First Lokgyani Workshop Report

Report of Lokgyani Workshop

Dalit Resource Centre (DRC), a unit of Manav Vikas Sangrahalaya, G B Pant Social Science Institute, Jhusi, Allahabad, conducted a two-day Lokgyani (Folk-intellectual) Workshop, on March 9-10, 2010, at Diamond Hotel, Bhelupur, Varanasi.

Day One: March 9, 2010:

The workshop focused on Lokjivan (people’s life) and the saint-poet traditions of Kabir and Ravidas. This programme began with the Inaugural Session, which was presided over by Prof. Chauthiram Yadav (retired), of BHU Varanasi. In his presidential address, Prof Yadav said that Bhakti literature is folk literature; it’s the poetry of the people. The saint literature of that period is the literature of social change. Kabir and Ravidas were well known because of the simplicity of their presentations. That is the reason why the ABC of Bhakti literature was penned amongst the lower castes. Kabir explained the Nirguna Brahma (the Formless God), social consciousness and change through pragmatic wisdom. Adi Shankracharya’s Advyatya was theological, but it was Kabir who placed those in the social perspective and he encapsulated the process of social change through Nirguna Brahma. Buddha had shredded to pieces the principle of Advyatya, which these saints demolished. These saints lend voice to the silent Dalits and at the same time they attacked the Samanthas (feudal Brahminical system based on caste discrimination). Kabir was a poet of the folk sensibilities and that is what makes him relevant in the contemporary times. These saints created a history of Sramjivita (the toiling workers’). They respected the backbreaking toil of the working class and wove an aesthetic of their labour. It was the historic renaissance that they had created. The social principles of the Buddhists travelled through Naths and Siddhas to reach Kabir. The two saint poets, Kabir and Ravidas rebelled against the discriminatory system of the society and this started a new tradition in which Avarnas (Dalits) wrote a new lexicon of poetry (literature) by using colloquial language and folk metaphors to challenge societal discrimination. The Bhakti saints were born amongst the Sudras, all over India, in the north and the south, and they led the struggle for social justice upfront.

Prominent litterateur and critic Ravindra Tripathi, in his keynote address said that the saint literature of the Bhakti era was not confined to being just literature. It included the saints, the voices of these saints, social and religious aspirations of the people and spirituality. It was a microcosm of that time. Such literature is extremely rare, globally. Ravidas was Kabir’s contemporary. Both these poets have become anchors today. They transcend the boundaries of space and time and appear to be poets of the modern age, as their symbols, imagery and diction are still relevant. Kabir’s verses shed light on several issues that were latent in folk life. He kindled the critical faculties of the people, which were enriched with the rich imagery of his poems. The saints of that era discovered through Kabir the rich imagery of the dialect, which was soon to become a tradition of the Bhakti era. And it was a different weapon. He created a synergy of critique, diction and imagery, whose structure was logical. It is necessary to understand the amalgamation of logic and devotion that the saint-poet Kabir brought about. We need to explore what was the reason for Kabir’s popularity. He still enjoys large number of followers and interpreters, covering a wide range. Why is he still relevant today, despite many interpolations (additions and deletions)? Even today, in the egalitarian society of Vienna, a western nation that speaks of equality, a Ravidasi saint is killed. There are discriminations in that land, which is accumulated in the Indian roots. Is it due to deep-rooted exclusion of Indian society, which is still working? Kabir gave such strength to the people from which was born the culture of protest. There were such elements in the verses of Kabir under whose influence large number of people followed him, as if he was a pied piper.

