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The Many Histories of Protest Music

Sudhanva Deshpande ( an editor with LeftWord Books, and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch.

The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association by Sumangala Damodaran, New Delhi: Tulika, 2017; pp xiv+234, ₹ 950.

November 1984, New Delhi. The Prime Minister has been assassinated a few days before, leading to four days of mayhem in the capital. The anti-Sikh pogrom, which claimed over 2,000 lives, has shattered so many long-held assumptions about our society, about Hindu–Sikh relations, about the city of Delhi, about the Congress party. Thousands of Sikh victims are still in camps set up at various locations across the city. They have lost their dear ones, and their homes and businesses have been destroyed. The embers are still smouldering, the wounds are still raw.

One of the first peace marches to take place in Delhi is at the University of Delhi, on its North Campus. The march, comprising hundreds, perhaps thousands, winds its funereal way across the campus, touching every college and some of the main faculties. It culminates at Khalsa College, where there is a rally. Some speakers are going to address the gathering, which has now swelled to several thousands, as the students of the host college have joined in large numbers. Many of them are young men. They are angry, full of rage. Their eyes burn with pain and hatred and sadness. Talk of retribution is in the air.

The left-wing song squad Parcham is asked to take the mic before the speeches begin. But it is impossible to sing. The students are far too angry. Much of their anger is directed at the large posse of policemen, deployed ostensibly to keep the peace. But the police had been more than complicit in the bloodletting and destruction visited upon Delhi over the past days. The students are hardly unaware of this. An ugly situation is building up. The organisers of the peace march are apprehensive of what might happen.

Safdar Hashmi, the street theatre activist—himself to be killed by goons backed by the Congress just over four years later while performing a play— takes charge. He turns to the youngest member of Parcham. She is a frail looking, first year undergraduate student. He asks her to take the mic. “Sing Jaanewale sipahi,” he tells her. This is an anti-war song of the 1940s by the communist poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin, composed by Salil Chaudhury for the 1960 Hindi film Usne Kaha Tha.

So far, there has been no solo song in Parcham’s repertoire. This is the first, and has never been performed by them before.

The young singer, waif-like, is nervous. Safdar prods her. “Don’t worry,” he says, “sing. Just sing.” She starts. Her mellifluous voice is unexpectedly powerful. It seems to emerge from some place deep inside her, and the fullness of her voice belies her slight build. It carries across the assemblage, which, amazingly, quietens down. As her song soars, the angry young men and women are transfixed. Something moves in them. The song speaks of the soldier as he goes to war, leaving behind his grief-stricken wife and hungry children. There is the stench of burning corpses all around; it is as if life itself is crying.

Someone in the audience starts sobbing. Then another. Then another. In a matter of a minute or so, many are sobbing. Those who are not, are still overcome with emotion. There is hardly a dry eye to be seen. The cops, readying for action a few minutes before, are amazed to see the complete transformation of the mood.

No matter how you see it, it is an utterly unlikely happening. An anti-war song of 40 years ago by a Hyderabadi communist poet with a Muslim name, composed for a 1960 film by a Bengali, sung by a young Malayali undergraduate with a Hindu name, leading to catharsis among hundreds of angry Sikh youth in the wake of a communal pogrom. Nothing matches, nothing fits. And yet, the song, soulful and resonant, connects the pain of one victim with another, generations, geographies and violences apart.

Rich and Living Tradition

Over three decades after that day, the singer of that song, Sumangala Damodaran, has produced a magnificent study of the rich and varied tradition that emanated from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). This tradition is not just historical, it is also a contemporary, living tradition, and the author has been very much part of it. Parcham, led by one of Delhi’s theatre music doyens Kajal Ghosh, came into being in 1978–79 and continued for about a dozen years, producing three collections of songs before petering out in the early 1990s. Damodaran was an inseparable part of the squad from 1983 to 1990.

An economist by training, she is a singer by passion. Especially, over the last decade or so, she went searching for the old IPTA singers and musicians, recording interviews, retrieving songs, researching histories. She now sings some of the IPTA repertoire in about half a dozen languages to mostly younger audiences, underlining their contemporary relevance.

It is often assumed that the “protest song” is one type of thing—something that is easy to learn and sing, especially in large groups, and meant to mobilise the masses into action behind fighting organisations. But this is too much of a simplification and flattens out what is actually an incredibly rich and diverse history. The IPTA owes its origins to a much broader global impulse against fascism and colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s. In India, this impulse rallied itself behind the communist party, which led a number of mass struggles of workers and peasants in the 1940s. Theatre, song, and dance were an important and integral part of these struggles. They not only helped take the “message” of the party to largely unlettered people, they became a vehicle for people’s own creativity and expression.

People’s Creativity

There are several important streams within this musical tradition. One was a simple retrieval—songs of the people, created and composed over time by nameless and faceless creators, speaking of their lives, hopes, and sorrows. These were incorporated by the IPTA in its repertoire as a mark of paying tribute to ordinary people’s creativity. “People’s Theatre Stars the People” was the IPTA motto, after all. There is a certain “documentary aesthetic” at work here. Then there were songs that used traditional tunes, but suffused them with contemporary, often satirical, content. Thus, for instance, an arti for Mountbatten by Hemanga Biswas—“Raghupati raghav mountobaton...”. Then there is the performative song, a part of a much longer storytelling or bardic tradition from different parts of India, the burrakatha of Andhra Pradesh or the powada of Maharashtra, for instance.

