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Bhim Geet and the Ambedkarite Movement: The Genesis of a Cultural Field of Protest

Joël Cabalion and Julien Jugand


This paper sketches the history of a cultural and artistic music category called Bhim Geet (or Bheem Geet), songs to Bhimrao Ambedkar, principal redactor of the Indian Constitution and political hero of the Dalits. By examining this aesthetic construct and its social milieu, we trace back and uncover through the lens of music and artistic performances some of the tensions and stakes the Dalits were up against in Maharashtra from a cultural point of view. What does it entail to sing caste struggles in contemporary India? What does emancipation mean for Dalits, both culturally and aesthetically? Ambedkar’s caste conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur in 1956 is now a relatively well-known episode of India’s postcolonial history. It is less known how the ex-Mahar caste, alternately called Buddhists, neo-Buddhists or Ambedkarites, have reconstructed themselves from an inseparably aesthetic and social point of view. We intend to address this lack and show how circulating cultural practices have enabled the construction of a subaltern kind of nationalism. These practices have also made possible legalist dissent through musical narratives widely influenced by Muslim poetry and musical forms, such as Qawwali, although Hindu devotional styles more commonly found in bhajan and kirtan, which are widespread musical genres in India and beyond, have also had an impact. A small fieldwork video accompanies this article and begins by proposing a few sonic examples to its readers to illustrate this significant variation and pool of influences within the category of Bhim Geet.

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Author’s notes

Link to the Bhim Geet soundscape:

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Introduction: Why Bhim Geet as a research object on artistic activism?

1This article takes as its starting point an encounter of the two authors that took place more than 15 years ago during a field visit in an agrarian locality of Vidarbha, a region of Eastern Maharashtra in Central India. One of the authors of this article began his PhD research on the patronage of Hindustani music in North India, while the other focused on land-related issues and forced displacement induced by a large dam built for irrigation. These research interests crossed and blended in a village as the two young researchers were hosted by and listening to the stories of Parmeshwar C., a Buddhist peasant and former singer of Tamasha, a form of Dalit travelling theatre. We have been following this serendipitous path ever since and present it here as the backdrop of our narration.

  • 1 As a rule of thumb, we do not mention people or change their names. However, it is more complicated (...)
  • 2 Besides regular visits to Maharashtra and Vidarbha made by one of the authors of this article, we c (...)

2Parmeshwar C.1 is now the 65-year-old father of a Buddhist family and a toiling farmer who has been singing songs dedicated to Bhimrao Ambedkar for the past 35 years. Living alongside Parmeshwar and his kin, we uncovered an intriguing and relatively unique cultural repertoire delivered to us as a capella singing, histories alternative to those we usually heard regarding Indian nationalist historiography (pre-1947). We heard anti-caste compositions, songs of self-respect, confidence and dignity-building ballads remembering and revering either Ambedkar or the Lord Buddha, whom Ambedkar embraced before he died in 1956. Bhim Geet or Bheem Geet, i.e., songs to Bhim (as in Bhimrao Ambedkar) or Buddha Geet (to the Buddha), were what Parmeshwar has been humming for as long as we have known him. He sings them when we visit or more routinely when he ploughs his fields alone, sometimes at home flipping pages of an old torn booklet of songs or when he rocks his grandchild’s jula (swing). Tamasha is the context in which he used to sing them when travelling near Nagpur as a young front-stage singer. He got back to this activity a few times recently, a process partly co-produced with the authors of this article since our first encounter in 2004, which resulted in much affective bonding and nostalgia in his community and family. When we eventually began researching Bhim Geet, Tamasha, and their genesis, a more expansive universe of cultural production opened up to us and quickly became the recurring focus of our study2: Bhim Geet, Buddha Geet, Jalsa but also Prabodhan—the latter being our focus of interest as well as an enigma when we started, for it is musically inspired by Qawwali, i.e., the Sufi music of South Asia usually played by Muslim people.

3Each of these genres revealed specific forms of musical expression unequivocally tied to the figure of Ambedkar and very often blended together, such as illustrated in the expression of Bhim Buddh Qawwali. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to these music genres as Bhim Geet, crystallizing a large spectrum of practices connected through common themes, shared performance contexts and networks of performers. These musical genres and their social configurations display various political and cultural overtones socialized in promoting universalism and rationalism against age-old practices of caste discrimination. Bhim Geet will, as a result of this, in its narrower sense, mainly refer to standardized and recorded versions of songs that are broadcast online, while Prabodhan often, though not entirely, corresponds to live performances.

  • 3 Borja et all 2016.

4Although this research in some ways began in 2004 in Eastern Maharashtra, its interest gained a new focus after viewing the documentary work of Anand Patwardhan Jai Bhim Comrade. Despite appreciative viewers of this piece, we felt as though all had not been said or at least written. The late sociologist Sharmila Rege (1964–2013) has inspired us to bring our research forward and walk in her footsteps.3 Her interest in Lavni, Powada (two significant streaks of cultural musical expression in Marathi history) and later in rural and urban music groups, called Gayaan parties, which circulate music in Ambedkari circles, has infused our work when reading about cultural goods of resistance and their evolution. Finally, the former Jesuit priest and French sociologist Guy Poitevin (1934–2004), accompanied by his wife Hema Rairkar (1939–2010) and later by the computer engineer and linguist Bernard Bel, collected and organized a corpus of thousands of ovi, “grind mill songs” sung by women in domestic circles of rural western Maharashtra. Ovi songs represent the domestic side of emancipation and cultural reconstruction, where women have the upper hand in transmitting a particular cultural ethos (Poitevin 1987 and 2005).

  • 4 For another regional perspective on some of these issues, see Arun (2007) and Gorringe (2016). More (...)

5Bhim Geet is nowadays mostly a male product that can also be considered a caste good of cultural reconstruction as well as political resistance spearheaded mainly by the former Mahar caste in Maharashtra, and has also long been gaining ground and circulating in the Hindi language in other states of North India, something that is beyond the scope of this paper.4 However, this article does intend to present a multi-faceted analysis of a musical phenomenon as a means to explore two fundamental questions: What does it entail to sing caste struggles in contemporary India? What does emancipation mean for Dalits both culturally and aesthetically? On the basis of these questions and from our analysis, Bhim Geet emerges as a specific form of subaltern counter public as well as a nationalist subaltern narrative of caste struggles. It presents a wide spectrum of practices, oscillating between sanitized cultural expressions produced through controlled industrial and commercial processes and straightforward protest songs.

The first section will present this historical heritage before detailing, in the second section, its cultural contours and categories of performers. The third section will outline the social space of Bhim Geet and describe its evolutions. The final section will question the political literacy of Bhim Geet and return to its gendered dimension before concluding on its subaltern character.


