Annabhau Sathe is an iconic literary figure from Maharashtra who has literally laid the foundation for progressive indigenous art practice in Maharashtra. Approach to traditional forms of culture in Shaheer Annabhaus work in the field of literature is outstanding. Annabhau Sathe wrote 35 novels in Marathi, despite being illiterate. One such novel titled ‘Fakira’ was published in 1959 and is currently in its 19th edition. Several short stories by him have been translated to as many as 27 non-Indian languages. Besides novels and short stories, Sathe wrote a play, a travelogue on Russia, 12 screenplays, and 10 ballads (‘powada’ in Marahti). Annabhau contributed tremendously toward social awakening during India’s freedom movement. He was in the forefront of United Maharashtra movement (movement against separation of Mumbai from Maharashtra state) and the Goa Liberation movement. He participated in every program and protests as an artist and a common man.

In the contemporary world characterised by the post modernist tendencies, humane sensibilities in art and culture are endangered by the concerns of marketability of the cultural product. Universal value systems are looked down upon as outdated. Ideological deliberation in the sphere of art and literary work is considered an impediment for artistic expression. This kind of attitude has also displaced one very important aspect of art and culture, its ability to question society by holding a mirror to it. Annabhau in his works repeatedly questioned the ingrained injustice and outdated social values in social life, literature and art of his times. He attempted to evolve new cultural forms in synch with the lives of the working class and peasantry of Maharashtra. Annabahau Sathe can best be expressed as an iconic people’s poet who wrote 35 novels in Marathi, despite having no formal education. His famous novel Fakira based on a story of an honest dacoit supporting the struggle against the British domination of our country, was published in 1959, and is currently in its 19th edition. As a cultural activist he was part of Indian People’s Theatre Association, (IPTA). He was the first president of ‘Dalit Literary Convention’ held in Maharashtra under the patronage of the Communists. He brought prestige to folk art and Marathi literature through his extensive work as a writer, poet and a theatre person. Introduction of idioms prevalent among the marginalised castes in his writings greatly enriched Marathi literature. As a folk artist, he was part of the cultural movement that evolved novel cultural forms in Maharashtra, without the state patronage. Several short stories by him have been translated into as many as 27 non-Indian languages. Besides novels and short stories, Sathe wrote a play, a travelogue on Russia, and 12 screenplays as well. He actively supported the armed struggle for liberation of Goa. He participated in every program and protests as an artist and a common man.

Annabhau, was born in a poor family from an underprivileged section (i.e. Dalit Matang Community), and as such had no opportunity to receive good education. His family had to migrate from their own village towards Mumbai during a severe draft situation in western Maharashtra. He was born in a very poor family had nothing to fall back even to meet the basic needs. His family used to move from one place to the another in search of a livelihood. Consequently, Annabhau could not attend school for his formal education. Irrespective of the harsh life of a wanderer in search of a job, he never gave up hope for a better future. 

During his first few years of stay in Mumbai, he was infatuated by the attractive coloured film posters marking the urban landscape of Mumbai. He was thus motivated to read in order to understand the written matter printed on the posters. He then started taking interest in reading and writing. The credit for developing his writing skills also goes to his active association with the artist community having close links with the Communist Party in Mumbai. He came in touch with them as Basti mates living in Dharavi slums. He is often described as a “Marxist Feminist” due to his perception of women characters as reflected in his writings. Many of his stories have the female protagonists determined to survive a dignified life in adverse circumstances. This is especially evident in his women-centric stories and novels like “Vaijayanta”, “Awadi” , “Chikhalatil Kamal”  (Lotus in the Mud), “Chitra”.

Describing the characters from the marginalised and the so called criminal tribes, in one of the stories named ‘Khulawadi’ he states “These people are not just group of faceless individuals, but they are living beings of blood and flesh; they are capable of even riding a notorious horse and one can not dominate them even under a threat of sword”. In his famous “Mumbaichi Lavni “ he describes the class character of Mumbai using following lines loosely translated from original Marathi, ....

