Tribal people in India, historically, did not possess a script to inscribe their story into the written word. Instead, a mother would pass the story on to her children through a song, which like a river, expressed profusely only when in motion.
The air these days, one feels, is filled with such people’s songs.
Spontaneous, self-conducted, although whimsical to the key is always loyal to the lyric, the movement that has swept India today protesting against the government’s move to amend citizenship criterion based on religious grounds is bringing back to the streets the power of the protest lyric. One, of course, hears the moods of the people – anger, hope, resistance, bonhomie – in their organically produced repertoire but, more profoundly, elements depicting pluralism serenade those verses.
Cutting across various languages, genres and styles, for instance, the space that accommodates the Pakistani-Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm (style of Urdu poetry) Hum Dekhenge also accommodates the Bengali verses of the national anthem, and equally the Hindi rendition of the Italian anti-fascist folk-song ‘Bella Ciao‘, and still finds room for the young people’s hip-hop, the songs of the movement have thus come to symbolise the hallowed notion of “unity-in-diversity”.
Such a mode of resistance hails back to the freedom struggle movements which Gandhi made synonymous with the mass recital of secular songs. The marchers of the Satyagraha movement sang ‘Raghupati raghava raja Ram‘ to remonstrate peacefully against the imposition of salt tax under the British rule. The popular hymn ‘Vaishnava jana to‘, similarly, imbibed the protest spirit of the times.
The academic Vinay Lal noted that Gandhi likened them to the tune of “a military band of non-violent soldiers”.
In recent times, protest movements across the world seem to, once again, reprise this Gandhian model of civil disobedience. Chileans sang ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz‘ and ‘The Right to Live in Peace’ last November as they forced their government to lift curfew orders restraining protests. Puerto Rico’s streets embraced a young band’s forceful song, ‘Afilando los Cuchillos‘ and ‘Sharpening the Knives’ upon reports that revealed that top political brass were engaging in misogynistic and homophobic conversations. Elsewhere too, from Hong Kong to France, the clarion call for resistance has been piercing through the tin-ears of politicians.
With the notable exception of the marginalised Dalit (still considered “lower” caste) community movements’ consistent use of songs in urban India, which have also depended on cultural preservation within communities, the idea of organising around people’s songs has been diminishing, although one notes that the recent protests have no doubt reversed the trend. The renowned documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan’s 2012 production Jai Bhim Comrade explores the contemporary Dalit movement in Mumbai city (and broadly Maharashtra) from the lens of Dalit protest lyrics which give the movement its full strength.
For the ethnomusicology scholar Deborah Matzner, the centrality of Dalit “sonic practices” to the documentary represents a turn in Patwardhan’s method as a documentary filmmaker. The documentary opens with the suicide of the Dalit activist and musician Vilas Ghogre in 1997 owing to caste subjugation. It demonstrates the notion of art for people’s sake, something that Dalit movements have historically embraced.
Their songs bring works, generally considered the preserve of the so-called elite, learned, scholarly “upper caste”, down to the grasp of Dalit and other “minority” communities – creatively mocking the entrenched politics of knowledge. For instance, the revolutionary folk singer Gaddar sings Ghogre’s adaptation of a Telugu piece to a large audience subverting Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s lyric that is reputed for the high level of its content: “sujalam suphalam esi desh mein, roti mahengi kyo re bhai, (in this country, why is roti expensive).
Some Dalit singers such as Ghogre and Gaddar followed a sartorial style that imitated the image of saints associated with the Bhakti movement such as Tukaram, whose portraits displayed him as holding a Tambura and wearing the face of divinity. Gaddar speaks colloquially to the camera: “Even Meera you take, even Tukaram. With just a little instrument Tambura, they would become Krishna or Ram. And we the people’s singers, revolutionary singers, who came from the dust, and we adopted their methodology. That’s why we are in a position to reach people.”
Writing for the Visual Anthropology Review, Matzner says that Patwardhan’s documentary seems to respond to earlier criticisms surrounding the level of representation in his works. The documentary realism of Patwardhan’s works has been compared to a “mimicry of what colonialism (rather than nature) authorises as ‘real’.