Bhim Geet

1. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and the legacy of the Untouchable-Dalit movement

  • 5 It would be too long and arbitrary to start listing. For a relatively well-furnished and up-to-date (...)
  • 6 We refer to the original, blue-colored collection of edited volumes of Babasaheb’s writings and spe (...)

7Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) is probably one of the most important and, at the same time, least internationally known figures of all the famous Independence-era Indian politicians. Less mentioned than Nehru or Gandhi, Babasaheb, as he was fondly known by his followers, now occupies a most prominent place in the Indian pantheon of national icons and a belated yet massive list of academic publications have been devoted to him,5 extending an already significant production by the man himself.6 While Nehruvian ideals have been seen as declining and, so far, stand defeated by neoliberal policies and Hindutva politics, only Gandhian “repertoires of contention” and Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence can be compared, partly due to their international fame, with the incredible postcolonial career of Ambedkarite movements and (counter-) narratives. These two worldviews keep evoking and competing with one another.

8Ambedkar is particularly famous for being the chief redactor of the Indian Constitution, a common theme for Dalit iconography and hagiographies, and a matter of immense pride in musical compositions. The polarity between Gandhi and Ambedkar, both from an academic and a historiographic perspective, is significant because they embody two entrenched worldviews within the Indian political and activist social space (Jodhka 2002). In the former, these two figures were notoriously opposed (Omvedt 1994). In the activist sphere, Gandhian and Ambedkari "repertoires of contention" may well be considered complimentary to many social movements around the country that remain inspired mainly by Gandhi in the realm of environmental politics while advancing Ambedkar in demands for social justice and extended affirmative action (Thorat and Neuman 2012).

  • 7 On the self-designation “Dalit” and the politics of naming, see Beltz (2005), Paik (2011).

9The basis for their historical opposition revolved around their competition to be the figurehead for the ex-Untouchables.7 While Ambedkar was himself a member of the Mahar community and became their “organic intellectual,” Gandhi was perceived as a significant proponent of the traditional caste system. Ambedkar was opposed to the intrinsic inequalities legitimized by the caste as well as the varna system and thus demanded special political rights for the Untouchables. These rights resulted in a demand for separate electorates, which Gandhi notoriously refused, a historic posture leading to the Poona Pact in 1932. Regardless of the details of this episode (Kumar 1985), the Poona Pact is now remembered by Maharashtrian Dalits as the political event which prompted Gandhi to begin to fast to death in order to protest against the policy of separate electorates, considering that these would trigger divisions amongst the Hindu population. Ambedkar ultimately gave up on his demand for fear that Gandhi’s death would unleash a massive wave of violence against Untouchables all over the country.

10Ambedkar’s caste conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur in October 1956 is now a relatively well-known sequence of India’s postcolonial history. That date is crucial to understanding the changes in the sociological and political reality of Western India and no less a major turning point for the social relations and cultural history of subaltern groups in the Indian subcontinent altogether.

  • 8 This expression suggests a comparable process of homogenization of social classes and reduction of (...)

His own history and the one of the “Untouchable-Dalit movement” in Western India is the history of caste discrimination in an age-old system, taking up opportunities in schools and colleges for the “downtrodden” opened by the British or yesteryear Indian reformers such as Jotiba Phule (O’Hanlon 2002), and challenging caste inequalities in the newly found Indian state configuration. While “neo-Buddhists” may be considered close to what some would today call a “middle caste,”8 they remain overall in a sociologically fragile position both in rural and urban backgrounds: small landowners, if not landless laborers in the former, they are usually small government officers or petty artisans in the cities, sometimes miners caught in the cracks of the “agrarian transition.” A sizeable petty cultural elite has emerged within their ranks, from which originate most of the intellectuals, writers, and artists of their caste, spearheading the processes we have studied. To explain and understand the structure and dynamic of Bhim Geet’s social space, one consequently must venture into a process of cultural reconstruction whose historicity runs back at least 60 years, if not close to a century (2016 was the 125th the anniversary of Ambedkar’s birth, a date which “produced” a few musical hits).

11“The Untouchable movement,” as well-established by Eleanor Zeliott (1996), has a Mahar background and a military component at its origin. It also has a non-Brahman lower caste legacy, which is not the subject of this paper, however imperative it is to be aware of to understand the emergence of the Mahar movement (as it was also labelled). The Mahar used to play various “traditional” roles in the caste system, all of them depending upon the socio-demographic outlook of the region where they lived: village guards, well-cleaners, death message carriers and animal corpse removers; they qualified for what Indologists usually name “impurity specialists,” though with an ambiguous position of power amongst the dominated groups of rural areas (they were sometimes referred to as the “dominant weak,” see Samanta [1991]). If Western Maharashtra and, in particular, the coastal area of Konkan tended to reproduce the Mahar traditional functions rather quite well due to their fairly weak demographics, their numeric importance in Central India, and especially in Vidarbha where Nagpur is located, prompted them to occupy various roles and positions in the evolving colonial structure (Zelliot 1996). One regular career for a Mahar, from Peshwa times (former Brahmin kings, see Bayly 2001) to the East India Company period, was to become a subedar, i.e., an ordinary soldier. Ambedkar is the son of a soldier and owes most of his social mobility to that collective streak of caste occupation, which durably affected the Mahar social structure as early as the beginning of the 19th century (Constable 2001). Many other Mahar, as it is also commonly known, migrated to Bombay and became laborers in the textile industry. The socialization of the urban Mahar with other dominated classes and castes—notably Muslim social groups—resulted in cultural encounters and hybridity.

  • 9 The KKM split in 2017, the founding duo (Shital Sathe and Sachin Mali) deciding to leave the troupe (...)
  • 10 Such public recognition of Kabir’s importance transpires through his appearance in the film on Ambe (...)

12Culturally speaking or from a religious standpoint, Ambedkar’s background was typically, as most of his caste fellowmen and other Maharashtrians, influenced by the Bhakti devotional tradition and their heroic figures, such as Chokhamela, a 14th-century saint and poet whom Ambedkar later repudiated due to his understanding of caste as an inescapable social fate and product of previous lives (Zelliott and Mokashi-Punekar 2005; Schomer and McLeod 1987). Locating Bhakti in the Dalit cultural movement is inevitable, for it represents a cultural base constantly re-activated by various castes in their musical and spiritual expression, such as in the devotional songs of the Hindu Warkari sect, a prominent popular cult of Western Maharashtra (Ferrié 2003). Bhakti promoted spiritual—although not social—freedom for all castes and is thus often perceived as a progressive cultural movement by some while being criticized by others for hardening aspects of the caste system. As Eleanor Zelliot says, “If the Bhakti movement did not produce social reform in the days of the saint-poets, it has served for modern reformers as traditional undergirding for new western standards of equality and justice (Zelliot 2013:55–56).” Many cultural performance troupes still explicitly refer to the Bhakti cultural movement today, as demonstrated by the very name of the Kabir Kala Manch, a known musical outfit from western Maharashtra that met with direct repression from the Indian state (Johari 2020; The Hindu 2020).9 Kabir thus becomes a re-politicized figure praised for his poetic influence as well as musical identity.10

2. From Tamasgirs to Shahirs. Folk performers and poets

  • 11 It is quasi-ritually repeated in interviews by artists and intellectuals, much less by villagers or (...)