Malbar hill is the Indrapuri of Mumbai;Kubers’ reside here in style;...at Parel, for their daily bread; they struggle it out in poverty

Patthe Bapurao, another iconic lavni writer of Maharashtra too has written a very famous lavni (a popular folk form) about Mumbai but his description of glittering Mumbai fails to observe the very obvious class character of the Mumbai’s city life. Malabar hill on the one side and Parel as the workers area on the other, the class divide. Annabhau has clarified his literary stand in the introduction to his novel ‘Vaijayanta’ as follows:

“Before beginning to write, I have learnt the principle that the artist who cares for the people is taken care of in return by them. I strongly believe in the conflicts of the people of my country. I dream everyday that my country should be happy, civilised, full of prosperity and equality and Maharashtra should become an earthly paradise. I write while I continue to see such dreams. You cannot seek the truth in life just by using the eyes of imagination and ingenuity. Your heart has to catch it. Whatever the writer’s eyes see on the surface of things may not necessarily help him write realistically; on the contrary it may betray him in that pursuit. I strongly believe that this earth is not held in balance on the head of Vishnu’s Sheshnaag, it is held on the hands of Dalits. I am trying to portray the lives of Dalit peoples with honesty and conviction.”

Despite his immense contribution, as a Dalit, he has been systematically ignored even today by the large sections of the mainstream Marathi scholars. The main reason for this has been Annabahau’s strong revolutionary stand, and his scathing criticism of the caste system. Annabhau Sathe lived a life of destitution spending 22 years in a Ghatkopar slum. However during the last few years of his life he started getting steady income from script writing for Marathi films based on his novels and then his economic condition improved. Sathe also started getting monthly check of 400 rupees (reasonable income) from the Maharashtra Government during his last few years. Sathe moved to a modest house in Goregaon which the state government provided him in 1968, one year before he died.

The approach to traditional forms of culture in Annabhau’s work in the field of literature and performing arts is absolutely necessary for the progressive cultural activists faced by the rising challenges from the regressive cultural practices promoted by the right wing forces. The revivalist cultural upsurge is being led by the right wing forces in India to their advantage. As such there is a great challenge before the progressive forces to look into the past experiences of the progressive cultural actors in dealing with the traditional culture which has become the vehicle of the revivalist right wing movement.

The progressive cultural movement in Maharashtra has a strong tradition in the field of performing arts and literature. Annabhau Sathe’s works have played a pioneering role in this field. The great Russian author Maxim Gorky was the role model for Annabhau Sathe and the struggle of the rural poor and the urban workers for survival was the main inspiration behind his creative works. He drew inspiration for his writings from Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, as well. As such he was firmly rooted in the traditional culture but at the same time he struggled to liberate the traditional forms of culture from the regressive influences of the upper class and upper casts. Annabhau Sathe has thus laid a firm foundation for dealing with traditional forms in Marathi culture to enrich them with the progressive content.

There have been many scholarly studies about Annabahau’s literature and about his contribution in the field of literature and performing arts. There are also many scholars who have evaluated Annabhau’s work in the context of the progressive movement in Maharashtra. Prof M. L Jadhav of Shivaji University in his research article entitled The Nature of Protest in Annabhau Sathe’s fiction has observed that,”Annabhau’s creative imagination was inspired by the contemporary social, religious, economic and political concerns. “ His sense of protest was evoked on account of the inequality and injustice done to the weaker sections and the politics of subordination. Futile struggle over the notions of self respect and blind faith in religious rites and rituals also provoked his rebellious out bursts .Human emotions, pain, anger and anguish, injustice and humiliation pertaining to the social structure, strong belief in moral values and the capability for sacrifice in the interest of these values are some of the major characteristic features of Annabhau’s writings. It is amply clear from the above observation that though Annabhau used traditional art forms and traditional rural linguistic style in his literature, he used them to negate the regressive ritualistic and discriminatory aspects embedded in social traditions.

Dr.  Gangadhar  Pantavane  writes  in  his  article  “Annabhau  Sathe  :  Vidrohi  Sahityacha  Nirmata”. (Creator of rebellious literature) ‘He banished superstitions, bad conventions, outdated customs and fatalism from his writings and portrayed social reforms, class struggle.  Annabhau  wanted  to change the society.  During those days downtrodden were treated in a inhuman way by the people from upper strata of the society. The contemporary society was full of superstitions, fatalism and old conventions; at that time he was the only proponent of scientific outlook and rationalism.’