Earlier, Badri Narayan, Project Director of DRC and coordinator of this conference, initiated the discourse. He said that the two-day workshop would focus on the works (poems), life and times of Kabir and Ravidas, in people’s life, particularly the discourses of symbols, words, rhymes, music and messages, in folk language. He explained that Varanasi was chosen as the venue of the workshop as both Kabir and Ravidas were born here. This is the land from where these sects originated, spreading throughout the country. In this meet, the influence of the verses of Kabir and Ravidas in people’s life and its recreation would be dealt with. He added that we need to explore how these oral traditions instill a sense of consciousness amongst the deprived and focus the kind of intellectual nourishment that these works provide to the folk and the society. He explained that how he has been trying to establish a fruitful discourse among eminent academicians and the saints of the Bhakti sects (Lokgyani) to explore the heritage of these huge cultural resources. He added that this project would probe why and how these popular sects gained popularity amongst the Dalits. What is the role of popular sects in the political discourse and what is its significance in the politics of social change? How it creates an awareness, which, intangible as it is, can’t be seen. But, gradually it germinates the seeds of resistance within us. Linking it with contemporary politics, he added that people fail to comprehend why Kanshi Ram and Mayawati stop short of being converted into Buddhism. What are the pressures due to which this happens? Why both Kabir and Kanshi Ram are referred to as ‘Sahib’? What are the relations of the emergence of popular myth in Dalit consciousness and where does Kanshi Ram figure in it? The vocabulary of the two sects (Kabir and Ravidas) continues to be relevant in modern politics of the present era.

Dr. G C Rath of G B Pant Institute welcomed all the eminent littérateurs and academicians when this session had commenced and Sant Ram Prasad Das, of Gorakhpur, began the session with melodious Kabir Bhajan.

Presiding over the First Session, on the first day, on the theme Folk Literature and Sant Vani (Sage-poets’ Voices), Prof. Kanshinath Singh, eminent littérateur of Varanasi said that from the time of Buddha, Kashi (presently Varanasi) has been challenging the Sanatan dharma. Saints like Kabir and Ravidas challenged the traditions from outside the city. People carry on with their lives, but the question is how the mutts (monasteries) and temples included Kabir and Ravidas. A powerful critic like Kabir has not been born to this day. Minds of Kabir and Ravidas conceptualised notions while weaving or making shoes. Ravidas did not leave his menial work, did not give up his caste, but he took the name of his caste again and again. He was exemplary in his time. To perceive them away from mainstream literature would be improper. Language transformed in the development of Dalit consciousness, which can be perceived by those studying the decline of Dalit consciousness. They influenced the political discourse in them. Kabir was brave some five hundred years back. It was indeed surprising that in such a fundamentalist atmosphere of the Medieval Age, a weaver of Lahartara rebuked and censured both Hindus and Muslims, something that no one can dare even in today’s equalitarian, so-called modern society. This is the reason that the daring figure of Kabir would not only be contemporary to our society but would also become increasingly relevant with the passage of time. It’s rather piquant that Ravidas, who never wore gold in his lifetime, is now celebrated in a gold temple.

Prof. Sheoraj Singh Bechain, of Hindi department, Delhi University, opined that Kabir and Dalit literature was born because of the differences in words and deeds of the mainstream literature. The lack of credibility of the litterateurs caused dissatisfaction, which inspired a new ideology and gave birth to a new literature. Earlier, in the hymns that was sung by our parents or grandparents, we found Kabir, Tulsi, Ram, Saguna and Nirguna, but now, Kabir and Ravidas are excluded. It calls for a credible analysis. He explained that the workers’ literature is saint literature, which later flowered as Dalit literature. He said that the contribution of the saints to Hindi literature is that it reflects the diversity of society as it is. There was innocence in saints’ verses. Rather than exploit the saint literature, it is imperative that it is allowed to appear in its essential form to inspire growth.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar, BHU, Varanasi, stating that history always moves ahead we find that the 500-year old consciousness of Kabir is ahead of the present time. Why history should not be considered cyclical? We, the modern people, find ourselves standing at the same place, where Kabir stood then. Folk culture constructs the everyday lives of common people. It is an integral part of our life. It expresses our day-to-day practices, sensibilities, relationships and emotions. Elite culture, which has to be cultivated, is not a part of our everyday life. But folk culture is linked to the daily rhythm of life. Academics and the mainstream look down upon it, as it belongs to the artisans, the Dalits and the women. Another issue that arises about folk culture and Dalit literature is that it does not represent the refined consciousness or the aesthetics. One of the criticisms about folk culture is that it is localised. But, since it has grassroots values it has universal vision and it can enter or establish conversation with all kinds of cultures. Who were these saints – did they belong to the folk or were they outside the folk, were they above the folk? Had they been from above the folk, it would have established a hierarchical relationship. But, if they were from and of the folk, it will establish a horizontal relationship. If they were from the folk, then not only the saints but the folk too were responsible in constructing them. Was it historical consciousness because of which so many saints arose at the same time? If not, why did this not happen before? Folk consciousness certainly had a specific role in this Movement. Using folk language they created a strong sense of participation, establishing a direct communication. The listeners need not prove their participation, as in classics. In folk tradition the speakers (saints) have to come to the level of the listeners rather than speak from a pulpit. It’s real democratisation. Saint literature is a dialogue. In Kabir’s verses his name appears again and again. It’s not a rhetorical gestures but he is stamping his experience and making these available to the folk.