13Mahar people are traditionally known as singers. As the famous Marathi proverb goes: “writing in the Brahmin’s house, grain in the Kunbi’s house and singing in the house of the Mahars (Baahmaana ghari lihuna, kunba ghari dhaana aani Maharaa ghari gaana).”11 Their structural position in the arts is less clear than this proverb would seem to indicate. With this saying, famous Dalit writer Daya Pawar asserts that the Mahar were always granted the status of culture creators. Other quotes from Ambedkar or other Dalit writers corroborate this idea of Dalits having their own culture, a fact that recalls the old anthropological debate between popular and dominant cultures.

  • 12 With reference to the so-called “balutedari system,” western Indian equivalent of the Jajmani Syste (...)
  • 13 In Parmeshwar’s family, just like elsewhere in rural Vidarbha, when there is a new birth, a member (...)

14Though many musicians are considered untouchable in India, not all Untouchables are musicians as part of their caste status. Mahar people were not permanently attached, at least according to their traditional duties,12 to a musical culture of servitude, at least not as firmly as their most famous structural rival in older times, the Matang, another less numerous Dalit caste, which most notably persisted Hindu after 1956 although they had a strong relationship with the Ambedkari cultural movement. Members of the Matang caste were and are still the traditional drum-beating musicians13 operating at funerals in villages, and they also constitute most marching band recruits all over Maharashtra. Historic leaders of their caste, such as Annabhau Sathe, have fueled the Ambedkari cultural movement with famous poems and ballads (Powada), some of which are sung as Bhim Geet today.

15While Mahar people sometimes happened to participate in wedding musical parties or fair (mela) entertainment groups for economic and cultural reasons, this role was usually left to the Matang. Giving up traditional duties did not, however, mean giving up music and singing. It was as if the Mahar caste began to “autonomize” its cultural expression from that moment onwards, most notably through the means of Tamasha, where they were the main recruits. As Eleanor Zelliot (2004) suggests:

16[t]he participation of Mahars in entertainment, including the travelling Tamasha groups which still play in Maharashtrian villages, might have served at least as a network for the transmission of new ideas, but the status of the entertainer was low, his material was often thought vulgar by the modernizing elite, and the participation of women both as actors and audience was not in keeping with higher-class morality. (P. 34)

  • 14 Such ambivalent consideration in distinguished circles is still prevalent today, as illustrated by (...)

17Tamasgir (i.e., poets performing Tamasha), before Independence, was often a word of contempt. Ambedkar himself is remembered as being reluctant and critical towards Tamasha.14 Historically, certain poets and singers progressively dropped the use of the word Tamasgir to adopt instead the more legitimate self-attributed title of Shahir, a Persian word meaning “poet” with a long literary tradition to support its social use. The word has also infused popular culture and is often appropriated by those referred to as “mud-house composers” or songsters.

18A more overtly political form of Tamasha named Jalsa arose, sometimes named Ambedkari Jalsa, taking its roots in Maharashtrian poetical tradition and thriving between 1920 and 1956. After the conversion, Jalsa is supposed to have declined due to the rise of new music and media but also, according to Dalit historians, due to the political subordination of Dalits to the Congress, which led them to give up the most Dalit oriented of their cultural practices (Rege 2008; Guru 1997).

  • 15 Shailaja Paik (2020) tells us that “(b)y adopting the popular medium of jalsaa, powadaa and Tamasha (...)

19The gendered dimension of Tamasha is usually perceived as a problematic heritage for Bhim Geet nowadays. The works of Shailaja Paik (2017 and 2022) on the life of the tamasha dancer Mangala Bansode in modern Maharashtra bear witness to the continuous structural ambiguity of Tamasha in the social space of performing arts. Our experience suggests that the enactment of Tamasha today in villages of rural Vidarbha mostly happens without the participation of women, a rather convenient way to avoid the gendered and moral conflicts generated by their exploitation in this traditional industry. The Tamasha we helped stage in a village of Vidarbha included a troupe with two brothers (agricultural laborers) as dancers, both dressed as women. When we asked Parmeshwar if women continued participating in Tamasha as dancers in Vidarbha, he mostly looked down on the idea as an immoral practice (without fully answering the question). However, the fact remains that the musical and singing troupe could not imagine holding the Tamasha without dancers, which attests to the necessity of staging, under one form or another, the “body politics and sexual economy of erotic excess” (Paik 2022) attached to their position and the relation with middle and low caste publics.15

20In this universe of practice, Bhim Geet is a cultural form of expression that distances itself from the low status associated with Tamasha. Bhim Geet can, however, be sung during tamashas, which reveals that tamashas are strategically used for what they provide: a stage with an amplifier helping to propagate new ideas or resist others, such as caste representations. However, famous Bhim Geet singers do not sing during a Tamasha, which indicates a progressive separation between contexts of production and performance.

  • 16 A phenomenon which can be observed in various “reforms” of performance contexts throughout 20th cen (...)

21Due to their migratory lifestyle, hereditary and non-hereditary theatrical performers of Tamasha are usually unschooled and illiterate. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the activity is in decline, given that the Mahar have been heavily emphasizing education since the time of the Ambedkar movement. In all, Bhim Geet and Tamasha now coexist, though they rarely overlap in their performance contexts. Urban institutional Tamashas are the only scenes wherein women such as Mangala Bansode, a hereditary dancer, still perform, as the State “heritigized” the maintaining of these designated immoral practices, but this is in metropolitan contexts only.16

3. Outlining the social space of Bhim Geet

22Outlining the social space of Bhim Geet implies grasping the wide range of music practices, actors, and places that we progressively uncovered during our two fieldwork studies in Maharashtra. The logic of this social space can be sketched by interrogating poles of musical and spatial distinction as well as the internal cultural transfers or processes of métissage that have taken place. Bhim Geet musicians come out of two main performance traditions, both of which have a solid rural background but are also connected to major urban centers:

(1) Tamasha or Jalsa with the numerous musical and theatrical forms that were historically part of it and the instrumentalists and singers from untouchable and low-caste backgrounds who produced it.

(2) The music tied to the Hindu Warkari sect, a devotional movement primarily found in Western Maharashtra linked to the deity Vitthal of the temples of Pandharpur, an important pilgrimage site. As a Krishnaite form of devotion, it relies heavily on “devotional” songs performed by small itinerant parties of musicians.

  • 17 See the enlightening short series of articles by the poet and intellectual Yogesh Maitreya in First (...)

