The country is politically polarised as never before, but don’t expect popular culture to reflect that. Even as our biggest musicians hide behind the fig leaf of commercial compulsion and apoliticality, other artistes are stepping up to fill the air with songs of resistance and biting irony
In certain parts of the American and British press, it has become fashionable to bemoan the lack of modern protest music. Every few months a music journalist or cultural commentator — usually white, usually older, more often than not John Harris in The Guardian — will wax eloquent about Bob Dylan or Red Wedge before wringing hands and asking, “Where has the protest music gone?” This despite the fact that in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US president, pop music today is more political than it has been since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The past couple of years have seen some of the biggest names in pop music — from Kendrick Lamar to Katy Perry to Beyonce — release chart-topping music that directly addresses issues like racism, sexism and the controversial Trump presidency. But the “where has the protest music gone?” articles continue to roll in so frequently that there’s now a Tumblr (microblogging site) dedicated to “cataloguing the eternal quest of journalists for true political music”. Which begs the question, are these writers even paying attention?
In the Indian media, though, we have the opposite problem. For a culture writer, looking for even the slightest hint of protest or political critique in mainstream Indian music (read film music) is an exercise in frustration. There’s the occasional ham-handed display of patriotic fervour, but that’s about the best you can hope for. Judging by their output, you’d think that India’s biggest musicians and composers exist in a permanent state of zen detachment, so devoted to their art that they remain untouched by the mundanity of worldly politics, even in the middle of one of the most politically polarising periods in our recent history. The closest we’ve come to a bona fide music star making a political statement through their art in 2017 is AR Rahman’s Flying Lotus, an orchestral composition ostensibly inspired by the demonetisation experience, but which is so abstract and ambiguous that nobody can even figure out where Rahman stands on the issue. The situation is so dire that when Rahman’s remake of 1994 classic ‘Urvashi Urvashi’ included a couple of throwaway references to Donald Trump and demonetisation, journalists fell over each other trying to pass it off as a political song. In reality, it was more of an exercise in plausible deniability — the lyrics were ‘crowd-sourced’, shielding Rahman from any potential blowback.
Even musicians who are open about their political allegiances stay away from bringing politics into their music. Take Vishal Dadlani, for example. The popular composer has made no secret of his affiliation with the Aam Aadmi Party, even joining its leaders on the campaign trail on occasion. And yet, none of that political conviction ever makes it into his songs. Perhaps that is unsurprising in a country where even the most innocuous film can unexpectedly spark off protests and death threats. There’s also the fact that what passes for pop in India is really just film music, with commercial and artistic restrictions that make it harder to find space for political expression. Whatever the reason, India’s biggest musicians have retreated from the idea that their art should hold up a mirror to society, hiding behind the fig leaf of commercial compulsion and sanctimonious apoliticality. But while our pop stars try their best to make a virtue out of political apathy, other musicians are stepping up to fill the gap.
Perhaps the most prominent among them is TM Krishna, the 41-year-old enfant terrible of contemporary Carnatic music. A few years ago, Krishna — who calls himself a ‘compulsive questioner’ — upset Chennai’s more conservative Carnatic music fans by experimenting with the traditional kutcheri paddhati, or format of a classical concert. That was enough for business daily Mint to label him Carnatic music’s ‘stuntman’ in 2014. In the intervening years, Krishna has gone from being a musical innovator to one of Carnatic music scene’s most trenchant critics.
Through op-eds and public speeches, he has often called out the dominance of Brahmanism and patriarchy in Carnatic music. “As I dug deeper into the history and musicology of Carnatic music, I realised that every aesthetic question raised questions about the nature and character of the practitioners, audiences and patrons,” he elaborates.
“Every raga, tala and composition is entrenched in caste, class and gender. It is in the tension emerging from grappling with the beauty of the music and challenging these social evils that art happens.”
