Shahir Annabhau Sathe
A folk singer who set aside his personal misery and brought prestige to folk art through his own inspiration, enterprise and extensive work, poignantly expressing the misery of the destitute
Shahir Annabhau Sathe is one of the prosperous personalities from the Matang community, a community starved of education and development due to caste discrimination. He was born in 1920 in VateGaon, a part of the Kurundwadi Princely State of that period, and given the name Tukaram. While his father resided in Mumbai to eke out a living, the elders in his house were occupied in making handmade rope. With all the elders out of the house, Tukaram would be the eldest left in the house to look after his younger siblings. Having lived in Mumbai, his father had seen cultured and well educated communities and desired that his children too should be cultured and educated. It was through his father’s insistence that Tukaram alias Annabhau started his primary education at the age of fourteen. But at the time, there were separate schools for backward communities and the teachers were unkind towards the students of backward communities. His advanced age and the terrible education system did not work in favour of Annabhau and he dropped out of school after only a few days.
Annabhau had various hobbies as a child. With a family legacy of field sports, no one matched Annabhau’s skills in the Dandapatta. Other than this, he had many other hobbies such as roaming the forest on his own, befriending the birds, looking for minute differences among the forest flora, hunting, swimming, fishing, etc. His childhood was spent innocently in such hobbies. As he grew, so did his hobbies. Memorising folk songs and singing them in a high-pitched voice, memorising Powada and Lavni and singing these passionately for others – this hobby always attracted a gathering around him.
He heard Krantisinha Nana Patil’s speech in the fair of Rethra. Inspired by this speech, Annabhau joined the freedom movement, as a part of which he enacted different roles in folk drama. After the famine befell the State, his father decided to move the family to Mumbai. This ended Annabhau’s innocent childhood and started a new chapter in his life. At the age of eleven, Annabhau accompanied his parents to Mumbai. The family resided at the ChandBibi Chawl (a low income residential housing) in Byculla. Prevalent inexpensive market conditions in Mumbai at that time made their initial period in Mumbai comfortable. In getting accustomed to Mumbai, Annabhau became attracted to two things – one was the different political organisations and the second was the silent movies.
While all the different political parties had the same objective – to get rid of the British reign – each had a different ideology. Among these, Annabhau attached himself to the communist party. His proactive participation in the party’s activities like arranging party meetings, painting walls to advertise the party, distributing handbills, organising pickets, giving speeches, singing Powada and folk songs, etc likened him to everyone in the communist party. This was the time when he transformed from Tukaram into Anna (an elder brother is respectfully addressed so).
Hunting desperately for a job in Mumbai, Annabhau executed various odd jobs from a porter’s job, polishing boots on the street-side, doing odd jobs for households and restaurants, transporting coal, doorkeeper, looking after dogs and children, loan shark, mine worker to a dressing boy. In this period, he picked up a new hobby – watching movies. It was this hobby that made him literate. Reading movie posters and billboards and the boards put up by shops, he became literate. After being able to recognise letters, he developed a love for reading.
At the age of seventeen – eighteen, Annabhau carried the responsibility of his family on his young shoulders. His career started as a mill worker. But after the Kohinoor Mill shut down and he lost his job, Annabhau found himself in the middle of a crisis. The family moved back to Vategaon. After experiencing the fast life of Mumbai and the exciting political life of picketing, meetings, Satyagraha and protests, he found life in Vategaon miserable. In an emotional state of mind, he left his home and joined a Tamasha Troupe owned by his relatives. Annabhau’s sharp voice, his ability to memorise, his skill in playing various instruments like the harmonium, tabla, dholki, bulbul, brought him instant stardom in the world of Tamasha. Annabhau had a lion’s share in the Matang community’s unique contribution to the field of Tamasha in Maharashtra. The public first saw Annabhau’s stage performance through the Tamasha. He was chiefly responsible for bringing tremendous popularity, prestige and prosperity to this folk art.
Annabhau contributed tremendously toward social awakening during India’s freedom movement, the United Maharashtra movement and the Goa Liberation movement. He participated in every programme and protests as an artist, as also a common man. There were many activities in Vategaon too under Barde Guruji during the Quit India Movement. Since Annabhau participated in these activities, a warrant was issued to arrest him. As a result of this, he permanently left his house. Later, he found a philosophical, contemplative path in his life and he became a full time member of the communist party. It was while working wholeheartedly as a party member that he established the Laal Baavta in 1944, an artistic platform for the communist ideology. Shahir Amar Shiekh and Shahir Gavhankar too joined him in his endeavour. This medium opened a new avenue for Annabhau – writing popular literature. He had the background of folk art like Lavani, Powada and street plays for his literature. He wrote a total of fifteen plays which brought him immense popularity.
1945 saw some stability in Annabhau’s life in Mumbai. While working as a reporter for the weekly LokYuddha he wrote plays like Aklechi Goshta, Khaprya Chor, Mazhi Mumbai etc. which became highly popular. At the same time, he read a lot of saint literature and noble literature written by talented writers. This contemplative and creative reading helped him into becoming a well rounded writer. Writing exclusively about the common man’s misery is the reason behind Annabhau’s astounding success as a writer. The common reader was his benchmark and thus his realistic writing became a part of the reader’s lives.
1950 to 1962 were the golden moments of his literary career. Many editions of his books were published in this period. But as his success grew, so did the crisis in his life. The Mumbai government brought a ban on his Laal Baavta. A while later, even the Tamasha was banned. The lives of Tamasha artists were wrecked. Anna transformed Tamasha into a folk drama, thus contributing to the art of Tamasha and the lives of innumerable artistes. Since Tamasha received the prestige of a folk drama, the government’s ban was rendered ineffective.
In this golden period, he wrote many novels like Vaijayanta, Maakdichaa Maal, Chikhalatil Kamal, Vaarnechaa Vagha, Fakira. He wrote over 300 stories. His collection of short stories – Khulanvaadi, Barbahyaa Kanjaari, Krushnaakaathchyaa Kathaa – also gained popularity. He wrote popular Powada like Stalingradcha Powada, Maharashtrachi Parampara, Mumbaicha Kamgaaar. His folk dramas (VagNatya) Nivadnukeet Ghotale, Dushkaalaat Teraavaa, Aklechee Goshta are famous. He wrote two hundred to two hundred and fifty songs and Lavni. His songs and Lavni are popular among the worker class. Annabhau’s literature has been translated into a total of twenty-seven languages the world over, including the Indian languages Hindi, Gujarati, Oriya, Bengali, Tamil, Malyalam, as well as the foreign languages like Russian, Czech, Polish, England, French. Using his writing as a weapon, he established a foundation of progressive, rational, feminist and aggressive manifestation in Marathi literature. All of this tremendous work brought him massive popularity. Movies have been made on twelve of Anna’s stories. All this fame though did not put an end to his poverty. People took advantage of his humble persona and cheated him in business matters. But great personalities of the Marathi film world, like Bhalji Pendharkar, Suryakant Mandhare, Jayashree Gadkar, Sulochana showered him with affection. Even great artists from the Hindi film world like Raj Kapoor, Shankar, Shailendra, Balraj Sahani, Gurudutt, Utpal Dutt loved him. He even had friends across the sea like Oleg.
This great artist who attained success and world fame, without the foundation of any formal education, sank slowly due to personal problems. The Maharashtra Government aided him considerably in his last few years. It was his mental health that led to his death on 18th July 1969.
He lit the lamp of self-confidence and progress through his literature and work among a community under developed in education, culture and finance, because of social discrimination.