Gaddar, Who Symbolised Revolutionary Politics, Leaves Behind Questions on Social Transformation

He transcended the political through aesthetics and politicised the symbolic. For a generation, he symbolised the spirit and politics of revolutionary change, primarily in Telangana, but his songs travelled well beyond.

Revolutionary balladeer Gaddar passed away on Sunday, August 6. He leaves behind a legacy that will last for a very long time and with it a number of questions that hold the promise of rethinking the processes of social transformation.

Gaddar rose to unprecedented fame in the 1990s, when he walked into the open from a life in the ‘underground’. He was part of the revolutionary movement that later came to be known as the Maoists. For a generation, he symbolised the spirit and politics of revolutionary change, primarily in Telangana, but his songs travelled well beyond. He was neither a trained singer nor a writer. He spontaneously reflected the rebellious spirit of Telangana. He symbolised the energy of the time of revolutionary politics and was its greatest makings. His songs were not just an art but a phenomenon. His songs were listened to and appreciated cutting across classes. He had a unique reach into the drawing rooms and playing recorders of the rich and dominant castes.

Did this reflect the aesthetic symbolism of the song or the power of revolutionary imagination? There is a famous incident when Gaddar had to visit a police station in relation to a case filed against him where the constables, much to the annoyance of the sub-inspector requested him to sing a song and seek out photops. He transcended social divides.

In the course of a personal conversation, a long time back, he narrated the incident when he was ‘underground’ living an anonymous life he use to sing songs as part of the band of followers of Lord Ayappa. He narrated the power of the chant and the power of repeating a chant, and how drew on even religious tunes, symbols, and songs for revolutionary messages. In fact, in Gaddar’s lyrics, religious symbols became art and cultural symbols. The symbolism of the rising sun would alternate between religious sensibilities and revolutionary emotions.

He once famously remarked, “Don’t emotionalise the revolution but revolutionise emotions.” His symbolism moved seamlessly from the everyday to the heroic. He, in fact, saw the heroic in the everyday. From ants, to leaves, to flowers, to hills, to oceans to forests, to people and their suffering. Nothing escaped the symbolic potential of his lyrics. It is this emotional appeal, symbolism, and aesthetic power that was the substance of his public performances before lakhs of people that on some occasions went through all night and ended in the wee hours of dawn.

I had the memorable opportunity to be part of the audience of many such captivating performances, where his performances seamlessly alternated humour and the finality of death in revolutionary politics. These were the ethics and emotions that were somewhat uncommon and continue to inform public life in Telangana to a fair degree. People in all walks of life were touched in known and unknown ways by the spirit of Gaddar’s performance and the message it brought with it.

In 1997 he was shot at, allegedly by the police in plain clothes. It was a punishment for garnering popular support for revolutionary forces, but, in particular, Gaddar was mobilising popular sentiment for those falling dead in alleged fake encounters by the police and Greyhounds. He miraculously survived the attempt at assassination and carried five bullets in his body, as he could not be operated upon due to advancing age and other health-related issues.

Gaddar and Telangana statehood movement

As destiny would have it, the face of revolution in Telangana got distanced from revolutionary politics due to issues of propriety and other differences. This was the last phase of Gaddar’s public life in Telangana. Many believe the power and popular appeal of his songs and performances drastically reduced after his distancing from revolutionary politics. But revolutionary politics too lost a voice that had the greatest power of communicating cutting across social divides. The power of the symbolism of his rebellious songs went pale without the revolutionary spirit and politics behind it.

Even though this was tragic, the people of Telangana continued to remember and accept Gaddar only as a revolutionary balladeer. Wherever he travelled people requested him to sing his revolutionary songs that paid tribute to those slain in the course of revolutionary politics. It reminds one of what Shahid Amin wrote of Gandhi as Mahatma who carried multiple images of a saint, a healer, and a God in peasant consciousness. Peasants and the common masses of Telangana refused to see Gaddar as anything else than a rebellious figure. The image of him in a red-coloured rug was stuck in popular memory. The people of Telangana continued to live with that singular image. As Milan Kundera says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Gaddar attempted to move to mainstream electoral politics and party politics, but his revolutionary image and radical symbolism would hardly fit with power politics. It seems to break the alliteration aesthetics demanded, though he attempted to equate the power of the ‘ballot’ over the bullet. However, it could not garner the same feverish pitch that he could reach in his heydays. He later struck a chord during the movement for separate Telangana. He penned a song – podusthunna poddumeeda nadusthinna kalaama – which roughly symbolised Telangana as a rising sun that time awaits. It became the anthem song of the mass movement for separate Telangana. No public meeting could end with either Gaddar himself or his countless admirers singing the song to rousing applause. Gaddar once again captured the spirit behind the times in Telangana.

The phenomenon called Gaddar leaves behind a legacy and a range of questions that will further illuminate the collective spirit of Telangana. He symbolised a seamless unison of collective making and a freak genius who could captivate the pulse through his words and lyrics. He had a childlike curiosity, humour and anarchy that could not be contained by reason of politics.

A recent Telugu movie, Virata Parvam, captured the tension between reason and emotion, between strategy and love, and between un-reflexive attachment and informed detachment. Gaddar too is part and product of that tension. He transcended the political through aesthetics and politicised the symbolic. There can be no revolution without a ‘Gaddar’, as there can, perhaps be no ‘Gaddar’ without a collective spirit. It is this undying collective spirit that Gaddar will continue to symbolise in humanity’s search to transcend the banal and here-and-now dictates of life.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.