Protest Through Music

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Activism, Music, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Theater)

Jana Natya Manch (Janam), on 26 August, held its monthly Safdar Janam talks at Mukthdhara Art Gallery. The talk of the month was by Sumangala Damodaran on ‘Protest Through Music’ where Ms. Damodaran looked back at the songs of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) movement.

The protest songs of IPTA had different genres in themselves. There were solo songs, collective songs, folk idiom songs, native songs, classical tune songs, western tunes songs and experimental songs, mentioned Ms. Damodaran in the beginning.

Ms. Damodaran making the audience listen to the solo song, “Suno Suno Hind Ke Rehanewalo, Suno Suno,” sung by Reba Rai Chaudhry and penned by Binoy Roy, informed that the style of solo singing in protest music died down early. “The styles did not even come to the 1950 decade,” she said. The kind of songs sung solo were written in a particular situation and did not address the larger issue, Ms. Damodaran opined and said that this was also a reason why the songs did not live long.

Shifting the focus to collective songs Ms. Damodaran informed that the collective songs were celebratory in nature quite often. Repetition of lines by the singers was a trademark of the collective songs; she mentioned and said that Pandith Ravishankar was a popular name in the collective song style in protest songs. “Pandithji was quite a fascist when it came to music whose compositions had a classical touch,” said Ms. Damodaran.

Playing the protest songs of Hemango Biswas and Nivaran Pandith, which had a folk touch, Ms. Damodaran said that these composers used simple and common folk tunes and wove it with words which the movement required. She explained that these compositions were flexible in nature where anyone at any point could join a word or two. This flexibility made the songs into a collective creation, she opined. One of the protest song of Hemango Biswas: “Raghupathi Raghava Mount Batten.. Tata Birla Tere Naam…,” created waves of laughter among the audience. And so did the song, “Dekho Re Dekho Bhaiyya Yeh Strike Thodne Wala Haath, Ghoose Lene Wala Haath, Issey Vote Na Dena,” composed by Salil Chaudhry as a mark of protest against the Congress government during early seventies.

Coming back to Pt. Ravishankar and his style of music which, “though collective songs were classical in nature,” Ms. Damodaran said, “his style of songs did not live long as singing it required special training.” Songs of Jyotindra Moitra were also played for the audience to demonstrate the complexity of it, for the common people untrained in classical music to sing them.

Parallel to the protest songs influenced by Hindustani classical music, there were also songs influenced by the American union songs, informed Ms. Damodaran and played a song of Hemango Biswas, who she said was well versed in western music too.

Raising the question “Where were the real innovations in protest music to create an alternate craft and an alternate aesthetics,” Ms. Damodaran said, “The real innovation was in the experiments conducted by Salil Chaudhry.” She said that Salil Chaudhry attempted to talk about protest “through form,” by breaking the structure of raga, not following the rhythm pattern and by superimposing of scales, which was well accepted by the people.

Experiments to create an alternative aesthetics of protest songs was conducted also in Kerala in the 1950’s, informed Ms. Damodaran. “The experimentation was triggered by the desire to keep away the protest songs from the influence of Carnatic music and Sanskrit,” said Ms. Damodaran and added “It was also an attempt to create an alternate language which was non-complex by nature.” For the creation of an alternate aesthetics, in Kerala, the musicians incorporated north Indian tunes in their music. She informed that this experimentation was ridiculed by the literary circle of Kerala. Ms. Damodaran mournfully said that one of the people who were a part of this experimentation is alive now and that this experimentation was neither recorded nor studied by anyone.

Sudhanva Deshpande, a theatre activist and an active member of Janam, asked Ms. Damodaran, after the talk, if there was any influence of Jazz music, which has its roots in the protest of the black in America, on the protest songs of IPTA. He said by the time IPTA was becoming active in India, Jazz music had entered the nation and many performances of Jazz music by popular Jazz singers had taken place in India. To this Ms. Damodaran replied saying there was no evidence to say that Jazz music influenced the protest songs of IPTA. “But,” she said, “Paul Robinson and IPTA were exchanging music.”

Samvartha, a student of theatre and performance studies asked Ms. Damodaran if there was any experimentation in creating a protest music that is completely divorced of a text that is sung. “No such experimentation has taken place in India,” said Ms. Damodaran and concluded the session by singing the song, “Jaaney Waley Sipaahi Se Poocho, Wo Kahan Jaa Raha Hai…..”

04 September 2009

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