The musical influences are also extremely varied. This was of course only to be expected, given the wide array of musical talent that became part of the IPTA from Ravi Shankar with his classical training, to Hemanga Biswas with his deep interest in folk music, to Salil Chaudhury with his fascination for Western classical, to Prem Dhawan, from Punjab, who used Punjabi forms as well as the alha of Uttar Pradesh, to take just four examples. Therefore, as Damodaran demonstrates with a plethora of detailed examples, the IPTA tradition in music was not one tradition, but really many. Then, of course, there were the regional differences like the lokshahirs (people’s bards) of Maharashtra like Amar Sheikh, Annabhau Sathe and Datta Gavankar who composed powadas and lavanis, while it was natural for the Bengal and Tripura musicians to turn to forms like bhatiali. As a matter of fact, even Rabindra Sangeet was, in a sense, “democratised” by IPTA musicians. Tagore himself was a musical cosmopolitan, and his music demonstrated his own comfort with Western structures of notation and composition, as well as his familiarity with the raga-based Hindustani classical tradition, in addition to the folk music of Bengal. But over time, Rabindra Sangeet had become increasingly codified and you were supposed to sing it according to strict rules. In the hands of musicians like Jyotirindra Moitra, Hemanta Mukherjee and Debabrata Biswas though, Rabindra Sangeet began to be sung with a greater sense of spontaneity and juxtaposed to other genres and styles.

What truly popularised the IPTA tradition of music making was, of course, Hindi (and other) cinema. When a number of artists from IPTA—not just musicians, poets and singers, but also actors, directors, writers, etc—went into cinema, there were murmurs of their having “sold out.” But there is no doubt that if one listens to the film music of the 1950s and 1960s, the IPTA imprint is writ large. It became, in a sense, the common sense of the times. It was through music, more than anything else, that the left became the phonograph of the people. Thus it is that even in light or humourous songs of the period one often notices a social comment. Sahir Ludhianvi’s songs are full of it. Consider these lines from the film:

Beghar ko awara yahan kehte hans-hans/khud kaate gale sabke kahen isko business/ek cheez ke hain kai naam yahan/zara hat ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan (The homeless are ridiculed as vagabond/while cutting throats is called business/Strange, how things are named here/Beware my dear, be careful, this is Bombay).

Interestingly, the tune of this song, by O P Nayyar, is a take on the American folk song Clementine. This is to be attributed to the American jazz and folk influences that Goan and other musicians brought to Bombay, which is chronicled in Naresh Fernandes’ superb study Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age.

The IPTA itself had made forays in Hindi cinema with films like Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (based on Gorky’s Lower Depths) and its own production, Dharti ke Laal (music by Ravi Shankar). But, the IPTA influence was not limited to Hindi cinema. As the author demonstrates, it extended to Bengali and Malayalam cinema as well. But what was interesting in Hindi film songs was that in many cases, the songs had two versions—one was the film version, and the other was for mass gatherings. For example, Makhdoom’s Jaanewale siphahi, which we began this review with, ends with a call for revolution. This was dropped in the film version of the song.


An important service rendered by this study is in resurrecting women’s voices. With the exception of Sheila Bhatia, most of the best-known names in protest music are of men. Damodaran corrects the record by inserting women and their voices into the narrative, based, in many cases, on her own interviews with them. The book opens with a description of Swatantrata singing Bhatia’s Heer to an audience of about 80,000 peasants, moving them with her rendition of the Bengal famine. Other important figures such as Sulochana Latkar, P K Medini, Rekha Jain, Gul Bardhan, Reba Roy Chowdhury, Usha Dutt, and others, also feature as active players with their own subjectivities.

Of course, it can be nobody’s case that there was no contestation within this tradition. If protest music is often assumed to be one-dimensional, one reason for this is the pressure from within the movement to make it so. It was indeed sometimes the case that political contingencies, narrow notions of organisational discipline, and straitjacketed readings of Marxism led to an emphasis on creating songs that would be easily “understood” by the masses, or songs that would play an immediately mobilisational role. Under the culturally enlightened leadership of general secretary P C Joshi, the communist party encouraged, on balance, creativity, innovation and experimentation. But in subsequent times, this aspect sometimes suffered a setback—though one should be careful in not generalising this either. After all, in a later era, in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most creative experimentation in people’s performance (both theatre and music) came from groups like Jana Natya Manch and Parcham in Delhi and Samudaya in Karnataka.

Damodaran’s study is a seminal, path-breaking work. It is as much of historical importance as it is of contemporary relevance. After all, as India moves more and more towards an authoritarian dispensation where the freedom of speech and expression is being attacked and curtailed on a daily basis, we need to dip into our own past and resurrect the many traditions and histories of fearless, pro-people creativity and expression.



Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018


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