Freedom, Enterprise And Sisterhood: What Women Find At Chaityabhumi

The annual Mahaparinirvan Din means many things for the women who throng the annual event in Mumbai to mark Dr.Ambedkar’s life and work

For 15 years now Kavita Thaware has been selling souvenirs in memory of Babasaheb BR Ambedkar at Chaityabhumi. The ground located in Dadar draws thousands every year on December 6, observed as Mahaparinirvan Din, the death anniversary of the jurist, social reformer, anti-caste revolutionary and the principal architect of the Indian constitution.

Across the Shivaji Park, hundreds of small entrepreneurs set up stalls selling books, calendars, photo frames, and statues of reformers such as Ambedkar, Gautam Buddha, Mahatma Phule. Thawre, from a Dalit family in Nagpur is one of them. A migrant who left her village in Bhandara district, she now sells these souvenirs at annual melas to mark the rise of the Ambedkarite movement.

After Mumbai Thawre will head for Mahad where December 25 is celebrated as  the Manusmruti Dahan Diwas – the day in 1927 when Ambedkar burnt the Hindu treatise Manusmriti to mark his rejection of the caste system. From there, she will travel to Bhima Koregaon on December 31 and January 1 for the annual celebrations marking the victory of the Mahar regiment against the Peshwas. 

At Thaware’s stall women buyers have time to browse and relax as they look for souvenirs that mean a lot to them. Mamata Borkar, 45, had come here from Raipur in Chattisgarh, 22 hours away by train. “It’s important for me to pay my respects to Babasaheb today, as he has done everything for us. I came here with a group of 10 neighbours; we all are poor and work hard for a living but we still take out 2-3 days for Babasaheb’s darshan.” 

Kavita Thaware has been selling necklaces and artefacts at Chaityabhumi since the last 15 years/ Priyanka Tupe

For Borkar, and other women like her, these trips are also a vacation and they take time out to travel around Mumbai’s popular spots. “We also visited the Haji Ali dargah and Marine Drive. We may go to the pagoda [a global vipassana centre in Mumbai] tomorrow if we get the time,” she said. She had bought a small prayer booklet, Buddhavandana, and a couple of calendars with celebrated quotes of Ambedkar and some paintings of Gautam Buddha.

Sab Babasahab ka hi diya hua hai (all this is Babasaheb’s legacy),” said Borkar with gratitude, holding up her purchases. Her words resonate the famous poem by Namdeo Dhasal: ‘Aaj Amche je kahi ahe te sarva tujhech aahe (Everything we have/own today, belongs to you, exists because of you).’ 

Women, dressed in white which holds cultural significance for Buddhism, wander the grounds browsing through various stalls set up by publishers and cultural and social organisations, many of them working for the marginalised. Some right-based groups create awareness among people through revolutionary songs, street plays on social issues.

Women gathered at Thaware’s stall /Priyanka Tupe

But the biggest draw at the stalls are the books on the lives and thoughts of famous social reformers of Maharashtra. Publishers estimate that books worth Rs 2 crore sell every year at the event. “You don’t see this kind of turnover at any other literary festival in Maharashtra, and over just two days,” said Yeshu Patil, head of the Shabda Publication.

‘Babasaheb Gave Us Strength’

Anita Shankar Padghane, 45, has travelled here from Yawatmal with a group of women relatives. She has been visiting Chaityabhumi for more than 12 years now. For her this trip is also a way to teach her children about Ambedkarite ideology. Padhgahne was too poor to get an education but precisely for that reason it is important for her to buy at least one book. “My son can read it. He taught me how to sign my name,” she said.

Chaityabhumi is also a space where women negotiate for space and freedom that they are not allowed in their everyday lives. Aarti Gautam, 30 lives in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, and was at Chaityabhumi with her husband, children and brother-in-law. At home, the ghoonghat (veil) is a must but here she walks with her face uncovered. There were many other women like her from UP and Madhya Pradesh who have done away with the veil. Here, say Munni and Phulwati Baudh from Piproda village in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district, they find the freedom to do as they please.