23In the second half of the 20th century, some of these songs became widespread as those of Prahlad Shinde, a famous Dalit singer who started as a young street singer and who later became a well-known Warkari and Bhim Geet singer (his son, Anand, is a Marathi film singer, as well as his grandsons Adarsh and Utkarsh). His trajectory can be compared to the one of Waman Dada Kharak, a folk artist who is considered crucial to the emergence and massive circulation of an Ambedkarite perspective on poetry and music.17

Urban-based musicians, especially in Eastern Maharashtra, tend to be more connected to qawwali music (music associated with Indian Sufism and practiced by low-status Muslim musicians). There are several connections between Dalit and Muslim musicians. Some famous Dalit singers, often called Ambedkari Qawwal, also perform Qawwali, and Bhim Geet can be composed by Muslim poets (some of whom have achieved a great deal of fame).

24Another significant musical influence for urban-based musicians is the broad spectrum of pop Indian music, situated at the confluence of Bollywood music (itself mobilizing various regional folk idioms and Western pop music) and Techno music. These musicians are mainly featured on VCDs and the Internet. Their live performances take the shape of mostly acoustic (yet heavily amplified) performances featuring percussions such as tabla and dholak, harmonium and the electric or Indian banjo (or bulbul tarang, literally “wave of nightingale,” a sort of amplified dulcimer with a typewriter or piano keys to press the strings). Bigger and more established groups can also include guitars and synthesizers.

25Gayaan parties are part of a continuum of practices that are strongly connected to each other, especially during celebrations of the Ambedkarite calendar. However, these groups do not necessarily circulate equally in both directions. Prabhodankaar and even Jalsa artists tour around rural areas when invited and paid by influential politicians or successful builders/contractors wielding symbolic power in their caste/community. Celebrations linked to the Ambedkarite calendar, with many performances, recordings, and booklets available, tend to blend the various repertoires of these musicians across regions and generations (Rege 2008:19).

26A striking example of this phenomenon would be “Kayda Bhimacha” (“the law is that of Bhimrao”), one of the most famous and covered Bhim Geet of the last ten years, from small acoustic parties performing in the street to downloadable ringtones and DJ remixes. You can even hear them played by percussion and oboe bands in a way that is similar to the Bollywood tunes performed by wedding brass bands throughout much of Northern India.

27This song is typical of Bhim Geet narratives, confronting Ambedkar and Gandhi on the issue of political action and historical legacy (Ambedkar being washed away from history, Gandhi remaining as the sole true hero and thinker of newly Independent India, apart from Nehru). The way both dress is also evoked here as it builds up a classic dichotomy within the Ambedkarite cultural movement: Gandhi and his traditional clothing represent the old caste-based India, and Ambedkar, in his suit, embodies Dalits embracing an enlightened modern world free of oppression. Its first stanza goes like this:

“The law is thus of Bhim, the picture is thus of Gandhi [i.e., on the bank notes]
How good Bhim would have looked on the banknote in tie and suit.”

28This diversity of instruments, sounds and vocal techniques is to be connected to a wide range of performance contexts. If Bhim Geet appeared in the 50s as a new musical production, it does not today constitute a musical genre per se but rather a set of thematically united musical practices. The increase of Bhim Geet’s musical diversity in the 80s and 90s, as noted by most researchers on Dalit culture in Maharashtra, should be connected to what Peter Manuel coined as the technological revolution of “Cassette Culture” and its offspring (CDs, VCDs and the Internet). The rise of mass media, along with the simplification and democratization of recording techniques, gave Bhim Geet and the like an unprecedented momentum that led to the multiplication of different aesthetics and helped the expansion of female musicians within this milieu (Rege 2008:19).

29Today, dedicated websites and YouTube function as assertive means of dissemination (parallel to the dwindling of the CD and VCD market), with many videos at well over a million views. That revolution in quantity and musical variety usually focused on the reconstruction of events of modern Indian history, such as the Poona Pact that we already mentioned, or other famous satyagraha (resistances) and symbolic gestures Ambedkar performed along his political trajectory: such as drinking water at the wells of caste Hindus and burning the Manu Smrti (one of the ancient texts considered to have scripted the practice of caste discrimination) at the Mahad tank satyagraha in 1927, or defying the bar to temple-entry applied to untouchables (the Kalaram temple entry movement in 1930).

30Despite the ease of dissemination, the present technological scenario does not contribute to a steady income for Ambedkari artists. Commercially speaking, Dalit artists are promoted and produced through live recordings of unequal re-mastering quality, which are then almost immediately put online. While a cassette market, then a CD market most definitely existed previously and contributed to an aesthetic effervescence, it has nonetheless most durably been live performances in particular cultural settings that have provided the bread and butter of Ambedkari artists. In all, Bhim Geet or Prabodhan are more than just musical performances or live concerts; they constitute important political rituals of cultural expression during which the manifestation of the emancipated identity of the Mahar Buddhists gets enacted and vocalized. It appears today in such musically diverse and differentiated forms, indicating a relatively high degree of cultural subjectification of an autonomous, if subaltern, political ethos.

31However, Bhim Geet’s musical diversity is also the product of Dalit communities’ strong social, economic, and cultural segmentation. As politically loaded songs from mostly marginalized people, they constitute a cultural means to struggle against caste oppression while mirroring a complex distribution of cultural authority amongst the Dalits, especially within the Mahar community. Songs do circulate, but their aesthetics remain a solid social marker. This issue is mainly verbalized among the dominant, yet numerically few, musicians of this social space, be they part of the prestigious film music industry and/or the recipients of training in Hindustani music (i.e., North Indian classical music). They quite overtly claim singing style and formal instrument training as a means of social distinction. A distinction is sometimes expressed in derogative terms: “I sing, they shout,” “they” being the street level singers. This points out the ambivalence between a field of cultural production, which could be considered autonomous (Dalits mostly sing Bhim Geet of their own composition and for themselves) while being strongly tied to aesthetic and hierarchical principles widely shared in the sub-continent.

Santosh G. and the multifaceted Bhim Geet

32We met Santosh G. at Chaityabhumi, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s massive memorial facing the Arabian Sea in the central western Mumbai area of Dadar. He was introduced to us by Sunil D., a CD, VCD and DVD producer who runs a small network of Ambedkarite singers and commercializes various audio and video recordings. Those are sold in shops dedicated to Buddha and Ambedkar near their memorials and temples across Maharashtra. Festivals dedicated to these two figures constitute these recordings’ most important temporary markets.

33Santosh quickly agrees to sing a few songs in front of our camera before accepting an interview. He welcomes us in his home the same evening, a pakka ghar (“solid” house) on the outskirts of a slum area of Chembur. We sit in the upper floor room. Santosh is lit up by the place music occupies in his life and by the importance of Bhim Geet as part of “the movement.” He often illustrates our discussion with songs, quickly grabbing the harmonium next to him and asking his two friends and co-musicians sitting in the room to join in for the chorus or beat the rhythm with a nod.

