically significant days for oppressed identities and communities. After our performances on various occasions such as the death anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar on December 6 at Chaityabhoomi; December 25, which is the Manusmriti Dahan Divas at Dehu road; March 18 at Mahad; we pass around our Daf for contributions from people who watch us perform. This has always been our primary source of funds and we not only accept contributions from people in the form of money but also food, grains and in whatever way they can contribute.
I remember that when we were protesting against the murder of Rohith Vemula, we appealed to the people during our campaign and ended up sitting inside a courtyard and had food given to us by families. We also packed food for all the activists who were working at different places.
We do not accept money from political parties because we are a social organisation and do not wish to be compliant during conflicts. In my experience, when you appeal to people, tell them about your work. People do contribute and the Daf, after being passed around for contributions, never comes back to us empty. It always means that the people who see us understand our work and the reason for it.
People who believe in the movement also give us honorarium money as a token of support. We also sell books, booklets and magazines at events for raising some funds. Recently, we set up our website and through it, people are supporting us monetarily and otherwise.
How do you collaborate with other marginalized communities?
Suvarna Salve: We work with Dalit, Adivasi, Nomad, Muslim, all Bahujan and minority communities. We show our support by being present with communities during crisis and issues, for instance, when the Adivasis of Aarey Colony were struggling to protect their lands, we were part of that struggle. We were actively involved in the struggle to get justice for Rohith Vemula, Najeeb Ahmad, Payal Tadvi and so on.
Wherever we see marginalised communities fighting for justice, we make sure to show up and support in whatever way we can. We create songs and music on issues faced by them and perform those at protests, singing becomes a medium for us to reach out to the audience, to support and integrate the causes of marginalised communities in our activism.
When you encounter people from various backgrounds with various ideologies that may not necessarily be anti-caste, for instance, during the NRC and CAA protests, how do you address these things?
Suvarna Salve: Those of us from marginalised communities who are a part of the movement share a bond among us; we look after one another and support each other. However, in my experience while participating in the protests, when people have come up with problematic perspectives on issues aside from the one that the protest is organised for, I feel that it is important to start a dialogue with them.
I don’t think that these perspectives change immediately through a single meeting. All of us believe that unlearning internalised patriarchy and Brahmanism is a process and the way to begin is through pointing it out to the person. We feel it is a part of our work to have these conversations and not just spread awareness but also listen and have a dialogue. On the other hand, I believe that it is also important to not shy away and sincerely criticise those who uphold problematic perspectives while having these conversations.
Generally, a Joint Front is made for a particular cause; it unites people for one particular issue, for instance, the CAA and NRC. But it is important for us to understand that all the issues invariably stem from structures of Brahminism and patriarchy and within those structures, those in power target the marginalised and minority communities.
One way through which we try to start conversations and unite people, is by relating the cause at hand to issues of caste and gender. We try and use the framework of anti-caste thought to explain how the CAA and NRC in this case, is related to the caste struggle and how it will have effects on Dalit-Bahujan communities. I think there are ways to unite people and make them conscious of how all the various issues are invariably connected.
One of the key sources of our freedoms today, including the freedom of speech, is given to us through the Constitution and Babasaheb Ambedkar has a major role in the writing of the Constitution. This underlined belief in our Constitution and protecting democratic values is a common sentiment that runs through all the current protests. However, increasingly so, there are many who appropriate Ambedkar, and I think that we must all ensure that it does not happen and keep his thoughts alive through our work.
Do you write and compose poetry of your own?
Suvarna Salve: Personally, I do not write a lot. However, yes, as a group we try to write songs about current events and try to make them relevant to the protests that we participate in. Our songs reflect our ideology. There are many artists and activists that we take inspiration from including Waman Dada Kardak, Anna Bhau Sathe, Amar Sheikh, Vilas Ghogre, Shantanu Kamble and many other vibrant people’s poets who are popularly known in Maharashtra as Lokshahirs.
What are the qualities of the artists that inspire you?
Suvarna Salve: Activists like Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, even Sudhir Dhawale have contributed immensely to the Ambedkarite movement. I always wondered how someone could be this dedicated to a cause, leaving behind their personal life and dedicating their entire lives to the movement. This dedication and immense persistence inspires me and has a place in my heart.
I have worked with Sudhir Dhawale for four years after his initial release and I have seen myself grow during the time I worked with him. I consider myself much more politically developed and mature now than I used to be before I worked with him. We have workshops on various political philosophies and not just on an educational level, but he has taught me how to give a speech and how to communicate with the audience.
I remember the first time I gave a speech, I was so scared that I thought I could not do it, he told me that unless I tell people, they won’t know and if they don’t know, they won’t understand. He reassured me with confidence. The trust and confidence he has in me has played a major role in the person I have become today. Today, as a cultural leader of Samata Kala Manch, I try to play the role which he played for me by building confidence in members.
As a leader, he redefined leadership for me, I remember in our Govandi office, we had a rule that only men will cook, women will merely help them out. It was something we decided together because women came to the office after having done the housework at home. Through this, all the men learnt how to cook and no women had to work twice.
