Questions for NJS Protest Music issue interviews 1.

You have been involved with the protest music tradition for a long time now. Can you give us some background about the nature of your involvement? Ans : Like average Bengali middle class family, ours’ also had a keen fascination towards music. My father, mother, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins – all had association with music in varying degrees. In my childhood, I was considered as having least potential of all and therefore not pursued for music training seriously. But somehow I got in to music and was performing since childhood in different platforms. Right from children programme of AIR to usual stage performances. During my degree classes I got involved in the activities of SFI. As I was known as singers among my fellows and therefore I was frequently asked to sing in the meetings and rallies of the students’ movement. Needless to say that my stock was hopelessly meagre to live up to the expectations of my comrades. At that period of time, IPTA or similar cultural movement was not having any presence in our district. We didn’t have any idea of how protest songs sound like. There were few seniors in the vicinity of the left movement who had an association with IPTA during its days of existence. During May Day meetings, a choral squad used to be cobbled together under the tutelage of one of them. But that could hardly leave any imprint on the general cultural environment. On the other hand, theatre activities were quite alive and a legacy of a strong IPTA movement of earlier period could be seen in the productions of the theatre groups. In the field of dance and music, the link with the glorious past however, got snapped. In the early eighties of the last century, the secessionist forces were spearheading an agitation in the other part, i.e Brahmaputra valley of Assam on chauvinistic demands and the entire state came under the grip of chauvinistic passion. A broad platform of cultural activists was formed in Silchar, Cachar

with a call to protect national unity and pluralistic character of our society. IPTA activists of yesteryears took the lead in the formation of the platform. It was named as DISHARI. In absence of IPTA or any organisation of people’s culture, DISHARI provided an opportunity to initiate activities pertaining to cultural movement. By then I became a known face in the public meetings of the left, always performing revolutionary songs at the outset. I was a natural choice for DISHARI and so was it for me. Dr Gauranga Saha, a veteran of IPTA days in DISHARI used to give us lessons of revolutionary songs of forties and fifties. In one of the festivals of DISHARI, Hemango Biswas was invited along with his team, Mass Singers. It was only then we could get a real exposure to the nuances and magic of protest music. Never ever we had seen earlier any performer developing an emotional chord with the heart of the audience like it was done by Hemango Biswas and his comrades. It was absolutely a new experience for me. A new world seemed emerged before our eyes and truly speaking, the festival of 1982 where we could come in close contact with Hemango Biswas and could see him performing, baptized me and my fellow comrades in the spirit of protest music. A few years later, IPTA unit was reorganised and IPTA as movement started its journey again. Reappearance of IPTA in the region where it was born a few decades ago brought about a qualitative change in the activities relating to culture of protest. Young talents, teamed up with the veterans of past unleashed a flurry of activities where new protest songs expressing the pains, agonies and the resolve of the contemporary time were composed. It may be mentioned that at this phase IPTA activists not only did compose new songs of protest in response to the rousing call of contemporary struggle, but it also made a serious search for protest element in the interior of our folk and ethnic music and sought to reinterpret the traditional songs in the context of the contemporary struggle. This was necessitated

especially in the wake of the emergence of Hindu right in the political scenario of the country and their desperate attempt to rewrite history in their mould. By making a conscious effort to use this variety of music as part of its struggle, IPTA,Silchar could reach the masses with greater enthusiasm. In a region where left has insignificant presence in terms of electoral politics, IPTA could assume the role of guiding force in the larger domain of cultural movement by virtue of its correct handling of cultural issues. Though there is hardly any scope of making any personal reference in a discussion like this, I cannot resist my temptation to mention another point in this context. I had my university education in my present place of occupation, Burdwan, West Bengal. Spending three colourful years in the centre stage of students’ politics, I was too inclined to engage myself in trade union movement on my return to Silchar. But contrary to my personal wishes, political leadership directed me to work in the cultural front. I started my activity there as a reluctant participant for I had developed a feeling that most of the revolutionary activities usually take place outside the contour of cultural movement. According to my understanding at that time, actual place of flourishing one’s acumen of activism was trade union or peasant movement, and never the cultural movement. I considered the cultural movement especially that of our political stream as a synthetic companion of revolutionary organisations. Although the tide of cultural movement soon erased all the misgivings I had possessed, but I could realise the real power of cultural movement only in the aftermath of supreme sacrifice of Comrade Safdar Hashmi. Then on, I began to believe that, historically, all the struggles of human being do possess a cultural dimension and being myopic on that count, great mistakes had been taking place for long in the history of revolutionary movement.

