In conversation with Sumangala Damodaran who has documented the musical tradition of IPTA. Her lively performance in Kochi evoked the sound and fury of an era.

Those were different times. Pre-Independence, when the struggle for equality and freedom had unleashed large scale unrest. Emotions ran high. A string of honest words, a touch of music were enough to ignite hearts. Cultural activism proved a powerful medium to express political sentiments, an effective tool for collective mobilisation. The IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), formed in 1943, used popular music effectually to vitalise the masses and spread populist ideology. The 1940s and 50s saw much activity in this genre but post Independence popular music began to lose its sheen.

Academician and musician Sumangala Damodaran has archived the popular music tradition of IPTA, saving precious musical legacy from extinction. Says Sumangala: “This is the way I do my politics, not in a day-to-day sense. This music makes me think deeply,” she says.

The granddaughter of Kerala’s first Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad, Sumangala is associate professor at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). She has been involved in setting up of the School of Culture and Creative Expressions there. Her most significant contribution has been in documenting the musical tradition of IPTA, which she has brought out in an album titled ‘Songs Of Protest’ (2010).

A trained singer Sumangala rendered some of the ‘lost songs’ at David Hall, Fort Kochi for a project for Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which was curated by researcher Taf Hassam.

Her retrieval mission took her across the country, meeting surviving IPTA members. “Many of them sang the songs for me, some had the lyrics in old notebooks, some had scratchy recordings. All of them recalled stories that I often cross checked with others,” she says.

Her initiation into this music was with the singing of protest songs for PARCHAM in 1980s, guided by and working along with cultural activists like Safdar Hashmi. Working with theatre activists Habib Tanvir and Prassana too shaped her thinking.

Although her political thought was not actively moulded by her maternal grandfather, he had an indirect influence on her. He lived with her family in Delhi for four years. As a teenager she found him very interested in her reading. “He was a hands-on man in terms of emotions. He would get very excited at my radical songs. He was proud of my singing but he was a very busy man.”

Defining popular music Sumangala clarifies: “I am referring to ‘music of the popular classes’ or ‘music of the people’ in the widest sense of the term. This is different from a common usage of the term ‘popular’, which refers to commercial entertainment only. Resistance music or protest music of the Left political tradition, as a distinct form of popular music, has historically dealt with nationalism as well as questioning the establishment as its objectives. The nationalism that it expressed through its music was a unique one that looked at nationalism ‘from below’, bringing total emancipation into the agenda of the nationalist project, in other words, an alternative patriotism.”

The post-Independence years witnessed the decline in fervour of protest music. Does it fail as a tool of mobilisation in latter day politics?

“Somehow the idea that culture itself is politics has waned. Political mobilisation relies mostly on direct mobilisational methods, with campaigns, rallies, meetings, etc, much less of active cultural intervention. Earlier if you sang a song it was politics,” says Sumangla who is a trained Carnatic and Hindustani singer, also specialising in the Bel Canto style of opera singing.

“And though,” says Sumangala, “a lot of popular music has happened in the last 20 years in this context there has been very little of the kind of variety that the earlier period saw. In Delhi many Hindu and Muslim groups have gone out on the streets with their songs and plays. Many IPTA groups still exist. They do street theatre, some do proscenium theatre, there are also a lot of song squads, still popular music is much less in terms of volume and effect.”

Spirit of freedom

The alfresco setting was a perfect stage for protest songs. A motley crowd gathered curiously under a still evening sky wondering about a forgotten tradition. Sumangala Damodaran sang, her earthy voice capturing the spirit of those difficult times. She was accompanied on the guitar by young Punjabi singer Harpreet Singh and cello artiste Tapan Mullick. The cello worked excellently with Indian music.

Sumangala began with ‘Suno hind key rahaney walo’, sung originally by Reba Roychoudhary in 1940, the signature song of the IPTA. It speaks about the Bengal famine that killed three million people.

Kerala’s contribution to IPTA was significant. The KPAC (Kerala People’s Arts Club), formed in the Fifties, was known for cultural activism. Sumangala sang ‘Pachappananthathe’, a song sung by P.K. Medini, a coir worker from Alappuzha, popularly called ‘the green parakeet’.

This was followed by a ‘heer’ in Punjabi, a lament that talks about courage in misery. A solidarity song, ‘Phiraye de de’, about four farmers who were hanged in Kayyur, written in Bengali and called ‘Kayyur bondhu’, was rendered with verve.

‘Jaane wale siphai se pucho’, written by Urdu poet Makdoom Mohiuddin, was learnt from Safdar Hashmi. The evening concluded with ‘Jhoom jhooom key nacho aaj’, a vibrant song of celebration written in 1947, that brought personalities such as A.K. Hangal, Prem Dhawan, Balraj Sahni and members of the Central squad on the streets of Mumbai in 1947. Here too the spirit of freedom and equality ignited a thousand hearts.