Protest songs have a rich subaltern history. Worldwide, they have galvanised movements.
Chhitu Taaro Bangalo, Sirkaar Haapki Ledhore Kaai Bhaaley reyo/ Chhitu taaro kursi sarkar haapki ledho re Kaai Bhaaley riyo (The government has captured your fort Chhitu and you just stand and watch?!/ The government has captured your throne, Chhitu what are you doing about it?)
I was surprised to find recently a ‘remixed’ version by a popular band of this polemical song written in the Nineties by a political activist, Shanker, in the Jhabua belt of western Madhya Pradesh. Shanker who was a leader in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan (The Farmers and Labourers Awareness Union) in this area, wrote the song as a satire that uses the legend of Chhitu Kirad, as a metaphor, that provokes and cajoles the passive onlooker, the non-reactive common man who has succumbed to the struggle for survival without a thought for his own dignity, identity or self-respect. But who was Chhitu Kirad? In the late 19th century the Bhils of Alirajur in the Jhabua district revolted under the leadership of Chhitu Kirad. It had been a bad year for farmers and famine was rampant. The revenue officials had extorted as taxes what little had been produced. Chhitu rounded up a force of men and attacked some of the Haat villages, pillaged grain stores and distributed it amongst villagers. He then went on to align with a discontented military officer, and along with his band of men threatened the seat of power itself. The British brought in their armed forces and cavalry to quell the rebellion. This battle was fought in the village Sorwa. Chhitu’s is a long story but the song is set in this very village Sorwa where a ‘palace’ like structure that belonged to Chhitu is now a police station in the same village! Shanker’s song is one of the many such beautiful, powerful protest lyrics that I came across in this Bhil region during my stay there in the Nineties.
In the beginning, as someone who came with a background in classical music, I used to almost feel offended when asked to lead a large group assembled for a public meeting with some such song — it was a given: ‘Go Sing’. Gradually my ‘high-art’ snobbery vanished when I realised the sheer energy, joy and even catharsis one experienced in singing Gorakh Pandey, Faiz or Mama Baleshwar Dayal’s songs. Dayal, again a local, was a big hero in the region. He lead a socialist movement in the Banswara district of Rajasthan and Jhabua in MP. This movement against the sahukars (money lenders), despite the severe repression, met with success in freeing the Bhils from bondage. Mama as he was fondly referred to, moved from the National Congress to align with JP’s socialist party and started the Lal Topi Andolan — from the Red caps worn by the members. Even here songs were an important part of the movement.
Most songs refer to the local heroes, their struggles, issues they are oppressed with — the nakadar (the forest guard), the thekedar (or contractor), the police and the sahukar. Musically, the songs have a trance like quality — in the repetitive nature of the melody making group singing highly charged. Like in this song where the refrain is to question the system through the everyday actors and situations: jhaar jangal kaatine — cutting trees and forests/ vaagh ne reese gatharine — overcoming tigers and bears/ baabjin vethe korine — doing forced labour for the king/ raja kun re, vethia kun re — who is the king and who is the serf/ hak kunin re, maldar kun re — whose right is it and who has the wealth?
In meetings which would often begin in the night after a long, usually tiring day, in the fields, the music and oftentimes the dancing that went with it were in many ways relaxing, therapeutic, and really the only form of entertainment in these villages. Protest songs became a part of the rich cultural repertoire of the tribals in this area. Even women would get together in groups and come up with songs on similar themes.
It is curious then that songs, which have risen from and for the struggles today get glamourised by bands that reinterpret them with new instrumentation and sounds. Often the audiences they ‘belt’ these ‘foot-tapping numbers’ to are oblivious to the context or the story they carry. While it is really every musician’s discretion to choose the genre and music that they wish to explore, protest music comes with an added responsibility — it is after all for questioning and protesting, not just about performing! And to that extent the context in which it is performed brings a lot of value to it — the rally, the sit-in protest or dharna, the mass public meetings and so on. Taking it to a performance platform pulls the sting out of it — tames it, reduces it to mere entertainment. The success of protest music in bringing about change is intrinsically dependent on its ability to gather a mass following for a cause — the more the number of people who can identify with the lyrics, the better the chances of the cause being conveyed.
Using music as a means of dissent has always been an important expression of protest in several movements across the world. It has historically evolved, changed and adapted itself to the changing times. Whenever there has been a collective response against society, there has been a revolution and music has played the primary role of a catalyst. During post World War II British colonialism or the nationalist movement, there have been many artistes and groups whose poignant songs are still alive in many forms. Don’t we all love Joan Baez singing We shall overcome or John Lennon singing Imagine or for that matter IPTA’s immense contribution. Sixty seven years of not so acche din shouldn’t take away the sliver of this space that makes peoples’ struggles richer, not to mention a subaltern repository of the culture that comes out of it.
The author is a musician
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