The Second Session, Dissent and Bhakti Literature, was presided over by Ravindra Tripathi. He said that Kabir and Ravidas provided a new wisdom. They gave people the strength of resistance. Bhakti literature inspired commitment within the people.

Prof. Ajay Tiwari, of Delhi University stated that a strange dichotomy may be witnessed when we deal with Sikhism and Ravidasi sects and the clashes there were between them. However, when we try to analyse it, it does not appear serious. Today we are caught in the conflict of the Saguna (idol worship) and the Nirguna (formless worship). Why did the streams of the two sects led by Kabir and Ravidas develop separately, though both were followers of the Nirguna? This deconstruction reaches us through the Vanis (voices) of the saints. How should we view the saint literature, in disintegrated form of sects or should we see it as a part of the values and Jivan-sutraas (essence of life)? We cannot take forward the discourse focusing of fragmentation. In fact Bhakti Movement was a major movement. It encompassed variations like Saguna (idol worship) and Nirguna (formless worship). In the Saguna school of thought we find Kabir amongst Ram and Krishna, who goes on to influence the Nirguna Bhakti stream. We observe the panorama of conflicting streams latent within the Movement together. The voices of the saints are not merely a product of individuals’ merits, but it is a product of the cumulative experiences of that society. We find the peoples’ experiences in their voices and the people identify themselves with those (experiences). It’s a two-way relation. He added that history does not change due to any person, it transforms because of their Shakti (vigour). Saint literature has a major unifying role. When there is division (read separation) between the sects of Kabir and Ravidas, we need to focus on this unifying aspect. We need to focus how in the unity of Shram (work) and Kala (art) lies the unity of the nation. This immense faith that was Bhakti Movement is seen as the Sarvonmukhi (all-round) explosion of creativity. That’s why this period is called the golden era when the workers’ creative energy indeed becomes splendid. The faith of this Movement was so deep and its inspiration was so humongous that its dream was of an epic proportion, creating saint literature. Real struggle always augments new dreams. Kabir and Ravidas in the Bhakti Era and in modern times, Ambedkar and Gandhi inculcated such dreams amongst the deprived by initiating social struggle.

Dr. Raj Kumar, of BHU, Varanasi said that we need to study how saint-literature was transmitted and received in folk (people’s) life. The folk too must have interpolated saint-literature. They must have at times added, while at other times they must have misread it. We need to probe the influence of saint-literature on the lives of the folk. Bhakti Era is provides us the text for studying though it is performance based. Text provides us the meanings, while sensitivities flow in the form of performance. Kabir’s verses have been used in a generic form in oral tradition. It’s difficult to decipher if it’s the work of Kabir or that of the folk. Saint-literature’s reception in folk life is marked with its transformation through interpolation (addition). We need to ponder on the appropriation of saint-literature. The question is can saint-literature be decoded by the concepts of modernity. These are inexplicable by the formulae of social sciences. What inspired Kabir that without any knowledge of equalitarian modern theories he was challenging caste-based inequalities? What was the meaning of the epistemology of the master-narrative of culture? We make the mistake of trying to explain cultural and epistemological facts with other tools. In the colonial period the interrelations of reader-audience-art were fragmented under the western influence, which the saints had established. From Kabir to Gandhi the tradition of Indian epistemology is that there is something beyond the physical-sensory world. They had risen above the realms of pain-pleasure dichotomy of the material world. When we try to explain these within the parameters of modernity, it escapes our attention. Kabir’s bhajans are far more loaded, as these are not mere folksongs; these provide strength to the people, infusing them with a vital force, capable of generating revolution.

