(*My article that has previously appeared in the 2007 issue of “Our Diary”, brought out by a civil society group- “Kriti” in Delhi .)
We come across language mostly as sound- words spoken or sung and then heard. The sounds carry with them implied meanings. We can load the simplest of words with meaning beyond the literal one. We can choose the shape of our words with varying degrees of freedom. Words become a song when this freedom is exercised to its fullest potential. Music is, perhaps, the most malleable of all media of human expression. It always finds a form that’s just right for the message- gentle or ironic, grim or humorous, powerful or subtle, straightforward or a little roundabout, appropriate or offensive. The reach of a song is far wider than other forms of expression – the deepest of messages have been known to be set to simplest of tunes.
On the other hand singing words set to music enables us to step back from the immediacy of the words as communication and to make it an aesthetic object. Singing becomes an act of contemplation and of celebration of words simultaneously. It not only conveys the meaning of the words but also adds to the meaning something that words fail to express.
In a song people may express their political or spiritual beliefs, tell a story, history, or just provide amusement. People also sing about their ethnic character or social, political, economic situations. Singing always seems to help when the going is tough, when the task is uphill, when we feel afraid and unsupported. People sing and call each other to action and to express solidarity in resisting oppression. People sing together to kindle the torch of passions in each others’ heart and light the way to see some hope.
Just as singing is celebration of words, singing together is celebration of humanity.
Songs and singing together are an integral part of protest or social change movements. Songs that are sung in movements are work songs of peasants and artisans, prison songs, anti-war songs, songs for freedom and equality, spiritual songs, songs for children and for communal harmony, songs about life and humanity, protests and resistance songs and songs just for celebration, dance and enjoyment. They contain love, hope, pain, resolve, resilience and revolt.
Songs and music attract people and have the capacity to become the most important tool for mobilization in movements. The lyrics explain complex, interconnected and multilayered issues and put things across simply. This helps people join in and/or relate with the cause. This is also how movements reach out to the larger audience on the fringes or outside movements with the message of change and equality
To sing these songs you don’t need to be trained or even talented singers, just a lot of passion will. No instruments are required really, clapping along is perfect or may be a dhapli. Like folk songs they are learnt by people from people, by movements from other movements, from place to place, and from generation to generation. And like folk songs, movement songs too, keep changing (words and tunes) and evolving over time, spontaneously as well as deliberately. At times portions of one song are sung with another song (for example verses from ‘ho gayee hai peer parwat si’ are sung with ‘sau mein sattar aadmi’).
Traditional folk songs themselves form one whole part of the protest and movement songs. They are mostly sung in groups concerned with conservationist values like adivasi or environmental movements. Some religious or spiritual songs also belong to the same category. ‘Ma Rewa Tharo Pani Nirmal‘ sung with fervour in NBA, is essentially an age old bhajan in praise of river Narmada with description of belief in its holy character. Many songs from the Sufi and Bhakti traditions are also very popular in movement groups because of irreverent attitude towards religious orthodoxy and lyrics that uphold love for humanity.
Many protest songs also invoke religious imagery to drive a point home though the message is not of religious nature, and in fact may be making an ironic reference to it. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ uses the Islamic imagery of the Day of Judgement though it is talking of the day when interests of the working class shall reign supreme. Similarly, Bhupen Hazarika’s ‘Vistar Hai Apar’ invokes the belief in the River Ganga’s holy nature and cleansing powers to paint a picture of misery of the masses in our country and unjust conditions they are forced to live in.
So religion becomes some sort of secret code and provides the poet with a tool to cut straight to the core of the issue without being overtly political about it (and hence soften the blow?). Poetry becomes a vehicle that’s capable of bridging the separation of private and public, cultural and political. This many a times makes for very powerful poetry full of rawness, pain and gore of people’s politics like that of Paash but on some occasions comes up with words of great beauty and poetic merit as in case of Faiz.
Thus, poetry/songs/music or to use a wider term ‘culture’ stations itself as a site of significant political resistance.
Women’s movement in particular has employed cultural action in a much more imaginative way than any other movement and therefore (?… among other reasons…) has had a tremendous impact on more aspects of daily lives of many more people than any other movement has had. Folk songs have played a crucial part in this regard. Singing has been available to women for centuries as an act of resistance or defiance of suffocating social norms restricting women’s expression. Gaaree sung at weddings in Bundelkhand, and other parts of eastern UP and Bihar are a case in point. These are songs full of swear words, insults and expletives sung by the women of the bride’s family abusing relatives of the groom and vice-versa. But even for more usual protest songs of the women’s movements, the folk form- beats, tunes and repetitive lyrics have been employed very frequently.
Music/Songs are the way artists- poets, songwriters, singers and musicians associate with movements and express solidarity. The sixties in America, in the backdrop of students’ movement against Vietnam war and Civil Rights Movement, saw an upsurge of popularity of protest music and gave us many great singer-lyricists (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger) and classic songs (Times They Are A-Changin’, We Shall Overcome). These singers and their songs reached the height of popularity in a very mainstream sense. In more recent times with the backdrop changed to America’s ‘War Against Terrorism’, many mainstream pop and hip-hop singers released anti-war and anti-Bush singles but these had to be released in most cases, embedded in albums otherwise full of non-political fluff.
In India, mainstream popular music largely means songs from bollywood films. Hindi film songs that can be categorised with protest music have been few and far between. Very few songs from the mainstream cinema which had content of clearly or vaguely political nature have gone on to become popular hits. And anything by way of political has more often than not carried nationalistic sentiments. Only a handful of songs dared to go against this tide. ‘Chino Arab Hamara’ from Raj Kapoor starrer Phir Subha Hogi, and ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind par’ in Guru Dutt’s Pyasa are a few defiant examples which raised very pertinent and uncomfortable questions. A more contemporary ‘Yeh Taara Woh Tara’ in Swades raises the issue of caste discrimination but prefers to play it safe and stops short to look at the issue only from unity-in-diversity perspective.
Many mainstream musicians perform in aid of NGOs and causes- in solidarity and/or to raise funds but most such activity is restricted to areas and issues where there is no confrontation with the state and/or corporations. Also, the music played at these performances is not protest music. These performances posing as cultural action often end up being acts of patriarchal charity.
And then there are those who are not mainstream- singing group of students in universities, groups associated with movements and development NGOs, individuals associated with one or more movements/causes like revolutionary balladeer from Andhra Pradesh- Ghadar. Susmit Bose sings songs from a relatively new genre- Urban Folk. Classical singers Madan Mohan and Shubha Mudgal (who also ventures in the Indi-pop genre occasionally) sing a repertoire of protest songs too, in some settings. Fusion band Indian Ocean is famous for playing and playing with protest and folk songs. Crowds of youth swaying to ‘hille le jhakjhor’ at Indian Ocean concerts disprove notions that there are no takers for protest music anymore in the world over or that it appeals only to the already ‘converted’.
Whether it is a marginal or mainstream genre of music doesn’t seem to bother protest music much. It plays on full of passion and vigour that befits songs of resistance and freedom.