Ramamurthy G is a tall man of average built, with greying hair and a thick moustache, more salt than pepper. Dressed in a full sleeved shirt with indigo and white stripes, he sits gingerly in a chair inside a small, one-room office in Chwidikada village, 36 km from the town of Anakapalli in Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh.
Despite running a temperature and being unwell—he walks with a limp and has a handkerchief tied around one hand—he has come all the way from K R Petta in the neighbouring district of Vizianagram for a meeting called by the Dalit Foundation. They are looking for people to support through their group fellowship programme and 54-year-old Ramamurthy is representing the Dalit Bahujan Kala Mandali, a dappu group he started in 1985.
The dappu is a traditional percussion instrument that is associated with Dalit communities—particularly the Madiga—in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It consists of a wooden frame, 6–8 inches in radius, with a buffalo skin tightly stretched across it. It is played with two wooden sticks—a nine-inch-long round stick called the sirre and a thinner and longer stick called the pulla. For centuries, the dappu has been used in festivals and rituals and as a public announcement system. Then rights groups like Ramamurthy's appropriated what had become a symbol of injustice and caste discrimination to spread the message of equality and human dignity.
Ramamurthy's parents were agricultural labourers. After finishing Class 12 he pursued a course in blacksmithery from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI). Yet, as with most Dalit youth in his area, he did not get a job. So, he too took up work as an agricultural labourer.
'At that time, every village in coastal Andhra (Pradesh) had an Ambedkar Yuvajan Sangham. These were groups of Dalits that monitored cases of atrocities and caste-based violence in the villages. They were the brainchild of Arjuna Rao, who was the Collector of Vishakapatnam district in the mid-1970s. A native of Nellore and a Dalit himself, he started the sangham to unite all Dalits and to lobby with the government for their rights. Nine educated Dalit youth from every village were selected to form the core committee. All Dalit families were members,' he explains. Ramamurthy tells me how the movement grew across the countryside and how Dalits were encouraged to set aside their differences and fight collectively for their rights. He first attended a Sangham meeting immediately after he passed Class 12 and was much inspired by what he heard. Thereafter, an 18-year-old Ramamurthy would accompany a local state government employee from village to village to encourage the formation of these Sanghams. 'Often, we had to work clandestinely. This was a time when lots of caste-based atrocities were taking place. If the upper caste got wind of our intentions, we would be in trouble. So we moved secretly, convincing villagers to organize themselves.'
On 17 July 1985, six Dalits were brutally murdered and another 20 grievously injured in an attack by upper caste men in the tobacco- growing village of Karamchedu in the Prakasham district of Andhra Pradesh. This time, Dalits across the state rose in protest. Katti Padma Rao, founder of the Dalit Mahasabha, launched a Chalo Karamchedu Movement. 'The Ambedkar Yuvajan Sanghams organized groups of 10 Dalits from every village. These groups travelled to a huge rally in the Prakasham district. We had been experiencing caste-based violence all of our lives. The rally marked a turning point for us. We united to say, enough is enough. We won't tolerate any more atrocities and discrimination. I convinced my parents to go there.'
Listening to the speakers in Prakasham added fuel to the fire burning inside Ramamurthy. He heard the famous Vittal Rao Gaddar singing of emancipation and Dalit Rights and suddenly he had found his way forward.
Wikipedia describes Gummadi Vittal Rao as a revolutionary Telugu balladeer and a local Naxal activist from the state of Telangana, who earned the title of 'Gaddar' after his first book of songs. Gaddar formed the Jana Natya Mandali in 1972 and started singing of revolution in the villages. 'I heard Gaddar and realized that he is singing about our issues. So I joined forces with him.' Ramamurthy tells me that he was lucky enough to work with Gaddar on many occasions.
In 1985, Ramamurthy started the Bahujan Kala Mandali with 10 members. The Mandali would go from village to village, singing of Ambedkar, land rights, Dalit problems and government schemes to the beat of the dappu. 'Our aim was to create awareness at the Mandal, that is, the block level. We did this through songs and stories, communicating with the villagers in a language that they understood.' In Andhra Pradesh, a Mandal consists of 20–35 villages and covers a population of upto 70,000.
For years the Bahujan Kala Mandali persisted, taking the Ambedkarite thought far and wide. Life was tough. Ramamurthy still had to work in the fields—in his own one-acre plot as well as those of others—to sustain his family. In 1986, he married Laksmi. His wife, an Anganwadi worker, asked him to give up the Mandali. It did not bring any money and the lifestyle was unpredictable. But Ramamurthy was determined. Today, one of his daughters is married and another is pursuing her graduation. His son is pursuing a Master's in Social Work. Ironically it was his daughter's wedding that finally led Ramamurthy to quit the Mandali he had created and nurtured.
'I had to take a loan for the wedding. To repay it, I took up a job as a supervisor in a construction company. The Mandali continued without me. Now I have almost paid off my debts. In a few months, I will be able to rejoin the Mandali,' he says, his brown eyes full of hope; a hope that resonates in his powerful voice as he sings one of his motivational songs for us.
Excerpted from 'The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India's Margins' by Gunjan Veda. Jointly published by SAGE Publications and Yoda Press under the Yoda-SAGE Select imprint.