Journalist, kirtankar Satyavan Namdeo Suryavanshi
Baba Padmanji, Rev. Narayan Vaman Tilak, Pandita Ramabai and Laxmibai Tilak, all Christians, have contributed a great deal to the social transformation in Maharashtra during the pre-Independence era. Satyavan Namdeo Suryavanshi, the editor of 'Aapan (We)' weekly and a prolific author, carried forward this tradition in independent India. He successfully explored several fields- journalism, literature, kirtan, social awareness and spiritualism, and won acclaim across Maharashtra.
Suryavanshi edited a Marathi weekly 'Aapan' established by the Jesuits. Though run by Christian priests, it was popular among readers of all religions. The credit goes to Suryavanshi's editorial skills and aggressive writing. In the past 175 years, Christian missionaries have published many Marathi periodicals. However, 'Aapan' has been the only periodical, which found wide acceptance among non-Christian readers besides a place in the government and semi- government public libraries. Those familiar with 'Aapan' at its peak would agree that the wide acceptance was only because of Suryavanshi’s firebrand editorship.
Suryavanshi wrote over 300 books in Marathi literature- some 25 novels, translations, biographies, plays, songs and research publications. He was also popular as a Kirtankar, delivering the traditional kirtans. Kirtan is an old tradition in Maharashtra wherein spiritual leaders deliver religious discourses, interspersed with stories, hymns and accompanied by musical instruments like harmonium, cymbals etc.
Suryavanshi's kirtans got tremendous applause from the Marathi Christian community of western and northern Maharashtra. The neo-Christians of western Maharashtra and Marathwada, Konkani-speaking 'Bardeskar' Christians from border areas of Kolhapur, Belgaum, Sindhudurg districts, and the Christians from Mumbai-Vasai area – come from varied cultural and religious backgrounds. Suryavanshi had won an award for one of his books from Maharashtra government and his three books won awards instituted by the Government of India.
Satyavan Suryavanshi was born in Hange village of Parner taluka in Ahmednagar district on 31 March 1916. His father was a teacher in a school run by the American Marathi Mission. Although his family had embraced Christianity, in the eyes of the majority of local population they were still 'Mahar', an untouchable caste, and were treated with contempt. Young Satyavan was educated in Ahmednagar. Despite appearing twice, he could not clear his matriculation examination and came to Mumbai in search of work. He used to work during the day and spend the nights on the open footpaths.
The job was that of a lowly servant in a Christian bookshop run by the Bombay Tract and Book Society. He motivated himself to write a Marathi play on the birth of Lord Jesus, entitled Yeshu Balacha Janma and sent it for publication to Devdatt Tilak, son of veteran poet Rev Narayan Vaman Tilak, at Nashik. A few days later, Devdatt Tilak came to the bookshop in Mumbai, searching for the author of the play. It was then that the bookshop's manager, Elizabeth Morland, came to know that the boy who swept the floor of the shop was an author as well. Morland promoted him to the post of a salesman in the shop. She also made Suryavanshi to write several books for the Protestant Mission. Moreland molded him into a writer- journalist.
Instead of rushing his writings for publication, Moreland advised him to read them carefully and rewrite them repeatedly. He followed her advice even after becoming the editor of 'Aapan' and later having made a name as a writer.
Suryavanshi got married at Ghodnadi town (Shirur) on 1 January 1940. He and his wife, Mira, lived in a chawl at Mazgaon in Mumbai, from where he began writing for various Marathi periodicals and started performing kirtans.
After 1945, Suryavanshi worked at the Karnataka Press owned by Marathi publisher B G Dhavale for a year and a half. Thereafter he worked for the 'Tatvavivechak' of Madhusudan Mehta and at the British India Press for seven years each. His experience in the printing business helped him immensely later as the editor of 'Aapan'.
During his stay in Mumbai, Suryavanshi wrote in various reputed Marathi periodicals like - Mauj, Navyug, Navakal, and Kirloskar. He also wrote Marathi plays for the All India Radio for several years.
While working at the British India Press, he became a member of the Bombay Labour Union and formed a close association with socialist leaders George Fernandes (who later rose to become India's Defence Minister), Madhu Limaye and Mrinal Gore. He was a deputy to George Fernandes who was then president of the union. Recalling those days, Suryavanshi wrote in his autobiography, "George Fernandes was of the view that I should quit my job at the British India Press and work fulltime at the union office and participate in politics. But I was not keen to become a socialist and I did not want to give up my writing to join politics. I had valid reasons to fear for my faith in God and religion if I had joined these people.''
