The Arts

Relaa: Singing About Broken Lives

New Delhi: On a warm sultry Thursday evening, Kapashera, a locality buried deep in the heart of Gurgaon, suddenly began to throb with music. The area has a large cluster of working class residents, most of whom work as labourers in the garment industry. Many are from the nearby Maruti factory. But that is not what Kapashera is known for. Lying just adjacent to the workers colony is the sprawling Fun N Food Village, where an endless stream of luxury cars and people with well-paying jobs live the perfect middle class dream.

On a Thursday evening, a short, thin man, dressed in a deep brown-coloured kurta takes the microphone and starts to address a crowd of over a thousand workers who had started to assemble there. The man cries out into the mike:“Relaa, dear friends, is a cry against oppression, a cry for equality, a cry against caste atrocities, a cry for the adivasis fighting for their rights in the forests of Odisha and Chhattisgarh.” This is followed by thundering applause from the crowd, who were primarily from the workers’ colony. But just before the man and his entire troupe of musicians can start performing, a group of policemen enter the venue and command everyone to pack up and leave. According to the police, no permission to perform at the venue was sought, and in any case under Section 144, it was prohibited to organise any sort of public performance there.

The man is Kaladas Deheriya, a folk singer and poet from Chhatisgarh and one of the founding members of Relaa. Relaa, as he explains in his soft voice, is a word of Gondi extraction and stands for a large gathering of people, much bigger than the usual ‘rally.’ “When we talk about relaa in our Chhatisgarhi, we mean a crowd that is not only big, but also revolutionary. A rally that has the potential to overturn things,” he says.

Using the essence of the original word, Relaa is an independent collective of artists, musicians, performers and researchers from various parts of the country –  Karnataka, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra – to arrive at a common platform in order to initiate conversations around and about shared spaces, intolerance, casteism and communal politics. Earlier this month, the collective was in Delhi where it performed at various places, including Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In Gurgaon, by the time the police disrupted the performance and drove the singers out, it was already six in the evening and the light was beginning to fade. A few kilometres from Kapashera, through neat tree-lined avenues dotted with posh bungalows and glass-panelled offices, the group made their way to Tau Devi Lal Park. By the time the set up is organised, another huge crowd gathers around. But this crowd was different from the one at Kapashera. More than anything else, it was a mixture of people from different walks of life – from joggers out on their evening stroll, to young men with their friends, and finally to a collection of few workers and street hawkers.

Again, Kaladas takes the microphone to explain why he is there. “Brothers and sisters, we are a group of artists from various parts of the country. We have come here to talk about oppression, about hunger, about our struggles from the hills of Niyamgiri to the villages of Maharashtra, struggles from forceful eviction and caste and extra-judicial police encounters,” he speaks out, his voice carefully rising at the mention of each atrocity. Soon, around him all the musicians line up, and Kaladas, like an able musical conductor, guides his troupe through the tune and lyrics of the anthem they had all together written some days back:

Aye relaa, relaa re, aye relaa relaa re
Yes we shall fight, yes brother, we shall fight
The fight is long, a long way to go
Aye relaa, relaa re, aye relaa relaa re

The tune of the anthem is soft and spare, with the dholak and the shehnai as the only musical accompaniment. And the lyrics are angry and jubilant, all at the same time. When Kaladas concludes, the stage is taken up by a group of percussionists from Karnataka, who call themselves the Indian Folk Band. They are led by a young musician named Balu Djembe, who hails from Bangalore. Dressed in a was that draws inspiration from African tribal culture, the band only uses percussion instruments made out of leather. “The idea is to go back to our folk roots, to our caste, to what has made us,” Balu tells me. For Balu and his group, growing up in Karnataka meant being exposed to a variety of musical styles, especially the traditional Carnatic music. But, as Balu recounts, it also meant the total disappearance of traditional folk instruments like the djembe or the dafli. “These instruments have a hard sound, and its beat mimics the beating of the heart, for that’s where it directly strikes. The Dalits have been using these instruments as part of their culture for a long time. I wanted to bring it out in the open, give it wider acceptance,” he adds.

