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Jalsas and the cultural history of Satyashodhak movement

Satyashodhak Jalse cover

‘Performance’ as a form of resistance and as a cultural medium of social awakening has a deep, complex history in modern Maharashtra. However, the existing scholarship on the non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra has seldom engaged with the radicality of the non-Brahmin performative sphere. 

As opposed to the studies of the Satyashodhak Samaj as a ‘movement’ and as a political entity, which has steadily received critical attention in both Marathi and English academic circles since the 1960s, the performative sphere has largely been an untapped ‘resource’ of the non-Brahmin movement. 

I offer two hypotheses for this lack of attention to performance. Firstly, most of the academic scholarship on the Satyashodhak movement continues to revolve around Jotirao Phule even today. There is no gainsaying the fact that this attention indeed is critical for expanding our understandings of alternative sociocultural and intellectual histories of modern India. At the same time, it is equally important to move beyond the intellectual confines of a personality-centric study, in order to critically gauge the rapidly changing social milieu of this period. 

Secondly, it will not be erroneous to suggest that Jotirao Phule himself found precious little use of the performative sphere for furthering a peculiar kind of radical politics. We do have a reference like the one where Phule and his colleague Krishnarao Bhalekar attend a cultural performance (vag) in Poona. However, there is not enough material to suggest that Phule found merit in using the performative sphere as a radical tool for Bahujan emancipation. 

Similarly, Jon Keune in his latest book Shared Devotion, Shared Food: Equality and the Bhakti – Caste Question in Western India, argues how Phule had little use for the Varkaris as their devotion for Brahmin bhakti saints was perceived as “succumbing to the same Brahman ploys that suppressed Śudras elsewhere.”

With this backdrop, it can be argued that the performative sphere only started becoming a lynchpin of radical Satyashodhak assertion post Jotirao Phule. As much as the written word provides an insight into the radicality of Satyashodhak thought, it needs to be supplanted by the movement’s emphasis on social awakening in the public domain. In that sense, Satyashodhak jalsas were the performative wing of the radical ideas that emerged in the Satyashodhak print sphere. 

Along with print, the performative sphere became a critical site for the Satyashodhaks, to register their antipathy towards Brahmin hegemony of the public sphere. The inception of Satyashodhak jalsas in early 1890s and its impact on shaping the cultural and intellectual contours of Satyashodhak dissent must be understood in this context. Gajanan Bhingardive’s pioneering new book Satyashodhak Jalse: Parampara, Swaroop Aani Vaatchal (Satyashodhak Jalsas: Tradition, Nature and Journey) fills a major void in the existing literature on the non-Brahmin movement. 

Simply put, jalsas were, as Sharmila Rege notes, a “politically progressive form of a Tamasha.” If tamasha, with its emphasis on music and a penchant for ‘erotic performances’ was meant for ‘entertainment,’ a jalsa was conceptualised primarily for ‘social awakening.’ Retaining the structure of a tamasha, jalsas reworked the form of a tamasha by creatively reinterpreting its traditional forms like goulan, farce and vag for the purpose of enlightening the Bahujan masses. Bhingardive provides a synoptic overview of the origins of tamasha, along with the common features it shares with other local forms of folk traditions like gondhal, jagran, dashavtar, among others. A jalsa transformed this entertaining spectacle into an event of mass deliberation. 

Bhingardive begins his narrative with Bhimrao Mahamuni, a young Satyashodhak from Poona who performed his first self-composed poetic compositions in 1896. With the help of compositions composed by Krishnarao Bhalekar and others, Mahamuni’s concerted efforts to popularise the jalsas helped to inspire and nurture a new generation of jalsakars across Maharashtra.

Bhingardive’s profiles of other jalsakars gives us valuable insights into who these people were, their economic background, their unique styles of performing jalsas and the numerous difficulties they had to face in terms of both Brahmin retaliation and defending their rights to perform in long-drawn-out court battles. 

Another chapter that stands out for its unique contribution is about the cultural differences between tamashas and jalsas. Bhingardive highlights major differences starting from ‘gana’ or ‘ishastavan’ to how a jalsa would have varying endings. Unlike a tamasha, where the gana was about remembering Lord Ganesha, a jalsa usually stayed true to the Satyashodhak message of believing in the Nirmik, or the creator. A goulan in tamasha predominantly focused on Krishna’s libidinous encounters with the gopis. In the jalsas, this portrayal got complicated by the women confronting Krishna and asserting their public agency. 

