On a humid evening in July 2016, a small group of artists, musicians and activists from across the country gathered for an impromptu performance at the Tau Devi Lal Park in Gurugram. Sitting in a circle, they took turns to perform simple but heartfelt songs about worker rights, the Adivasi struggle for land rights in Odisha’s Niyamgiri, and the resurgence of caste atrocities, to a growing crowd of curious onlookers. Then the music stopped, and a group of young men and women dressed in kurtas took their places in the middle of the circle. They introduced themselves as the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch (Yalgaar cultural troupe), a group of anti-caste street theatre artists from Maharashtra.

With a resounding cry of “Jai Bhim! Lal Salaam!", they launched into a street play that satirized the growing tendency of responding to criticism of the establishment with accusations of treason. Through a series of increasingly absurd vignettes—each ending with cries of “deshdrohi (anti-national)" and “send him to Pakistan"—the actors lampooned right-wing hysterics while simultaneously drawing attention to both historic and contemporary instances of oppression.

Their targets included the caste system, godmen, gau rakshaks, internet trolls, and those who rewrite history to fit mythological narratives. Mid-way through the performance, an angry voice from the back of the crowd accused them of being paid by then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. A handful of others joined in, trying to drown out the performance with shouts of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!" Luckily, others in the crowd came to their defence, and the instigators slunk away with threats of future violence. After the performance, as they were packing up their instruments, one of the young activists turned to me and laughed, “Don’t worry, this is just part of the job."

“Two years ago we could still joke about being branded deshdrohis but I don’t think we would get away with that today," says 29-year-old Dhammaraxit Randive, the troupe’s de facto frontman, when we meet in the 22nd floor flat in the Mumbai suburb of Kandivali that serves as the group’s base of operations. Dhamma, as he prefers to be called, has reason to be concerned. In the aftermath of the violence at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra this January, anti-caste and progressive activists have increasingly been the target of police harassment and online vitriol.

In March, members of Yalgaar were questioned by the police, partly because they share their name with the Elgaar Parishad conference held in Pune the day before the violence, though they had no direct connection with the event. Just last week, the Pune police arrested prominent human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and poet Varavara Rao, along with three others, in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence, alleging that they were all part of a “Maoist plot". This followed the arrest of five other activists in June on the same charges.

“What we’re seeing now is an attack on the little democratic space that still remains in the country," says Randive. “It’s very important that we sustain that space and figure out how to expand it."

For Yalgaar—the troupe takes its name from the Urdu word for attack—the best way to do that is through cultural resistance. They situate themselves within the state’s long-standing tradition of lok-shahirs (people’s poets), masters of the tamasha folk theatre form. Tamasha’s format of clever wordplay, innuendo and song makes it a potent counter-cultural tool of political mobilization, and since the late 19th century, a long line of lok-shahirs from both the Dalit and left movements, including Vamandada Kardak, Annabhau Sathe, Vilas Ghogre and Sambhaji Bhagat, have used it to protest against caste oppression and economic inequality. The members of Yalgaar are inheritors of this legacy; they see it as their mission to reinvent lok-shahiri for the digital age, taking it to a broader audience.

Activism in the blood

“My father was a lok-shahir who had to leave his home in Satara during the 1972 drought and he even spent some time begging on the streets of Kolhapur," says Randive, leaning over the stove as he makes tea. Other members of the group’s core team—which includes his wife Swati Uthale, Pravin Khade and Siddharth Pratibhawant—are lounging around in the small living room, where an old Marathi folk song plays over the speakers. A talented singer with a million-watt smile, Randive has the sort of magnetic charisma that draws people into his orbit. A fellow activist refers to him as “the movement’s Shah Rukh Khan". “I grew up in a slum, and I saw the terrible conditions in which other Dalits—especially the manual scavengers—were forced to live."

Each member of Yalgaar—most are Dalit, but the group also includes upper-castes and Muslims—has their own stories of dealing with discrimination and inequality. Khade grew up in a farming village in the Marathwada region where the upper castes who controlled access to irrigation pumps wouldn’t release water for Dalit farmers during drought years. Prathibawant remembers overhearing his friends’ parents scold them for the crime of “playing with Mahars (his caste)".

Even Uthale, who comes from an upper-caste Maratha family with a history of social activism, wasn’t left untouched by what she calls the “demon of caste". When she married Randive in 2017, her mother—who had helped other inter-caste couples with their weddings—couldn’t bring herself to approve of their union. “My father knew Dhamma and he’s an activist himself, so he supported us," says Uthale, the ever-present smile on her face slipping a little as she speaks. “But my mother was very upset that I was marrying outside my caste. She refuses to talk to us. I don’t know if she’ll ever talk to me again."

Their early brushes with caste-based inequality pushed both Randive and Uthale into activism while still in school. The two became part of an organization in Satara called Muktiwadi Yuva Sangathan (MYS), which is also how they met each other. Consisting of socially conscious school and college students, the MYS travelled to slums and bastis across the region, performing songs and street theatre that drew attention to caste and class issues. Using donations collected during these performances, they organized two annual programmes: a youth festival and an anti-caste conference.

The group also conducted issue-based campaigns like the Muslim Jagruti Abhiyaan, which helped Satara’s Muslim residents get ration cards and Aadhaar cards. In 2009, when 19-year-old Dalit Rohan Kakade was beheaded by five upper-caste men in Satara—on the suspicion that he was having an affair with one of their sisters—the group organized a dharna in protest.

In 2012, Randive moved to Mumbai to study performing arts at Mumbai University. He was still working with MYS, but now he began toying with the idea of starting something more narrowly focused on culture as a means of building solidarity across different progressive movements.

