Not all musicians shun politics

Earlier this week, A R Rahman invited fans to write lyrics for one of his songs, but told them to stay away from politics. The mainstream industry may be wary, but independent bands and artistes are speaking out

Last week, music composer A R Rahman asked fans for new lyrics for his iconic number ‘Urvashi Urvashi’. The original song was part of Shankar’s 1994 movie Kadhalan and has since spawned many versions, including some in Hindi. 

Rahman wants to include the lyrics in his next show on August 10 at the YMCA Grounds in Chennai. But he had a condition: No politics!

Big names in the Indian music industry have always chosen to remain silent (‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ is the term they prefer, thank you very much) when it comes to taking a stand on politics.

An environment of censorship and a crackdown on dissenting voices means political critique goes out of mainstream entertainment. Even musicians who are open about their political allegiances prefer not to mix politics with their art.

Ironically one of the few exceptions was Rahman, who included lyrics on demonetisation in his 2017 remake of ‘Urvashi Urvashi’. But then, it was just a one-line passing reference and the lyrics were not written by him; they were crowd-sourced.

The real flag bearers of protest music in India are independent musicians. Located in different corners of the country with varying degrees of fame, they highlight caste and class discrimination, intolerance, unemployment, and violence against writers and intellectuals. Metrolife lists artistes not afraid to rub the establishment the wrong way. 

T M Krishna

The most prominent among classical artistes critical of the ruling government, TM Krishna quickly went from musical innovator to fierce critic of the south Indian classical music establishment. He pulled out of the prestigious December music season in Chennai, citing lack of social inclusiveness. He often talks about social causes, such as the right to privacy, and includes unusual poets (he recently sang Perumal Murugan) and themes in his concerts. He has spoken his mind through articles and public speeches, and waded into uncharted territory. In 2016, he even launched a Carnatic music festival of his own in an attempt to counter what he sees as its elitism.

Aisi Taisi Democracy

A political comedy act fronted by Indian Ocean bassist and vocalist Rahul Ram, comedian Sanjay Rajoura and comedian and lyricist Varun Grover, its songs talk about the failure of demonetisation, the rise of cow vigilantes, and BJP’s attempts to rewrite Indian history. 

The Ska Vengers

The Delhi-based band, besides being the pioneers of the genre ‘ska’, have never minced words in their songs. They talk about media censorship and take on politicians with regressive views. The Ska Vengers also played at the largest rock concert ever to be held in a prison: they performed for 2,000 inmates at Tihar Jail in 2012. 

Rappers strongest in protest music

Tamil musical sensation, rapper Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Arivu, has come up with hard-hitting songs like ‘Anti-Indian’ and ‘Kalla Mouni’. His songs talk about caste and religious divisions, government apathy, women’s rights, and the anti-Sterlite factory protests. He is part of The Casteless Collective, put together by Pa Ranjith, the director who takes the anti-caste discourse to the masses, primarily through films like Rajinikanth-starrers ‘Kabali’ and ‘Kaala’.

Kabir Kala Manch

The 15-year-old troupe based in Pune performs songs and plays that often critique the state. They have paid the price; three in the group—Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhewere—were arrested in April 2015, and several of the group’s shows were cancelled or interrupted by people who called them ‘anti-national’. Kabir Kala Manch performs frequently at universities, theatres and slums across the country. The artistes have no professional training, and are self-taught.

Kashmiri rap

Kashmir-based MC Kash’s debut official song was called ‘I Protest’. Unfazed by violence, official action and concert disruptions, he leaves no stone unturned with his overtly political music. He has inspired a whole tribe of Kashmiri rappers.

Swarathma


Bengaluru-based Swarathma is a folk-rock band.

The Bengaluru-based band sings about religious hypocrisy, climate change and plastic pollution. Their song ‘Pyaasi’ is about the lack of access to drinking water. From protesting against tree-felling in Indiranagar to doing free shows for charity, this band is not afraid of politics and activism.

Divine

This rapper based in Mumbai gave India its most famous protest anthem in recent times with his work in Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’.

His work highlights the travails of living in Mumbai’s slums.

More groups

Sumeet Samos, rock and rap outfit Motorcyle Shayaries, Ginni Mahi, Kerala-based death metal band Willuwandi, and Ashwini Mishra are some other artistes steadily building a fanbase among music lovers who don’t want music to be restricted to ‘entertainment’.

 

Why does music go hand in hand with politics? Because art moves people

Abhishek (Shastra) of the Kannada rap crew Rap Kavigalu says music and politics work together as music has an aesthetic value that can alter a person’s vision.

“People around the globe listen to their favourite artistes every day; this makes them more receptive to an idea, moral or lifestyle that the artist is espousing. So unbiased artists have the power to address problems and bring about a difference in the world,” he says.

Independent musician Vishnu Ravindran Nair says it was unfortunate A R Rahman asked his followers to desist from giving a political twist to his songs. “It seems
political correctness has already encroached the mainstream music industry,“ he says.

“I feel music, art, literature and culture is what instils solidarity for a cause. Music has the unique feature of being able to amalgamate poetry, sonics and visuals, if we come all the way to a music video. Art can inform an audience, which would otherwise be apathetic, and even make them passionate about causes because of how moving music can be,” he says.

If we take politics away, we starve music by depriving it of themes that are complex, contemporary and relevant, he says.

Genres that mix music and protest

Entire genres exist solely to protest against injustice. Some of these, like the Burra Katha, Shahiri Powada, Chamar Pop and Jibonmukhi Gaan have become powerful means for the oppressed to highlight their struggles. Though many started out with historical and mythological themes, they then switched to reach the masses with protest and reformist messages.

YouTube channels and ‘movement music’

Artistes are using the power of social media to further their musical activism. Independent musician Daniel Langthasa, who rose to prominence with Guwahati-based alt-rock act ‘Digital Suicide’ — they put out tongue-in-cheek songs about militancy in the North-East — has launched a channel titled ‘Mr India’. In it, he puts out raw songs which touch upon everything from local issues in Assam to Donald Trump, right-wing students’ group ABVP, and increasing corporatisation of independent music. Dalit-Marxist balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat has a channel called ‘The War Beat’ which features professionally produced videos. It also shows videos by other Marxist and Ambedkarite artistes.

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