Life’s Screaming Out...

A new genre of young, radical and non-conformist theatre and music has broken into a popular, anti-establishment symphony

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

Amidst the clashes between the police and people in Turkey, a ‘standing man’ became a symbol of defiance. Erdem Gunduz, a performance artiste and choreographer, became an icon of resistance when he stood still for hours in Taksim Square, Istanbul, staring at the giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father. There was a hullabaloo about his presence – standing, alone, with hands in his pockets. Police was called to check his backpack and frisk his body. When nothing was found, he was left alone, standing solitarily in silence, in protest.

Gunduz set a new trend; many Turkish people joined him in this unique form of non-violent protest. Clearly, sloganeering, candle march es and raised placards are not the only ways to protest. Performing arts continue to be a pulsating method of resistance, and it is seeing original forms of revival across the world. Also, in India.

In the recent past, India witnessed two major protest movements — one in August 2011 when Anna Hazare launched his campaign against corruption; the other against the gang-rape in Delhi in December 2012. Both protests set the ball rolling for new waves of protest, where performing arts, particularly theatre and music, emerged as powerful instruments. 

While these protests reverberated in different corners of the country, Delhi was the epicentre; be it people at Jantar Mantar donning white caps during the anti-corruption campaign (which split and degenerated) or thousands thronging India Gate with deafening slogans against the rape. Among this deluge of protesters, a small group of young people never went unnoticed. Donning black dresses, they were actors from Asmita Theatre, a local group. Soon, they would be surrounded by a circle of people; some clapped, some just looked on, while some had moist eyes. 

‘What unites artistes and revolutionaries is that they both question things. But they also understand that life is not simple, and it won’t give you simple answers. You can say we are both’

Others picked up a guitar and sang a song. Even others joined in chorus, singing old, progressive, secular and feminist songs. Yet others painted luminescent graffiti on walls and on makeshift canvases seeking ‘azadi’, equality and justice for women, defying orthodox, entrenched, repressive codes of patriarchy. 

Street theatre did a double take here. It not only questioned the State and its cold-blooded apathy for the aam aadmi but also made people search their own conscience. Their talent acted as their weapon. Their powerful dialogues and songs mirrored the abject social realities of the human condition, the struggle against communal fascists and xenophobia, and the myriad contradictions and inequalities of social life. Art was no longer an isolated self-expression; it broke out of the stagnant comfort zones of art for art’s sake. 

“It was during those days that we realized the immense power of street theatre,” says Rahul Khanna, an actor with Asmita. “Our plays narrated the angst of the people. What they wanted to say with their slogans and placards, we said it with our narratives. Each one of us present there was tied with the same thread of dissent and when they saw it with their bare eyes it made a connection.” 

December 2012 was different. That winter, the capital simmered over the sheer brutality inflicted on a young female medical student in a Delhi bus by a group of men. Most outraged protesters were also young. The ‘uprising’ brought protest theatre to Raisina Hill, the VIP zone and power citadel of Delhi. Shilpi Marwaha, 24, of Asmita, was also in the vanguard. “Art ties people. They quickly became part of our protest method. Our peaceful but piercing protest baffled the policemen,” she says. 

People from different walks of life are embracing street theatre to bring about social change. ‘Raging Streets’ — a street theatre group of IIT, Delhi — is one of this league. The anti-corruption campaign was the catalyst for their first stint in activism. “It was not common for students of a technical institute like IIT to take to the roads, definitely not through street theatre. But we understood its strength which is rooted in its non-violent nature,” says Surabhi Yadav, a member of the group. “It does not use any props or sets. It is like serving a slice of the common man’s life.”

Using street theatre to bring in change and voice dissent dates back to the pre-independence era, including influences from the progressive writers’ group led by great Hindi novelist Munshi Premchand and others. It was pioneered by the legendary Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the early 1940s which used theatre, literature, cinema and other art forms to express cultural and political dissent and posit an alternative, humanitarian vision. It was directly inspired by the sacrifices of the world communist movement during that phase, the Russian and Chinese revolution, and the growing peasant and working class movement in India’s anti-colonial freedom struggle. In the pre and post-Independence era, IPTA entered the soul of India and became a symbol of enlightenment, and cultural and aesthetic expression, especially through cinema in Mumbai and across India. Some of the leading lights of IPTA included actor Balraj Sahni and writer Bhishan Sahni, poets Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zahir, Kaifi Azmi, musician Salil Chaudhary, directors Chetan Anand and Ritwick Ghatak, among scores of the finest creative minds in India. Almost no creative work was left untouched by the luminescent and radical aesthetics of the great IPTA movement which propelled the idea of grassroots change and universal freedom and justice. Truly, those days, even in Bollywood, to be called a communist was a proud moment. 