In 2015, he withdrew from Chennai’s prestigious December season, citing its lack of social inclusiveness. Instead, he teamed up with other activists to start Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, a counter-cultural multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place in a fishing village within the city. This year, the winner of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay award took things one step further, fusing his music and activism on the track ‘Chennai Poromboke Padal’. Composed by environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman and musician Kaber Vasuki, the track talks about encroachment on the banks of Chennai’s Ennore Creek, and uses this example to make a point about the ecological damage caused by the government and industrial takeover of the public commons. Krishna’s rendering of the song in ragamalika isn’t just an exquisite piece of political music. As writer and frequent collaborator Perumal Murugan points out in The Wire, this is the first time that Carnatic music has been used to address a contemporary matter of public concern. A few months later, Krishna teamed up with Murugan, Maharashtrian anti-caste activist Sheetal Sathe, and musician Sofia Ashraf for #Akavurimai, a music video in support of the right to privacy that touched on issues such as the beef ban, Aadhaar and the Hadiya case in Kerala. For the past year, Murugan and Krishna have also been busy working on Carnatic compositions based on the former’s poetry. “There is a need for karnatik [sic] music to look at larger society in terms of themes it addresses and, hence, he has written on the palm tree, farmers’ plight, the five elements, the struggles of women, love and the mind,” he says. “All these subjects have been dealt with in real, non-mystical, non-religious terms. I also asked him to write in the dialect of Kongu Nadu (west Tamil Nadu), his home. In a form that is obsessed with the idea of purity, in music and language, this brings in another dimension to the sonic and semantic.”
A few thousand kilometres from Chennai, in the small Assamese town of Haflong, an independent musician named Daniel Langthasa is busy perfecting his own version of musical activism. The 34-year-old first rose to prominence as a part of Guwahati-based alt-rock/mutton rap act Digital Suicide, whose tongue-in-cheek songs about militancy in the North-East and ethnic bigotry and racism were a breath of fresh air in an overwhelmingly bourgeois and insular independent music scene. In 2015, when Langthasa returned from Guwahati to his hometown Haflong, he started putting out raw, stripped-down songs under his new persona as Mr India. “I just wanted to express what was on my mind at the time, unedited and raw, so there’s no self-censorship involved,” he says, adding that the initial impetus for the project was an attempt to break a long spell of writer’s block. “But I live in such a small town, and politics becomes much more personal at that scale. I’ve also grown up in a political family (his father was a Congress party leader, who was assassinated by militants in 2007), so I know everyone — who the politicians are, who they work with, how politics is played out here. There was so much stuff going on, and I just couldn’t keep quiet and not talk about it.”
The Mr India YouTube channel has close to a hundred songs — both original compositions and parodies — that lampoon everything from Donald Trump, the right-wing students’ group ABVP and the increasing corporatisation of independent music. Much of his music deals with local issues, whether it’s the lack of unity among tribes in his part of Assam, or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mainstreaming of militants in the quest for political power. This November, he helped bring the attention of Assamese and national media to the plight of over 3,000 municipal workers in Haflong who haven’t been paid their salaries since September 2016. After months of protests, the employees’ union decided to go on an indefinite strike in July. A day before the governor of Assam was due to visit the town, the protesters tried to bar the members of the district’s governing autonomous council from entering their offices. The police responded with a lathi-charge and rubber bullets. The resulting upsurge in public support for the workers forced the governor to step in, and the council released two months’ unpaid dues. But the situation has since returned to square one.
Langthasa had already written songs about the protests, and even made a short film on the July strike. But in November, disillusioned by the lack of public support for the workers, he decided to take his protest to the streets in the form of a sit-in. For three days, travelling with his guitar to different parts of the town with high foot traffic, Langthasa performed his songs in support of the workers. Then, on November 18, he travelled to New Delhi, where he performed in front of India Gate. “That video [of the India Gate performance] got a lot of attention back home, and it also resulted in more media attention,” he says. Langthasa also started the Beton Deu (“clear salary dues”) hashtag on Facebook, which has seen a number of young people from Haflong and across Assam participate by sending in their own songs, lyrics and poetry in support of the cause. “It’s been amazing. Every day I’m getting connected with new people through social media and they’re all trying to find ways to participate in the movement.”
