Warkaris: The ones who rejected caste

Updated: Apr 26, 2020, 08:50 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A 2016 documentary that premiered on YouTube on Ambedkar's birth anniversary last week is worth watching for its beautiful, but simple message of equality

In a still from the film, a group of Warkaris are seen reciting kirtan
In a still from the film, a group of Warkaris are seen reciting kirtan

A boat is sailing near the banks of the Chandrabhaga river in Pandharpur. It is almost twilight and the Warkaris, who are devotees of Lord Vitthal, have just begun reciting kirtan or life stories of saints set to music."

"Heredity, caste and Varna, all irrelevant. Dear Arjuna, all becomes me at the end," the 13th century Warkari saint-poet Dnyaneshwar Vitthalpant Kulkarni had said. Chokhamela, the 14th century Warkari saint-poet, later said, "How long do I be afraid of you Hari [Lord Vitthal]? I have held the doors of your temple for long, and I have been kept from seeing you."

A ritual performed during the annual Melwari gathering A ritual performed during the annual Melwari gathering in Mangarul Dastagir village in Amravati districtin Mangarul Dastagir village in Amravati district
A ritual performed during the annual Melwari gathering in Mangarul Dastagir village in Amravati district

The start of the feature-length documentary, Ajaat, is telling. It makes the viewer wonder what events unfolded within the traditional Warkari community.

During the 1930s, Ganapati aka Hari Maharaj Bhabhutkar (1885-1944) from Mangarul Dastagir in the Amravati district of Maharashtra, asked his followers to abandon their caste. After India's Independence, these followers started identifying themselves as casteless or 'ajaat' when they were asked to fill the caste column in government documents. This 124-minute documentary is based on the experiences of these followers as it tries to explore Ganapati's vision and how his work has affected the Ajaat community.

Ajaat was first filmed in 2015 in the village before being screened across Maharashtra
Ajaat was first filmed in 2015 in the village before being screened across Maharashtra

Directed by Arvind Joshi, the film was shot in Amravati in 2015. Joshi, 30, comes from Buldana, close to Mangrul, and yet he was ignorant of this revolution. "As a society, we lack the means to keep records of important events. That's why it's been difficult to interpret our past, our heroes and their works. The documentary, therefore, is an attempt to remind the community of Ganapati's effort," Joshi says.

It was after acquiring a degree in engineering from Pune that he came across literature on Ganapati and his legacy. "I was fascinated. I planned a trip to Amravati and spoke to the villagers. I knew I had to document their past, present and explore what the future holds for them," he adds.

Arvind Joshi, director
Arvind Joshi, director

Since this was his first big project after a short film he had made, Joshi faced challenges in breaking the ice with the Warkaris. "I am an introvert, and suddenly, handling the crew, the actors and the community was tough. Our team of six returned to the village and completed filming in a few weeks that same year."

Interestingly, Joshi spent some time looking at how the new generation of the Warkaris has chosen to acknowledge their caste once again. "It is unfortunate that the community is now witnessing a reverse trend. Although Ganapati began a revolution that had tremendous potential, his followers have been unable to sustain the fervour."

Followed by a series of interviews of journalists and experts and the Warkaris themselves, the film concludes with Ganapati's couplet, petitioning the end of discrimination. "It is a tragedy. I hope the audience realises their problem and does something about it."

Premiered on April 14 in 2016, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's birth anniversary, Ajaat has been screened across Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Nashik, Aurangabad and in New Zealand. Last week, it was made available for public viewing on YouTube. "I've always wanted to take the film and the movement to a wider audience," Joshi says, clarifying that the timing has little to do with maximising audience attention during the lockdown.

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