Prof. Awadesh Pradhan, BHU said that in Marathi there is not much distinction between Saguna and Nirguna. There is an interaction between the two. We observe both these traits in all the saints, as they have a shared experience. Having understood this fact, we can then understand how they influenced a large part of the country. The people of that time too accepted this shared experience and became a part of it. A unique feature of the Bhakti period is that it gave people a new strength, which in Maharashtra and Punjab emerged as nationalism (patriotic strength). The vigour that propelled the Sikh saints came from the Bhakti period. Kabir took the language and poetry from the folk. Kabir shared his deep experiences, the language of the folk life and folk diction with everyone. His imagery is rich as it is rooted in folk traditions. Saint-literature comes down to us as legacy, inspiration and role-model. Bhakti period presents emergence of great values. For us, there is plenty to learn from. If we see with open eyes, we would realize that this so-called modern world has taken a leap back in the evolutionary scale; now, people (read politicians) are fanning discontent between Marathi and Hindi languages. But, saint-literature teaches us many lessons.

Prof. Sevaram Tripathi, Rewa, reminded that the voice of protest and resistance that the saints had raised has not died down to this day.

Day Two: March 10, 2010:

The First Session of the second day was on the theme Dalit Consciousness and Making of the Language of Politics. This session was presided over by Prof. Chandrakala Padiya, HoD, Political Science department, BHU, Varanasi. In her presidential address, she said that in political discourse communalism, individualism and socialism may be placed of contesting grounds but this is not true of the historical process. A fact in a particular historical or cultural context presents such a picture that it cannot be replicated with any other. That’s why to properly evaluate a thinker it is necessary to observe his cultural context. Along with Dalit consciousness how did new language develop? Dalit consciousness has had far reaching influence on political discourse: firstly, the politics of revolution or the politics of dissent developed; secondly, binaries developed in politics, which means that issues are seen in two opposite dimensions and lastly, there was an emergence of identity politics. Identity has to be acquired for respect. The most positive change has been that multi-culturism is not tolerating the difference, it is enjoying the difference. Every community has its own life-world. Universalism assimilates that. For the discourse to mature, it is essential to understand all the differences. Ambedkar had said in Nagpur that the problem of untouchables is fundamentally a political problem but what happens on the way needs to be seen. One of the important questions is that who is on the driving seat. If the direction is right – as the path was shown by the saint-poets – Dalit consciousness would emerge as constructive and productive.

Naval Shukla, a young critic from Bhopal, informed that Guru Ghasidas is one such saint who did not compose poems, but the folk wrote about him. He was from Chhatisgarh. Knowledge was transmitted by the saints and their disciples. A group of the Dalits joined hands with Guru Ghasidas, as the Satnami sect. This sect had the influence of the Sanathan Dharma, like wearing the sacred thread. The sect that had come together for truth witnessed change as it became ritualistic. They emerged as a strong political group. The poems in saint-literature glorify the saints. This literature is not just a critique of others but includes criticism of the self (read saint). In all sects there are Sahibs, Sants and wisdom. The saints did not enlighten the Dalits alone they enlightened the Savarnas (upper castes) too. Kanshi Ram transformed the power of knowledge into the strength of unity. As a person to show the way, he awakened the latent knowledge amongst people.