When rationalist Govind Pansare was assassinated by gunmen suspected to be part of radical Hindutva group Sanatan Sanstha in 2015, Randive and his fellow activists felt they had to respond to the atmosphere of rising fear and violence in the country. They came together to form Yalgaar as an egalitarian “cultural movement for human liberation" that would use the arts to counter caste and class oppression, religious fundamentalism, gender discrimination and fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

“When the BJP came to power, I saw that many progressive people in Mumbai were worried by the rise of right-wing violence. But everyone was working away separately, under their own flags," says Randive. “I felt that we needed to build on the things that unite us, and culture is the best way to do that. It can act as a bridge between different political organizations."

Not just entertainers

Since its inception, Yalgaar has worked tirelessly, spending 10-12 days a month on the road performing in villages, Dalit bastis and slums all across Maharashtra. Their live sets are an engaging mix of satirical street theatre and rousing folk songs—rearranged versions of older protest anthems and original compositions that tackle issues like the cow-related violence in Gujarat’s Una in July 2016, the death of Rohith Vemula and the plight of Maharashtra’s farmers. They have collaborated with protest musicians and activists from other musical and artistic traditions, including the poetry group Morche Pe Kavi and the Western-rock-oriented satirical act The Banned, both based in Mumbai.

But Yalgaar are not satisfied with performing their songs of resistance for gatherings of the marginalized and the oppressed. In recent years, they have made a conscious effort to go beyond the confines of the movement and take their message to upper-caste and upper-class audiences, even performing at Hindu religious and cultural events on Shiv Jayanti, Ganpati and Durga Puja, spaces that are traditionally unwelcoming of assertions of Dalit pride or politics.

“It’s easy to perform in front of an audience of Amebdkarites or workers," says Randive. “It’s a much harder task to perform in front of a diverse audience and keep them interested in what we’re trying to say."

“We evoke saints like Tukaram and Kabir to broach topics like equality and egalitarianism," adds Pratibhawant. By carefully tailoring their sets, the group usually manages to win over diverse crowds—even traditionally antagonistic ones—without diluting their message. But it doesn’t always work. “Once we were performing at a Shiv Jayanti event in Mukhed (a city in Nanded district), which is usually a Maratha-Shiv Sena type of audience," he says. “The show was going well till we started speaking about what Shivaji Maharaj meant to Dalits, and how organizations like the Sanatan Sanstha and the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) have distorted history and appropriated him. That didn’t go down too well with a group sitting in the front two-three rows, who got up and left in a huff."

It’s rare—and often looked down upon—for a group connected with the Ambedkarite or Left movements to reach out to upper-caste audiences. The reason Yalgaar can do this is because unlike most other such cultural troupes, they remain fiercely independent, not directly tied to any political organization or party. This independence also allows them creative and political flexibility. “Sometimes, it feels like (a cultural activist’s) only job is to play songs that talk about what the party decides, you can’t talk about or make decisions about ideology," says Randive. “But we don’t want to just be entertainers, we want to be cultural leaders who create an alternative way of political mobilization."

But this independence comes at a cost. To sustain themselves, Yalgaar have now started charging a minimal fee for performances at events organized by NGOs, and they supplement that income with money earned through workshops and occasional acting jobs in commercial theatre. This is also one of the reasons behind their push to take their art to a wider audience, both through events and through inexpensively-produced videos shot on cellphones and uploaded on YouTube and social media. Their eventual goal is to develop an alternate economic model that allows their activism to be self-sustaining, so that they can continue their work beyond the usual 5-10 year shelf life of a street theatre group. “Every artist in the movement is told that you find a job for money, and do your art for free," says Randive. “But we’re professionally trained artists, this is our job. We can’t just be dependent on the Ambedkar Jayanti ecosystem. So the only option is to create our own alternative possibilities for cultural activism."

This task has taken on even more urgency at a time when any act of dissent is met with police harassment or the threat of mob violence. Event organizers who invite them to perform complain of visits by belligerent policemen. Their videos are being targeted by right-wing trolls who accuse them of being Maoists and traitors. The handful of instigators at the Gurugram park in 2016 have morphed into a huge online army, stirred into a frenzy by the politics of polarization and a sensationalist section of the media.

“Of course we’re scared of being falsely arrested or killed, but we look at it as a challenge," says Randive. “Dalits fighting the Dalit fight, women fighting for gender rights, Muslims fighting for their rights, that format is not going to work anymore. While we keep arguing about red (communist) flags or blue (Ambedkarite) flags, the right wing is whipping up mobs against all of us. We need to be strategic and work together."

***

Jaagar (2016)

Lyrics (in Marathi)

Ghaalu jaagar jaagar samate

cha

Ha jaagar samatecha ha jaagar

kranticha

Ha jaagar shikshanacha ha

jaagar vigyaancha

Shivrai, Phule, Shahu,

Ambedkar, Savitrimai cha

Ghaalu jaagar jaagar samatecha

Jaaga ho jaago ho din Dalita

jaaga ho

Jaaga ho haaga shetkari dada

Jaagi ho jaagi ho tai mai akka

jaagi ho

Ghaalu jaagar jaagar

samatecha

Translation

We are on a vigil for equality

This vigil for equality, this vigil for revolution

An awakening based on education and science

Like Shivaji, Phule, Shahu, Ambedkar and Savitirimai,

We are on a vigil for equality.

Wake up, wake up, Dalit friends, wake up

Wake up, wake up, farmer uncle, wake up

Wake up, wake up, women folk, wake up

We are on a vigil for equality

Close