In Annabhau’s literature, characters from different castes are portrayed without conventional prejudice and stereotypical attributes. His fiction writing depicts a search for humane attributes among the characters across the caste structure in the given reality of caste hierarchy. He stands apart from other Dalit writers in this regard because his canvass is larger than other equally important Dalit writers of the next generation. He is the first important writer in the Marathi literature who introduced characters from so called criminal tribes and made a humanistic portrayal of them in a rustic language and yet beyond the scope of a Marathi literary giant like V. S. Khandekar who was his contemporary. He used his familiarity, deep insight and knowledge of traditional culture to expose and negate the glorified versions of the very same traditional culture. He exposed the deeply rooted discriminatory and exploitative practice of social enslavement as the very essence of the traditional culture.

Literary tradition of Marathi language begins with reformist movements of the 11th and 12th centuries. ‘Abhanga’ a short lyrical religious verse and ‘ovi’ another poetical expression were the earlier popular forms in the Marathi literature. Poets like saint Namdev became popular far and wide beyond the boundaries of Maharashtra in the earlier period. ‘Powada’ (Heroic Balad) and ‘Lavni’ (love lyric) the popular poetic forms emerged in the 17th century. During the same time Bramhin poets like Vaman and Moropant composed poetry on epic subjects following norms of sanskrit poetics. Thus from the beginning of the modern Marathi literature we see two distinct camps in Marathi literature. One camp associated with popular reformist movement and the other sticking to the aristocratic elite culture in the service of status quo.

Short story genre appeared only in the late 19th century. Marathi poetry became more and more politically oriented during this time. Protests against feudal customs and institutions were voiced by the publicists V. Brahmacari, J. Phule, G. Agarkar, the prose writer H.N. Apte, the poets Kesavasut, and the playwrights G. B. Deval and K. P. Khadilkar etc. Twentieth century witnessed the rise of a powerful Dalit literary movement in Marathi literature. Annabhau belonged to a unique and tiny camp of the left wing progressive literary figures in Marathi art and literature. Annabhau Sathe belonged to the period of emergence of revolutionary-patriotic poetry, which included the poets like A. Despande, V. Sirvadkar, and V. Kant. The writers B.V. Varerkar, G.T. Madkholkar and V.V. Hadap depicting the struggle of peasants and workers for their rights. V.S. khandekar was another contemporary of Annabhau Sathe who indulged in romanticism in his writing and became vastly popular for his fiction writing comprising love stories. However Annabhaus engagement with romanticism was imbibed with hope of freedom of the marginalized, oppressed and toiling communities. As such Annabhau consistently exposed the regressive aspects of social and political culture in his works. He shared the view of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar that, complete freedom and progress of the nation is not possible without the freedom for the oppressed of the country. The greatest obstacles in the progress of secularism are dogma, orthodoxy, and the traditions of each religion.ý Studying Annabhau can help us in strengthening the progressive and secular image of India and Indian people.

The progressive cultural movement in Marathi has a strong tradition, particularly in the field of performing arts and literature. Annabhau Sathe’s works too have played a pioneering role in this field. There is a growing intolerance in the contemporary popular culture towards rationalist and secular values embodied in our progressive cultural heritage nurtured by stalwarts like Saint Tukaram, Mahatma Jotiba phule, Dr. Baba saheb Ambedkar and other modern progressive artists of the yesteryears. Celebration of traditional art forms in its present day commercial and political context is done with an intention of applying a soothing balm to people bewildered by the process of urbanisation. A selective memory of the past is strategically used to reorient these uprooted people to adjust in the new globalised polarisation of the world. Taking inspiration from Annabhau we should aim to probe further and identify the romanticism associated with traditional art forms which covers up the discriminatory and exploitative social practices associated with them. We should also study Annabhau’s work to understand how he has used traditional art forms in synchronize with the left orientation as the creative spirit of his work.

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.