We do not know whether Suryavanshi would have become a major political leader or successfully led a labour movement had he continued his association with Fernandes and the socialists. His resolve to never enter politics nonetheless proved a boon for the Marathi-speaking Christian community, which got a great writer, journalist and a kirtankar in him.
Suryavanshi served as a bridge between Catholics and Protestants. Till his middle age, he had absolutely no association with the Catholics. He was associated only with the Protestant community as a student and also as an employee of a Protestant Mission. He also performed kirtans for gatherings and functions of Protestants. He first came in contact with the Catholic community much later but maintained the association till his death.
While working in the British India Press, Suryavanshi was once invited by Fr J S Miranda, a social worker from Vasai in Thane district, to perform a kirtan at the famous Mount Mary Church in Bandra. Suryavanshi was taken aback by the invitation to deliver a kirtan at a Catholic Church. Suryavanshi performed kirtan at the church for four hours to the accompaniment of a tabla and a harmonium. The tradition of performing kirtans was prevalent among the Marathi Christians, thanks to Rev Tilak and other Protestant missionaries. But this was fro the first time a kirtan was performed in a Catholic Church. And the performer was a Protestant! This was indeed a historical event. Suryavanshi's kirtan at Mount Mary Church took place even before the second Vatican Council, which advocated ecumenical dialogue. In his autobiography, Suryavanshi described the event symbolising unity of the two sects in the following words: 'On that night, a strong wall collapsed with a big bang!'
As soon as the kirtan in Bandra church was over, another Catholic priest who was present there invited Suryavanshi to perform at his church in Vasai. This priest was Fr Dominic Abreo, parish priest of the church at Papadi in Vasai near Thane. Fr Abreo was also the editor of a Marathi magazine 'Suvarta (The Good News), published by the Mumbai archdiocese. Fr Abreo was later to become the bishop of Aurangabad diocese and also to preside over the Marathi Khristi Sahitya Sammelan (Marathi Christian literary conference). Repeat invitations extended to Suryavanshi to perform kirtans at Catholic churches meant recognition to his talent. He himself wrote later that "since then, new avenues were opened to me.''
The Bandra and Vasai kirtans brought Suryavanshi closer to the Catholics and Catholic priests. The Jesuit priests later entrusted him with the responsibility of the editorship of the Marathi weekly 'Aapan'.
A young European Jesuit, Fr Joaquim Barranco, once called on Suryavanshi at the British India Press. Fr Barranco was well versed with Marathi literature. Barranco and Suryavanshi became close friends. When Fr Barranco moved from Pune to Nashik, he invited Suryavanshi to work with him there. Suryavanshi bid adieu to Mumbai - the city where he had lived for 28-years- and went to Nashik to work with the Catholic missionary. The close ties between this Protestant kirtankar and a Catholic priest shocked many and caused dismay among some. But the friendship lasted till Fr Barranco's accidental death a few years later. Because of Fr Barranco, Suryavanshi also came in close contact with Fr Vincent Ferrer of Manmad.
Fr Barranco had brought Suryavanshi to Nashik for a specific mission. He had very well judged the literary talent and writing skills of Suryavanshi. Among the Catholics, there was no one like Suryavanshi who was gifted with a literary genius and the ability to communicate through his kirtans so effectively!
Fr Barranco had decided to take help of his talented Protestant friend in his missionary work. He started the Marathi weekly 'Aapan’, which was owned and published by the Jesuits. Suryavanshi ran the periodical successfully for nearly a decade and did full justice to the faith reposed by Fr Barranco in him.
Before coming to Mumbai in search for a job, Suryavanshi had once heard a kirtan by Gadge Baba, a veteran social reformer in Maharashtra. Gadge Baba who had cast a spell even on great persons like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar preached the message of cleanliness, personal hygiene, education, etc., through his kirtans at various places in Maharashtra. Gadge Maharaj who spoke the dialect of the local people delivered the kirtans in his typical rustic style. This style highly impressed Suryavanshi. Later in his autobiography, he wrote about Gadge Baba, "His dialect accent was easy to understand, had meaningful discourse, typical tune, the Abhangas, and the exclusive clap, which only Baba could do. I remember all this ditto." Gadge Baba referred to various Hindu deities in his kirtan but Suryavanshi could sense Christ in his kirtan. He further added, "For me, kirtan never got over. It kept on ringing in my ears throughout my life". Suryavanshi took inspiration from Gadge Baba and became a successful kirtankar.
