FREEDOM FROM AN OCEAN OF TEARS
From Kashmir to Kerala, new voices are echoing issues that aren’t exactly music to the political establishment
Palkon pe nami, saans hai thami, o’ mere rabba, sukoon hai gham kahin, andhere ki aghosh mein hai leti sar zameen, lauta de zara Shahid- eKashmir ( The eyes are moist, the breathing has paused, peace is lost, the land is numbed by darkness, please return this martyred Kashmir).” — Shayan Nabi, Kashmiri rapper As Kashmir alternates between violence and peace, hartals and curfews and, on a good day, peace concert and parallel soiree, Shayan Nabi, 24, plugs away at his music inside his home in Srinagar’s Upper Town area. Being locked in, he says, is an everyday lesson in the importance of expression. Nabi has few opportunities to perform live, hence he uploads his music online, collaborating with artists from around the world. He has given away more than 25 self- composed background tracks free to rappers who need it. His songs, ‘ The Ocean of Tears’, ‘ The Preacher’ and assortment of unreleased tracks have one leitmotif: Freedom.
Mumbai- based rapper Ashwini Mishra, 25, who often collaborates with Nabi, quit his corporate day job to delve into music full- time. He has been at it since 2004 but it’s only in 2012 that his music, he says, “grew a conscience”. A freestyle rapper who uses Vimeo and YouTube, he’s rapped at JAPA ( Justice and Peace for All) events and at clubs. Echoing Nabi, Mishra says the online platform allows one to vocalise sentiments that mainstream media disallows or does not provide enough security for. His tracks like ‘ Naxalbari’, ‘ Pray for Gaza’, and ‘ The Tale of Afzal Guru’ are avowedly political and anti- establishment. “I make a difference between electoral politics and social politics. I try to steer clear of electoral politics as a rule because the larger issues are usually elsewhere,” says Mishra. He has, however, penned tracks like ‘ A Letter to Raj Thackeray: I am a Bihari in Bombay’ and is working on a song on Narendra Modi as PM candidate.
With Bollywood monopolising the mainstream music space, and classical taking up the rest, the new space for the dissenting chorus is the homegrown music video. Amateur or
commercial, young musicians from Kashmir to Kerala are unafraid of talking about political issues in lyrics that aren’t exactly music to the ruling elite’s ears. No group is more representative of this than Swaang, a group of actors, writers, directors and academics all involved in the film industry in various ways. Swaang burst on to the online space in December 2012 after the New Delhi gang rape when they composed ‘ Maa Nee Meri’, a moving letter from a daughter to a mother. They had composed over 15 tracks by then, some pointedly political, and most performed live at schools and gigs across the country. The over 20odd members had come together organically in 2011 during one of the filmi parties at which they discovered a mutual fondness for the music and poetry of protest. They’ve just released their second solo song ‘ Bekaar Kutte’, adapted from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem of the same name. Their work is edgy, sardonic and politically provocative. “We’ve even received threats like ‘ Go back to Pakistan’ because people are not used to the sarcasm, the tone, the wit in the song. Protest music has not yet gained ground, it is fighting to carve a space for itself,” says Ravinder Randhawa, 36, writer, singer and video director with Swaang.
Taru Dalmia, aka Delhi Sultanate, the 32- year- old rapper and reggae dance hall singer who expresses himself via the music projects Ska Vengers, and the more raw Word Sound Power, points out that music has had a long history of involvement in political struggles in India. “Maybe it’s more visible today, but there has always been very political music in India,” he says. There has been Gadar, the Maoist revolutionary, street balladeers associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and singer- activists such as MC Kash from Kashmir, Bant Singh from Punjab ( with whom Dalmia has collaborated for Word Sound Power project), and cultural activist Jatin Marandi, from Jharkhand, jailed in 2008 and acquitted in 2011 for an alleged murder. A huge point of inspiration for urban
kids has been the Pune- based Kabir Kala Manch, various members of which have been incarcerated since 2011 for their songs of protest. “What is changing for kids like us, the anglicised middle class, is that while political music was once restricted to those who volunteered for a movement and those impacted by it, that expression has a wider range of audience today,” says Dalmia. “The more popular you are, the more you can get away with.”
Backlash does not worry Mappila Lahala, the Kozhikode- based group of rappers. Their ‘ Native Bappa’, a biting satire made in collaboration with local group Street Academics in Malayalam about a young Muslim boy framed for planting a bomb in the marketplace, went viral in January 2013. Though the 20- member group comprises Hindus, Christians and Muslims, it faced tremendous criticism for the song’s supposed stance against the stereotyping of Muslim boys. They are working on their second song, an equally provocative one, based as it is on ‘ Kozhipankhu’ a poem on affirma- tive action by Malayali poet K. Satchidanandan. Muhsin Parari, director and spokesperson for the band, says ideology is everything in an ideologically bankrupt time. “We stand for equality, for pro- people movements. We stand for a stand.”
Over in Imphal, Manipur, Akhu Chingangbam, 27, frontman of the band Imphal Talkies, is engaged in composing and recording a song titled ‘ India, I See Dirt in Your Hands’, part of his next album that will release in November, ‘ When The Home Is Burning’. Imphal Talkies’ first album, Tiddim Road, released in 2009, was entirely in Manipuri while the collaborative Imphal Music Project, begun earlier this year, includes Naga, Bengali and English lyrics. Chingangbam sings of local issues, the impact of the Armed Forces ( Special Powers) Act ( AFSPA), and of Irom Sharmila, who has been on fast since November 2000, demanding repeal of the Act. “I blame both state and non- state actors. Insurgency is the result of people simply not being left alone. We
have not been free enough to know what we want, what is good for us,” he says. He rues the fact that urban Indian music has been taken over by young people imitating Western lyrics, songs and concerns. “Why would a young man with the freedom to grab a microphone sing ‘ Hotel California’ rather than about his own burning backyard?” he asks.
Chingangbam’s music reaches the small Indie music circuit through festivals and online resources but platforms for creative expression are springing up elsewhere. Culture Shoq in Mumbai has been organising Big Mic nights in clubs across Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi for around three years now. Run by the trio of Sudeip Nair, 33, Rajeesh Marar Nair, 28, and Pramod Sippy, 33, it has groomed artistes including Viraj Manjrekar, 28, who sings of what it means to be a man in times of sexual assault in Guwahati, New Delhi and Mumbai, in tracks like ‘ Kaise Main Sahu’, and of India- Pakistan ties.
Inspirational rap artists like MC Kash, the 22- year- old Kashmiri political hip- hop artist, who came to light with his first solo ‘ I protest’ in 2007, are representative of urgent new counterculture voices that sing of tales the mainstream never will.
“... for now I contemplate on every song I make
no rubbish brother mayn, there is a message to take
like never givin’ up and still dyin’ for the truth
’ cause if you dance with the devil you’ll jump off the roof.” —‘ I’ll Never Fall’, MC Kash
Follow the writer on Twitter@ SellingViolets
MEMBERS OF MAPILLA LAHALA
( FROM LEFT) PANKAJ BADRA, ROHIT SHARMA, RAVINDER RANDHAWAAND PRABHAT RAGHUNANDAN OFSWAANG
TARU DALMIA ( IN WHITE KURTA) WITH MEMBERS OFSKAVENGERS