34Santosh was born in this neighborhood, but his parents migrated from the Western Maharashtrian district of Osmanabad in the 1970s following one of the most infamous droughts in decades, looking for a better livelihood. Santosh’s family do not practice music, and he expresses pride for what he has become. Sent to school by his parents, in a typical pattern of upliftment through education, as asserted by Ambedkar, he studied until the 10th grade before dropping out for petty jobs. His good voice and encounter with the Bhim Geet singer and composer Lakshman Kedare led him to choose a musical career as an Ambedkarite artist. The life story he tells us, from his first performances in the choir of singing parties for funeral memorials to lead singer on stage and VCD artist, constitutes a striking example of how Bhim Geet takes on different roles and occupies different spaces within the community. It is also a remarkable example of how Bhim Geet can work out as a tool of social mobility.

35Shradhaanjali, a tribute to a deceased person, often features a music party provided that the family can remunerate them and that they care enough about music. The same night we interviewed Santosh, two tributes were held in a slum area of Chembur, both with music. Music at Shradhaanjali is deeply connected to Ambedkar and the movement. Constant references are made by the lead singers in spoken and sung sections of the performance. While the deceased may be invoked at some point, the political and religious bonds of the whole community are celebrated and paid tribute. As a reminder, the portrait of the deceased sat on a chair just behind the music party, surrounded by Buddha and Ambedkar pictures, adorned with garlands of flowers (mala).

36The connection to Qawwali, the Sufi music of South Asia, often asserted by Bhim Geet singers, is well illustrated by how the lead singer and the choir interact. The choir may repeat either one specific stanza or each line sung by the lead singer, contributing to the building of the music’s climax throughout the songs. A harmonium is played on fixed tones to help the singers with their tone accuracy but does not play a strong musical role (it is the only non-amplified instrument). The other instruments are drums, tabla and dholak, and the Indian banjo, played here as an accompaniment to the lead singing and as an occasional soloist (in the same way the harmonium operates in Qawwali).

37Both performances were quite different regarding vocal tuning, amplification quality, and ways of playing the instrument (particularly the tabla, played as a dholak with full hand in one band and in a manner closer to the classical music fingering technique in the other). These differences in experience and equipment regarding both music parties were an acute reminder of how Shradhaanjali music performances constitute a means of living for Bhim Geet musicians and thus imply a sort of cultural market. Santosh described this well as he explained how his earnings had improved as he gained experience, thus diversifying his performances from his first Shradhaanjalis to Qawwali and later to small stage concerts and studio recordings.

Ambedkarite celebrations and the social space of Bhim Geet

38This diversity of musical content and performance practice is well represented during the various annual celebrations centered on Ambedkar’s life and deeds and that ultimately shape a community-specific calendar from which four main events arise:

  • The anniversary of Ambedkar in 1891 (April 14th, in several locations in Maharashtra and India);

  • The Lord Buddha’s birthday (May 10th, in several locations in Maharashtra and India)

  • The anniversary of Ambedkar’s death (December 6th, Chaityabhumi, a Buddhist shrine in the heart of Mumbai);

  • The day of conversion to Buddhism in 1956 (October 14th at the Dikshabhumi, literally “the land of conversion,” in Nagpur);

39This calendar relies heavily on Ambedkar’s achievements. It covers the whole year, and its celebrations occur all over Maharashtra and in a few other metropolises like Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Hyderabad, and Bangalore, where the Dalit movement also mobilizes Ambedkar. These celebrations are of various sizes and of local to regional importance. The two most significant locations where crowds gather are the Chaityabhumi in Mumbai and the Dikshabhumi in Nagpur, the latter being the site of the mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956.

  • 18 As illustrated by a few sequences in the documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, the scorn of upper castes an (...)

40The celebration of the conversion at the Dikshabhumi in mid-October in Nagpur is a massive gathering of millions of mostly Mahar Dalits and Buddhists from all over Maharashtra. It is a vital feature of Dalit and lower castes in relation to public space, as they temporarily occupy city centers of major cities, which are usually dominated by upper castes and classes. This can be seen as strategies to occupy public space and as struggles over caste hierarchies, which also structure the use of this public space (Rege 2008). Nevertheless, this vision is nuanced by Sarah Beth (2005), who points out that the limited number of streets involved in the celebration and the strong regulation of the event and its participants by the police make this space a harmless, temporary, non-public space for high castes. This explains why, despite criticisms because of public littering and traffic nuisances, these events are not strictly blamed for embodying a form of communalization of public space which cause Indian upper castes to encounter difficulties in circulating in delineated zones.18 Again, everything happens as though upper castes mostly nonchalantly let this form of punctual appropriation take place, for they similarly appropriate space on other occasions and more routinely control its management in terms of residential power. In other words, like a carnival, that spatial inversion of power is only temporary but is still demonstrative and acts as a reminder of the force of the Dalit Buddhist community.

  • 19 Around 7’50 in the music video. Prabhakar D. does not mix with other Bhim Geet singers in the milie (...)

41The Dikshabhumi celebration consists of a massive fair of hundreds of small stalls selling books, objects linked to Ambedkar and Buddhism, food, and music (in the shape of booklets of lyrics, CDs, VCDs and DVDs). These music stalls, along with the bookshops, are the most numerous and the most visited by the attendees. A few amplified stages are set up within the perimeter of the Dikshabhumi, as well as in the neighboring streets, featuring music, debates, and Buddhist rituals. A much bigger stage is set up at one end of the grounds, where an evening of political speeches given by local, regional, and national political figures unravels, preceded by a concert of Buddha Geet performed by a local well-established Mahar musician versed in classical as well as devotional music, a statistical outlier within the Bhim Geet milieu.19

42Many visitors sleep on the ground of the Dikshabhumi during these few days, as do some music parties from smaller urban areas and villages from Eastern Maharashtra who earn their living performing on the street. The number of parties attending the celebration is decreasing as the broadcast of pop or techno music through loudspeakers by the stalls becomes more and more common. Still, they attract large groups of people who give them money at the various venues where they perform, publicly displaying their generosity in front of the rest of the audience.

43Inside the temporary celebration space, the social space of Bhim Geet appears re-enacted. Musicians from rural and small urban centers are confined to charity and street performances. Urban performers either sell their recordings at the numerous stalls or perform on the few stages around and within the site of the Dikshabhumi. Prabhakar D., the violinist and composer who led the party who took the main stage before the official political speeches, simultaneously occupied a central position in the physical space of the celebration and enjoys a unique position in the social space of Bhim Geet. Trained and performing as a North-Indian classical violinist, he composes Buddha Geet set to a mixture of Bollywood and classicized devotional music. His knowledge of Indian music theory, his mastery of several instruments, his esthetic inclinations, and his more religious perspective on the Ambedkarite movement make of him a very specific figure, highly legitimate from an urban and middle-class perspective, yet quite apart from the main production and performance network of Bhim Geet.

