The artists gradually appear in their on-screen boxes, and their first impulse is to search for the audience. Kaladas Deheriya has found a sweet spot for his feeble internet connection on the top floor of his residence in Bhilai. His poetry has withstood years of clamp-down as he continues to voice the concerns of farmers, labourers and political prisoners.
The duo from Wanandaf have brought rap onto the streets of Bengaluru and appear ready to share pieces from their recent album —‘Yeh hai bagawat’. Joining in from Mumbai, Yalgaar open with their motto ‘Dosti zindabad!’, fusing theatre and songs to express their Ambedkarite alignment to anti-caste politics. A lone voice from the hills in Kolar, Karnataka, Narayanswamy needs only his tanpura as he brings alive the ideas and aesthetics of the bhakti saints of medieval India.
Protest music is fuelled by the presence and sentiment of the community, and while an online concert poses a challenge for the genre, it also emphasises the urgent need to find connections across geographies. ‘Ideas Cannot be Arrested,’, hosted by Maraa, Bengaluru, brought together four distinct styles of protest music that raise a high note against political polarisation.
Kaladas Deheriya opened with a subtle poem that unearthed questions about the land and its connection with community — ‘Mitti ki kya keemat hai?’ His tryst with words began as a child, when he wrote his first song as a 10-year-old. While His grandfather, was an accomplished instrumentalist, he passed away before Deheriya could train with him. With moorings in a small village in Chhattisgarh, Deheriya started learning the harmonium by observing the musicians who performed at various festivals. “The poet’s task is to observe and reflect on the reality around him. Before I write a poem or song, I jot down my thoughts and observations, then a tune forms in my imagination and I fill in the words,” says Kaladas.
In the 1980s, disillusioned with his government job, he resigned and joined the union movement emerging in various parts of Chhattisgarh. Surviving on odd jobs, he met activist and labour leader Shankar Guha Neogi a few decades ago and has been writing about the condition of workers since then. “It is important to speak about oppression. I feel that speeches are often lost on people, but poetry and music take everyone along. My music is about revolution, about an equal world that we want to create.” He concludes with a song that is a letter to his comrade Sudha Bhardwaj, who has been in jail without bail for years now.
Agaahi and Nex, the duo from Wanandaf, believe that hip-hop and rap need to return to their origin as movements of dissent.
Rap it out
“The genre evolved as a voice against political oppression of Black people in the West; today in India it is going in a strange direction; it has been commercialised in a way that promotes objectification, misogyny and values the original genre never stood for,” says Agaahi. Their song ‘Pittrsatta’ directly challenges patriarchy and its contours of daily oppression. Powerful rapping in Hindi-Urdu is accompanied by energetic gestures and defiant glares. Says Nex, “I am fluent in neither Hindi nor Urdu, I primarily speak Dakkhani!” Yet, while performing, language barriers fade in the energetic articulation.
In the spirit of rap, they believe in taking it to public spaces. They have performed in parks, warehouses and under flyovers across Bengaluru. “Since protest sites had to be vacated in the pandemic, music has to find a way to people through other means,” says Agaahi. Speaking of minority rights, they segue into the song ‘Chup hain sab’, provoking the audience to break its silence against injustice and look beyond the stupor of their comfortable lives to the struggles of marginalised communities. “We want our music to be a wake-up call to other rappers too, use your music with care, the genre is a powerful force to speak about society,” says Agaahi.
Dressed in vibrant colours, Yalgaar presents an act that is true to its theatrical roots. Remembering the revered reformer-activist from the 20 t h century, Savitribai Phule, they begin with a brief invocation. “Traditional performances begin with an invocation to god; we wanted to keep that structure alive and pay tribute to our cultural legacy with this invocation to Savitribai Phule,” says musician Dhammrakshit Randive. Flute, percussion, guitar and vocals merge to present music with dramatic elements of dialogue and enactment. Speaking up against police violence in ‘Kabeera roye re’, they ask — “Is Jallianwala Bagh really the past or do we still experience General Dyer in some ways today?”
Cultural activists with a deep commitment to Ambedkar’s ideology, the group comprises 13-14 people, many of whom are absent from this performance due to the lockdown restrictions.
Randive explains, “The Ambedkarite jalsa consists of folk poetry, music and theatre and we bring all these elements into our performance. We make sure our songs are easy to sing along with so that people can join in.” He emphasises that true to their politics, they also adopt a democratic approach to performance-making. “An important part of our process is to think together. We spend time reading books, watching films, and discussing issues. With such diverse backgrounds, all of us have different opinions at times and we attempt to bring all these perspectives into our performance.”
Kannada poet and musician Narayanswamy has a very austere presence. He emerges with an instrument he has designed himself. It is an adaptation of the tanpura and resembles a small veena. “My strength is my song. Songs have triggered revolutions,” he says. He sings the poetry of Dalit writers from across regions.
For protest musicians, an immediate connection with the people is crucial. With the absence of live performances, their chief challenge has been to help the folk artiste community survive the economic crisis and to remain connected to the cause and the community.
The Delhi-based author writes on cultural issues.