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Dalit musicians of India challenging rising inequality and untouchability

Kabir Kala Manch's first performance outside Maharashtra at a Songs of Protest event in Bangalore in September 2013. (WNV/Puspha Achanta)In early April 2015, three courageous and revolutionary musicians from Kabir Kala Manch — Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe — will have completed two years of unjust incarceration in Maharashtra, a western-Indian state.

Kabir Kala Manch, which means Kabir Arts Forum, is a young cultural troupe whose songs and plays often critique the state. They were among the performers at Horata, a cultural resistance festival that the media and arts collective Maraa organized in Bangalore in October and November 2014. But the Bangalore police expressed concerns about the participation of the Kabir Kala Manch, accusing them of being involved in “anti-national” activities. In fact, the location of their show had to be changed to venue that could accommodate police presence.

“Since December 2014 and even earlier, there have been assaults on the freedom of expression — a constitutional guarantee — of writers and singers like me,” said Sarath Naliganti, a young Dalit political activist, who also sang during Horata. “But the Indian government is hardly curbing the rising frequency of such unacceptable actions.”

For the last 30 years, Sambhaji Bhagat, a frequent co-performer with Kabir Kala Manch, has been singing at various protests against the increasing indifference of the state and society towards the socio-economically marginalized. His songs highlight the violence faced by Dalits, who are considered to be outside India’s caste hierarchy and even treated as untouchable in India. Bhagat pens verses about the excesses of the corrupt in the government and the few people who enjoy privileges at the expense of the majority.

Sambhaji Bhagat (centre) performs with Dhamm Muktiwadi (right) & Baba (left) of Vidrohi Shahir Jalsa in Bangalore in March 2015. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

“We are cultural politicians,” Bhagat said. “Our role is to counter injustice with justice and healing, war with peace, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. The medium and methods used to convey the message are important as they could determine if the communication is correct and complete.”

Bhagat strives to ensure that the study of the history of Dalit struggles and their past cultural and political icons are included in the school curriculum. This proven to be a crucial task due to the increased misrepresentation or exclusion of indigenous people and Muslims — under the pressure of Hindu fundamentalists — from academic discourse.

Simple yet powerful

Since its inception, members of Kabir Kala Manch, a 13-year-old group of around 10 young musicians belonging to socially and financially marginalized households from Pune, a city near Mumbai, have been writing and performing meaningful songs and plays. They fearlessly urge listeners to oppose government policies promoting privatization and economic liberalization that perpetuate India’s vast socio-economic divide. Combining pain with satire, they have stirred the conscience of many about the adverse impact of globalization.

The Kabir Kala Manch is also considered a symbol of peaceful resistance, as it performs regularly across the country in slums, university auditoriums and theater venues. However, a couple of its recent shows were nearly cancelled or interrupted by people who believe the group threatens national security because it openly critiques the state. Different members of the Kabir Kala Manch have been imprisoned since 2011 on exaggerated charges of political extremism under the draconian 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Apart from Gaichor, Gorkhe and Mali, the imprisoned include Sheetal Sathe — Gorkhe’s cousin and Mali’s wife, who is a Dalit — and Deepak Dhengle, a 39-year old Adivasi, who belongs to an indigenous tribe. Sathe and Dhengle were released in July and January 2013, respectively.

“Deepak, who co-founded the group in 2002, is a self-taught playwright, singer and drummer,” said Rupali Jadhav, Gorkhe’s wife and a member of Kabir Kala Manch. “Actually, none of us ever trained in music or the performing arts.”

As a girl raised in an economically backward neighborhood called basti in HindiJadhav faced opposition from her parents and brother when she wanted to study economics, as none of them pursued higher education and college would be expensive. Consequently, she started a part-time job to fund her education. After she met Gorkhe and they decided to marry, they left their respective families, who criticized their ideologies and relationship.

Jyoti Jagtap is another Kabir Kala Manch member and is Gaichor’s wife. She was inspired to join the group eight years ago, after watching the troupe perform at a cultural event as an undergraduate student. “As we all rely on the support of our spectators, most of us in the Manch do various jobs,” Jagtap said. “A few of us work with non-profit organizations educating and assisting socio-economically disadvantaged communities in availing basic rights and entitlements.”

Personal and public liberation

Aruldas Vijaya rehearses before Horata. (WNV/Puspha Achanta)

Another performer at Horata was 29-year-old Aruldass Vijaya, a Dalit singer, drummer, painter and performer in Bangalore. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, he has protested slum demolitions, street vendor evictions and water privatization in Bangalore through his songs and plays in Kannada and Tamil for over a decade. Vijaya also trains socio-economically oppressed youth in theater and music and counsels them against petty crimes, substance abuse and quitting school.

“By learning and practicing various art forms, many youth and I have avoided robbery, street fights, chemical abuse and idling and increased our self-worth,” Vijaya said. “Music and acting allow the young to express their struggles and aspirations and also relate to others on a different plane.”

Naliganti leads the Dalit Bahuj Cultural Association, a four-year old forum involving a few hundred youth. They join from local colleges and organize literary and theater events focusing on former and current Dalit, Islamic and female political and social icons. The association features Naliganti’s unique and stirring music in its popular efforts to build interfaith and inter-caste harmony and hosts public festivals promoting Dalit culture and food — like beef, which is affordable and eaten by many Dalits, Muslims and Christians, but avoided by some Hindus who worship the cow.

“I hail from a family of musicians who earned their living from hard daily-wage labor,” Naliganti said. “Since my teenage years, I have been highlighting the challenges and successes of Dalits, Muslims, women and transgendered people through my compositions.”

Among the other performers at the Horata festival in Bangalore were Meera and Kaladas Deheriya, a Dalit singer and poet couple whose songs portray the harsh realities of contract laborers and urge them to demand their rights.

“Being from a caste with an extreme socio-economic disadvantage, I have survived in utter poverty,” remarked Kaladas Deheriya. “As a contract worker in the municipality of Raipur [Chattisgarh’s capital] and at other factories, I have faced grave exploitation with minimal pay for maximum work.

Meera and Kaladas Deheriya, and their sone Geet Kumar, during Horata. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

The couple, who now sing with their teenaged son Geet Kumar, have been active in various social movements nationally and in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state, over the last 15 years.

“Instead of remaining silent,” Kaladas Deheriya explained, “Meera and I have been organizing women and male workers by meeting them outside factories through the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a federation of mine, cement, agricultural and other workers unions with hundreds of members that was launched in 1982.”

Meera Deheriya also supports women workers in fighting specific issues such as sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the workplace. “We have been enlightening laborers about fundamental human and labor rights, and social entitlements through regular discussions, songs and street theater,” she said. “This has helped the workers pressure employers for better wages and address labor law violations with some success. However, we must intensify our campaigns, as India’s labor laws are becoming employer-friendly at the expense of the lowest worker.”

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