In one of the scenes in director Zoya Akhtar’s recently-released Gully Boy, the protagonist Murad breaks away from a rather mundane conversation among drivers to walk towards a nightclub. Although he wears the same clothes as them, his heart beats to a different rhythm. His reverie breaks when the guard of the nightclub signals him to step back. Murad leaves slightly dejected. He does not join the conversation he had left behind, rather locks himself in a car, plays a rap song and repeats after it, till both the voices merge. This Murad, looking far-removed from the diffident boy who had refused to sing his own words, owns even the borrowed words. It is that moment that the rehearsed docility of a driver evaporates and the true self of the rap artist comes to the fore. It is perhaps at that moment that he finally comes into his own.
Gully Boy is not just the story of a slum boy realising his dream of being a star rapper. The film in itself is in many ways a song of protest against the socio-economic divisions that claws upon the fate of so many in our country. Dharavi, where the film is based, has in fact been witnessing a revolution of sorts as a homegrown hip hop and rap culture has been brewing among its youth for the past two decades. It is frequently compared to the American rap of the 90s when several African-American artistes used the genre to protest against the treatment meted out to them by the police and media.
Music as a means of social protest has existed in various forms across different historical epochs. Most among them of course had taken birth in the 20th century that had witnessed the maximum number of nationalist movements, the anti-apartheid movement, the civil rights movement and several political revolutions. “Protest through music has seen, historically, the adoption of extremely diverse forms across cultures, the actual range and depth of this category of music is extensive, because it is difficult to arrive at a simple set of principles that constitute the category of protest music,” writes sociologist Sumangala Damodaran in her article ‘Protest and music’.
India too has been no stranger to the idea of protesting against socio-economic realities through the medium of music. While some like the Dharavi rappers have taken inspiration from the West, others like T M Krishna have used classical or folk indigenous forms of music to agitate against the existing caste, class, religious and gender divisions in society. Here are seven such music genres in the country that have been using the power of words and rhythm to mark their dissent against a stifling social order.
Burra katha tradtion
Burra katha is an oral folk tradition popular in parts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Traditionally the stories performed through Burra katha would be mythological, historical or socio-political. Over the years it has been utilised in different historical circumstances to address the issues of the period. For instance, Burra katha had played a significant role during the Independence movement. It attracted so many people that it was banned by the British government in the Madras presidency and by the Nizam in the Telangana region.
It was during this period when the Praja Natya Mandali, which was the Andhra Pradesh branch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association or IPTA, took to the Burra Katha tradition to carry the message of anti-fascism to the public. They also used the art form to give voice to the Dalit community in Andhra Pradesh. Over time the Burra katha tradition has been mainly nativised by the Dalits and downtrodden castes to narrate their miseries and sufferings.
Shahiri Powada tradition
The Powadas were a ballad tradition in Maharashtra that is known to have originated in the 17th century during the rule of Shivaji. A typical Powada would consist of a lead singer or Shahir who would be accompanied by a group of chorus singers. Majority of these ballads would narrate historical events with an inspiring tone. For instance, the earliest known powada is believed to be the ‘Afzal Khanacha Vadh’ (the murder of Afzal Khan) by Agnidas which told the story of Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan.
In the ensuing centuries powadas came to be appropriated by different groups and communities to assert their pride and identities. One of the earliest such cases is argued to be the powadas of the 19th century social activist from Maharashtra, Jyotirao Phule. His compositions had the sole aim of reaching out to the lower castes by invoking Shivaji. Phule dealt with issues of untouchability, the discrimination meted out to the lower castes and the oppression of women. He composed powadas to narrate a non-Brahmin history of Maharashtra.
In the 1950s, the powada tradition was once again employed in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement that demanded the formation of a separate state for Marathi speaking people.
A subculture of Dalit music had been brewing in Punjab for the past several decades. However, since 2009 there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of what is known as ‘Chamar pop’. This genre of music which is understood to be a reaction to the Jat pop music is concentrated mostly in the Doaba region of Punjab comprising of the districts Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala. Census reports from this region suggests that it has the highest concentration of Scheduled Castes in India. Chamar pop has been instrumental in asserting Dalit identity and pride through its frequent invocations of figures like Babasaheb Ambedkar and the 15th century social reformer and saint Ravidas. But their songs also depict the achievements made in the form of the latest SUVs, large mansions and everything else that is most commonly featured in other Punjabi music videos as well.
Caste consciousness among the SCs in Punjab has to be traced back to the Ad-Dharmi movement of the 1920s started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia. However, the community had also attained economic benefits under the British when the demand for leather goods went up and several of them went up the economic ladder. There also emerged a strong diaspora in the West. Cultural assertion of the community in Punjab needs to be located in their specific socio-political and historical circumstances.
