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Meet the poets of dissent who critique the establishment and call for change

A still from ‘Achche Din Blues’ by Aamir Aziz.

A still from ‘Achche Din Blues’ by Aamir Aziz.  


Poetry has always been a part of protest, not just against the government but even on professional and familial turfs

It was on a train ride to Delhi on December 14, the day after Jamia Millia Islamia students marched to Parliament to protest the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), that Aamir Aziz wrote ‘Main Inkaar Karta Hoon (I refuse to accept)’. The Jamia alumnus, former Jamia Nagar resident and poet-lyricist-balladeer, who wrote songs of dissent such as ‘Achche Din Blues’ and ‘The Ballad of Pehlu Khan’, speaks of his new poem as a continuing expression of the experience of getting steadily marginalised and oppressed by the government. ‘Mere hi watan mein, mujhe haq ke bajaye bheekh diya jaaye, mujhe manzoor nahin (In my own country, I am given alms instead of my rights, I refuse to accept)’, he writes in the poem that he has been reciting at several protests against the CAA and NRC. And it has been resonating strongly with people. His second poem, ‘Jamia ki Ladkiyan (The girls of Jamia)’, is an eyewitness account and a tribute to the women who bravely stood up to the police to protect fellow students. “I have never seen Muslim women fight the way they have been doing,” says Aziz.

The genesis of Varun Grover’s ‘Kaagaz Nahin Dikhayenge (I will not show papers)’, the new anthem of the ongoing protests, came from a feeling of utter helplessness, he says. “Poetry is a small voice saying I am not dead yet. I wrote it just to cope with my own feeling of despair,” says the lyricist, writer, and standup comedian. The poem doffs a hat to poet Rahat Indori and the popular bhaat (rice) slogans in the Bengal protests, and also uses the cultural metaphor for life in a police state, ‘Your papers please’. He sets it to the catchy meter of the 1992 mandir wahi banayenge slogan. The subversion couldn’t have been starker, louder or clearer.

Comedian and Bollywood lyricist-writer Varun Grover.

Comedian and Bollywood lyricist-writer Varun Grover.   | Photo Credit: PTI


Poetry, songs and music have always been tools to counter the establishment. The on-going protests have evoked the songs of dissent in Rahat Indori’s ‘Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti mein; Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai (Everybody’s blood mingles in the soil; Hindustan does not belong solely to one)’; Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge (We shall see)’; and Dushyant Kumar’s call for lighting the revolutionary fire ‘Mere seene mein nahin to tere seene mein sahi; ho kahin bhi aag lekin aag jalni chahiye (If not in my heart, at least in yours; but the revolutionary fire should burn)’.

My manifesto

But there is suddenly a surge of new poets, largely young, on protest sites and several playlists; and their poetry threads are doing the rounds on social media and advocacy platforms.

Most of these poems and songs talk directly. Rahul Rajkhowa’s fiery rap exhorts the government to cut the ‘pragati crap’ (development bunkum); Sumit Sapra’s poem asks ‘Kya Sirf Kaagzaat Poochoge? (Will you only ask for papers?)’; Iqra Khilji writes ‘Dharti To Yeh Gulzar Hai; Pairon Tale Angaar Hai (Our land might be seemingly in bloom but there are burning embers under our feet)’.

Actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub recites Abhinav Nagar’s ‘Mere Desh Mein Bada Bawaal Hai’ in a video.

Actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub recites Abhinav Nagar’s ‘Mere Desh Mein Bada Bawaal Hai’ in a video.  


Abhinav Nagar’s ‘Mere Desh Mein Bada Bawaal Hai (My country is in the midst of a chaos)’, recited in a video by actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, asks: ‘Secular desh mein kya mere secular hone ka tumhein malaal hai (Do you have regrets about me being secular in a secular nation)?’

Bollywood lyricist and writer Puneet Sharma’s ‘Aap Sarkar Nahin Hain (You are not the government)’ is a takedown of police brutality and the state collusion in violence: ‘Aap ke paas lathi ho sakti hai, eentein ho sakti hain ghar mein, aankhon mein ho sakta hai gussa/ Lekin aap hinsa ka sahara na lein, aap sarkar nahin hain (You may have sticks, bricks stacked at home, rage reflecting in your eyes/ But don’t take to violence because you are not the government)’. Poetry is a release from anger, hatred, bitterness, says Sharma. “Poetry is my manifesto. When I get too overwhelmed with emotion, poems fire up like missiles.”

Lyricist-writer Hussain Haidry.

Lyricist-writer Hussain Haidry.  


But a poem can acquire different shades over time. Lyricist-writer Hussain Haidry’s ‘Hindustani Musalmaan’, though written years ago, found new urgency when he recited it recently at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. It was initially written as a reflection on his own identity as a Muslim. Later he used it to tell the world that Islam and the community cannot just be regarded as a monolith. “It became all about asserting the diversity, the many permutations within… the several dots that need to be connected,” says Haidry. Today it has acquired a whole new meaning; it is about a Muslim refusing to be othered, about reclaiming and seizing his rightful Indian identity.

Sharma believes that nothing ages in the country, not even poetry. Some poems he wrote during the Congress regime hold true even now, as much as they did then. His hello tune happens to be his favourite protest song, Gulzar’s ‘Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai’ from Mere Apne, still chillingly relevant in 2019 as it was in 1971. Piyush Mishra’s ‘Sheher’ from Gulaal, a powerful indictment of communalism, still speaks the truth a decade after the film’s release.


It is a comment on the power of words that they can appear threatening to the establishment, even long after the poet has passed on. After the students of IIT-Kanpur recited Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ during a march in solidarity with Jamia students, the institute set up a panel to investigate if the poem is ‘anti-Hindu’.

What is it about dissent and poetry that makes them go hand in hand? Haidry thinks that the brevity and musicality of poetry helps with understanding issues. “There is a collective reverberation when people sing it together,” he says — a mix of emotional investment, passion and poignancy, depth and elevation.

“Singing reduces fear,” smiles Grover. “Music and songs are non-confrontational. They engage even with opponents and disarm them in a way an angry speech can’t.”

For Aziz, a poem may be borne out of a movement but it can also inspire movements and help the cause. “The only pre-condition is that it should communicate the reality of the times. It should not be about nostalgia and false hope. It should be contemporary,” says Aziz.

Poetry has always been a part of protest, not just against the government but even on professional and familial turfs. “It’s about a voice reaching out to apathetic powers that are not listening,” says Sharma. Apart from Sahir and Shailendra, whose protest songs have been well entrenched in popular imagination, Sharma considers a qawwali like ‘Ye Ishq Ishq Hai, Ishq Ishq (This is love)’, a clarion call against all institutions. “Love in Hindi cinema was a mode of protest [against all social hierarchies] till it became cool,” he says.

Meanwhile, as we go to press, hip hop artist Rahul Negi a.k.a Madara, has come up with ‘Tukde Tukde Gang?’ a satirical look at contemporary politics, especially the deliberate corrosion of educational institutions by the government. Clearly, resistance, and its many songs, are here to stay — and grow.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 6:58:12 PM |

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