Of rousing times & tunes

Print edition : October 27, 2017

A troupe from Bengal performing at the all-India IPTA conference in Ahmedabad in 1948.

Founder members of the IPTA, A.K. Hangal (centre) and Prabhat Ganguly (left) at the State-level convention of IPTA in Bhopal. Photo: PTI

“IF one tries to imagine some of the things happening in the world today, it seems to me that, mostly, prose is inadequate. Because the vocabulary of prose has become so discredited, it is inadequate for describing what people are living across the world today. But by contrast, I think what people are living across the world today is very translatable and expressible and sharable in song. Maybe we live in a time when truth is most easily told in song.” These are the words of John Berger, art critic and historian, in the documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (by Tilda Swinton and Colin MacCabe).

Who can forget songs such as “ Jaane waale sipahi se pooch”, “Hoi hoi japan hoi hoi”, “Basti basti maut ka dera”, “Pachapananthathe”, “Jaaga desh hamara”, “Bazi e jane ispe lagana”, “Aapni baanche to baaper naam eelaashe boyaan”, and “Varika varika sahajare sahanasamara samayamayi” that once resounded across India? These tunes and rhythms still reverberate in the marching songs and slogans of contemporary struggles, though their lineages are often forgotten or are fast slipping into oblivion.

The Radical Impulse by Sumangala Damodaran is an attempt to record, redeem and reclaim that history of a major stream of protest music in India, that of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

It is a journey through the first two decades of the IPTA (1940s and 1950s), which were the most vibrant years in the history of the Left movement in India that “pulsated with possibilities” triggered by “a leftward turn in politics and culture” and was characterised by a conceptualisation of “an alternative nationalism and a unique and unprecedented internationalism”.

Several national and international, political and cultural developments and undercurrents mark the period: anti-colonial struggle, growth of Left movements in different parts of the country on the political front, the search for indigenous forms of creative expression and their intense engagements with similar artistic upsurges across the world on the cultural front. It was a radical impulse that involved a “combination of considerations, both purely aesthetic and political, that aimed to respond to and represent the times”, in the process, bringing out multiple interpretations of the idea of the “radical” (page 15).

Genealogy of protest music

The book makes forays into various crucial and often ignored aspects such as the genealogy of protest music, its claims as music per se, music as a social text, the tense yet vibrant relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the interesting negotiations of protest music with popular culture in the context of early 20th century modernity and in the formative years of the Indian nation. The author elaborates upon the major engagements that characterised the radical impulse in cultural terms: the idea of “the people” as legitimate subjects and agents of art, the terrain of the “nation”, the urgency of the project for freedom, emancipation and social transformation.

From the outset, any study on such a music tradition of protest and popular mobilisation that depends on oral, aural and non-written modes of expression and transmission is beset with hurdles relating to sources. There have not been many systematic attempts to archive and record these songs, tunes, lyrics and, more importantly, their contexts. They are scattered in private collections or personal memories of those who participated in those movements, from which it has to be pieced together. Some of the songs persisted in their later film avatars, while many others are lost forever.

IPTA’s repertoire

The book itself forms part of an archiving-cum-documentation project of the IPTA music tradition, and, as a result, an exciting strand of the book is journeys to gather material evidences in the form of songs, song books, pamphlets, etc., involving encounters with some of the towering figures and stalwarts of a bygone era.

The large and rich repertoire of the IPTA is excavated from the memories of artists and activists from different parts of the country such as Sova Sen, Priti Banerjee, Khaled Chowdhury, Montu Ghosh, Medini, Anasuya, Swathanthra Prakash, A.K. Hangal, Subodh More and Reba Roychowdhury. Their memories about the times, anecdotes and remembrances about the songs and lyrics give the book a charming human quality, without ever turning it into a nostalgic trip.

The book includes brief but sharp observations about the theoretical interventions of visionaries such as P.C. Joshi, and musical contributions of musicians such as Salil Chawdhury, Hemanga Biswas, Bhupen Hazarika, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Medini, Ponkunnam Damodaran, Hemanta Mukherjee, Prem Dhawan, Jyotinindra Moitra, Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh. One hopes it will provoke and inspire young researchers to fill the gaps and weave the larger narrative of protest music in India in further detail, depth and complexity. The book also carries some rare photographs from the IPTA archives apart from lyrics, translations and notations of some of the landmark songs.