2. Do you think India and your region in particular has a strong tradition of protest music? If so, what kinds of music fall under the umbrella of protest music? Ans: In one of his songs Tagore said, ‘Agony stirs up, and strums music in the strings’ (‘Oshanti je aghat hane, tai to bina baje’). As an expression of dissent, music plays up. One might add, it’s equally true that one sings out in glee too. I know little about the music tradition of different countries, but I think protest is an intrinsic element of music of all nations. Going beyond the contours of classical and elitist music, if we look at the folk and ethnic music of the masses, we discover the elements of protest as the driving force of the creativity of the masses. Even if one wails out in despair, that’s also a kind of protest. One might feel shy to term it as protest. If that is so then one can call it dissent. It may seem that most of our music revolves round religious activities. But can one deny that religion itself is stirred by crisscross of conflicting ideas and is itself home to various kinds of protest. Basically, whenever a new religion emerged in history, it emerged as a critique of the existing religious order. An element of protest therefore remained inherent in them. Later on when elites in the society appropriated the protest elements, it lost its revolutionary fervour. Thus a new religion which had emerged as a weapon of protest again became an instrument of exploitation. The story was same with all the religions like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and other religions. Our folk and ethnic songs bear the testimony of those struggles. In every religion we can identify a sub-stream alongside the main religion which survived through the travails of history and remained alive in the form of folk religion. Interestingly, it has been found everywhere that people from lower echelon of society were the followers of this sub-stream. In their religious songs, if followed closely, one will find rich treasure of protest element. Since the classes on the two sided of class

division got divided in the sub-strata of religion too, class division in the society had its bearing on their religious practices too. Therefore, religious songs of the have-nots’ were, in a sense songs of protest too. I believe, the movement of protest culture of contemporary time should look at itself as the inheritors of the tradition of protest music of the past, instance of which can still be traced in our folk and ethnic music. 3. What kind of tradition would you like to put yourself into? Can you give us a brief history of your tradition? Ans : We know from history that a man called Srichaitanya once ran through the streets of medieval Bengal chanting Kirtana and leading hundreds of followers to register his protest to the then ruler Hussain Shah. Perhaps that was the first occasion when a procession was brought out in the streets of Bengal as a means of expressing collective dissent. I consider the rebel in Srichaitanya as my earliest predecessor as a cultural activist and Kirtana to be the earliest form of protest music that was sung collectively. In the entire period of medieval Bengal a dialogue was established among different faiths and a conscious effort was undertaken to give birth to cultural values of syncretism. We owe our music of protest to that stream of thought of past. We feel proud to see our self as an inheritor of the tradition of protest which is rooted in the folk music of our cultural geography, which developed through the active contributions of innumerable ascetics like Lalan Fakir, Panju Shah, Duddu Shah, Durbin Shah, Arkum Shah, Radharaman and host of others. I believe as an activist we must owe to the towering personalities of nineteenth century Bengal who illuminated our thought and led the Renaissance (whatever may have been the limitation, but that was a great cultural awakening after all) of Bengal. Tallest of them was definitely Tagore who still occupies the imagination of all the cultural activists of later years. As the direct descendent of all these

