Ten city bands that participated in a recent acoustic music competition sent out a powerful human rights message

Entering the cool, pristine atrium of Express Avenue my gaze sweeps across sparkling Swarovski crystals, scarlet-mouthed models, peacock-patterned saris and a big poster saying ‘Bonded Labour: Freedom DENIED”. Wait. What?

Here, amidst these gleaming labels, seems to be an errant sign: a bold, black poster, with a bold, black message. And beneath it is the Chennai band Blues Conscience, warming up for a two-hour performance. “Let me hear you say ‘no more bonded labour'” cries a compere to the crowd that is beginning to mill around the atrium. Not quite pleased with their response, he asks again. “No more bonded labour!” they chorus back — this time with the verve he's looking for. Suddenly, the deep, sashaying sounds of the blues begin to ripple through the mall.

A significant number of shoppers begin to stray from the glittering shops, drawn by curiosity to linger at the fringes of the stage or peer over the railings, wondering what this rather dark sign is doing in their oasis of opulence.

This is exactly what International Justice Mission wants, and their human rights message sits proudly at the centre of this shopper's utopia singing its heart out.

“India currently has over 40 million bonded labourers,” explains International Justice Mission's (IJM) communications director Beidemariam Bekele, “Our mission is to create public awareness of this problem through this show so that we can join together to help the helpless.”

Blues Conscience's performance is the finale to IJM's all-day acoustic music competition, which saw ten bands performing songs on the theme of freedom, of which Women's Christian College emerged victorious and the band ‘Terrorism' a close second. Also involving a street play that travelled to over 50 cities and a collaborative painting on Marina Beach, the campaign sought to reach out to diverse audiences and bring the issue of bonded labour to the forefront of public consciousness.

Campaign for a cause

“You see, it's the most vulnerable sectors of society that are targeted” says Bekele, “the vast majority of bonded labour victims live in the interiors of rural India and are mostly illiterate and therefore unaware of their rights. We began our campaign on December 2, international day for the abolition of slavery, and we're concluding today, which is human rights day.”

Every aspect of this campaign is fraught with symbolic significance — the careful choice of dates, the poignant juxtaposition of decadence and deprivation, and even the decision to close with the blues, a genre originating primarily from African American communities in the Deep South of America — as Bekele stresses, “Bonded labour is a form of slavery, you just don't see the chains”.

“This next song is called ‘Feels Like Rain'”, drawls the frontman of the band, “Rain. It's a simple thing that you and I can feel and even enjoy, but a lot of people don't have the freedom to do that. Each of you came here with the freedom to shop. They don't even have the freedom to enjoy the rain.” The lights still sparkle around the mall and the sleek mannequins still stare blankly as the music resumes after this rather depressing message. But the sounds are cheerful, upbeat and sassy — and it's surprisingly empowering. Using art, theatre, and music to create awareness, International Justice Mission takes a positive approach to a disheartening issue. They sing of freedom, and their message is full of hope. Thought-provoking rather than guilt inducing, this carefully placed performance shows just how much our freedom is really worth, and how it can be used to help others regain theirs.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012