4. “The voice of transformation.20Bhim Geet as a form of people’s history and education

  • 20 This title is inspired by the name of a social networking group mainly composed of Ambedkari artist (...)

« May an Ambedkar be born in every house »
(Har ek ghar me ek Ambedkar paida karo)
(a song title of Prakashnath P.)

44Does Bhim Geet singing constitute a subaltern (or counter-) narrative of caste struggles past and present? A way to look at this question is to underline the critical voices amongst Dalits regarding these cultural practices. First, some view Ambedkarite gatherings as irrational as they “deify” Ambedkar, thus going against his very political thought (Rege 2008). Similar criticisms are formulated by some activists with regard to the very content of these songs, in particular when they convey patriarchal views, such as in the numerous songs about Ambedkar’s first wife, Ramabai, or when they dodge the content of Ambedkar’s message by praising his character or fetishizing the pen with which he drafted the Indian Constitution.

45Criticisms of most of today’s Bhim Geet lyrical content should be understood as part of the intellectual components of the Dalit Movement. A more analytical approach could bring us to consider the images and metaphors mobilized by these Bhim Geet as part of a poetical and musical legacy from Tamasha, Warkari devotional singing, and Qawwali. The pure and simple substitution of deities by the name of Ambedkar in some of these songs is only the most obvious example of these dynamics, as in this Jalsa’s opening from 1930:

« Bhimraya, I touch your feet,
Give me the intellect to sing of your virtues.
In this world, except for you, we have no saviour,
You are the true mother of the untouchables,
To emancipate the Dalits—
Give me the intellect to sing of your virtues » (quoted and translated in Rege 2008:17)

46The notion of a hidden text or meaning can also be conveyed to understand Bhim Geet or Prabodhan as a specifically subaltern form of historical narrative. The numerous songs invoking the Poona Pact issue as Ambedkar saving Gandhi’s life should not be interpreted as a naïve or blindly partisan vision of history but rather as a counter-history. It thus attributes the real courage not to Gandhi and his fast to death against the idea, supported by Ambedkar, of separate electorates for Untouchables, but to Ambedkar’s ability give up in order to save the so-called father of the nation to come. In an extraordinary reversal of Indian historical common sense, Ambedkar is thereby pictured as the true father of the nation who saved the official father of the nation.

Prabodhan and the power of exclamation

47In another musical context usually considered for its rather acute political literacy, Prakashnath P. reveals a similar sacralization of the Indian constitution. When asked during an interview about his stance regarding the use of violence in specific political scenarios involving revolutionary singers of the leftist movement, he says that he would admonish anyone who dared fight outside the path of the Constitution written by Ambedkar, and that he would sing against such a movement if it existed. Of course, Prakashnath P. does not sing against the so-called Indian ultra-left, but he does not indicate that he is sympathetic towards them. Ambedkari singers are, in fact, either embarrassed or disinterested in this question, for it more widely raises the issue of the pan-Indian alliance between scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Unlike the Vidrohit Jalsa musical bands, which are socialized within the Indian left movement and more accustomed to village settings, Ambedkari singers rather look towards and compete with urban lower castes that are just above them in the social hierarchy instead of Adivasis. This rift within the Dalit cultural movement goes unsaid for Ambedkari artists who usually dodge the question, as Prakashnath P. did in our interview. The national anthem is treated more ambivalently: he explains that he plays around and provokes the state by messing with it. He says he has often been warned that he could be banned if he did not stop interfering with national symbols.

Prakash: Yes, they recorded me on tape. In functions in Mumbai, it happened like that to me. The anthem, the one written by Rabindranath Tagore. I messed with it. I mean I changed a few words, so they warned me. They said we can get you banned. You can’t mess with the anthem. Even if you sing poetry … , you cannot touch the anthem. You know, the “Jana gana mana adhinayaka, jaya hé, Bharata Bhagya Vidhata” (Tagore’s translation of the anthem: “Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, Dispenser of India’s destiny”). … I messed with it, didn’t I?

48Prakashnath P. sings another such type of song in relation to what is perceived as a political lie when the Indian Prime Minister launched his “Clean India Campaign” and gave the credit to Gandhi instead of Gadge Baba, a regional Guru of Vidarbha that Ambedkar knew.

Prakash P.: To put it in a historical perspective, this campaign was first conducted by Gadge Baba in Vidarbha, whom Ambedkar respected very highly (he looks and points towards a portrait of Ambedkar in the room). Gadge Baba, he used to weave and wear old pieces of torn clothes, would take his broom and go clean the bastis and mohallas (different areas of villages or towns). There’s a whole story there. So I wrote a song to try and explain it to Modi, in Marathi (he switches language from Hindi to Marathi).
‘The village cleanliness campaign …’
I mean, I want to say that what Modi told you Gandhi did not do, but Gadge Baba did it. That’s what I told people in Marathi. Gandhi might have told people to clean but did not do it.

  • 21 If Nancy Fraser’s notion of “subaltern counter-publics” applies well in some ways, it falls short o (...)
  • 22 Rege reminds us of the essential historical mediation of « caste-based forms of cultural labor such (...)

49More generally, what these songs and meanings convey is twofold: on the one hand, it underscores a process of people’s history written by dominated castes who consider themselves autonomous from the Hindu religious fold; on the other hand, it illustrates that Dalit people, at least Mahar Buddhists in this case, do want to participate to the writing of the Indian nation’s history and thus take part in its greater narrative. Dalit Buddhists are constantly in a dual position of dissent and respect for the constitution due to his creator. This position can be defined as a very vocal form of legalist dissent. Bhim Geet constitutes a central part of a “Dalit counter-public social space21” (Rege 2008:20) composed of alternative institutions and networks of publication and diffusion, which convey a critical vision of history at the service of popular education and political awareness.22

Bhim Geet as a patriarchal means of struggle

50Dhammasangini, a women’s studies scholar and former student of Sharmila Rege, criticizes what she practically conceptualizes as the first wave of the Bhim Geet cultural movement, the historical sequence during which most songs were simplistic praise of Babasaheb, whether for celebrating his supportive wife or the great constitution which he gifted to the country. According to her, singers should develop more complex views and compose songs evoking contemporary social issues, thus contributing to shape the cultural movement as more overtly political. She provides another example in the realm of education. While at the time of Ambedkar the question was about guaranteeing that every child could go to school; now, the question is about what type of school one goes to, from a rundown public school in a village or slum or to an English-medium private one? Social markers and struggles have evolved, so should Bhim Geet repertoires to move beyond heroic praise, particularly in relation to women.