Women from Yawatmal visiting Chaityabhumi with their families / Priyanka Tupe

“We get the strength from Babasaheb to fight injustice,” said Munni Baudh. Phulwati, her relative, said caste discrimination is rampant and blatant in her village. “Our Brahmin and Thakur employers do not pay us our wages on time. And if we protest they don’t pay at all. Nobody pays attention to our issues. If we write to the mukhiya about our grievances and needs, the letters are not even acknowledged. The police do not heed us either,” she said.

There is also a sense of sisterhood among the women who have gathered here from across the country. Padghane from Yawatmal said: “Even though the organisers of the event ensure that free food and lodging is available to all participants we don’t use these so that women who know no one in the city can use these facilities. We chose to stay at the place of our colleagues.”

Priyanka Lakhan, 29 from Worli, does not queue up on December 6 to pay her tributes because she lives in the city and wants women from out of the city and state to get a chance. There is general camaraderie at the grounds and a small group of women with their families cheerfully shares water with us though their bottle is emptying out.

More Than A Business

There were over 100 stalls run by women. Geeta Suraj Waghmare, 33, the head of Uruvela Publication, was selling the Ba Bhima comic series that chronicles the life of Ambedkar. The engineer-turned-publisher was enthusiastically talking to children and parents who had dropped in. In a day the Waghmare has sold over 500 copies of the four-issue series at the stall. The English version is on the way, said Waghmare.

Publishing is a trade Waghmare, who hails from Solapur, has taught herself. From quality check and packaging to despatch and client lists – she does it all.

“We were looking for comic books on Babasaheb’s life journey for our son who was 4- years-old and we couldn’t find one. So we decided to create something last year. My partner Suraj and a few like-minded people came together to work on the idea. This was an experiment and it was risky but the very first issue got us an overwhelming response. Then we set up a formal publishing establishment,” she said.

Geeta Suraj Waghmare of Uruvela Publication at her stall / Priyanka Tupe

Waghmare is proud to be among the few women publishers in India but she insists that it is down to teamwork. “It has never been just a business for us. We think bringing Babasaheb’s journey for people is important. We are planning more comics based on the lives of other revolutionary thinkers like Shahu Maharaj. And none of this would have happened without the support of my partner Suraj,” said Waghmare. “Cultivating reading habits among children is a challenge with new technology offering so many options. Ba Bhima is our effort to make a difference not just for children but everybody who loves books, comics.”

Pune-based activist-turned-entrepreneur Rupali Jadhav has created her own brand of clothing, Roots. There are T-shirts, hoodies printed with images of Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sahikh and Mahatma Phule. There are others with slogans such as Ambedkar’s famous line: ‘Educate, organize and agitate’ and a line from Faiz’s poetry on tyranny: ‘Lazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge’. 

Jadhav said there is a huge demand for T-shirts and hoodies, especially those emblazoned with Ambedkar’s signature. She is heartened by this because she had been laughed at in her early days in the business because she had hardly any capital to invest. But public support is an important capital, she pointed out. “In these difficult times we need our revolutionaries, their thoughts and this is one way of spreading their words. It is also a way of creating alternative cultural tools,” she said.

Rupali Jadhav selling T-shirts of her brand ‘Roots’ with messages of revolutionaries designed on it / Priyanka Tupe

A Matang (Scheduled Caste) from a working class family, Jadhav was raised in the Kashewadi slums of Bhawani Peth area in Pune. She has worked as a domestic worker in her growing years and also dealt with repeated instances of caste discrimination. “It is altogether a different feeling for me now – I used to visit Chaityabhumi every year as an Ambedkarite but now I come here also as a businesswoman and cultural interventionist,” said Jadhav.

Rushali Disha Shaikh, a transgender woman, set up a book stall at Chaityabhumi / Priyanka Tupe

The book stall set up by transegender activist Disha Pinky Shaikh and Rushali Disha Shaikh drew many people. “This is an opportunity for us to have a conversation with people and break the stereotypes about our community. I work as a development professional but not everybody is well employed, so this little earning from book sales will support our friends who are students. We even managed to earn a profit of Rs 4000,” said Rushali Shaikh.

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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