A fusion of Shahiri with rap shows that political music has interesting times ahead

Shahiri (the name comes from the Urdu word shayari) is the musical tradition of Maharashtra, which dates back to the period of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Yogita Salvi, a social and cultural analyst, in the documentary film Shahiri made by Aashit Sable says, “Kavi (poets) can be divided into three types according to era and type of content: there are sant kavi and kavi pants – those who wrote about the saints and their sacrifices are sant kavi, while pant kavi deal with subjects related to knowledge and science. While the shahirs can be described as so much kavi, who write and sing about real-life incidents. We see vitality in their poetry.

The Shahirs perform in the streets and in public programs, hence their appellation of poets of the people. Maharashtra’s Ambedkarite movement reinvented the shahiri tradition to protest against social injustice. Changing its subject matter from mythological to social, Maharashtra saw its shahiri tradition remain relevant to its period.

These songs are mostly sung with at least one daph (commonly called dafli), Tuntuna, jhanjh (cymbal), harmonium and sunday (folk instrument made of animal leather). Unlike the shahirs of Savarna who told stories from Puranas and about the saints through public performances such as tamasha, bharud and ballad, the shahirs of marginalized communities performed shahiri to fight against caste and class.

The new age shahirs have adapted the old framework to talk about contemporary socio-political issues. Around the 1920s, Ambedkari jalsas began to be played. They gained popularity and relevance after the death of Dr BR Ambedkar and became an integral part of the Ambedkarite movement.

James C. Tibbs