It is difficult to describe Gummadi Vittal Rao, or Gaddar. You could call him a poet, for his words are poetic. You could call him a revolutionary, for his songs call for action. You could call him an activist, for his life is one of action. The word I think that comes closest is the old-fashioned ‘bard’. In that word—bard—I hear the magic of poetry, I hear the retelling of history, I sense the connection with the people, the common people. Unlike poetry that has staged a retreat into rarefied environments of those that comprehend references and allusions, the bard still walks the road, still breathes the dust, still sweats as he sings. Gaddar was a bard but he was more than a bard. When he performed, thousands of people turned up. But this fact does not by itself capture the electric atmosphere that was generated. His audience responded from somewhere deep inside their hearts. He sang their lives. They were validated. They were honoured. They were scoured clean. They were urged to action.
The son of poor Dalit labourers Lacchumamma and Seshaiah, Gaddar was born in Tupran, a small village in Medak district in Telangana on 4 May 1947, according to available records. Listening to Ambedkar’s speeches, Gaddar’s father was influenced by his ideas on education and emphasised the importance of education to his children. Gaddar was the first Dalit boy to pass higher secondary school in his village and he followed that up by enrolling for PUC and Engineering in Osmania University.
Speaking to me about this period, he said, “In the hostel near Moazamjahi market, we were fifteen or twenty to a room and there was just one lavatory for a hundred boys. We would queue up at four in the morning for the lavatory and I would sing,
‘there is one pot for hundred boys,
why do you want to shit?
there are hundred worms in your rice,
why do you still eat?’
All the boys enjoyed it.”
Very soon thereafter, realising that as a poor boy he would not be able to complete the engineering course, Gaddar gave it up and sought other means of livelihood. Gaddar’s gift of singing the lives of the people, echoing their pains, was obviously evident from a young age. The beginnings of the Telangana movement in 1969 created the hope that the movement would end unemployment and poverty in the region. Gaddar joined enthusiastically but soon grew disillusioned by the leadership and dissociated himself from them. He even began to expose them through his songs.
By the early 1970s, revolution was in the air. The country was simmering with rebellion against repressive state laws and violence against the common people. Activists who joined the movements were captured and mercilessly killed in police ‘encounters’. This period of great revolutionary upheaval culminated in the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi to contain and stamp out the effects of Naxalbari and Srikakulam.
Gaddar was drawn into the People’s War Group—one of the most militant revolutionary parties in the country—and became its cultural ambassador. I have known Gaddar since the Emergency. He has been a constant presence along with several brilliant revolutionary writers and poets who were all instrumental in shaping my political consciousness and widening my intellectual horizons.
Speaking about this time, he said to me: “I had just gone underground—there were signs of Emergency. I left my home and my family and set out. After many days I felt like seeing my mother. Her name was Latchumamma. She believed that once you taste money, you will never study. So she was resolute that we should not work. I was the only one who continued with my education and joined engineering college. By then I had got involved in all this. But my mother grew suspicious. Then she heard that I had given up studying. She understood. When someone asked her where her son was, she replied, ‘I gave birth to my son for the world. He has gone off to serve the world.’ I wrote this song for her.”
“Sirimalle Chettu kinda
Under the fine jasmine tree
Oh Lacchumama Oh Lacchumama
You sit so desolate
Standing knee deep
In the slushy field
Taking a step backwards
Like a bullock
Planting seedling after seedling
Oh Lachummamma Lacchummama
Your back has been broken
Oh Lachummamma! Lacchummama!”
Over the last two decades he moved on to chart his own path that combined Marxist principles of class resistance with Ambedkarite ideas on the necessity of fighting caste injustice. He was also a leading figure in the struggle for a separate Telangana as the founding president of the Telangana Praja Front. Over the last 20 years, Gaddar moved around with a bullet lodged near his spine. He was diabetic, exhausted, and in pain. That bullet is my personal bond with Gaddar. The police sketch based on Vimala’s description of the man who shot Gaddar in April 1997 was the image of the man who was next to Kannabiran just a couple of days earlier at our home, jostling him very roughly.
Politics, political affiliations, and internecine disputes apart, Gaddar was the bard of the Naxalite movement, of the People’s War Group, and represented its essence at the height of its glory. He sang of the movement and its martyrs, of its goals and aspirations to the people who were the subject of the struggle, addressed in the language and local idiom of the people. The fact remained that he was beloved by the people. However tired or grey or hoarse he grew he had only to pick up his blanket and his staff and he was transformed into this towering legend adored by the people. His work is something that needs to be preserved, enjoyed not just by the people of Telangana but shared widely. For Gaddar is a national treasure.
Vasanth Kannabiran is a feminist writer, poet, and translator. This article is adapted from My Life is a Song: Gaddar’s Anthems for the Revolution (translated by Vasanth Kannabiran; Speaking Tiger Books 2021), with the permission of the publisher.