‘A significant part of IPTA’s repertoire was ‘borrowed’ from within the country and outside… making folk traditions in one part of the country the basis of compositions in another language’

The street theatre medium in India acquired wings as a group of Delhi’s progressive theatre amateurs came together to form the Jana Natya Manch (Janam) in 1973. “Freedom was like a golden gift for the people of India. As years passed, people realized that it was not the freedom they dreamt and fought for. Power changed hands, but the common man’s plight hardly changed,” says Manish Monoja, convener of Janam.  He has been one of its founding members, along with Moloyshree Hashmi, NK Sharma and Safdar Hashmi, who was attacked with iron rods by Congress goons in a Sahibabad working class area on January 1, 1989, even as the group was performing a street play. He succumbed to his injuries the next day. “There was a section of society which was looking for mediums to vent their resentment and wanted to change things. We made theatre our tool for this change and Janam was born,” says Manoja. 

He talks about the bitter feeling that the Indian State had betrayed the original dreams of the freedom struggle while radical movements were suppressed. “Equally significant was our struggle for freedom of expression. We fought it through theatre, performing for people, on the streets. Never for the elite at Mandi House,” says Manoja. “The power of street theatre lies in its direct art. You can look into the eyes of people and ask tough questions. You are not on a pedestal, you are among them, you are one of them. People see reflections of their own lives and predicament in these plays. It touches their heart and moves them for action,” says Deepak Gulati of Janam.

While IPTA’s theatre legacy has been well documented over the years, much of its brilliant treasure of music had been left untouched. Realizing this, Sumangla Damodaran, an academician and musician, archived the music traditions of IPTA in her album, Songs of Protest (2010). Inheriting a strong communist tradition from Kerala, inside and outside her family, along with her involvement in student politics in JNU, Sumangala, a fabulous singer herself, has made this album a landmark of the IPTA legacy. “A significant part of IPTA’s repertoire was ‘borrowed’ from within the country and outside… making folk traditions in one part of the country the basis of compositions in another language” Sumangala writes in her paper, ‘Protest through Music’. 

She points out, “There was greater emphasis on colloquial usages while consciously eschewing anything that might sound like sloganeering. These songs typically talked about the lives of peasants and their families and did not directly refer to class relations or exploitation except through symbolism, such as references to the ‘sickle shaped moon’ that attracts a poor peasant girl.” Back in time, she recounts how the famous song with implicit lyrics, ‘Jane wale sipahi se poocho’ moved people when she used to sing it for Janam; she hums: Kaun dukhiya hai jo ga rahi hain/Bhookhe bachchon ko bhehla rahi hain/Laash jalne ki bu aa rahi hain Zindagi hai ki chilla rahi hain…

(Who is this hapless (woman) singing?/coaxing her hungry children/There is a stench of dead bodies being burnt/Life is screaming out…) 

Cut to the new millennium.  Protest music has been revolutionized. More young artistes have taken the centre stage. Riding on the prowess of new technology and the Internet, they have ushered in a new era of non-conformist, radical music. Listen to this song, “Our message to you Modi” with a full blown orchestra and floating dance steps rocking the audience, mostly young, which claps, dances, sings and rocks: …
Stop your murdering now/Amit Shah is your killer/SIT was your friend
We hope you wind up in jail/Modi /Our message to you Modi… 

Ska Vengers, a stylistic, radical bunch of Young artistes dressed in Jamaican-style black suits with hats, crooned this incredible song in a jam-packed auditorium in Delhi during a three-day cultural/political event of the Free Binayak Sen Campaign in April 2011. Brave and raring, they took the audience by storm in a mix of refreshingly modern music with symphonies and styles of multiple genres, including Jamaican and Afro-American music. A former history student of JNU, Taru Dalmia (aka Delhi Sultanate), the vocalist and lyricist of Ska Vengers, also gives voice to the unheard margins and tales of injustice: from Chhattisgarh’s tribals to the arrest of journalist Iftikhar Gilani. He is part of a unique collective, Word Sound Power (WSP), along with New York-based music producer Chris McGuiness and filmmaker Kush Badhwar. The Ska Vengers collective, with zigzag dance steps and a brilliant female lead singer, creates mind-blowing music – the saxophone is also played by a female musician.  “We look for cultural connections and use local music to tell the story of internal colonization in India in the garb of development,” says Dalmia.

Moved and charged, Ashwini composed songs on the story of Soni Sori, and also raised questions on the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen and Seema Azad

WSP has three projects to their credit, each of them leading to the inner caverns of our country, digging out repressed and true stories. It revives and utilizes regional folk songs, concatenates them to the local protest movements and fuses English lyrics in urban-style hip-hop music — a ‘21st century activism formula’. “WSP makes multimedia projects. Music is at its core. What’s more, we make short documentary films and story-telling photographs,” says Dalmia. 

