Under the lights, wearing the dhammachakra around her neck, she starts singing Mazya Bhimaana sonyan bharli oti (Ambedkar filled my basket with gold), to an audience waving flags with Jai Bhim written on them, at the Ramabai Colony in Chembur, Mumbai. It was 7 February, the 121st birth anniversary of Ramabai Ambedkar, wife of Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

A social media sensation amonganti-caste activists, Kadubai Devadas Kharat, also known as “Bhim Kanya", is a Bhim geet singer from Aurangabad. Bhim geet are songs that talk about the life and times of Ambedkar and other anti-caste leaders. “I started singing Bhim geet and playing ektara since when I was eight years old. I used to go with my father to Ambedkar bhajans and we used to perform together. Now, I devote my life to spreading Ambedkar’s thoughts and message through my songs and my voice," says Kharat.

Kharat, 40, is a single mother of three who earns a living through alms earned while performing Bhim geet on the streets of Aurangabad. “After my parents and husband died, I had to take up the instrument (ektara) 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."

In October 2018, a Facebook video of her singing Bhim geet went viral. “We tell our history through these songs. Everyone in this country needs to know the message of Ambedkar, Annabhau Sathe, Shahu Maharaj. We assert and celebrate our identities while singing them," says Kharat.

Asked how she learnt to sing, she laughs: “I learnt singing from my parents, they used to sing Bhim geet to make ends meet. For us, singing is not like a hobby, like for upper-caste singers, but our livelihood. The daily wage we get through odd jobs is not enough for us to survive and that is when Babasaheb comes to our rescue again, with the story of his legendary life that needs to be told to everyone in this country".

She says Bhim geet artists don’t get much recognition. “There are many artists like me, from our community, but nobody ever treated us with respect. Today, people call me to programmes to perform and give me awards. Thanks to social media, today I have a new family which welcomes me warmly wherever I go in the country. But it is just that now I am not able to get money from taking alms and singing in the streets because people have started recognizing me and think I have a lot of money," she says.

The struggle continues. Kharat says, “You journalists come to us, write on us and our art and go back. You should also write about how our houses are being demolished by the government. I live in Aurangabad at Chilkal Thana Ghairaon, which is a barren land, in a tin house. A few months ago, at 5am, police came and started demolishing our houses. There was no prior notice of any sort, or a general warning, since they say we encroached on government land. Almost 3,500 people live there, all very poor, meeting ends by doing odd jobs. Now all of us are homeless."

But while life may not have changed materially, she is making a difference on the ground. Omey Anand, founder of the Nijaat Collective, a group of Dalit artists working for the annihilation of caste, and a Mumbai-based film-maker who is making a documentary on Kharat called Kadubai, says, “Kadubai is creating a new cultural movement by mainstreaming our voices through hers."

Close