When Suryavanshi started performing kirtans, he gradually made several changes in his style. Initially, he used to play ektari, a musical instrument with a single string. The tunes used to be of folk songs. Later he introduced the use of other musical instruments like cymbals and mrudung for rhythm. There were times when people interested in his kirtans could not afford an orchestra for accompaniment. He, therefore, used to sing with accompaniment of harmonium and tabala only. Wherever he was invited, he used to take help of local artists for playing the musical instruments. Such an accompaniment was easily available as Marathi Christian community in Maharashtra used these musical instruments in their religious ceremonies.
Suryavanshi never accepted any honorarium for his kirtans. He was also not in favour of passing around a hat or a plate for collecting donations. He has written in this context, "I charge money for writing because that is my profession. But I do not charge for kirtan as I consider it worship. Delivering the kirtan is my way of thanking God for whatever he has given me. My only expectation is that I should be paid third class tariff for my to and fro journey. I will not charge for kirtan. That is a commitment I have made with God!"
The editor of Marathi monthly ‘Niropya’, Fr. Prabhudhar, who was based at Ajra in Kolhapur district, once invited Suryavanshi for delivering a kirtan for the Bardeskar community living in the border area of Maharashtra - Karnataka. The Bardeskars are Catholics who had migrated from the Bardez taluka of Goa in late 19th century and settled in Kolhapur and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra and Belgaum district of Karnataka. Suryavanshi, accompanied by his wife Mira, toured the areas and delivered several kirtans in February 1980. Fr Prabhudhar, who was Ajra parish priest at that time, had offered his own jeep to the Suryavanshi couple for this purpose. As Suryavanshi used the medium of kirtan for religious worships in various villages during the month-long period, the Jesuit parish priest traveled by State Transport buses to carry out his routine functions.
There was an overwhelming response to Suryavanshi's kirtan from the Bardeskar community. A few months later, Suryavanshi wrote a series of articles in 'Niropya' describing his experiences of performing at the base of the Sahyadri range of mountains in western Maharashtra and about the Bardeskars who have retained their distinct cultural identity.
At the end of the series, he wrote, "Fr Prabhudhar utilised my services as a kirtankar for a whole month. If any one utilises my services for religious purpose in this fashion for eleven months, I will be ever thankful to God".
S N Suryavanshi was the first person to acquire respect of the Catholic and Protestant sects in Maharashtra. With his writings and kirtans he crossed all sectarian boundaries. Many people who were acquainted with him were not aware whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant. Both the Catholics and Protestants strongly felt that he was one of them. Suryavanshi himself used to say that he was only a Christian and thus used to mingle freely between the two sects.
Pune Khristi Sahitya Sangh honoured him with the title 'Sahitya Bhushan ' (Pride of Literature)a few months before his demise. Several leaders of the Protestant community in Maharashtra like Sudhir Sharma, then President of Marathi Khristi Sahitya Parishad and editor of 'Dnyanoday' Marathi monthly, poet Niranjan Ujagare, and educationist Jayantkumar Tribhuvan, were present at the function to felicitate this literary giant and kirtankar. Suryavanshi who traveled from Nashik to Pune for the function stayed at ‘Snehasadan’, an institute run by the Jesuits. He stayed there as a guest of Fr Joe Gaikwad, the then editor of 'Niropya' monthly. Suryavanshi's personality was such that he could win admiration of people belonging to both the sects of Christianity.
In his autobiography 'Aga Je Kalpile Nahi’, Suryavanshi has said- 'I am a Protestant for the Protestants, and a Catholic for the Catholics! I have fans in both communities and they shower equal love on me. For the sake of Christ, I treat them alike.'
