Songs For Dark Times

May 30, 2019 at 9:15 AMMay (Activism, Literature, Music, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy, Uncategorized)

Bertolt Brecht, the German dramatist and poet, in a poem asks if there will be songs in the dark times, and answers the question as, “Yes there will be songs about the dark times.” Nada Maninalkur who now is on an all-Karnataka journey asks and also answers the possibility of turning songs into light, not just to walk cutting through the dark times but also to fight the darkness.

***

As Nada Maninalkur sings the song by Janardhan Kesaratti which asks the listener to cleanse the dirt accumulated in the mind (manssiganTida koLeya tikki toLeduko) he pauses to ask, “How many of you feel healthy?” and the high-school students raise their hands. “Do you notice that all of you have raised your right hand?” asks Nada and the students wonder what is so unusual about it. When Nada follows it with, “Why do you raise your right hand always when you have to ask a question in the class or know the answer to a question asked by the teacher?” the students are pushed to think why for the first time. Nada helps them to find the answer when he says, “We have all been schooled to think that right hand is superior to the left, like white is superior to black. This hierarchy and discrimination is taught in the form of culture.” The students are visibly unsettled by the new thoughts but also have started finding such hierarchy wrong.

Nada Maninalkur has been travelling across all the districts of Karnataka since August, 2018 with around 50 songs which speak of various issues like gender, caste, superstition, social inclusion, pluralism etc. When Nada announced his ‘Karnataka Yatra’ on social media, individuals, organizations, educational institutions from all districts invited him to come perform for them and promised audience too.
In a B.Ed college, a set of students who earlier walked out of the concert by Nada come sit by him while having lunch post-concert. They say, “We disagree,” in a self-guarding tone. Nada smiles and continues to eat. Later when he is about to leave the campus the same students come to him again and say, “We have been thinking about it. But still we disagree.” Nada says, “I am glad you are thinking,” and continues to say, “My job is done.”

The back story of this story goes like this:

At this particular B.Ed. College, Nada decided to begin the concert by singing kalisu guruve kalisu, a song which originally is a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to his son’s teacher. Like the method he employed for this journey, this song rendition too was paused for conversations after every stanza. At one point the conversation moved to the popular Kannada folk song govina haaDu (song of the cow) which tells the tale of a tiger killing itself after witnessing the truthfulness of a cow named Punyakoti who it wanted to eat earlier. Nada Maninalkur, referring to this song, spoke about poetic imagination and its politics which made some among the audience uneasy and restless. Next when Nada sang the song, namma elubina handaradallondu, (There are places of worship- temple masjid church- and Gods in our skeleton) a bunch of students got up to say, “This song is unscientific. How can there be a temple or a masjid inside us?” Not satisfied by the question they raised, the statement they made the students also walked out of the concert. Later at the mess he met the same set of students who came to him to register their disagreement yet again.

Recollecting these episodes Nada Maninalkur says, “Change is a process. When the first stone is thrown it stirs the water and muddies the water. But slowly it also creates ripples.” He continues the conversation to say, “Songs by themselves are inadequate. But they can initiate a dialogue in a much effective manner than a lecture or a sermon. Hence I use songs while the most important thing for me is to have a dialogue with people.”

Nada Maninalkur who started Arivu, an NGO, in 2012 arrived at this understanding slowly through personal experiences. The one major incident that made this realization dawn on Nada was a series of programmes they held after an infamous rape incident of a young girl in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. The Arivu team visited college after college and discussed body politics using theatre, songs and literature. That made students open up, though it made the lecturers uncomfortable. “Education is left with no space to think alternatively and think rightly. This space needs to be filled and songs can become an effective and immediate way to build bonds and initiate a dialogue,” says Nada and recollects another story from the same time period.

A lady teacher who came from a conservative family came in contact with Nada and team while they were working with some of her students. Over a period of two years the teacher who earlier would insist on purity of food, water and not share her food or water with anyone, eventually cast off her casteist worldview and now holds a liberal outlook. This was possible, according to Nada, only because of a continuous interaction with humanistic ideas and continuous dialogues with fellow humans, outside the boundary of caste class and gender. Now the same teacher helps over 200 students a year to shed off their biases and reinvent their ‘self’, says Nada.