The members of the Indian Folk Band soon form a circle, position themselves around their djembes and start their performance with rhythmic clapping. They draw the audience in by asking them to clap with them. Slowly, Balu and his mates replace the clap with sounds from the djembes. The thumping beats from these percussion instruments starts out like a whisper and begins to gather momentum as the beats reach a crescendo, like the collective voices of people, all together. The crescendo is then deftly disturbed by the lonely sound of a melodica, only for it to be merged later on with the onward rolling of the beats from the djembes.

By the time the Indian Folk Band finished, it was dark. But the crowd had only thickened. Finally, a group of musicians and theatre artists from Maharashtra, named Yalgaar, take centre-stage. Theirs is a piece of street theatre. The members form a tight circle, and each one comes and talks about that oft-repeated phrase: Acche Din. They satirise caste atrocities and the definition of a desh-bhakt: A member dresses himself as a lawyer who is admonishing another who plays a man who had to sell off his cow in order to earn some money to treat his ailing mother, calling the latter, as “anti-national” because he doesn’t respect India’s mother: the cow. In many ways, these small vignettes echo contemporary events, like the massive Dalit protest in Mumbai over the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan, or at Una in Gujarat where a group of Dalit men were stripped and beaten for skinning a dead cow.

At this stage, the crowd grows restless. Out in the darkness, an anonymous face calls out that the entire set-up is ‘sponsored by the likes of Sonia Gandhi.’ While Yalgaar continues with their performance, two more join the chorus of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’ But at the same time, from another section of the crowd, come loud cheers and peals of laughter, as the group mimics the various godmen who pass off as guardians of India’s ‘conscience.’

When Yalgaar was about conclude their performance, a motley group of men in the crowd starts threatening the performers that a mob will soon gather to ‘teach them a lesson for being anti-national.’ But this voice is only drowned by other voices urging the group to continue with their act. When the performance gets over, Kaladas comes to the fore and urges everyone to keep their peace. “We are not part of any political party, and nor are we funded by anyone. We are just a group of artists concerned with whats happening to our country. Is it wrong to be concerned, to raise a voice,” he asks.

Its already quite dark, and the crowd dissipates. I walk up to the motley group of men and ask them what their concern was. A man, who introduces himself as Satish Pande, tells me that what the group performed was absolutely untrue. “All because of the media, we jump to conclusions. We don’t realise that the government is doing its job,” he says. But I ask whether it was correct to beat up a few Dalit men just because they were skinning the carcass of a dead cow, or to lynch a man over meat. “Look we Hindus believe in the cow as a mother, and who doesn’t respect their mother? I don’t know what your religion is, but if anyone harms our mother, then we will raise our voice, and our hands,” he replies. Just then someone abruptly joins in the conversation and says, “What we see happening is also wrong. I am a Chamar and for how long do I tolerate this nonsense over cows.”

By the time I left, the entire evening, through the various performances, and more than anything, the various ways the crowd responded to them – some with anger, some with quiet indifference, while some with thunderous acquiescence – neatly encapsulated the faultlines of our times.

“We sing about our broken lives”

On one of the days during the tour, I walk up to Kaladas Deheriya, as he is busy going over the lines of a song. His short, thin, stature can be enough of a smokescreen to mask the turbulent life he has led so far. Born to a poor Adivasi family, in Chhattisgarh, Kaladas began his career by working for the Public Works Department. There, as he tells me, he encountered the brutal treatment meted out to workers, like the docking of wages, or at times, even the refusal to pay it altogether on flimsy excuses. “I didn’t like the place, and I didn’t like the way they treated the labourers and workers. I tried raising my voice, but then I realised, when it wasn’t heard, that I don’t belong here.”

After quitting his job, he would roam around from region to region, till the fateful day when he first met Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary rebel poet and musician who founded the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). “I met Niyogiji in the early 1990s, I think a year or two before he was murdered. And I first saw the way he would organise labour marches, through music and poetry. And its only then that I realised this is what I want to do.” Kaladas would become Niyogi’s disciple and would soon start penning poems and songs for the CMM.

