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Begumpura - Sant Ravidas

Today marks the birth anniversary of the radical Bhakti poet Sant Ravidas. He finds far less space in collections of mystic poetry, or compilations of mystic song and verse than Kabir who is said to have been his contemporary, or Meera, who scholars believe was his student. This unequal representation might have something to do with his complete rejection of mainstream Brahmanical Hindu ideology that uphold the inherent structural feudalism and oppression in the caste system. Born as a chamar, Ravidas saw himself as a “tanner now set free”. Preaching social equality and the assertion of identity, his two pronged approach of mystic realisation and political revolution became a powerful movement with several followers.

aat-paat ke pher mah urjhai rahe sabh log Mannukhta ku khat hai Ravidas jat ka rog

Everyone is trapped in the caste-system Ravidas, humanity is being eaten up by the disease called caste”

Anoop Kumar writes about the dalit community’s fight for identity through a Ravidas temple in Rohtas, Bihar. More recently, Dalits and anti-caste activists protested in thousands at the demolition of a Ravidas temple in Delhi.

In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, in itself a fascinating collage of mystic whispers from an eclectic pantheon of realised souls, includes at least 40 of Ravidas’s writings. Researchers also assert that the paths of Guru Ravidas and Guru Nanak have crossed.

I’m sharing with you today Begumpura, a song that outlines a utopia. I have always been interested in conceptions of utopia. By definition, a utopia is gilded by optimism and superlative imagination, but also, by what is not in it, that which is dystopic. The mind seeks meaning by constructing what it lacks in its current situation, sometimes with attentive detail - freedom, eternity, happiness, prosperity. Mapping the birth of utopias in literature and philosophy could well lead to important political moments, revolutionary ‘aha!’s whose strident poetic imagination sets a path so colourful in their defiance, that they subvert and overturn hegemonic social structures of caste, class, religion, gender, or even space. This, of course merits a post dedicated entirely to itself, but I’ll leave with you a couple of my favourite conceptions of Utopia (with the promise of returning to them some day) - both laced with nuanced critique and evocative splendour:

Sultana’s Dream The Ones who walk away from Ommelas

Gail Omvedt in her book, Seeking Begumpura, writes

"It (begumpura poem) was an expression, in the early modern age, of a utopia, perhaps the first one in Indian literature. In some ways it seems to stand alone, yet it was a harbinger of the kind of social vision that would underlie all the later struggles and theorizing of anticaste inetllectuals. Begumpura was, for Ravidas, an imagined city, without geographical location, without a history: it was to be a later task to build it in space and time."

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