In Nada’s opinion, “In our growing up years we spend most of our time in educational spaces and hence it is important to speak in educational spaces.”

“Working with ‘Self’ is important,” opines Nada and elaborates on it. During this ‘Karnataka Yatra’ at a school in the district of Shimogga when Nada sang a song on menstruation, the dialogue with students arrived at the issue of Shabarimala. During this discussion a student said, “Respecting belief and practice is a part of our democratic values.” Nada spoke the importance of respecting people’s faith and practice and went to speak about the beliefs and practices which harms human, like caste etc and also narrated the story of Nangeli. The student then agreed with Nada when he said, “We need to get rid of beliefs and practices when they do not respect human dignity and doesn’t believe in equality.”

In other schools, Nada remembers, whenever he sang the song on menstruation, the students would either giggle or put their heads down in embarrassment. In a school, he recollects, a girl who spoke about menstruation covered her face with a scarf while speaking. The girl said that this issue is not discussed in a normal way even among girls. “We are made to believe that it is a shameful thing,” Nada says and adds in a firm voice, “We haven’t worked on ‘self’ and hence we fail to build on the idea of rights and justice. First we need to realize and make people realize that the dignity of ‘self’ is of utmost importance.”

Though most of the concerts of Karnataka Yatra have been in schools and colleges, Nada as a part of this Yatra has also performed in Temples, Masjids, Central Jail. He has also accepted invitations of activists, youth groups, journalist circles etc. In all these places, he says, he would first asses the audience and on the spot makes a choice of the songs to be sung for them. He has been singing 4-5 songs in each concert from his archive of around 50. Most of these songs are from contemporary Kannada poets. But his archive also includes verses by the 12th century Vachana movement and of saints like Shishunala Shareef, Kabeer etc.

Even when Nada is in the last leg of his Yatra, to his credit, not even once he has been stopped from singing or discussing in any of the districts of Karnataka. But yes there have been discussions of high voltage, which is okay according to him since there is still dialogue happening there. This, he says, is the power of songs. It makes you introspect, he opines, and it doesn’t have the aggression which one way communications such as lectures and seminars carry. Songs make space for a dialogue, for conversations to take place, opines Nada. The proof, he says, is seen in the invitations he got from teachers in several schools to teach the same songs to the students and also the invitation he received from some teachers to come stay with them for that day. The students, he says, either openly come and talk to him or write letters to him or tag him on social media and thus express their acceptance of and appreciation for the pedagogy he employed.

Nada also has some funny anecdotes to share like instances where people considered him to be a religious saint and would come and offer dakshinNe (money offered in kindness) and a particular instance where someone equated him with an extreme right wing speaker saying, “You too travel to inspire the youth, like him.” Nada’s reply to this person was simply, “I am not here to inspire youth but to sensitize the youth. That is the difference. Also, he speaks politics and I speak about humans and human self.”

A friend of Nada suggested him to bring out a CD of these 50 songs with which he travelled across Karnataka and Nada politely rejected the idea. His reason for it is spelled out like this: “If brought out as a CD, these songs will turn into a commodity of entertainment and it will just become one with the innumerable songs of this world which some sing and some remember. To me the dialogue that these songs initiate is important.” That is precisely why Nada says that when he was asked to teach these songs, he suggested a one month residential workshop, “because it is not just about learning the lyrics of the song in a particular tune and singing it in a melodious manner. It is not about songs but responding to the times and holding a dialogue. For that one needs to be trained in things other than music.” Nada himself isn’t a trained singer nor is he trained to play the two stringed instrument he plays.

“When I started this journey, I started with great despair. But this travel has made me hopeful. I have learnt during this journey that there are innumerable human beings out there in the world who are doing several work in small scale which is making a positive impact on some life. There are unimaginable number of people who in their daily lives are keeping the spirit of humanity alive. This they are doing not because they think it is their duty but because it is their default nature,” says Nada before he continues with his journey with songs in his pocket.

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