Invoking the spirit of Baba Nagarjun

One of the most prominent people’s poets hailing from the Hindi heartland, who wrote prolifically in both Hindi and Maithili, was Vaidyanath Mishra who went by the pen name Baba Nagarjun. A freedom-fighter and stalwart of many mass-awakening movements, he was notably incarcerated during two tumultuous phases of Indian history — in 1939, by the British Raj, for leading the Ambari farmers’ struggle; and for 11 months during the onset of Emergency for his role in Jayaprakash Narayan’s mass movement against the Indira Gandhi regime. In an obituary, Vishnu Khare wrote that his works in Maithili were not “without its anti-orthodoxy and anti-establishment barbs but it is certainly true that after he discovered it as a vehicle of literary expression, it was only to Hindi that he gave his creative and rebellious best.” His cause celebre radicalism ensured that he was never the poet laureate of the establishment, but according to Delhi magazine, “the great cultural upsurges in the Hindi speaking north Indian belt in [the] late 60s and early 70s broke down the old literary order and turned writers like Nagarjun, Muktibodh, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Trilochan and Raghuvir Sahay into cult figures.”

Take no sides

One of Nagarjun’s famous poems is the Mantra Kavita, written in 1969, which is the “grand and nihilistic climax” to his 12-line 1947 poem ‘Jankavi’ (‘The People’s Poet’), and “shows the utter disdain with which he viewed contemporary political movements which slid into mere propaganda and sloganeering reducing themselves to some kind of dogma.”

This is why his poems post-Emergency took apart both the government of the day and the erstwhile challenger-in-chief, Narayan, which Khare describes as an admirable and “free-thinking volte-face.”

In Mantra Kavita, the word ‘Om’ is regurgitated ad infinitum alongside other cultural signifiers that are constantly being called into question. It is a poem that is widely cited as a reflection of the cultural zeitgiest of both its time, and the generations that came afterwards. In recent years, the Pakistani pop rock band, Strings, Assamese pop icon Zubeen Garg, and popular liberal news personality Ravish Kumar have all rendered versions of the Mantra Kavita, ensuring its continuing relevance in popular culture, albeit still armed with its clarion call for resistance and indignation directed at a status quo that is increasingly oppressive and parochial.

Contemporary angst

It is against this backdrop that we must view some of last week’s maelstrom of events. Over several days, people in their tens of thousands were fanning out across India in solidarity against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), while standing with student protesters of the Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University who had been at the receiving end of documented police brutality, even as spin doctors were out in full force to swamp the air-waves with counter narratives seeking to obscure the truth. At the Serendipty Arts Festival, a performance at Panjim’s Dayanand Bandodkar Ground by Dastaan Live, the fusion rock band from Delhi, included a rousing rendition of Nagarjun’s Mantra Kavita. Hearing the word ‘Om’ juxtaposed with what he considered incendiary material so outraged an attendee, that he lodged a complaint with the Panjim police, who ‘booked’ members of the band last Wednesday, letting them out on bail on the condition of ‘cooperating with the investigation’ henceforth.

The lyrics of the ‘offending song’ have been a part of the country’s diverse cultural heritage for some 50 years now. Its persistence in the public domain and its enduring power makes this act of cultural policing all the more egregious and short-sighted. Saffron-washing our cultural artefacts cannot rob them of their place in history, because it will only lead to their narratives being claimed tenfold. The organisers of the fairly new festival, that has fashioned itself as one of the “largest multi-disciplinary arts initiatives” in South Asia, are attempting to create an ostensibly liberal oasis for the arts in the heart of conservative Goa. Among other curated theatrical works that could’ve as easily rankled the intolerant were Abhishek Majumdar’s belaguered Eidgah ke Jinnat; December 1992, a play on the post-Babri riots featuring Geetanjali Kulkarni; and Amitesh Grover’s Table Radica, in which the “life, loves, and food” of Habib Tanvir acquires a radical allure.

Music curator Sneha Khanwalkar’s response to the Indian Express reporter was decidedly non-committal, “They were free to choose their songs. The Serendipity Arts Festival has nothing to do with what they chose to perform. Personally speaking, the artists are free to express themselves, it’s up to the listeners to make sense of it.”

This reads like a cop-out, and more could’ve been said publicly in support for the affected artistes, notwithstanding the festival team rallying for them behind the scenes. The spirit of Nagarjun calls for much more.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 9:24:15 PM |

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