Put differently, the criticism is that it distances from indigenous image picture, i.e., an aesthetic quality which if maintained would help communicate to the vast majority of Indians. Critics such as Miriam Sharma argued that the “masculinist” depiction of violence and rage and its “urgent” political impetus preclude the exploration of “what drives men to such hateful acts”.
Matzner rightly observes that Patwardhan’s retelling through the rousing Dalit songs in the documentary reveals people’s “critical rational realism”. Thus, by refracting an account of subjugation through the “sonic register” that is influenced by Indian and Western activists, including Kabir, Tom Paine, Buddha, and the Black Panthers, she argues, Patwardhan overcomes earlier criticisms of his works.
Among other ideas around Dalit music, Zoe C. Sherinian’s book Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology explores the process of psychological and economic transformation for Dalit drummers in Tamil Nadu who increasingly perform in the urbanity of Chennai. Dalit music in urban space, Sherinian argues, produces a professionalisation of artists. A large troupe of Dalit drummers who are adept at playing the parai (drum) instrument leave their village Kurinji Malar in Tamil Nadu to perform at an annual event, the Chennai Sangham festival.
They experience a positive “reconstruction” of identity as Chennai receives their music warmly, otherwise regarded as “polluted” funeral music. However, as they return to their village, they are reduced to a state of degradation and submission owing to the economic dependence of the drummers on middle and upper caste villagers. The story of the parai presented in the book is therefore remarkable for demonstrating the transformative power of the funereal beats in the village to something of the drumbeats of Dalit consciousness in the space of a cosmopolitan festival.
The narration of a people’s movement through their songs appear in so few books, instead, they are mediated by high-strung analyses. In throwing light on this, the academic G.N. Devy, whose research deals with culture and literature, has written about the pertinence of orature (“sung” or “spoken”). Observing the oral tradition routinely practised by Adivasis (tribals), Devy explains that it reflects the complexities of “collective memory”, and their “cultural norms” and “thought-patterns”.
There is another important characteristic, which perhaps resists documenting people’s movements via their songs, namely, as Devy notes, the limited linguistic devices in reproducing in text their “tonal qualities” and “phonetic potential”. Yet, writers such as Mahasweta Devi succeeded in bringing to their literary craft the medium of story-song.
Mahasweta’s reproduction of the songs of the marginalised is itself a daunting ethnographic undertaking. By bringing them to the literary, she achieved a feat of memorialising the subaltern voice, particularly significant to India’s postcolonial juncture. We see glimpses precisely of this consciousness of the writer in an interview with her translator and academic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Speaking about the “inhuman torture” of tribals in Munda villages in Jharkhand, which she witnessed in the 60s and the 70s, Mahasweta reflects thus on the relationship of history and story, in relation to her novel Chotti Munda and his arrow: “[Tribal] people do not find anyone writing about them, and they do not have script. They compose the stream of events into song. By being made into song, into words, they become … a continuity. Their history is like a big flowing river going somewhere, not without destination.”
The rebellion of tribal people against the British colonial rule is woefully under-documented. Mahasweta tells Spivak that she had to learn their “unwritten history” by being with people, covering “many miles on foot”. For Mahasweta, her own work is simply a continuity of people’s songs, which she says “must be woven into a song and sung, this song continues, then another phase, then another song”; she called this continuity – resistance.
Equally, her protagonists represent the process of transformation of tribal songs into literature. For instance, Mary Oraon, whom Spivak called the best character portrait, carries traces of tribal songs. In fact, it was through songs that Mahasweta discovered the story of the real-life woman behind the character of Mary Oraon. She recounts to Spivak in a conversation published under the title The Author in Conversation:
“Then I learned what she had done … to marry the Muslim boy. I learned this through songs. Every event the tribals came to know they transfer to song, they do not write. They have retained the memories of their fights, their natural calamities, in this way.”
The story of all marginalised communities can be heard only through their songs. It was with this conviction that the African American scholar and descendant of slave, William Du Bois sought the musical score of Spirituals, a genre created by African Americans singing of the pain of slavery and of their desire for emancipation, to compose his 1903 collection of essays The Soul of Black Folks. It raised the call for the freedom and rights of African Americans. Du Bois introduces each chapter by citing a white poet and a black spiritual that lucidly demonstrate the “intellectual and cultural parity” between the two races.
