Teacher, singer, activist and writer Sumangala Damodaran is known for her work on the musical tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), an outfit of leftist theatre artistes formed in 1942 that had stalwarts such as Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Safdar Mir as its members. Sumangala has performed extensively from its documented repertoire. Currently engaged in an international collaborative project researching the relationship between music and migration involving scholars and musicians, and several universities in Asia and Africa, she has recently published The Radical Impulse (Tulika), which unravels the tradition of IPTA music and song. Excerpts from an interview.
What is special about the book?
It deals with the musical tradition of IPTA, from the 1940s to the 1950s. The association had regional versions and a few cultural-political organisations such as Praja Natya Mandali (PNM) in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC also aligned themselves with the IPTA. Music constituted a significant aspect of IPTA, although this aspect was never studied or documented either by the Left movement or historians in general.
Were you drawn to the songs owing to your association with Safdar Hashmi, Habib Tanvir and others?
I was a part of the protest song group Parcham from the early 1980s, which sang several IPTA songs, and which worked alongside Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch. Being a Malayali, who grew up in Hyderabad, I also heard songs of the KPAC and PNM while growing up. I met Habib Tanvir and his group Naya Theatres as part of Parcham, when Parcham, Jana Natya Manch and Naya Theatres collaborated to produce the proscenium play Moteram ka Satyagraha , based on a story by Premchand, shortly before Safdar was assassinated. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to interact with Habib sahab quite intensively over the years, where we had discussions about the IPTA, his own experiences and aspects of music-making in his theatre, which were strongly influenced by his years with the IPTA.
Did your grandfather EMS Namboodiripad influence your political thoughts and is this project an extension of your politics?
This project arose out of my belief that culture and aesthetics are an integral part of a politics that is committed to social transformation. This project is certainly a reflection of my politics. My grandfather was an extremely significant presence in my life, as an engaged grandfather through my childhood, but also when I lived with him in the years that I was getting exposed to the left cultural movement in New Delhi. He had no connection with music, couldn’t sing a note and he often joked that his only connection with music was me. My book is dedicated to him.
As a trained musician, how do you view these songs in terms of their musical acumen, compositional mettle etc.? What could be the reasons for the decline?
The variety and richness of the songs are astounding. Given that large numbers of talented musicians were trying to create ‘people’s music’, the songs came from different traditions, were composed out of a wide range of genres and were memorable in musical terms, apart from being politically effective. Through them, some of the most complex debates in the relationship between aesthetics and politics were addressed. One of the possible reasons for their decline is that culture was perhaps never emphasised as politics.
How do you view the lack of academic interest in IPTA songs while there is a lot written about its theatre and poetry?
As you say, within the available work on the IPTA, there is a complete absence of scholarship on music – what got documented and analysed, even then only to a limited extent, were the theatre productions.
Songs were not considered independently of the theatre, even if they were popular on their own terms. Another reason could be that music itself is much less written about in India, especially the relationship between music and society or music and politics.
Do you think these songs are still relevant in the contemporary political climate?
Certainly. The IPTA musicians were composing music around war, famine, land, work, exploitation. Even if many of the songs were written around particular events, the conditions they were depicting have continued to exist and the songs find resonance today. Also, the musical quality of many of the songs appeals beyond lyrics and it is possible to interpret them in contemporary times.
Would you say it is a revival of sorts for popular protest music ?
In recent years, music is being used more and more to articulate protest and critique. Sambhaji Bhagat, Sheetal Sathe, Ginni Mahi, Dhamma Wings and a whole host of musicians are pushing the boundaries, forcing people to sit up and listen and becoming hugely popular, particularly among young people and, in fact, commercial successes in some cases.
The writer teaches English Literature at FLAME University, Pune and occasionally writes on art and culture