Similar was the case with a vag, which came in the form of both prose and poetry. Along with a farce, these were spontaneous dialogues where characters, depending on the mood and the pulse of the crowd, would keep them immersed with impromptu laughter and a serious commentary all at once. From untouchability, widow remarriage, female education to dissecting Brahmin behavioural traits and how they dupe and con gullible farmers, these social skits instantly resonated with farmers. 

These forms of dialogic conversations were at times interrupted by speeches made by Satyashodhak leaders, reiterating the need to educate oneself and their own brethren. Some jalsas focused more on vags and farce whereas others disseminated the message through lavanis and powadas. Interestingly, there was no fixed structure of a jalsa. Like the physical mobility of a jalsa itself, the textual world of a jalsa was malleable. As much as it was a collective endeavour, there was always respect for creative ingenuity while authoring a jalsa.  Depending on the profile of his potential audience, the author exercised this creative space opened up by a jalsa.

Bhingardive shares insights into the difficulty in accessing these jalsa texts, written primarily from the early 20th century onwards. Apart from getting access to seven-eight jalsa texts written by prominent Satyashodhaks like Bhimrao Mahamuni, Bhaurao Patole, Raghunath Leve among others, Bhingardive relies primarily on Satyashodhak newspapers. Through a detailed perusal of newspapers like Dinbandhu, Dinmitra, Vijayi Maratha, Rashtraveer and Hunter, Bhingardive reconstructs the profiles of jalsakars. This mammoth archival exercise has produced names, occupations and cultural backgrounds of 150 jalsakars. 

It is through these profiles that we come to realise the temporal and spatial expanse of the jalsas from the 1890s to the 1940s. Barring the monsoon season, jalsas were a recurrent form of modern awakening. These were mostly clubbed together with other traditional, quotidian societal affairs like yatras, jatras, village weekly bazaars and other social and cultural events. Through this juxtaposition, we are introduced to a milieu where people from different walks of life interact, discuss, and even fiercely debate issues pertaining to religion, individual rights, and Brahmin hegemony in the public sphere. The boisterous nature of a jalsa is brought out by underlining the role ‘spontaneity’ plays in a jalsa. For example, Bhingardive’s citations of intellectual altercations between jalsa performers and Brahmin learned men sitting in the audience about ‘what the shastras say’ is a case in point. 

Most of these performers were unlettered or semi-literate. They relied on generous donations of well-wishers when they were on their peripatetic journeys of social awakening to other villages. Contributions from Shahu Maharaj from Kolhapur are well documented. However, being identified as updeshaks and pracharaks, some were appointed by the Satyashodhak movement whereas others voluntarily agreed to organise and perform in a jalsa without expecting a predetermined sum of remuneration. 

The principal idea was to organically make everyday people believe in the idea of a jalsa imbued with a sense of prabodhan (awakening). As the perceptive observer KB Babar notes, “The reforms we want to see among people cannot be brought about by force. They should happen with love… which means it should happen naturally, without making too much fuss about it… Jalsas do this work” (Rashtraveer, 1921). 

Interestingly, we come across examples of how the emphasis on dialogue and discussion superseded the underlying predilections for violently confronting Brahmin hegemony. The Satyashodhak investment in the ‘approach that a jalsa must undertake’ can be understood with their deliberations on the usage of conversational language. For example, Mukundrao Patil confronting Sonopant Kulkarni (a Brahmin jalsa performer) to jettison the usage of pejorative words like ‘Bāmnyā,’ ‘Bātgyā,’ ‘Teen Shendya’ and ‘Mādyā’ is a case in point. This captures the essence of a jalsa – it was an open invitation to everyone, and not just the non-Brahmins, to reflect and analyse caste and casteism in everyday life. 

Intriguingly, Bhingardive also mentions jalsas being organised specifically for women. Among others, he cites one example of a certain Runjaji Patil’s jalsa in Poona which was particularly lauded by lower-caste women in the 1920s. Through many such examples, Bhingardive manages to focus on both textual as well as the performative aspects of the Satyashodhak jalsas. 

In the introduction, there is a quote by Sambhaji Kharat which argues about how jalsas need to be seen as the first cultural activity in modern India solely dedicated to social awakening. Bhingardive’s work brings the much-needed archival rigour to underscore the importance of jalsas, not just as a cultural resource to comprehend the evolving public sphere but also to see jalsas as a unique way for the bahujans to negotiate and engage with colonial modernity.

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford. Thube has contributed book reviews to Scroll, The Book Review, LSE Review of Books and the Oxford Review of Books.

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