  • 23 Except when they must “reply” to a man in an explicit seduction duet (called Saamnaa).
  • 24 This should not be read as a critique of her character but rather as a benevolent description of he (...)

51The fact that women are singers does not mean that they convey a message of emancipation, particularly for themselves. One should consider what they sing, and the fact that they usually did not write the song. To return to Ovi—grind mill songs sung by women in domestic circles—helps to underline the gendered dimension of emancipation and of what we could call “the uses of (political) literacy,” to rephrase Hoggart’s famous 1957 title. Dhammasangini reminds us in her interview that women usually do not write and read, in the sense that they will not be considered poets even though they may be considered artists. Ovi are feminine productions that accompany daily activities (one may read chores) or life-cycle rituals while Bhim Geet serve as masculine symbolic goods which can have the dual function of resisting or entertaining society at large. Poets are usually men while woman will be singers (or dancers, if we evoke Tamasha again), though often secondary singers sitting beside the main (male) performers.23 Patriarchal values are then embedded in the circulated songs, illustrated by many themes and titles or spatial configurations. She mentions a song which says that one should be able to find mangal sutras (marriage necklaces) with written “Jai Bhim” (“Victory to Bhim”—a caste-equivalent of Jai Hind) on them. Dhammasangini asserts that one should instead wonder why women should wear such traditional necklaces. Many songs, for instance, depict the simplicity of Ramabai, Ambedkar’s first wife: she wears the mangal sutra, the bindi and does not question anything of her husband’s life but rather selflessly sacrifices herself and her health for his wellbeing. Such songs thus contribute to constructing what a “real Buddhist woman” should be and become a normative matrix of patriarchal social practices, echoing our earlier description of the immorality associated with the participation of women in many past and present Bhim Geet performances. The recent success of Kadubai Kharat, a woman singer from an Aurangabad slum, who suddenly shot up to fame through the “viral” circulation of some of her interpretations of famous Bhim Geet, can paradoxically be analyzed in such a light. Beyond her extraordinary voice and personality, Kadubai Devdas Kharat has the looks of a poor and ordinary mother and housewife. She is simple and friendly and does not talk much,24 far from the kind of exhortative shouts directed at the public by Prabodhan men artists. Her analysis is nonetheless sharp, and her existential details are essential; she gives them herself:

  • 25 A one-stringed instrument mainly used to accompany singing rhythmically.

“After my parents and husband died, I had to take up the instrument (ektara25) once again, now for food, and start singing. Babasaheb’s message and the life of Ramabai is what keeps me going. Especially Ramabai, who took care of the whole house single-handedly—she even buried her children when Babasaheb went abroad for his studies. That is the strength of us Dalit women.” (Kandukuri 2019)

Conclusion: “It is Bhim’s law but Gandhi’s photo”

52We have come to know how Dalits “learnt the use of political means” (Zelliot 1970) to contest for their own rights and political space, an expression rephrased in an article in Contributions to Indian Sociology to refer to the larger movement of strategies and symbolic means deployed by the movement (Jaoul 2006), such as the massive construction of statues of Ambedkar all over the country and the mobilizations for the imposition of his portrait in official buildings (Jaoul 2010). Dalits in Maharashtra and UP have mastered the use of symbolic means—and popular iconography (Pinney 2004)—in an approach determined to carve a place of their own in public space. We also know that Dalit Literature (Sahitya) has a long and very self-aware history (Limbale and Mukherjee 2004) and has been massively translated (including into French, see the works of Poitevin and the other translations of Dalit autobiographies, 1987). Thus, this research has addressed the position of Bhim Geet in this global heritage of cultural goods produced by Dalits as a massive yet often illegitimate object, which stands, not surprisingly, in the shadow of Marathi theatre, Lavni or even Tamasha.

53While struggling with caste-based political authority and violence, Bhim Geet is inhabited by inner dissensions and struggles for legitimacy. Aesthetic diversities reflect its complex ancestry and Dalits’ inner socio-economic segmentation (also expressed through the many factions of the once-united Republican Party of India). This dual relation to authority also tells us something of the Dalit cultural movement today and of how different the stakes are for a struggling street singer earning most of his income at a few yearly Ambedkarite festivals of the Buddhist almanac or for a singer and composer shooting video clips, performing at heavily budgeted functions as well as working for the regional film industry. The pitfall here is to analyze these polarized positions within the frame of a functionalist approach to Bhim Geet; to sum up, the question is how it is possible for the form to serve as a political tool for some and for others just a cultural product. After all, most of the musicians we met earn their living with their music or at least try to. However these songs create a sense of unity through the deeds of an untold History and shared values and struggles, Bhim Geet remains a central part of a Dalit counter public, even if this social space carries its share of inequality.

  • 26 The period is yet fraught with the multiple incarcerations of activists. We do not omit those who h (...)

54In a political context where Hindu nationalism is in power and where hegemonic cultural counter-narratives may evoke caste and purity idioms rather than modernity, Ambedkari artists appear to be a unique case of non-conformity with nationalist frames, although they do not fail to stick with a patriotic image. Ambedkar, being the “creator of the constitution” (sanvidhaan ka shilpkara), as he is referred to in various songs and praise pieces, there is a paradoxical case of contention around his patriotism. Rather than being criticized for indulging in so-called anti-national slogans and songs, most Ambedkari artists and musicians are nonchalantly tolerated for picturing Ambedkar as one true patriot, a not-so-controversial statement after all.26 “Hindu right” politicians nowadays invite themselves to or organize their own Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations to woo the Dalit vote bank while denouncing other politicized aspects of the Dalit movement. At the same time, rural processions of Ambedkar Jayanti in other regions of Maharashtra are sometimes practically banned due to caste domination exercised by Marathas, domination which can even lead to murder (Shanta 2023).

55Our research suggests that Bhim Geet musical practices result from strong historical ties between Mahar Dalits and other Dalit social groups (notably Matang and Chamar), lower castes and Muslims. Prabodhan and Bhim Geet call for the rebuttal of the argument that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim (Teltumbde 2003) from the point of view of the cultural production sphere. In brief, if Bhim and his own caste circles had not socialized with Muslim groups, including practitioners of Sufi music, throughout their existence, Prabodhan as a style of music would not have existed, and Muslim Shahirs would not have written many Bhim Geet. Bhim Geet is a blend of inspirations and influences that emerged from dominated groups during colonial times and after Independence. Most importantly, writings and music deployed during celebrations linked to the life and deeds of Ambedkar end up being the most marked sites of struggle for the Dalit movement in contemporary India (Rege 2013:45). The events of the Ambedkari calendar have contributed to the formation of political heterotopias and continue to represent events rife with political practice and people education, teaching the youth values of equality, dignity, and respect—values that are not culturally self-evident in the caste system. At present, Dalits often live in a mix of uncertainty weaving together with a fragile existence fraught with immense historical inequalities. Music is a meaningful reminder that their heritage is alive and kicking. It also reminds us that struggles over cultural meanings are inseparable from daily tussles and survival strategies (Rege 2002).