Preeti Choudhari, young academician from Lucknow, said that if we make an attempt to understand the Dalit consciousness we confront the problem: how would a person who was systematically excluded grapple with political discourse? Given the social context, what should be the methodology of the Indian State? Liberalism believes that politics is a process of reconciliation and secondly, politics is an authoritative allocation of values. State is an institution that has legitimate coercive power and how can the system achieve it. The philosophy of Dalit consciousness is linked with Ambedkar’s entire philosophy of empowerment. Green sees the right to consciousness in conjunction with liberation, which a person defines as self-realisation. Ambedkar asks that though we have given equality in political sphere how it would be possible to attain it at social level. In the South, literature developed through Dalit consciousness, while in sharp contrast, in the North, a Dalit party came to power. The slogans of DS4 [Brahman, Thakur Baniya chhodh, baki sab hai DS4 (Leaving aside Brahmins, Thakurs and Baniyas (trading class), rest are DS4] and BAMCEF [Tilak, taraju aur talwar, enko maro jutey char [Tilak (signifying Brahmins), taraju (the weighing scale, signifying traders) and talwar, (meaning sword, indicative of Thakurs), beat them with shoes four times] emerged as the voice of protest. But, today BSP distances itself from these. Their slogan instead is: Aaj Brahmano ney diya saath, ab Baniyo ki bari hai, Behen ji hamari hai [Today, the Brahmins have joined hands, now it’s the turn of the Baniyas (traders), Behenji (as Mayawati is respectfully called) is ours]. Dalit politics is seen as fragmenting, changing, and transforming (from Bahujan to Sarvajan). How can one take sides of those who were to be thrashed with shoes? Dalit empowerment has not still reached the judiciary or the executive bodies. Dalit politics needs to focus on these. When we talk of Dalit discourse we also include the discourse of Dalit women. Dalit feminists feel that mainstream feminism is a fashion, which includes Dalit feminists but does not understand their agonies. In Dalit discourse the word ‘Dalit’ signifies the men, as women are almost absent. There is deep agony in Dalit folk consciousness. Earlier, during Congress regime, Dalit women used to sing, Chal sakhi vote deye, panjwa nishan ho [Come friend (sakhi actually means a female confidante) lets vote, on the symbol of hand]. Those very Dalit women now sing: Hathi hathi kahat rehlu, hathi manganulu goriya patri, Hathi hamrey nishan goriya patri, Hathi par mohar lagaulu goriya patri (Keep saying elephant-elephant, it’s our symbol. Put your seal on this symbol). But, this consciousness is limited to electoral politics. Till the time politics, especially Dalit politics, does not grapple with the real issues, this consciousness would remain incomplete. Is the journey from Bahujan to Sarvajan a political compromise or is it a strategy needs to be seen.

Prof. Chauthi Ram Yadav, Varanasi added that Dalit literature is now moving towards a mature stage by getting out of its bewilderment and it would definitely be helpful in achieving the right aim.

The Second Session, Subaltern Dissent and Contemporary Literature, was presided over by Prof. Ajay Tiwari from Delhi University.

Dr. Archana Kumar, from the English department of BHU, stated that we are not marginalised people, we are half the population. We are discriminated but because of half the population we are the centre. The illuminated sphere is our literary sphere but the dark sphere is our folk. We search ourselves from the outside world in the literary world. We have not attempted to light the folk sphere. But social change could be brought about only through the folk sphere. In the 19th century, before the advent of print, strategic response against family, religion and politics came from the folk sphere. Every resistance culture is specific. Elite literature does not contain the alternate possibilities that we find in the folk. In the writings of the marginalised there is anger in the form of monologue, as they do not know their readers. But, in folk there is no suffocation of closed room. It contains dialogue, ideas and feelings. The echoes of feelings and ideas emanate from the heart and reach the folk. By linking contemporary literature with performative aspect it would come to a communication stage, which would then give strength to the folk. In the folk songs of the women the voice is polite but powerful. The spirit should be to transform our conversation into a meaningful dialogue.

Sangam Lal stated that the literature of Kabir and Ravidas might be termed as the literature of the marginalised. Both these saints, Kabir and Ravidas, stand to protest the excesses of Vedic society in favour of the society of the working class. In north India, Dalit literature is becoming mainstream literature, while all other streams are fading away. These saints cannot be contained within the boundaries of any religion. Dalits have to move ahead on Ambedkar’s mission, ‘educate, organize and agitate’.

In the concluding speech Sant Vivekdas Acharya of Kabir Chaura, Varanasi, said that the saint tradition is established in three places – in literature, sect and folk life. Several young seers are propogating the tradition of this kind of spirituality amongst people. The saints linked folk life with spirituality; there are innumerable elements of folk life present in everyday world, which calls for research. It’s not proper to measure Kabir within the parametres of caste. It’s wrong to say that only Dalits can engage in research on Kabir. Prominent Hindi writer Hazari Prasad Dwivedi belonged to the tradition of Kabir – he had Kabir’s restlessness. In the folk tradition poetry must be analysed with an experiential view, so that its fundamental issues come to the fore. Another issue about folk culture and Dalit literature is that these do not have refined consciousness of aesthetics and art. The question remains if the given parametres of aesthetics and art are proper.

