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The tunes of protest

India, have you ever crawled down enough to smell the soil of Kashmir? India, have you ever heard of a lady named Sharmila? India, can you explain to me what happened in the land of Gandhi, in Gujarat? India, why are your farmers so f***ing suicidal?

music Updated: May 16, 2012 14:38 IST
Neyaz Farooquee

India, have you ever crawled down enough to smell the soil of Kashmir? India, have you ever heard of a lady named Sharmila? India, can you explain to me what happened in the land of Gandhi, in Gujarat? India, why are your farmers so f***ing suicidal?

When Irom Sharmila’s fast entered its 10th year in 2010 and the world sat back relaxed that the economy was getting back on track, a group of young guys from Manipur, called Imphal Talkies (IT), were singing these lines for Delhiites who tapped their feet alongside. This was a medium for them to protest and bemoan status quo. And to question the country’s conscience.

Once an indigenous part of rural protests in India, and in the West for long, protest music now increasingly dots the urban stages of the country especially Delhi — the power centre of the nation. The crude voice, dhol and tabla have given way to drums, harmonium and guitar, or become complementaries. Ancient ragas are tuned with pianos — all for a different audience. Fusion of different music into socially relevant songs gives protest music a new flavour. Think Indian Ocean or Bangalore-based Swarathma’s music. But there is no dearth of predominantly folk songs either. Take Delhi-based Manzil’s composition of Kabir ke dohe or IT’s Manipuri folks.

Protest music has been a part of labour and freedom movements and class struggles across the Atlantic throughout the last century. Who can forget Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the wind or Times they are-a-changing. Though in India, it has been limited to the village folk music, it served the same purpose — protest imperialism or more recently, inflation. Think Gorakh Pandey's Hille Le (later sung by Indian Ocean) and Mehangai Dayan from the film Peepli Live.

If there’s fusion of Indian folk with contemporary, there is also a new blend of Western with an Indian flavour. When it comes to protest songs or singing about a social cause, Delhi-based The Ska Vengers is easily the leader. “It feels good when people sing and dance at your gigs. And if they think about what the lyrics say, it’s great,” says their vocalist, Taru Dalmia, who calls himself the Delhi Sultanate.

Bands like Indian Ocean and the Raghu Dixit Project have taken folk music to a level where it has become fashionable to listen to them. While Indian Ocean says they try to not be overtly political, their songs deal well with political issues. Ma Rewa was later used as Narmada Bachao Andolan’s anthem. Des Mera from Peepli Live is another example. The songs not always resonate with the popular imagination, but they certainly go further than being just love songs, the most popular choice in India. Take Bant Singh of Punjab who demands justice for Dalits, or Gaddar from Andhra Pradesh who demands a separate Telangana state. But the urban scene is different. With generous publicity and a better informed and educated audience that appreciates this music, these bands hope to raise uncomfortable question rather than just belting out feel-good songs. But in no way does it stop a music lover from tapping his feet to their compositions.