In the chapter ‘Of the Song of Sorrows’, Du Bois, most movingly, describes how when he sees the grand buildings such as Jubilee Hall of Nashville, he can hear only “weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave” speaks to him as buildings were erected with the “blood and dust of toil [of the slave]”.
Du Bois laments these songs have been neglected and despised; “mistaken and misunderstood”; and “forgotten”. The memory of songs died away writes Du Bois. He further describes how these songs have simply become “cultural commodities”:
“Caricature has …[spoiled] the quaint beauty of the music, and has …[produced] many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real.”
He reminds us that it is, in fact, the “music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world”. The song, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”, which we have heard in Louis Armstrong’s voice, writes Du Bois, is the cry of an old woman who was joined by the masses, when a brigadier gave her the news that the US had refused to fulfil its promises of land to the freedmen. What bothered Du Bois most from white America’s adaptation of black spirituals, such as ‘Swanee River’ and ‘Old Black Joe’, was that the older sentiment of the lyric had been replaced by a “dimly understood theology”.
A people’s song becomes one when it acquires the strength to carry their hopes and imaginations. Such hopeful fervour has saturated the singing of the national anthem in the recent protests. Seen as a symbol of national identity, the anthem does not discriminate along the lines of religion, caste, language, etc. It will hardly concern the state that one of the potential catastrophes of the latest legislation that grants citizenship to people of only certain religions is also in the intangible: along with their lands and other possessions, whole peoples who have sung the national anthem as children will be forced eventually to surrender it also, i.e., the erasure of citizenship will amount to a violent erasure of the national anthem from their tongue.
Such an act of erasure of the national anthem was attempted by the anti-immigration Bush administration in the US in 2006. Providing a severe moral denouncement of this, the conversation between the academics Spivak and Judith Butler published in the 2007 book Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging delves into the idea of belonging through people’s expression of their national song. When the US Congress attempted to pass a bill requiring the federal government to take charge of detained undocumented migrants in 2006, people took to the streets of Los Angeles and sang the US national anthem in Spanish. The protesters renamed the US National Anthem, known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,‘ to ‘Nuestro Himno‘, ‘Our Anthem‘. President George Bush antagonised the protest, saying:
I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English and I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.
What hides under Bush’s statement is amply clear and so one may reflect — How can people who migrate to the US from poor Latin countries in search of livelihood be expected to speak English? By delegitimising their language, they are told that they don’t belong.
The discussion of the Hispanicisation of the national anthem is led by the academics starting from the question of the nation-state itself. For Butler, the hyphenated term signifies opposition, as nation represents Union and state represents power and coercion. She says: “to have the nation-state is to have statelessness”. Its dangerous paradox is that those who are effectively stateless are still under the “control of state power”.
Butler further reflects on the Spanish words that appear in the middle of the national anthem: “somos equales (we are equal)”. These words demand that the linguistic majority translate them in order to understand. That is precisely what lies at the heart of nation – the task of translation. That is, the nation is becoming – it is in motion.
Spivak, in agreeing with Butler, thinks through the event’s relevance to the national anthem of India. She says:
“The national anthem of India written in Bengali, … when [it] is sung, some Bengalis sing loudly with a Bengali pronunciation which is distinctly different from the Hindi pronunciation … The nation-state requires the national language …[its] language … cannot be negotiated”. For Spivak, although the singing in Spanish represents a performative and an imagining of the utopian, she posits that it also reinvents the state as an abstract structure in order to “keep it clean of nationalisms and fascisms”.
This is an idea worth striving for – and in these times when the Indian state wilfully over-represents the majority. Those keenly observing the resilience of the ongoing movement may have reflected that despite the many entrenched odds facing the protesters including police brutality and mob attacks, it is in their songs, music, and poetry that the movement has been drawing all its energy.
Indeed, the common struggle to save the constitutional values has found its articulation in those songs of resistance, old and new. Particularly, of the old revolutionary song Hum Dekhenge, which is returning anew today, it seems that people have found a good reason to identify with its historical and cultural memory. As it continues to be sung resisting the unsecular move by the state, one somewhere remembers that the original song, memorialised in the powerful voice of the Pakistani singer Iqbal Bano, was also in defiance of a fascist state, only of another time. Same heart, another rhyme.
Dhanya Gopal is currently a public policy student at the National University of Singapore.