Also going viral is Aisi Taisi Democracy with its political comedy act, including songs that address issues such as the failure of demonetisation, the rise of cow vigilantes, and the BJP’s dangerous attempts to rewrite Indian history. The group — which consists of Indian Ocean bassist and vocalist Rahul Ram, comedian Sanjay Rajoura and comedian, screenwriter and lyricist Varun Grover — came together in 2015. “We never thought about doing more than a couple of shows, but it kind of just took off,” says Ram. “This was a good place for my political ideas to come out. Sanjay and Varun are also guys who see the absurd, not just in our party politics but also our society in general.”
Ram, who grew up listening to the radical Left protest songs of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and spent a few years in the 1990s as a campaign coordinator with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, is one of the rare links between the country’s independent music scene and diverse peoples’ movements — traditionally the source of much of Indian protest music. In recent decades, however, the Left’s cultural activism has increasingly been relegated to the margins of the cultural sphere. Ram attributes this to the political decline of the mainstream Left, as well as a shift in focus to local movements and languages. “So it remains within its region and doesn’t get propagated nationally,” he says. “Earlier the Left had its official songwriters, so those songs would get spread around. Now there’s no way to propagate the songs about, for example, the Narmada Bachao Andolan because nobody’s interested in what they’re talking about and there’s no one to do the propagation.”
In recent years, cultural activists from the Left and the Ambedkarite movements have reached similar conclusions, and put in efforts to remedy the situation. Since 2015, a number of cultural activists from across the country have been working together as the Relaa Collective, a protest music supergroup that also doubles as a skill development programme and a network of similarly aligned groups.
A similar initiative is The War Beat, a YouTube channel and protest music group headed by prominent Dalit-Marxist balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat. Featuring professionally produced music and videos, and borrowing musical ideas from genres like rock and jazz, The War Beat is a — somewhat belated — attempt to take ‘movement music’ from the protest site to the digital space. “In the time of TV and the internet, just doing street theatre isn’t enough to connect with the people and the youth,” says Bhagat. “People today spend more time online than they do on the streets. That has its negative effects, but it also opened up a new space in public life. And it’s important that we try and occupy that space.”
Independently financed through contributions from individuals — in cash or in kind — The War Beat channel also hosts videos of performances by other Marxist and Ambedkarite artistes from Maharashtra such as (former Kabir Kala Manch members) Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali, and the Yalgaar cultural troupe. The idea is to create a space for independent cultural activism.
“We need to figure out how to make our protest music global, how to increase its reach and audience,” adds Dhammaraxit, a rising young Left-Ambedkarite cultural activist who is a founding member of Yalgaar, as well as the recently formed musical satire group The Banned. “We need to experiment with new forms, new musics. Because if we just stick to what we’ve been doing for the past 20-30 years then we’ll just end up preaching to the converted. We need music that doesn’t just speak to the underprivileged but also raises awareness amongst the exploiting classes.”
That problem of reach — how to create music that transcends the divisions of ideology, language and location — is the biggest facing India’s protest musicians. Whether we’re talking about the urban protest music of Krishna, Aisi Taisi Democracy and New Delhi act The Ska Vengers, or the movement music of Bhagat, Dhammaraxitand Sathe, it is still restricted to small networks (online and offline) of like-minded people, the path to mainstream success blocked by market forces, general political apathy and a culture industry that is too comfortable with the status quo to risk the wrath of those in power. “We don’t yet have a solution to that, it’s a major crisis,” says Bhagat, a little subdued but not defeated. “It’s very difficult for us to compete with the resources of capitalism and the state. I don’t know if we have the strength to do that, but we’ll continue to fight.”