When Did Ambedkar Jayanti Start Getting the Rohit Shetty Treatment?

POV

When Did Ambedkar Jayanti Start Getting the Rohit Shetty Treatment?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

t was only a few years ago that I came to know that April 14 was a black day in history – for some people. This was the day that the Titanic sank. For me, however, April 14 has always signified unbridled joy. A day for the entire family to reunite and celebrate – a day of great fervour and greater assertiveness.

I was born in a Dalit family, and Ambedkar Jayanti or “that holiday” has been nothing short of Diwali for us.

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As a child, April meant summer vacation, which I spent at my grandparents’ huge house in Manmad, a working-class town just a couple of hours from Nashik. By the time April 14 would roll around, the house would be decked up like a bride, with blinky string lights in different colours – a novelty for us kids.

On the day of the celebrations, every child in the house would be woken up early and queued up for a bath. My uncles, who would have returned late in the night after the midnight-hour ceremony of garlanding the statue of Dr Ambedkar in the town centre, got to sleep a few minutes more.

Before the bath, there would be music. The stereo in the balcony, would brazenly blare “Dalit asmita” devotional songs dedicated to Babasaheb. Some of the popular Bhim geet were about how now a sweeper could dream of his son becoming a govt officer, how great it would be if Ambedkar could be on currency notes, and the emancipation of an entire social class and their late but new self-assuredness. I remember, once there was load-shedding in Manmad which left many parts of the city without power for over two hours, rendering everyone incapable of playing the songs. The situation was tense – but it all came together in a few hours.

My specific memories might have faded over the years, but what I remember is feeling a sense of pride, of happiness that I needn’t hold back. It was a time to revere the man who had restored a sense of respect and self-esteem to our community. In those simpler times, the things that brought us pleasure were equally simple.

The photos of Buddha and Ambedkar in the living room would already be garlanded by the time we’d all bathed. Everyone had new clothes, bought only twice a year: on Diwali and Ambedkar Jayanti. By breakfast time, the neighbourhood kids would be in the streets bursting crackers – it would only be a matter of time before I’d join them.

April 14 also marked the start of many things: For starters, it is the beginning of mango season. In my mind’s eye, the run-up to the holiday is redolent with the fragrance of the first homemade aamras of the season devoured with an endless supply of puranpolis. It wasn’t just lunch, but the highlight of the day.

Ambedkar Jayanti has now been diluted and has become the playfield of political parties, where big wishes lead to bigger banners.

But it was in the evening that the celebrations would really take off. My family and I would step out to see the floats – made by every block – and the decorations in the town centre. A large picture of Ambedkar in the front of a truck would be the centre of attraction. Music, hawkers, people, fireworks… everything melded together. For us kids, this was an opportunity to demand treats from accompanying adults: From cucumber slices with masala to the ultimate extravagance, lassi with ice-cream. The whole show would go on past midnight, a rare day when my parents wouldn’t be worried about my bedtime. By the time we’d all return home, the frenzy would take a long time to die down.

April 14 is the one day the Dalits own the streets. The folk songs, which talk about the idea of taking to the same streets that previous generations once cleaned, comes true every Ambedkar Jayanti. These were never our streets. They were owned by Dandiya and Garba players, the Ganpati Visarjan revellers, the Dahi Handi crowd, the Holi debauchery groups.

Once a year though, these streets would turn a garish shade of blue. That little streak of rebellious expression, however, is now a thing of the past.

Ambedkar Jayanti has now been diluted and has become the playfield of political parties, where big wishes lead to bigger banners. In filmy terms, it is no longer the underdog indie; it is now a big, gaudy Rohit Shetty film.

It is no longer about celebrating Ambedkar. The banners bear bigger pictures of local strongmen, while Ambedkar himself is relegated to a corner. The cerebral discussions about climbing the social ladder and inter-caste marriages, have been replaced with hired dancers gyrating to the latest Bollywood hits. It’s turned April 14 into a shameless platform for power.

It amazes me no end that an aspirational community’s cultural expression, mirrors that of the communities that have traditionally held power in our society. Ambedkar Jayanti has now joined the ranks of Every Indian Festival where each community competes to see who can make the loudest noise, or be more garish and jingoistic.

I haven’t been to an Ambedkar Jayanti celebration in years. I know I won’t be missing out on much. Except the fragrance of the aamras and the fresh cucumber – which might as well be a figment of my imagination now.

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