A role model called Shyamlal Shami

The Pioneer, 21st August 2000
Sheoraj singh Bechain

Shyamlal Shami is one of the most revered and known faces of Dalit cultural activism in the Hindi heartland.

He retired as a senior government officer employed with the Utter Pradesh government. His life story is a saga of successes he can easily be described as one of the most wonderful achievers amongst the Dalits of India. His life story would otherwise appear to be a work of fiction and that makes him an ideal young Dalit s role model. Consider the following.

First, he may be , to our knowledge, the only known Dalit in the Hindi heartland to marry a girl in 1959 who was already a Postgraduate in Sociology. He himself was an M Com then. This rare feat of both parents being postgraduates caused a chain reaction in the Shami family. As he himself puts it, his house turned into a sort of school. As a result, all his three children excelled in their careers. His daughter became an IAS officer and married a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh who himself was in the IAS. Both are now District Collectors in Madhya Pradesh. His son became an IPS officer and is currently SP of a district in MP. He married a Dalit IAS officer. His youngest daughter is a communications professional.

Although Shyamlal Shami began his career as a government officer, he soon acquired the stature of a poet. His first collection of poems, Geet, was published in 1970. Many more have followed since then. He is indisputably recognised as the father of romanticism in the Dalit Hindi literary world. Romanticism in Dalit writings has been a missing link as most works reflect the pain and suffering of the community. But the fact remains that Dalit life, notwithstanding the all round suffering and struggle, is not devoid of romance. Shami recognised this and reflected it in his works. That apart, he also knew of the suffering the community was undergoing and the struggle the community was waging. He touched upon this aspect as well and as time passed, he got more involved.

So passionate had he become that in the early 70s, he would attend public meetings of the Republican Party of India, when the Dalit political movement was entering the Hind heart-land. To do that required a great deal of strength as he was a government officer and thus, not expected to publicly demonstrate his political persuasions.

Shami was born in 1935 in a non-descript village called Elampur in district Aligarh of UP. His father owned a substantial plot of agricultural land which made them self-sufficient. He completed schooling in the village, won a monthly stipend of Rs 2 as he had performed well in his certificate examinations. Shami s tryst with songs occurred at a very young age. His father had organised a Sangeet Mandali, a theatre troupe which staged plays. The young Shami occasionally acted, which required singing as well. Over a period of time he began composing songs. They gained instant popularity. Inspired by his success he began staging Nritya Natikas, an art form not very popular in those days. By the time Shami reached college, Ambedkar s influence had begun regulating his thinking. His two popular poems, Harijan Kanya and Mahad Talab bear testimony. His songs and poems were influenced by Kabir and Ravidas as well. Later, when Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, a new idol entered into his family tradition. When he married in 1959, the entire ceremony was conducted on Buddhist lines.

He tried his hand at instruments as well, playing the harmonium, dholak and flute. An avid reader, Shami was elected vice-president of the SC/ST Officers Welfare Association in UP. He also edited Shravasti, a journal run by a Lucknow-based organisation called the Ambedkar Mission of India.

What do we learn from Shami s experiences? That if a Dalit family as far back as in 1935 had its own independent source of livelihood then, in all likelihood, their children would be educated. That if both the parents had higher education, their children were likely to do well in their careers. That a Dalit family with the knack of identifying with Dalit legends, was likely to turn into genuine Ambedkarites as well. And that even after occupying a senior government position and realising his personal dreams, a Dalit could still remain restless andjoin movements.

The community he belongs to is yet to be liberated and he is indeed, a genuine role model for the young Dalit masses.

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