The book gives a synoptic but cogent account of the formation of the IPTA and the various debates about art and culture, the popular and political, realism and modernism, folk and modern, indigenous and foreign, that animated it. The challenges it faced were complex and multifold—that of fighting reactionary forces within, negotiating the various regional strands that were to be mobilised organisationally and conceptually envisioned as a “national” culture, engagement with commercial tendencies and deviations, and about innovating and experimenting within the medium without compromising its radical energies. Another strand is the polemics about the political and the aesthetic in music within the IPTA movement and the Communist party.

There were also regional variations with regard to repertoire, approach and functional autonomy of IPTA-inspired organisations in various parts of the country. They carried certain pan-Indian characteristics and ethos, while experimenting with regional music traditions and grappling with local issues. For instance, the music developed and performed by the Bombay Central Squad, the Gana Natya Sangeet of Bengal or the Kerala People’s Arts Club drew from different traditions and addressed different challenges. If there was an earnest search for “roots” and indigenous music in the Bengal tradition, the singers in Kerala worked closely with theatre creating easily reproducible local melodies blended with political lyrics.

In Assam, one finds an intense engagement with indigenous forms of dance, folk performance, theatre and music traditions, and also with emerging technologies such as films. Peoples’ music in the Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of the undivided Andhra Pradesh emerged out of composite performances melding music, dance and theatre of the Praja Natya Mandali and its numerous units all over the region.

In Maharashtra and Andhra, the indigenous forms constituted the bulk of the music; in Bengal, Assam and Bombay there was a significant influence of Hindustani classical music, while in Hindi and Bengali songs the influence of the Western musical idiom was very strong. In the words of the author, “peoples’ music” was created out of processes of excavation, preservation, transformation and creation of forms that, in the perceptions of those involved, represented the “people” (page 147).

Although the IPTA gradually receded from the scene, the musical impulse that it triggered and the multitude of idioms and forms it experimented with left its indelible traces in popular forms of music in cinema, commercial theatre and musical entertainment across the country.

While discussing questions about “authentic” and “indigenous” aesthetic forms, how far and deep one can and should draw from the folk, classical and popular traditions, what will be its level of engagement with traditions from foreign countries, among other things, the book draws insights from protest music traditions of other countries: the Proletkult and Socialist Realist interventions in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Peoples’ Music in China that urged musicians to “be a phonograph” to the Cultural Revolution, the “Reds, Blues and Songs of Protest”, the Composers Collective from the United States that defined its musical style as “national in form, proletarian in content”, and the creative insights of revolutionary artists such as Bertolt Brecht and the Gestic music from Germany.

In the last chapter, the author examines how questions about authenticity, which is central to movements such as the IPTA, link up with contemporary debates on nation, nationalism and nationalities and their cultural representations. Here, she brings into focus notions such as the “pristine folk”, the dynamics of time, history, technology and politics that impinge upon music, and the ever-present interface of specific local histories with nationalist and internationalist imaginations. In her words, “what is interesting is that it was precisely the dynamic created by these complex ideas, often contradictory to each other, that made musicians attempt to stretch the boundaries of their craft, even as they were strongly located within their specific social and cultural locations and traditions of training” (page 211).

The book assumes importance today as a reminder of the rousing tunes and scintillating lyrics that are fast receding from public memory, especially that of the youth, whose musical horizons are being inundated with lilting tones and thunderous rhythms of the commercial-popular. The book and the songs it refers to bring back to our critical notice a certain tradition that needs to be excavated from the past, elaborated in the present and reinvented for the future.

In these post-truth times, when both the idea of the radical and the leftist imagination are under siege, the book is an alarm call to retrieve and connect with this heritage in order to explore its contemporary potentials.

For, the IPTA times and that of Left imagination today have striking similarities. The political, economic and cultural forces they confront at the global and national levels, the resources they can draw from in terms of the plural energies of the local, and the urgent need to develop an oppositional aesthetic against the monolithic imagination propagated at the national level, all seem to follow the same trajectories. In that context, the experiences and lessons from the past that the book recounts resonate with profound contemporary relevance.

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