It is the quality of being down to earth and dedicated that has a huge influence on me. I mean, it is not easy to spend so much time in jail, get release and continue to work for the movement. This time, we don’t even know when he will be released, there is no way of knowing that. Their dedication towards the movement is so tremendous that in spite of knowing these consequences, they have never stopped working.
Could you share some impactful experiences, which you have had while organising protests/performing, in terms of either how the audience has responded or how you felt after the performance?
Suvarna Salve: There are many such incidents. I remember when we went to Amalner once for campaigning and generally, we have to follow a fixed timing for performing at villages because people go to work on field after 8 in the morning. For some reason, we weren’t able to make it in the morning so we went there in the afternoon and our audience were women, old women and children.
When we perform in Mumbai, getting 10 rupees is not a big deal but if we get the same amount from a person at a village, it is huge. After we completed our performance, we passed around our Daf for the audience to put in their contributions. There was an old woman, who took out a crumpled 10 rupees note, a note that she was probably keeping safe, from her blouse and put it in the Daf. It moved me to see that someone would be willing to contribute something kept so safe, for us just because of belief in our work.
Another time, I remember that one of us hadn’t had breakfast in the morning and was hungry while we were travelling. We asked an old woman who was waiting as an audience if she had some food to offer us. Invariably, all of us, after a while got extremely hungry and not only did she give us food for one but eventually for all of us. She said she did not mind staying hungry for a day to give us food because she believed in Ambedkar and those who carry forward his work.
We could not stop thinking about it for a long time, it sent shivers even imagining that someone would willingly give us all their food because of the faith they have in us.
What do you think are the strengths of the Ambedkarite movement and what is the way forward through this lockdown?
Suvarna Salve: There are multiple organisations, which are a part of the Ambedkarite movement. In my opinion, the Ambedkarite movement’s strength is in its deep ideological understanding to analyse India’s core structural problems and take a stand against it. I think that even during the lockdown, the movement and organizations have not stopped their work. Moreover, I think it is important for any movement to adapt to the situations and circumstances that it finds itself in and continue working towards their objectives by changing their medium.
Due to lockdown, we lost the major source of monetary contribution that we receive during Phule-Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. We celebrated it online on Facebook, which I think is an important platform to disseminate awareness. We performed online Shahiri Jalsas, conducted interviews and continue to learn and adapt to online methods.
How has your response through online methods been? Can you see any changes in the people attending, have you been able to reach out to a more varied audience?
Suvarna Salve: Many organisations have heard us and invited us to collaborate with them on their Facebook pages, for instance we recently collaborated with the ‘Pinjra Tod’ activists. We also were a part of a gathering for a joint front, which happened digitally. However, I would not compare this response with the physical response because I would say both have their merits.
The most significant advantage of digitally working is that various barricades between stages are becoming less of an issue. We have collaborated with many organisations and groups. We are exploring collaborative performances and projects more now. The problem, however, is that there are only few ways to demonstrate resistance now against the arrests of activists and other critical issues in the country.
What are the challenges that you have faced through the years both personally and professionally as an activist?
Suvarna Salve: On a personal level, my family has been supportive. However, since we live in a patriarchal and casteist society, there have been times when my neighbours questioned me about what I do and where I go. However, I believe that this is a part of my life as an activist and not just a personal issue.
As a team, we are consistently persecuted by the state to silence our dissent and resistance. The police often file cases against our members. Event organisers who have invited us are threatened and our performances have been abruptly cancelled. Recently, Harshali Potdar, one of our members, was booked under Article 153 for a post on Facebook that she did not post. She was served a notice that required her to prove surety of 10 lakhs. Now, the police have also labelled me a “habitual offender” and asked me to prove a surety of 50 lakhs.
How do you respond to these difficulties, both professionally and personally?
Suvarna Salve: I believe that my involvement with the anti-caste movement as an activist is as much for spreading awareness through art as much as it is about my own freedom. I would say that I am a part of the struggle against Brahmanical patriarchy and fascism because it is what freedom means to me, it gives me purpose and hope. I think that no matter what one does, there will be challenges. In fact, the minute things seem easy, I ask myself if I am on the right track.
The fact that so many activists are put behind bars is evidence that we are successful in our criticism of power. These days, I find myself reading a lot of historical books about the struggles of those who came before me and it assures me that I am on the right track. People like Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Anna Bhau Sathe, Savatribai Phule, Wamandada Kardak inspire me in my struggle and are a constant reminder that I am here because of them and so I must continue my work so I can influence the future generations to come.
I think that I would not be able to stop being an activist because once one becomes aware of their reality and the oppressive structures that govern us, it is impossible to ignore them. If I decide to quit activism, I would never be able to pull through, I would feel suffocated and get caught up in the same repressive systems.
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Shivani Chunekar is a hardcore Mumbaikar and has recently graduated in Sociology from the Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts. She is an aspiring scholar and has a keen interest in anti-caste thought, social movements and education. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: The Wire