Days after the riots in 1984, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when Delhi was still seething with anger, Parcham, a popular music group went around the city with a rather brave message of peace. They reached Khalsa College where the atmosphere was at its hostile best. Safdar Hashmi, the playwright and founder of Jana Natya Manch, nudged Sumangala, a young girl in the group, to sing ‘Jaane wale sipahi se poochon’, a song by by Urdu poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin composed during the Second World War. “Would it be relevant?” Sumangala protested. Safdar had his way, and Sumangala was witness to what followed -- a rare catharsis, the belligerent gathering was down on its knees, some weeping. “That song did what five speeches couldn’t have.”As Sumangala grew older, this experience stayed with her. In fact, even as she sang the same song at a seminar organised recently in Bangalore, she purged her audience.
Granddaughter of former Kerala chief minister EMS Namboodripad, Sumangala Damodaran is an academician and musician based in Delhi. For her, these protest songs are too close to her life and this is not because of her association with Parcham alone. Over the years, Sumangala has undertaken an archival project that attempts to research and document the popular music traditions of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
Her archive is such that it sings its way into the present and thereby preserves itself for the future. Sumangala offered a peek into this archive through her talk and performance at Swara Samarasya, a national music festival organised by Samudaya.
Excerpts from an interview:
Can you describe the context and process that drove the writers of these protest songs?
A lot of the compositions were spontaneous and in response to an event. For example, when the Bengal famine happened, there were accounts of really emaciated people, on the verge of their death and with no clothes on them roaming the streets saying ‘Phan Dao’, which means ‘give me some ganji’. I’ve been told that women collected rice from gutters. People would pour out their starch and that was collected. These horrific truths formed the basis of many evocative songs. Jyotirendra Moitra, for example, actually saw these scenes, sat down and wrote a song. In his composition, Nabaji Baner Gaan (songs for a new life), he described a child suckling at the breast of a dead woman lying on the road.
There were other songs which were born out of deliberations and discussions wherein a group would compose together. Then there was Salil Chowdhury who composed in a train. During the famine again, when they were campaigning, their train had stopped on the way. There were lots of mosquitoes and to relieve the frustration, somebody sang a peasant song from Andhra Pradesh. In no time, Salil had picked up the tune and written a Bangla song- Manbo Na E Bandhane. So, the creative process was really varied.
Did gender alter the character of songs?
To a certain extent, yes. There’ve been critiques saying none of the compositions were gendered. There were a lot of women in the IPTA and there are stories of how difficult it was for them to come out of their families and live in a commune with all these men, and to be singing and dancing with them too. Those stories are really fascinating. Some of the names that come up in this context are Moturi Udayam from Andhra and Medini in Kerala.
Coming to the process of archiving itself, what challenges did you face?
Since I’m not trained in this, I didn’t have access to formal archiving techniques. I actually started doing this as a personal project. Also, with the kind of people I was interviewing, it would have been very difficult to make it very technical. I was talking to them about their life. The challenge before me was to figure out how to walk into their lives and record them. So, a lot of it was in the form of interviews which I recorded on a cassette. In many cases, I didn’t even do that. I took notes and reconstructed it. A lot of people asked me why I didn’t use a camera. The camera is a very intrusive medium. I don’t think I would have been able to get the kind of material I got out of people if I had gone with a camera.
Did you approach the government for help with the project?
I did approach them but I got no support from them. I got some help from the National School of Drama, though. The government hasn’t been interested in this documentation. It is a real tragedy.
A lot of them also said that I was trying to romanticise what the Left did!
Where are the current songs from the Left?
There are things that are happening in pockets, but certainly not at the scale at which it was happening. Understanding culture as politics is something that has declined in all kinds of movements. So, the Left has been equally guilty of that.
The idea that music is politics in itself is something that went out of the consciousness of most political parties/movements quite a while ago. It became like the addendum, like the entertainment department if at all and that is a problem.
Even if it is to reinterpret old poetry in a new context which is the kind of work that I’ve been doing, I don’t think that is any less relevant. I don’t look at my work as a narration of history. Even if I do sing a song from the 40s, it’s not that I’m singing it just for nostalgia. It is because some of them do talk to the present very substantially.
As far as new songs are concerned, they are being written. They are restricted to movements and do not come into the middle class world.
You have been instrumental in setting up a course that attempts to study art practices. Can you speak about what the arts curriculum needs today?
There is a lot about art practise in this country which does not get theorised. We are either relying on really old theoretical frameworks or being forced to go back only to the Natyashastra or the belief that everything came from God. Or else, we turn to Western frameworks. Arts education today needs a curricular structure which can bring together theoreticians and practitioners or talk about an indigenous method of theorising which doesn’t become essentialist but at the same time comes out of our live practice.
When Pete strummed the guitar
“When the American folk singer and activist, Pete Seeger, came to India in the 1990s, he conducted a workshop in Delhi for music enthusiasts. I was part of that group. He performed for us including songs that were specially requested by the audience. He wanted to hear some from us as well. Someone nominated my name and urged me to sing, ‘Jaanewale Sipahi’. I did and as I was singing I realised that Seeger had begun to strum his guitar. I was thrilled. It is definitely an experience I can brag about."