Little is known of the life of Tukaram, who was born in 1608 in the village of Dehu on the banks of the river Indrayani into a low-caste Sudra family. Since it was common in Maharashtra at that time for the Brahmins to refer to all non-Brahmins as “Sudras”, it is not commonly realized that Tukaram’s family were landowners, and that they made their living by selling the produce of the land. Tukaram’s father had inherited the position of mahajan, or collector of revenue from traders, from his father, and Tukaram in turn was the mahajan of his village Dehu. At a relatively young age, owing to the death of his parents, Tukaram took charge of the family, and before he was twenty-one years old Tukaram had fathered six children. The devastating famine of 1629 carried away Tukaram’s first wife and some of his children, and Tukaram henceforth lost interest in the life of the householder. Though he did not quite forsake his family, he was unable to maintain his second wife or children, and was ultimately reduced to penury and bankruptcy, besides being stripped by the village of his position as mahajan.
In the meantime, Tukaram turned to poetic compositions [abhangs], inspired by his devotion for Lord Vithoba [Vitthal], the family deity. He is said to have been visited in a dream by Namdeo, a great poet-saint of the thirteenth century, and Lord Vitthal himself, and apparently was informed that it was his mission to compose abhangs. In so doing, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins: not only had he dared to impinge upon the prereogatives of the Brahmins, who believed themselves to be the only true custodians, interpreters, and spokesmen of religion, he compounded the offence by writing in Marathi rather than Sanskrit. According to legend, the local Brahmins compelled him to throw the manuscripts of his poems into the river Indrayani, and taunted him with the observation tht if he were a true devotee of God, the manuscripts would reappear. It is said that Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, invoking the name of God; and after thirteen days of his fast, the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems reappeared. Some of his detractors turned into his followers; and over the course of the few remaining years of his life, Tukaram even acquired a reputation as a saint. In the forty-eighth year of his life, in 1649, Tukaram disappeared: his most devout followers believed that Vitthal himself carried Tukaram away, while some others were inclined to the view that he had been assassinated, though no one has ever offered an iota of evidence to justify the latter interpretation.
It is uncertain how many poems Tukaram composed, but the standard and most frequently used Marathi edition of his poetry, which first appeared in 1873 from the Indu Prakash Press with funding by the Bombay Government, and has often been reprinted, brings together 4,607 poems. Several manuscripts in Marathi exist of his poems, but some poems are found in only one manuscript version; often poems found in several manuscripts show variations; and there is no single mansucript in Tukaram’s own handwriting with all the poems that are attributed to him. Though Tukaram’s place in the history of the development of Marathi is deemed to be inestimable, and he has been credited with being the single most influential figure in the history of Marathi literature, the body of scholarship on Tukaram outside Marathi is rather small, and translations of his work are woefully inadequate. The only nearly complete translation of Tukaram into English, entitled The Collected Tukaram, was attempted by J. Nelson Fraser and K. B. Marathe, and published in Madras by the Christian Literature Society (1909-1915). A more recent translation of a selection of Tukaram’s poetry by Dilip Chitre has been published as Says Tuka (Delhi: Penguin, 1991).