Kaladas Deheriya. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Kaladas Deheriya. Credit: Javed Iqbal

During the course of my conversation with Kaladas, I wonder about the rationale behind Relaa. What was its need in first place. Kaladas explains how, as he himself encountered it in his association with CMM, the use of protest music has always been functional. “When we organise political rallies, music is always secondary. It is there as a kind of break during speeches. But, as a poet myself, I realised that protest music can also be a standalone entity.” This is a point that even Mukti Sadhana Pravin, a member of Yalgaar, talks about. She was one of the founding members of the troupe and started her career by being an activist for the Shramik Muktiwadi Yuva Sanghatana, a Maharashtra-based Dalit youth association. While still she is a member of the organisation, yet for her and her entire troupe, there was a feeling that protest music and theatre cannot just be functional appendages to another larger party or organisation. The core idea that she, her friends, and even Kaladas started on, was that art can be a very powerful, and crucial, tool for protest by itself, without being secondary to other forms, like rallies and political speeches. As Dhamm Muktiwadi, another founding member of Yalgaar, points out, “we sing about our broken lives, the lives of poor farmers who die everyday in the fields, the lives of Dalits as they are killed, like it happened in Khairlanji, or now in Una. These songs are the songs of experience. And that is what art is all about. Experience.”

It was with this idea too that the idea for Relaa was first mooted, in late 2014. Another driving cause, apart from giving protest music a separate platform, was that many of these musicians were divided by both region and language. It was then felt that a platform ought to exist that would not only unify these disparate artists, who are anyway united because of their cause, but to also cross the barrier of language and region. “Look, I am an Adivasi who talks about jal, jungle, zameen. Here is Yalgaar that talks about caste oppression, and the Indian Folk Band which does the same but through their drums, while Shankar Mahanand, a musician and theatre person from Odisha, who talks about the same jal, jungle aur zameen, but in Odia. What do we have in common? The answer is everything. We might speak different languages, but we are united through the experience of oppression, and the hunger for equality,” Kaladas says.

However, one of the important issues that also needs to be understood is the relationship that art has with oppression. When we talk about transformation, what is its nature, its character? For Shankar, it is through art and music that a consciousness can be created, a consciousness where oppression is spoken about openly. “In our culture of the bazaar, the smartphone and Digital India, what is left out are the various localised struggles, that is why it became important for us to come to Delhi, to make people aware of these issues.” But for Balu, the very idea of art as being transformative is as much personal, as it is for a wider public. “If you ask me what I get from being an artist, I’ll say I want to someday become famous, famous enough so that when and if I fall in love with a woman who hails from an upper caste, my name would only be enough. Not my caste. Not my surname. That is why I don’t use my original surname at all. I use Djembe, which is a musical instrument. That is my identity.”

He recounts how he had wanted to learn the tabla when he was growing up, but because it was an instrument used predominantly by the upper castes, he could not find a guru to teach him. That is when he learnt the djembe and became adept at it. “When you talk about upper caste predominance, you have great shows and great musicians who practice Carnatic music. And I personally love it too. But then we need to remember that Carnatic music is not the only form of music. I want to make my name as a folk musician who stays true to his roots,” he says.

It’s Sunday, the24th, and Relaa reaches JNU. By the time the performance ends, the entire group gets together and breaks out into a song that is as prescient, as it is beautiful. To the silent accompaniment of the dholak and the melodica, Ajit, who is a part of Shankar’s troupe from Odisha, sings:

Listen to me, O brother, this is the age of the Bazaar
Everything sells, everything is being sold,
From the grains to our bastis, to our very lives
Listen to me, O brother, this is the age of the Bazaar

Its late in the night, and the the musicians exhort the students who have gathered around to join in with them. Somewhere, someone, starts chanting, Jai Bhim.  After the performance, I walk up to Kaladas, who has an early morning train to catch, and his throat is already hoarse from singing and shouting. He tells me he will visit Delhi again soon, that he thinks it has been a great beginning. He tells me he can see hope floating around. Before I go home, to my quiet suburban middle class life, I think suddenly about a poem I had read long back. A short one, by Bertolt Brecht, called simply, “Motto:”

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

Arnav Das Sharma is a freelance journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics.