Celebrating the tradition of protest music

People’s Music: A Reconstruction by Serendipity Arts Trust, hoped to reconstruct the dialogues around struggle, conflict, and music as a tool for liberation that remains relevant even today

Ashlin Mathew

Hahaakaar shuneyo nisshabde neeraube O ganga tumi ganga boicho kaino

(With innumerable people on both shores

How do you flow silently hearing their cries Oh Ganga?)

Noitikotaar skholon dekheo Maanobotaar poton dekheo Nirlojjo aalosh bhaabe boicho kaino Shohosro boroshaar unmaadonaar Montrodiye lokkhojonere Shobol shongraame aarogrograame Koretolona kano

(You have seen principles die You have seen humanity decline How do you still flow along so shamelessly and lazily Oh Ganga?) -Composed by Bhupen Hazarika, inspired by activist-musician Paul Robeson’s song “Ole Man River

Rendered by Hazarika in his signature baritone, it has the power to stir people into action. This is just one of the 14 protest songs that is showered on you from those 70s-inspired bugle-shaped loudspeakers as you walk the alleyway to enter the People’s Music: A Reconstruction, a show which was on till May 6, 2018, at the Serendipity Arts Trust office in New Delhi.

Conceptualised for their 2017 annual festival in Goa, People’s Music was a collection of folk music, anthems of resistance, and songs of solidarity that marked significant moments of protest in the subcontinent and beyond. Through a collection of archival photographs, notes, conversations, and video footage from curator Sumangala Damodaran, designer Sudhanva Deshpande, and animator Shaaz Ahmed, People’s Music: A Reconstruction hoped to reconstruct the dialogues around struggle, conflict, and music as a tool for liberation that remains relevant even today.

In Goa, this aural passage ultimately led to a large freight container—a familiar sight for the movement of goods and labour in Goa’s port-city capital— where an immersive sound and video installation, created by Shaaz Ahmed, tracing the trajectory of community movements across the subcontinent and the soundtracks that shaped them, was showcased.

“The container was a very innovative idea that came from Smriti Rajgarhia, the director of Serendipity Arts Trust, that truly spoke to the ethos of mass movements and the context in which many kinds of protest music got created. Acoustically, it was very good as well because the music sounded wholesome and effective,” pointed out Damodaran.

This project was the brainchild of Damodaran, who has been documenting protest music since 2006. “I have worked on the protest music tradition in India from the late colonial period, i.e., the 1940s. When I say protest music, I mean music that came out of political movements of broadly left and democratic persuasion, where music was being sung/written/ conceptualised to consciously articulate protest. My interest in the subject arose out of my own experience with singing protest songs as part of a group Parcham between 1983 and 1990 on a regular basis and also sporadically later on. Formed in the post-emergency period, along with the street theatre group Jana Natya Manch, Parcham’s repertoire consisted of many songs from the late colonial period through the entire post-Independence period. I have done research on a tradition known as the Indian People’s Theatre Association and its music and also been performing out of a large archive that I have collected over the years,” elaborated Damodaran.

For the exhibition, Damodaran chose songs which would provide vignettes of different themes and styles that are seen in protest music and also represent different people and backgrounds from which such music got produced. “I have covered Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra, Telengana, Manipur, Assam, UP and also Bangladesh and Pakistan in the material seen and heard at the installation. However, this list is hardly exhaustive or even representative,” points out Damodaran.

“The concept behind what we were doing is to be able to not only present the archive that Sumangala has worked on, but also present themes that are still relevant to everybody. Archives can give an impression that we are talking about something historical, something that is not living anymore, but we have included themes like lynching which is relevant even now. We have included songs about drought, hunger – these are miseries which visit us everyday and people face them. These then find their way to songs,” says Deshpande, an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and an editor with LeftWord Books.

At a time when the entire country is witnessing protests of different kinds, whether it is the farmer protests, Dalits fighting for their rights, students speaking up or citizens rising up to demand justice for rape victims, there’s a kind of situation that people are using their art and putting it in service of a larger social thing, says Deshpande.

“Protest music of one kind or the other is something you’ll see across the country in different forms, whether it is Dalit music of Punjab or the Burra Katha musicians from Telugu speaking parts, or the Shahiri tradition of Maharashtra. It’s all very popular, just that it happens under the radar. It’s not something that gets discussed in art circles,” says Deshpande.

“In Punjab there’s a whole movement introduced by a singer called ‘chamar pop’, where people from the community are using the term, which is usually used derogatorily, as a mark of assertion. They are making music that is political and assertive. A little like the term ‘nigger’, which is considered racist and derogatory. But, when the Blacks use it themselves, then it becomes something else,” says Deshpande.

Protest music has been with us all through the ages; it is not new. “The idea of protest music as something that responds to people’s lives is a much older idea. Some of it comes from Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) of the 1940s,” explained Deshpande.

In this interdisciplinary project, they have included songs which have contemporary relevance. “Bhupen Hazarika’s Ole Man River, Sambhaji Bhagat’s Lafda Kaiko Re and Nina Simone’s Strange Roots on lyching of the Blacks during the civil rights movement in the United States, all have a connect in India today,” says Deshpande.

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Published: 13 May 2018, 2:44 PM