Their maiden project saw them collaborating with Bant Singh, a Dalit Sikh singer from Mansa, Punjab. Bant Singh is a popular fiery singer, activist and landless Dalit working with the CPI-ML (Liberation) in the interior villages of Mansa in the Malwa region of Punjab. He took up a protracted struggle against upper caste landlords for the rights of the poorest, and against caste discrimination. His daughter was assaulted and he took the fight into their camp; the goons were convicted. It was a victory the entire Dalit community won. Bant Singh was attacked brutally by utter caste landlords and their henchmen and left to die. His arms and left leg had to be amputated. He is disabled for life but he cannot be defeated; he has become a legend across Punjab and the struggle zones of India. His voice, resilience and spirit still rage high, something WSP has captured in their project, writers have written about, poets have penned poems on, and documentary filmmakers and photographers have documented. 

Blood Earth, WSP’s second project, took them to the interior villages of Kashipur, the beautiful and remote tribal area of Orissa in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput belt, where a two- decade-long non-violent anti-mining struggle has been facing relentless repression. This is also the sublime terrain of great indigenous music, unknown and undocumented folk narratives, and an amazing variety of drums rising in crescendo as young tribal girls dance in circles in pitch darkness. The Songs of Blood Earth resurrects this creative truth of subaltern music, mixing with Delhi Sultanate’s indignant lyrics, going all out against the establishment. This is indeed breaking and entering multiple new thresholds. 

“What unites artistes and revolutionaries is that they both question things. But they also understand that life is not simple, and it won’t give you simple answers. You can say we are both,” quips Dalmia. 

While WSP is a professional collective, Ashwini Mishra aka A-List is at heart  a “musical activist” of “conscious hip-hop genre”. What got him hitched to protest music was the story of Soni Sori, the tribal school teacher in Chhattisgarh who has been reportedly implicated in false cases and jailed. She was tortured and violently assaulted in police custody, and stones were recovered from her private parts, even while the police officer in charge, Ankit Garg, has been given a president’s medal.  Moved and charged, Ashwini composed songs on the story of Soni Sori, and also raised questions on the earlier arrest of Dr Binayak Sen and Seema Azad, PUCL activist and writer, who was put in jail on fake charges of being a Maoist, and released after a long campaign. 

Ashwini’s other songs speak about immigration of Kashmiri Pandits, killings in Gaza, the draconian law of AFSPA, prostitutes, the anti-Kundakulam struggle, the hanging of Afzal Guru; also, an open letter to Raj Thackeray, who spews venoms on ‘outsiders’ in Mumbai, especially hardworking migrants from North India. The letter tells the story of how Bal Thackeray’s father came to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh for work, thereby an ironical exposé of the “fake Marathi manus mantra”. “The people of Bihar getting a certificate to work in Mumbai reminded me of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps in Germany who had to wear a star for identification. This was against the fabric of democracy,” he says. 

 “I received a lot of flak for my song “True Lies — Tale of Afzal Guru.” People called me anti-nationalist. But, then, there were people who heard the song and understood it,” says Ashwini. He was also branded an ISI agent, a Naxalite. “I want to reach out to the cocooned audience, people who don’t know what’s happening in other parts of the country, what media won’t tell and the State wants to hide. Music is my way to tell these unheard, sad realities.” Mishra also goes to court hearings, protest marches and concerts. His latest song is for the Free Kabir Kala Manch campaign, whose members have been hounded and arrested. “We don’t need labels. We don’t need music companies to launch our music. With internet revolutionizing the way we connect and communicate, it can be done in a click,” says Mishra, who, like WSP, MC Kash and others, uses web portals as his music launch pad. 

Bant Singh took up a protracted struggle against upper caste landlords for the rights of the poorest, and against caste discrimination 

Akhu, the young Manipuri singer of Imphal Talkies, who has composed songs on Binayak Sen, Irom Sharmila and Manorama — raped and killed by the Assam Rifles, using AFSPA. He often sings alone: ‘I see blood on my hands.” His Imphal Music Project is drawing independent musicians from across the spectrum; and there is much inspiration drawn from Indian Ocean, especially lead singer Rahul Ram.

There are other artistes like Rouhan Illahi (called MC Kash), the ‘first rapper’ from Kashmir. His songs are about the ritualistic violence and atrocities inflicted on the people of his state. MC Kash first shot into prominence with his track ‘I protest’ which starts with news clips of the unrest and ends with him reciting the names of those who died in the clashes. He lost one of his friends then. “I still remember walking in his funeral among wails and tears. I still remember the scars all over his body. I still remember shouldering his coffin,” he said in an interview to the BBC in 2010, the year which saw massive unrest in the Valley in which 110 young stone-throwers were shot dead by the security forces. It is these “unhealed” experiences which fuel his music. 

He asks stirring questions in his latest song, ‘Heart is my weapon.’ Another song, ‘Sing me lullaby,’ ironically, starts with the words of Gandhi: “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then, they will have my dead body, not my obedience.”  Kash raps in his baritone: Graves with young people riddled with bullets/There be no doubt you be glorified to the fullest/A mother never sleeps as she waits every minute/Every moment she is alive every moment is infinite…  

 With Zoya Rasool in Delhi

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2013