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This Folk Singer Is The Government’s Worst Nightmare

By Tejas Harad:

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I recently had the opportunity to attend a performance by Dalit activist Sheetal Sathe and her Troupe, at a two-day seminar organised by Mumbai Collective. An offshoot of the cultural organisation Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), the members of Sheetal Sathe’s Troupe have quite frequently run into trouble with the law for having alleged Naxal links. I had seen Sathe and KKM’s performances on YouTube before, and they had left a lasting impression on me. Therefore, I went to this gig with a lot of expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sathe sang about a range of issues including caste, women, Dalits and godmen. She took digs at the government, corporate greed and the Brahminical leanings of our society. She even evoked Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, and talked about her husband, Sachin Mali, (who has been languishing in jail for the past three years without bail) and vowed to take their struggle forward.

She indulged in easy humour to lighten the mood and to take her audience in confidence, but never missed a chance of unleashing caustic jabs at the authorities. Sathe effortlessly blended Ambedkarism with Socialism and Feminism in her songs as well as her interjections. Her performance was a masterclass in intersectionality. The atmosphere was as charged as a rock concert with people responding with loud cheers, claps, laughter, shaking of heads, and tapping of feet to the troupe’s electrifying performance.

Sathe was booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act by Maharashtra Anti-terrorism Squad in May 2011. KKM itself had come under cloud in 2008 when the police included it in the list of 37 organisations with suspected Naxal links. KKM members Sathe and three others – Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe – went underground while Deepak Dengle (aka Dhawala) was arrested and tortured for a span of one and a half years before being granted bail in 2012.

Sathe and the three others came out of hiding and courted arrest on 2nd April 2013 outside Maharashtra Vidhan Bhavan, terming their surrender as Satyagraha claiming that they had done nothing wrong. Sathe was finally granted bail by Bombay High Court on 29 January 2013 when she was eight-months pregnant! She now has a two and a half-year-old son called Abhang (named after the poetry form popularised by the 17th century saint, Tukaram). Mali, Gaichor, and Gorkhe have been denied bail and are lodged in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, still awaiting trial.

KKM was formed by a Pune-based activist Amarnath Chandaliya in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots with Sathe and Mali joining force in 2005 along with Gaichor, Gorkhe, and Dengle. The group used to perform at various colleges, slums, agitations and social functions in Pune, but things changed when their members were booked in 2011.

State repression, though, has not dampened their spirits. Sheetal Sathe has now formed a whole new team, consisting mostly of college-going youngsters, and has adopted a new name. Sathe’s husband, Sachin Mali, who is a postgraduate in Marathi from Fergusson College, is trying to earn a Ph.D. and continues to write from jail. His book of poetry called ‘Sadhya Patta Bhumigat’ (Current Address Underground) was published in May 2014 by a Mumbai-based left-leaning publishing house, Lokvangmay Griha. The book chronicles Mali’s experiences from the time he had spent in hiding. He also sends verses to his wife to sing in the troupe’s performances.

Sathe has been performing at various venues ever since she came out of jail and has received great appreciation for her hard-hitting protest songs from all sections of society. When the troupe was recently in Delhi, she performed at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Press Club of India. The biggest strength of Sathe’s singing are the icons she evokes in her songs, right from Buddha to Tukaram, Chokha Mela, Jyotiba Phule, Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar, Annabhau Sathe to Rohith Vemula, all of whom fiercely opposed the oppressive systems of their respective times and sometimes even died for it.

Sathe’s singing belongs to the Shahiri tradition of Maharashtra; taking forward the legacy of other great Shahirs (such as Annabhau Sathe) who sang of hunger and oppression and took on the system using the power of words, raising consciousness among the masses and kindling the flame of self-respect in them. It is unfortunate that governments would want to suppress such powerful voices because they speak out the uncomfortable truth.

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