Since 2009 when Sant Ramanand of the Ravidasia community was murdered in Vienna, the genre has undergone a political revolution of sorts. Now artistes such as Ginni Mahi, Raj Dadral and Roop Lal Dheer have been producing music emphasising on their cultural assertions, their achievements, and the need for their political consolidation.
The Kerala People Arts Club (KPAC) was a theatrical movement that came up in Kerala in the 1950s. It had later aligned themselves with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) which was formed in 1943. Organisations like IPTA and KPAC were established with the objective of creating aesthetic forms which are distinguishable from the nationalist cultural traditions and the commercial forms. “This ‘people’s art and theatre’ attempted to reflect and respond to the travails of a colonized nation on the one hand and the specifics of the multilayered oppression of the common people under both the colonial and the immediate post-colonial contexts,” writes Damodaran in her paper titled ‘Protest through music’.
Damodaran in her work, focuses upon the musical traditions of these organisations. She writes that while most organisations fell back upon traditional and folk regional music to express political and social concerns, KPAC activists decided to ‘mould’ music using simple lyrics and lilting tunes. Further, KPAC songs also derived to a large extent from the north Indian Hindustani music. “The KPAC songs reveal both a ‘beautification’ of hitherto more monotonous folk melodies using principles from North Indian singing and creation of new melodies that were more expressive without being ornamental,” writes Damodaran. Further, there was also an emphasis on colloquial usages of language. Most frequently these songs centered around the lives of peasants and their families. “The love motif, invoking the pure love between ordinary people, became a hallmark of KPAC songs,” writes Damodaran. The ‘new language’ propagated by these songs soon found tremendous popularity and KPAC songs and plays were performed to large audiences across the state. Plays such as ‘Ente Makananu Sari (My Son is Right)’, and ‘Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist)’, had vital roles to play in spreading the Communist ideology across the state.
In the 1990s a new genre of Bengali music emerged that was referred to as ‘Jibonmukhi gaan’ which literally translates to ‘oriented towards life’. Pioneered by Suman Chatterjee, these songs were in marked contrast to the previous tradition of romantic lyrics related to love and nature. Jibonmukhi songs narrated the stories of struggle within urban life in Kolkata. Chatterjee was soon followed by Nachiketa, Anjan Dutta and Mousumi Bhowmik.
The genre introduced by these singers was heavily influenced by American folk songs and Latin music, but was equally rooted in Bengali folk traditions as well. In his songs Chatterjee criticised religious fanaticism, Nachiketa mocked corrupt politicians while Bhowmik dealt with the condition of women. “It is quite obvious that this trend draws inspiration from Bob Dylan’s, Pete Seeger’s or Joan Baez’s songs,” writes sociologist Stephane Dorin in his article ‘Songs of life in Calcutta’. In fact, in 1997 a French newspaper had once referred to Chatterjee as the ‘Bengali Bob Dylan’. The genre of ‘Jibonmukhi gaan’ of the 1990s was soon followed by the Bangla rock band movement of the 2000s, which also drew inspiration from Western traditions of protest music.
Meghalaya hip hop
Meghalaya capital Shillong is frequently referred to as the ‘rock capital’ of India. However, more recently the state been the talking point for a growing hip hop culture there. In 2016 the rap video, ‘Anthem For The North East’ featuring three rap groups from Meghalaya- Khasi Bloodz, Symphonic Movement and Cryptographik Street Poets- had gone viral, drawing attention to the popularity of this genre of music. Presently, there are several hip hop crews across the state who are actively raising awareness on the socio-political issues being faced by Meghalaya such as poverty, unemployment, drugs and violence. Yet another hip hop crew in the state, Kingdom Culture has been weaving biblical narratives with social issues to produce music that draws attention to the multitude of issues being faced by the state.
The Gaana genre of Tamil Nadu developed with the growth of urban centers and the development of an urban culture in the region. More specifically, this genre of folk music took birth in the slums of what was known as the ‘Black town’ of Chennai, and was practised by the poor and downtrodden to give vent to the struggles of urban life. “Chennai Gaana singers deal with a number of issues, including working class life (derived from urban life),” writes scholar of multimedia communication, J. Vijay Ratna Kumar in his paper ‘Tracing the History of Urban folklore: “Chennai Gaana”’. He goes on to add that “Gaana singers have always commented upon Chennai contemporary society, bringing together city and workers of modest circumstances.”
Gaana songs are of several kinds — love songs, devotional songs, songs sung at funerals, marriages, among several others. Often on, these songs also feature prominent cinema and television stars in them. For instance, MGR has been popularly featured in several Gaana songs. Overtime these songs were made popular by Tamil cinema. Music composer Deva had an important role to play in this regard.
The most recent experiment with Gaana was conducted by director Pa Ranjith. He combined the homegrown Tamil genre of protest music with rap in a 19 piece band called the ‘Casteless collective’. Asserting their denunciation of the caste system, the ‘Casteless collective’ was developed as means of making music that could create political awareness.