Song of freedom

RECREATING HISTORY Sumangala Damodaran with Deepak Castelino and Tapan Malik in performance.  


Sumangala Damodaran on reviving songs of IPTA.

Sumangala went to celebrated singer Madan Gopal Singh, who taught her how to sing a Heer, with its haunting melody and pathos.

India’s independence is 62-years-old. The quality of that hard-wrested freedom is the subject of ongoing debate. Certainly the bonded labourers, the children slogging at roadside restaurants, the farmers who can’t buy seeds would have a piquant take on the subject. But over the years, the keenness to look these aspects of our teeming democracy in the eye seems to have dulled in ordinary people — too preoccupied, perhaps, with their personal problems to bother about the bigger picture. No wonder a fiery people’s movement like the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), with whom the brightest names of Indian cinema and theatre were once associated, is now but a dim memory for even the most enthusiastic theatre goers. Much has been written about IPTA’s productions. But not much thought, till now, had gone into the stirring music that was as much a part of its artistic expression as the plays.

Sumangala Damodaran, a teacher at a Delhi University college, decided, a couple of years ago, to change that and began to document IPTA songs. Trained in music and well versed in five languages, Sumangala was well equipped to revive IPTA’s nearly forgotten musical repertoire. Add to that her theatre experience and the fact that she is a granddaughter of the late Communist statesman EMS Namboodiripad — and the image of a petite young lady belting out anti-war songs is no longer incongruous. This week, along with noted guitarist Deepak Castelino and cellist Tapan Malik, she presented a concert in New Delhi to a rousing response.

The research path

“I wasn’t expecting to find as much as I did,” says Sumangala. “One of the people who gave me a lot of information was Shobha Sen, Utpal Dutt’s wife. It began with Bengali songs. I found a lot of songs people had forgotten. One person would have the lyrics, someone remembered half the tune…I started putting them together.” She also went to Kerala and U.P., looking up people who had been with IPTA. “Most of them were in their 80s,” she points out.

Musical method

“In some cases I had to reconstruct the songs, but I don’t think we have really violated the original tunes,” says Sumangala. A song on the Bengal Famine she learnt from Swatantrata Prakash, who had sung it in the 1940s, was a case in point. The IPTA veteran, unable to demonstrate it, told her it was a Heer. Sumangala went to celebrated singer Madan Gopal Singh, who taught her how to sing a Heer, with its haunting melody and pathos. Unable to contact Swatantrata for the concert at the India International Centre, Sumangala learnt to her shock from members of the audience that she had passed away only days ago. It must have taken unusual inner reserves for her to continue singing with the aplomb she did.

Accompanying instruments

“I was very sure I didn’t want the traditional instruments like harmonium and tabla,” notes Sumangala. The trio doesn’t feel the need for a separate percussion instrument. The guitar is also a percussion instrument, points out Castelino, who also uses the banjo. Malik adds, “Even when we do music without rhythm, there is rhythm in the music.” The instruments may not be the kind used in the original IPTA gatherings, but they blend beautifully. Castelino notes the cello’s “sombre feel,” and Malik explains, “The cello supports the voice.”


The songs are in Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindustani. “I speak all except Punjabi,” adds Sumangala. Having grown up in Hyderabad, she has heard one of the Telugu songs in her repertoire, from the Telengana movement, since childhood.

Special experiences

“Jaane wale sipahi se poochho” is a song of whose history Sumangala’s experience is now a part. When American folk singer Pete Seeger came to India, he accompanied Sumangala on the guitar at a gathering where she sang this song. “He could feel its emotion though he didn’t understand the language.” Also, after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, during a peace march at DU in a tense atmosphere, Safdar Hashmi asked Sumangala to sing this song. “This song taught me how music can have tremendously cathartic effects,” Sumangala told her IIC audience. “It completely transformed the atmosphere.