Vira Sathidar, cultural figure who fought India's caste system, dies at 62

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Vira Sathidar, cultural figure who fought India's caste system, dies at 62
Sathidar died of complications of COVID-19 on April 13 at a hospital in Nagpur, in the state of Maharashtra, his son, Ravan, said. He was 62.

by Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar

NEW DELHI (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Vira Sathidar played the role of a protest singer enmeshed in India’s frustrating legal system in “Court,” a 2014 movie that won accolades in India and around the world. Yet Sathidar, a lifelong activist against injustice with little screen experience, remained uncomfortable describing himself as an actor.

Acting, he said, was just another tool in the toolbox of protest — along with organizing, pamphleteering, editing, writing poetry and singing.

“Song and dance was a weapon of our fight,” he once said. “It still is.”

Sathidar died of complications of COVID-19 on April 13 at a hospital in Nagpur, in the state of Maharashtra, his son, Ravan, said. He was 62.

Sathidar agitated against the deeply rooted caste system in India, under which those at the bottom — his fellow Dalits, or untouchables — are systematically abused. A high school dropout, he wrote books and articles, edited magazines and organized street performances. For a brief time, he ran a bookstall. He was the head of the Maharashtra chapter of the Confederation of Human Rights Organizations.

“He was a living library,” his friend Nihal Singh Rathod said, “on political science, on social science.”

Vira Sathidar was born on June 7, 1958, in the village of Parsodi, near Nagpur, to Rauf and Gangubai Sathidar. His father, a farmer, was a staunch supporter of B.R. Ambedkar, one of India’s most influential thinkers and political figures. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, was part of the Indian independence movement and played a central role in drafting the constitution for the future republic. He was also a tireless opponent of the caste system, and Sathidar often cited his influence in setting him on the road to activism.

Sathidar said his father wanted him to be a scholar. But he was a distracted student, and he left school after 10th grade to work at a cotton thread mill.

Sathidar’s activism began when he was a union organizer at the mill. He found himself working with the radical Maoist movement called the Naxalites in the 1990s.

He went underground for a time but became disillusioned, his friend Pradeep Maitra, the Nagpur correspondent for The Hindustan Times, said in an interview: “He got disappointed with the Naxal movement because of their emphasis on classless society and ignoring the Ambedkar notion of casteless society.”

Along with his son, Sathidar, who lived in Nagpur, is survived by his wife, Pushpa Viplav Sathidar, as well as three brothers and a sister.

Sathidar came to broader attention after “Court,” an examination of the injustices India’s labyrinthine legal system perpetuates against the marginalized. The director, Chaitanya Tamhane, was looking for a cast of largely unprofessional actors.

For months, his team held casting calls across several states, trying to recruit from theater groups and street performers. He was having trouble casting the lead role, Narayan Kamble, a Dalit protest singer and poet who is accused of performing songs that induce a Mumbai sewer worker to commit suicide.

Then Tamhane discovered Sathidar through an activist group. He cast him just before shooting started.

“I thought they were taking me in the film because they couldn’t find a good actor, or they didn’t have enough budget,” Sathidar said in a video interview. He said he was struck by how much his character, Narayan, resembled him.

“He has worked at a factory, I have worked at a factory,” Sathidar said. “He writes articles, I also write articles. He is an editor, I am also an editor. He works at a union, I also work at a union. He sings songs, I also sing songs. He goes to jail; I have also been to jail many times. His house is raided, my house is also raided.”

“What he is showing is my life,” Sathidar said. “What surprised me was that he wrote all this without having met me.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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