Suryavanshi's decade-long career as the editor of 'Aapan' was the zenith of his long writing career. His editorials, well-researched articles and hilarious columns like 'Narba Liwatoy' (Narba, a fictitious character, writes) won wide applause in the rural parts of Ahmednagar, Nashik and Aurangabad districts. Many Christian families, who could not afford to subscribe a daily newspaper, used to await the arrival of the weekly 'Aapan' and 'Niropya' monthly. Like all weeklies, 'Aapan' used to be released on Sundays and would hit the stands a day or two earlier. I still recall the Friday evenings when `Aapan' used to land in our house and how during meals I used to read aloud 'Narba Liwatoy' for everybody in the family. The conversation between the rustic Narba, his family members and an old lady next doors, used to be favourite reading for my mother, father and other members of our family. Over three decades have lapsed since 'Aapan' had to be closed down but Suryavanshi's Narba, his family and Jiji, the old lady in the neighbourhood are still alive in my mind. Such was the magic of his writing skills.
Suryavanshi's literary works include humour pieces, plays, novels, research papers, radio plays, translated literature, travel accounts, spiritual literature, biographies, poetry and an autobiography. He wrote biographies of some Christian missionaries in Maharashtra like the founder of Ahmednagar College, Dr. Bhaskarrao Hiwale, Sundarabai Pawar, Dr William Wanless of Miraj, poet Krishnaji Ratnaji Sangale, Rev H. G. Howard of Kodoli, and Rev Bhaskarrao Ujagare. He has authored about 300 books. His autobiography, 'Aga Je Kalpile Nahi!', published in early 1970s, is one of the first Dalit autobiographies of Maharashtra, a trend that virtually revolutionised Marathi literature in the last quarter of the 20th century.
During his lifetime, Suryavanshi was honoured with various awards and also presided over various literary gatherings. He was the president of the Marathi Khristi Sahitya Parishad held in Mumbai in July 1978 and also of the Marathi Khristi Sahitya Sammelan held at De Nobili College in Pune in the same year. He was also the president of the second Marathi Dalit Khristi Sahitya Sammelan, held at Jalna in May 1993.
This great litterateur and journalist passed away at Nashik on June 11, 2000 when he was 85. Suryavanshi used his pen aggressively to refute false allegations against the Christian community, such as it was not patriotic enough and its culture was not rooted in this soil.
The 'Aapan' weekly, published 30 years ago, used to pay honorarium to even novice contributors. It shows how much Suryavanshi respected the creativity and talent of his contributors. Prestigious periodicals even today do not follow this practice.
While I was in the 10th standard, 'Aapan' published two of my stories for children and the editor promptly sent me an honorarium of Rs five each by postal money order. It was a pleasant surprise for me. It was the first honorarium that I received for writing. It was also for the first time that I received a postal correspondence in my own name. In later years, writing became the only source of income as I opted for journalism and writing as a career. Nonetheless, I still remember the first postal money order that I received 30 years ago as payment for my writing
During his career as editor, writer and kirtankar for over four-decades, Suryavanshi motivated many Christian youngsters like me to take up writing and join various media. Although I have been a fervent admirer of Suryavanshi right from my childhood, I never got an opportunity to meet him or talk to him. I have always regretted it.
I never had the occasion to attend his kirtans, which were very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. I was in Goa, away from Maharashtra, for 14 years when Suryavanshi was at the peak of his career. This was one of the reasons why I did not get an opportunity to meet this great person.
A few months before his demise, Suryavanshi was felicitated in Pune and this was the first and the last time I had an opportunity to see him and hear him speak. Setting my eyes on him for the first time and noting his every word, I realised how much of an ardent admirer I was of him. I am sure there would be many more admirers like me in Maharashtra who admire and respect Suryavanshi.
1) 'Aga Je Kalpile Nahi!'- Satyavan Namdeo Suryavanshi. Sumant Dayanand Karandikar, Secretary, Bombay Tract and Book Society, 21 Hajarimal Somani Marg, Mumbai 400 001 (1975). For Mangal Sahitya Prakashan.
2) 'Suvartik’ (An evangelist) - Sahityik Acharya S. N. Suryavanshi', Philomina Bagul, Niropya Magazine, (August 2000).
3) 'Khristi Marathi Vangmay (Father Stephens Te 1960 Akher)' Dr. Gangadhar Narayan Morje, Publisher - Ahmednagar College, Ahmednagar and Snehasadan, Shanivar Peth, Pune 411 030. Distributor - A. J. Prabhu, Vidarbha Marathwada Book Company, 1334 Shukrawar Peth, Pune 411 002, (1984