Forget the king, make a MONUMENT

Shivaji is a monument in Maharashtra today. But what of the men who engage with this monument through their life's experience? And, what of their ballads?

Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai
For someone living in Mumbai, encounters with Shivaji are de rigueur. At the train terminus, the airport, the Gateway of India, major traffic junctions, festivals - big and small; Shivaji 'appears' in various forms and sizes. This proliferation of a personality makes it something of a monument in itself.

The monumentality manifests itself in a way familiar for other tall leaders elsewhere. Shivaji, like other kings and leaders, exists in the cumulative consciousness of the society. The Marathi manoos, and the non-Marathi manoos who invokes this 17th century king for whatever reason, is proud of him, without perhaps being experientially involved with his ideals and beliefs.

What then will be the use of erecting another monument to this monument-of-a-personality, one may ask, referring, of course, to the proposed 321-feet tall statue of Shivaji off Marine Drive in Mumbai. Will this new monument, to be built at a cost of Rs 350 crore, not result in distancing Shivaji further from the common man? Literally, too, since the statue will be erected on a 160 feet tall plinth? Will the structure and the men administering it provide space for those engaged with the monumental Shivaji at an experiential, personal level around it?

The need to relate

As it happens in the case of any monument, it is not difficult to find people who engage with Shivaji Raje Bhosle or Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj at an experiential level. They sing of him, of his valour, wit, ideals and his dream for 'Hindavi Swarajya'. They are the shahirs of Maharashtra, for whom Shivaji is not merely a historical personality, but one that is alive, brimming with possibilities, and lessons for a better future.

While being aware of his monumentality, they relate to him and his tales. They recreate history through their powadas - tales of valour - about him, and scoff at the way his name is used by political parties in the state.

Shahir Atmaram Patil (85), for instance, says that only people who engage with Shivaji and his story at a very personal level can know him. And, those who don't, like the ones running political parties, should not invoke his name ever.

Patil's memory often fails him; he often repeats what he said just 10 minutes ago. And so, in an hour-long conversation, several times he repeats, "Jo abhyaas nahin karega, usko kya pata hoga (only people who engage with Shivaji and his story at a very personal level can know him)." Other repetitions abound: responding to a query about what the folk tradition says about Shivaji's pro-Hindutva ideals, Patil keeps repeating that the revered king had specifically asked for a powada to be written for Ibrahim Khan, his trusted aide. And that his army comprised people from 18 different castes (jaat). So, obviously, Shivaji was not a Hindutva-wadi.

Patil, in fact, is one of the shahirs who has written powadas specifically about Shivaji's samajwadi (socialist) ideology, says Shahir Hemant Mavle. So has Shahir Amar Sheikh. His powada is about samajwadi Shivaji.

Those who still practise shahiri, vociferously state that Shivaji was not just a Hindu king, nor was he unfairly pro-Dalit. They agree, however, that powadas are silent about the alleged Dalit origins of Shivaji, and about how the priest allegedly used his toes to apply tilak on Shivaji during his rajyabhishek (crowning ceremony).

This is because powadas, says Shahir Nandesh Umap, were meant to rouse people to join Shivaji's army and inspire them to fight for 'Hindavi Swarajya'. Hence, shahirs steered clear of controversial incidents, choosing instead to focus on Shivaji's valour.

As a result, many powadas have been written about Shivaji killing Afzal Khan, narrating the incident in vivid, overtly exaggerated detail. The first powada on Shivaji, written by Shahir Adnyatdas, was, in fact, on the Afzal Khan episode.

While divisive forces have cited such powadas, and others that mention the destruction of mosques, to enunciate that Shivaji was indeed against Muslims, the shahirs who interact with the monumental personality at an experiential level, and whom this reporter spoke to, refuse to see such a design.

Would it then be fair to say that powadas do not portray Shivaji as a Hindutva icon at all? Not exactly, says historian Ninand Bedekar. He mentions that efforts to portray Shivaji as a Rightwing hardliner are not apparent in the earlier powadas about him. But as time progressed and the search for an icon among different sections of the society intensified, and Shivaji slowly became the monument he is today, the political climate altered depiction of Shivaji in powadas, and in popular tradition, too.

Meanwhile, different forces started using his name for different reasons - train and air terminals and important junctions were named after him, he became the poster boy for Rightwing pro-Hindutva forces. Then, the pro-Dalit Sambhaji Brigade tried to reclaim him, books on him got banned, statues were erected, arguments conducted, riots raged, posters created and mandaps adorned. Finally now, a statue complex dwarfing the grand Statue of Liberty has been proposed and cleared; somewhere along the way, elections were fought and won, too.

As Shivaji - the monument - became grander, the condition of his companions, the shahirs, deteriorated. Make no mistake - shahirs don't sing only about Shivaji; he's just one of the subjects. But he's the one they're very attached to. The tradition of shahiri received a boost during and after Shivaji's reign, so the innate connection between the two cannot be negated.

And yet, consecutive state governments have failed to assist shahirs in a way that could sustain them. The present government plans to spend Rs 350 crore erecting a monument for Shivaji but gives merely Rs 500-1,000 as financial assistance to shahirs. One might wonder how a shahir, who is past 70, is expected to sustain himself on this paltry amount.

Maybe, the government would do better to spend the money on supporting shahirs who keep the monumental Shivaji alive among the rural people. Maybe it could organise more workshops to promote shahiri, over and above the solitary 25-day workshop it organises annually. It should also extend support to shahirs by organising programmes and promoting the art form. Already, younger shahirs like Shahir Nandesh Umap and Shahir Hemant Mavle do not depend on shahiri as a livelihood. They sing of Shivaji and of other issues of great social concern as a passion, but score music in films and jingles, among other things, to earn a living. Some, like Shahir Atmaram Patil's son, have veered away from shahiri altogether: "Us se aaj kal pet nahi chalta (it doesn't feed the stomach these days)", he says.

Many activists and commentators have cried themselves hoarse over the futility of the proposed Shivaji statue off Marine drive, which, incidentally, is awaiting a go-ahead from the environment ministry. And, they have faced the flak for it, too. The residence of Kumar Ketkar, editor of Marathi daily, Loksatta, for instance, was attacked by Shiv Sangram goons last year. Ketkar had alleged that the then Maharashtra government was trying to gain political mileage by using the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Now the same government is back in power. Over a month into its term, and yet, no mention has been made of the proposed Shivaji statue, which was a key election issue. While the government waits to lobby with the Centre for clearance, and then, perhaps, initiate work on the monument so that it remains a fresh election issue five years down the line, it might be a good idea to get some shahirs to sing powadas about Shivaji on the other coast of Mumbai. A Shivaji statue already stands tall behind the Gateway of India, and getting shahirs to perform there will not only mean enabling a means of sustenance for them, but also enable Shivaji, the monument, relate to people.

And, perhaps, also help mitigate certain impressions of the great warrior king that exist in cumulative consciousness. Like the one exemplified by the photograph of a rangoli outside a lower middle class home in Mumbai's Lower Parel area during Diwali (picture one). The rangoli bears Shivaji's image, and says, in no uncertain terms, "He's a Hindu, a knowledgeable king." Was Shivaji staunchly Hindu in reality? The shahirs would have a lot to say about that.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2009