streams of thoughts of centuries, in the decade of forties, the creativity of the masses were unfettered with the coming up of IPTA movement. As a humble successor of this movement, as a cultural activist we are in the midst of a bitter struggle, a kind of which the cultural movement had never witnessed before. In this ongoing phase of struggle, the basic human values of love and compassion seem to be overtaken by the vices of consumerism and liberalism. On the one hand, we are witnessing ghastly riots, conflicts, war and famine, on the other hand we are sought to be tantalised by the consumerist allurements. Globally, in this difficult situation we are endeavouring to chart out our path with the inspiration of tradition of protest culture of past centuries. 4. Are their distinct styles/forms within your kind of music? Do they come from indigenous music from your region or have there been adaptations from outside, experimentation? Ans: Frankly speaking, we cannot claim to have developed a distinct style of our own. We simply reoriented the styles and forms of our predecessors according to the need of the time. One can find influence of the folk performers of our region in our style of performance. To some extent, the influence is conscious as we always, while performing, dreamt of establishing rapport with the audience at the level of perfection of the folk performers. I can refer to another aspect of our presentation, yet I am in doubt whether that too can be claimed to be of our very own or not. Since early nineties, in response to the communal cultural politics of the extreme right forces, we emphasised on highlighting the composite nature of our social fabric and cultural identity through our performances. To do that, apart from presenting the usual songs of protest, we included some other cultural items which normally are never made part of protest culture. As a counter thesis of the cultural agenda of

fundamentalists, it was needed to bring the instances of inter religious dialogue in our traditional songs to the fore. The songs which were never part of our movement of protest songs thus became a regular feature of our programme. Even the songs which basically conveyed the message of love only did turn in to a weapon of protest in the atmosphere of hatred created in the aftermath of Babri demolition or Gujarat genocide. We sought to uphold the universal message of love in contrast to the ugly passion of hatred. In the changed political scenario these songs hitherto considered untouchable also became inseparable part of our protest culture. 5. What, according to you, are the key elements of the music of protest? (The forms that are appropriate, the kind of content, the ease with which songs can be repeated, etc) Ans : It is very difficult to identify any key element as an universal qualifier of protest music. In some context, it may seem that straightforwardness of lyric and tune is the key element. Again on some other context common people would be found to respond more to oblique reference of the theme of protest. I suppose, to suggest a protest song to be simple in words and tunes in order to make it more reachable is a petty bourgeois concept where creative faculty of common man is under rated. It is actually with this attitude; common people have been looked down for long. We can quote innumerable instances of folk songs whose images and philosophies would seem difficult for so-called educated class to decipher, yet for common people those are as easy as fresh air. Once Subhendu Maity, a leading exponent of protest songs of West Bengal referred to an incident of Rural West Bengal during the decade of early seventies. In the backdrop of semi fascist terror of early seventies a meeting was organised in one of the villages where Subhendu da was to perform. In that situation the families in the village barely had any male member left; almost all of them had to flee

because of the reign of terror. To describe the stifling situation, the singing squads as usual had been performing genuine protest songs with great vigour before Subhendu da reached there. After coming to know of the ground situation there, to Subhendu da, the audience comprising mostly the females of the village seemed as Bishnupriya (the wife of Srichaitanya) and Sachimata (the mother of Srichaitanya) reborn, concealing their wail for Nimai,(the name by which Srichaitanya was called before his Sanyas) who had moved out of his village responding to the rousing call of time. He found a parallel of Srichaitanya in the fleeing male political activists of the village who also had to leave their village to respond to the call of ongoing phase of history. With this understanding in the back of mind, Subhendu da, instead of choosing a revolutionary song sang a Nimai Sanyas (a traditional song of wailing for Nimai) and instantaneously struck a chord with the masses. He discovered the song otherwise discarded for being too religious, revealed the mental state of the masses in much better way than any other songs of protest. In the light of the above, I think a concrete situation finally determines what would provide language to our songs of protest. 6. Have there been debates, discussions or accepted norms regarding the above in your group? What are the issues that have come up and what are the contexts in which these issues came up? Ans : I suppose in all the groups who are active in the field of protest music, the nature of debate is basically same. Not only same, but the debate which figured in the meeting of the Commission of Music in the All India Conference of IPTA in Bombay in 1953 is reappearing again and again in the forums of protest music for decades. The historical debate involving two great personalities of IPTA movement, Hemango Biswas and Salil Choudhury has still its lasting impact on the organisations of later years. It shows the