Others who addressed this session were Dr Raj Kumar, Sunder Lal Sasthri and Banwari Lal. Badri Narayan proposed the vote of thanks.

Vision-statement of the Lokgyani Workshop:

  1. Prof. Chauthiram Yadav: The two saint poets, Kabir and Ravidas rebelled against the discriminatory system of the society and this started a new tradition in which Avarnas (Dalits) wrote a new lexicon of poetry (literature) by using colloquial language and folk metaphors to challenge societal discrimination. The Bhakti saints were born amongst the Sudras (Dalits), all over India, in the north and the south, and they led the struggle for social justice upfront.
  2. Ravindra Tripathi: Kabir created a synergy of critique, diction and imagery, whose structure was logical. It is necessary to understand the amalgamation of logic and devotion that the saint-poet Kabir brought about. We need to explore the reasons for Kabir’s popularity.
  3. Badri Narayan: We need to explore how these oral traditions instill a sense of consciousness amongst the deprived and focus the kind of intellectual nourishment that these works provide to the folk and the society. He explained that how he has been trying to establish a fruitful discourse among eminent academicians and the saints of the Bhakti sects (Lokgyani) to explore the heritage of these huge cultural resources.
  4. Prof. Kashinath Singh: Kabir was not given the status of a poet in the tradition of Varanasi, where he remained confined to his mutt (monastery). But, Kabir like Buddha challenged the Sanathan dharma time and again. On the basis of the richness of his works, Kabir cannot be measured any less than the mainstream litterateurs.
  5. Prof. Sheoraj Singh Bechain: Kabir and Dalit literature was born because of the differences in words and deeds of the mainstream literature. The lack of credibility of the litterateurs caused dissatisfaction, which inspired a new ideology and gave birth to a new literature.
  6. Prof. Sanjay Kumar: In folk tradition the speakers (saints) have to come to the level of the listeners rather than speak from a pulpit. It’s real democratisation. Saint literature is a dialogue. In Kabir’s verses his name appears again and again. It’s not a rhetorical gestures but he is stamping his experience and making these available to the folk.
  7. Prof. Ajay Tiwari: Real struggle always augments new dreams. Kabir and Ravidas in the Bhakti Era and in modern times, Ambedkar and Gandhi inculcated such dreams amongst the deprived by initiating social struggle.
  8. Dr. Raj Kumar: Kabir’s bhajans are far more loaded, as these are not mere folksongs; these provide strength to the people, infusing them with a vital force, capable of generating revolution.
  9. Prof. Awadesh Pradhan: A unique feature of the Bhakti period is that it gave people a new strength, which in Maharashtra and Punjab emerged as nationalism (patriotic strength). Kabir took the language and poetry from the folk.
  10. Prof. Sevaram Tripathi: The voice of protest and resistance that the saints had raised has not died down to this day.
  11. Preeti Choudhari: Unless Dalit politics understands the real nature of Dalit consciousness it would not be able to institutionalise Dalit consciousness and its vigour in the right direction.
  12. Naval Shukla: Called for an analysis of the emergence of a new Dalit political discourse through Guru Ghasidas and his Satnami Panth (sect).
  13. Dr. Archana Kumar: The illuminated sphere is our literary sphere but the dark sphere is our folk. We have not attempted to light the folk sphere. But social change could be brought about only through the folk sphere.
  14. Sangam Lal: In north India, Dalit literature is becoming mainstream literature, while all other streams are fading away. Kabir and Ravidas cannot be contained within the boundaries of any religion.
  15. Sant Vivekdas Acharya: The saint tradition is established in three places – in literature, sect and folk life. The saints linked folk life with spirituality; there are innumerable elements of folk life present in everyday world, which calls for research.

The outcome of the Lokgyani Workshop proved valuable for ideation that was achieved through debates, discussions and interactions between the various scholars, academicians, Dalit activists, seers, et al. A wonderful churning of thought processes helped create a common platform for some diverse opinions as well, through healthy dialogue, which was essentially democratic in letter and spirit. It also helped strengthen the networking. Some of these valuable suggestions would help our study and reseach of various sects. We are sure that this would enrich the study and the project. In every session, hymns of the saint poets were sung. Discussions and discources followed.