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1 As a rule of thumb, we do not mention people or change their names. However, it is more complicated when dealing with artists who can be recognized or aspire to public recognition. We have thus decided to give the first name and initial of the last name of each artist. It is an intermediary solution insofar as it does not reveal the identity of our interviewees, nor does it alter their names.

2 Besides regular visits to Maharashtra and Vidarbha made by one of the authors of this article, we conducted two specific fieldwork studies in February 2015 and October 2016, first in Western Maharashtra (Mumbai, Pune, and Kasegaon), then in Vidarbha (Nagpur city and rural, Amravati) as a troupe of three people, two researchers and one independent videographer, Philippe Pereira, who coedited the small video clip of Bhim Geet excerpts attached to this article. These two studies were possible thanks to the “Eugène Fleischman” grant allocated by the Société d’Ethnologie de Nanterre in June 2014. Our October 2016 field trip happened to take place during the 60th anniversary of the Dhammachakra pravartan din celebrated at the Dikshabhumi in Nagpur, the so-called Day of Promulgation of the Dhamma, in other words, the day of conversion to Buddhism by Ambedkar and his followers. While it is indeed the word promulgation that applies here, we may note that many people regularly use—mistakenly or intentionally we do not know—the word Parivartan, very close to the latter (pravartan) but with a different meaning: change or transformation. There is no doubt that change was promulgated that day.

3 Borja et all 2016.

4 For another regional perspective on some of these issues, see Arun (2007) and Gorringe (2016). More specifically, one may be reminded of the Punjabi Dalit singer Bant Singh. See:

5 It would be too long and arbitrary to start listing. For a relatively well-furnished and up-to-date English language bibliography of titles containing explicit reference Ambedkar, see the page of Dr Mahotish Mandal (

6 We refer to the original, blue-colored collection of edited volumes of Babasaheb’s writings and speeches.

7 On the self-designation “Dalit” and the politics of naming, see Beltz (2005), Paik (2011).

8 This expression suggests a comparable process of homogenization of social classes and reduction of inequalities similar to what happened in Western countries after the Second World War. See Peugny (2013).

9 The KKM split in 2017, the founding duo (Shital Sathe and Sachin Mali) deciding to leave the troupe and what they referred to as “left-leaning politics” to create instead Navayana Mahajalsa (see Ajotikar [2018]). In 2022 and despite their critical take on the left movement, the government of Maharashtra labelled the new troupe an “active naxal frontal organization” (Shantha [2023]).

10 Such public recognition of Kabir’s importance transpires through his appearance in the film on Ambedkar’s life, directed by Jabbar Patel with the actor Mammootty. Kabir’s influence appears via a song called Kabira kahe, i.e., “Kabir has said…”

11 It is quasi-ritually repeated in interviews by artists and intellectuals, much less by villagers or laypeople. See the autobiography of Daya Pawar.

12 With reference to the so-called “balutedari system,” western Indian equivalent of the Jajmani System. See Jaffrelot 2006. It can translate as a village form of moral economy of castes services, gift, and debt relations. See Mayer 1993.

13 In Parmeshwar’s family, just like elsewhere in rural Vidarbha, when there is a new birth, a member of the Matang caste presents himself at the doorstep to beat his drum and ask his due in grain and money, not a minor residual practice of balutedari social relations.

14 Such ambivalent consideration in distinguished circles is still prevalent today, as illustrated by the word of a high civil servant and friend when asked to join a tamasha we were organizing in the village of Parmeshwar C. (mentioned in the introduction of this article): he laughed and conceded that going out to see a tamasha was somehow equivalent to watching a “blue film” (i.e., a pornographic movie) for his social status.

15 Shailaja Paik (2020) tells us that “(b)y adopting the popular medium of jalsaa, powadaa and Tamasha, dalit troupes toured remote villages and modern cities and engaged in singing and music to bring about social change. However, in the process Dalit radicals also sought to restrict celebrations of the jalsaa to men so as to counter practices that they considered immoral and degrading. They believed that by acting in such roles, Dalit women degraded the status of the Dalit community as a whole” (p. 73).

16 A phenomenon which can be observed in various “reforms” of performance contexts throughout 20th century South Asia. See for example Partha Chatterjee’s (1989) fundamental text and the key reflexions he inspired about the marginalisation of performing women in Hindustani music, Qureshi (2006).

17 See the enlightening short series of articles by the poet and intellectual Yogesh Maitreya in First Post (

18 As illustrated by a few sequences in the documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, the scorn of upper castes and classes can be violently vocal if they are asked what they think and know of these gatherings when they take place. Some of the affluent decide to go to Dubai for a few days when these celebrations occur, or at least go out of town to avoid sharing public space with them[copy editor: who is them?]. If there is no ethnicization of public space per se, considering the high degree of universalism ideologically carried in the discourses and practices of Dalits and lower castes at these festivals, there is nonetheless a critical cleavage that indicates a form of social and spatial separatism practiced by the habitual residents of these zones.

19 Around 7’50 in the music video. Prabhakar D. does not mix with other Bhim Geet singers in the milieu but trains the youth in classical and Maharashtrian music at his home, where we conducted an interview during a class in the company of three women singers, each of them having a different musical and artistic sensitivity. One was practicing ghazal, another was trained in kirtan and the last one was versed in Lavni.

20 This title is inspired by the name of a social networking group mainly composed of Ambedkari artists and poets.

21 If Nancy Fraser’s notion of “subaltern counter-publics” applies well in some ways, it falls short of providing an entirely satisfactory conceptual tool in this case to describe the latter’s situation wherein one does not just “invent and circulate counter-discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” (Fraser 1992); Dalits here claim to represent and speak for the greater interest of the nation at large, not just for themselves. They claim to be better publics than casteist Hindus.

22 Rege reminds us of the essential historical mediation of « caste-based forms of cultural labor such as the Lavani and the Powada as grounds on which cultural and political struggles are worked out » (Rege 2002).

23 Except when they must “reply” to a man in an explicit seduction duet (called Saamnaa).

24 This should not be read as a critique of her character but rather as a benevolent description of her social nature.

25 A one-stringed instrument mainly used to accompany singing rhythmically.

26 The period is yet fraught with the multiple incarcerations of activists. We do not omit those who have not necessarily sung any songs but are in jail for their dissent under the ATI.

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Electronic reference

Joël Cabalion and Julien Jugand, Bhim Geet and the Ambedkarite Movement: The Genesis of a Cultural Field of ProtestSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Joël Cabalion

Head Researcher at Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH) and Associate Professor at University of Tours (CITERES)

By this author

Julien Jugand

Associate Researcher at CREM-LESC, UMR7186

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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