extent to which the debate was relevant in the context of music of protest. It is worth mentioning that Hemango Biswas eventually after a decade made a total shift in the stance he doggedly upheld in the conference of 1953 and accepted what Salil Choudhury stood for in the debate. In the mentioned debate, Hemango Biswas put forward his opinion that the protest songs should always be set on simple and easily understandable folk tunes only. Vocal harmonies and orchestrations are bound to spoil the revolutionary spirit of songs of protest. Salil Choudhury strongly contested this viewpoint and strongly opined that all the fruits of modern music of west and east must figure in the protest music of contemporary time. If revolutionaries are not hesitant to accept modern technologies in other fields then why should they fear to welcome the vast potential of modern music while developing protest music of contemporary time? The debate needless to mention, never reached its conclusion in the said conference. However, Hemango Biswas, the main protagonist of ‘folk-only’ viewpoint changed his old understanding totally and went forward to compose songs on various tunes, starting from Indian Raga to Western movements. But the spectre of the decade-old debate still looms large over the organisations of present time too. It appeared again and gain in our group too and we never shied away from debates. We have been settling our debate case by case and seeking to strive forward. Let me point out another aspect of our movement even if it seems out of context. Once, Salil Choudhury lamented that the nationwide movement of IPTA failed to create a national tune which would be appreciated equally by all nationalities of this countries. Instead, it was created by music of the Hindi film industry. Hindi film tunes, he said, created a nationally accepted language of music with the blend of classical music of northern and southern India, of western and of folk tunes of the

different communities of this country. People of Kashmir or the hill states of North East who are otherwise hostile to anything associated with India are great lover of Hindi film music. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Gujarat to Manipur, the language of Hindi film music earned the status of national music signature. What should have been developed by peoples’ cultural movement was born in the womb of commercial film world. 7. Can you tell us about the kinds of venues where/audiences to whom you perform? Also about some interesting experiences or unexpected reactions to your music? Ans : We are not choosy about our audience. Right from the platform of mass movement to the arena of mainstream media, we operate everywhere. There was a time when we use to distance ourselves from mainstream cultural activities which resulted in our peripheral existence. After thorough discussion at the organisation level, we finally decided to make our presence felt in the mainstream cultural media alongside the platform of direct political struggle. Also we came to the conclusion that, to earn a place in the mainstream cultural activities without making any compromise on overall ideological position, we need to excel in terms of quality. Be it election audio cassette or a television production, quality in terms of content and presentation should be our foremost priority. To refer to remarkable incidents on the impact of protest music in the domain of our activity, I am reminded of a programme in 1991. At that time the forces of Hindu right raised a huge hue and cry over a short story on an incident of riot. The communal forces organised a public burning of the copies of the magazine that contained the short story. At the initiative of IPTA Silchar Unit, a huge demonstration and a programme of cultural performances was organised on the very site of public burning after a few days of the

incident. Sangh Parivar activists mobilised a strong contingent of fanatic cadres and made violent attack on the programme. Taken aback by the suddenness of the event, when other cultural organisations were contemplating a retreat, IPTA artists immediately rose up to the dais and retorted back with performance of protest songs and dances. With the powerful message of the songs and spirited performances of our artists, the baffled common man gathered at the venue got enthused and joined our side by clapping to our songs and dances. The armed attackers had to make a cowardice retreat in the face of our resistance. 8. Do we live presently in interesting times for the protest music tradition? What are the issues that can be addressed and do you think it is being done? Ans : We believe that we are living in a time which is considerably challenging for activities pertaining to protest music. Protest music can no longer be about raising strong voice of protest only. We need to make a proper assessment of the stage of struggle of the toiling masses in this phase of history. Imperialism is thrusting an artificial culture of consumerism on every nation of this world to suit its agenda of capitalist globalisation and as a result cultural diversity of the world is under serious threat. At this juncture, highlighting the cultural diversity of the world forms an important agenda of movement of protest culture. The activists of protest music world over are seriously engaged in the task of protecting the folk and ethnic music of the nationalities from the onslaught of culture of consumerism. Folk and ethnic songs of the toiling masses has been added to the arsenal of the protest songs by the activists world over in a bigger and bigger way. At this juncture the folk songs have also become protest songs and the folk singers world wide has become an inseparable component of the army of protest singers.

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