Protest through music


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THE use of music as a mode of expressing protest has historically involved the adoption of diverse forms from across cultures, ranging from the traditional to the new. In different parts of the world we have seen that the message of protest is manifest both in the form and structure of the music as well as in the message sought to be conveyed. Musical protest traditions have thus experimented with indigenous traditional forms, adapted music from different cultures and sometimes even subverted the grammatical structure of canonical forms. Experimentation with the structure of the music itself, in terms of the nature of sounds produced, the use of voice and silence, the time intervals and instruments used, constitutes a major element of the articulation of protest.

The formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1943 marked a formal adoption of the idea that music and theatre would be used for the conscious articulation of protest. In India, this was one of the early, if not the first, attempts to use music, dance, theatre and art for the systematic articulation of protest against oppression, particularly class based. Across the country, a large number of the best-known artists of the time became part of the IPTA, attempting to create alternative aesthetic products. Regional and provincial branches of the IPTA were formed, all engaged in the creation of this alternative aesthetic. In some states such as Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, other political cultural organizations – such as the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) and the Praja Natya Mandali (PNM) – were formed which aligned themselves with the IPTA.

The setting up of the IPTA and other such formations was a response to a perceived need for new aesthetic forms that represented the people while distinguishing themselves from the cultural traditions of the mainstream nationalist movement on the one hand and commercial theatre on the other. 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.

Between the late 1930s and the 1950s, a wide range of historical developments threw up this need for an alternative culture and generated responses in the form of aesthetic productions across music, theatre, art and dance – the Bengal Famine of 1943, the Telengana and Tebhaga peasant movements in Andhra Pradesh and Bengal respectively, the Second World War, the hanging of young revolutionaries in Kayyur in Kerala, the trauma of communal violence, Partition and the accompanying process of dislocation and mass migration. Equally significant was the feeling that the Nehruvian state had betrayed the radical dream and was engaging in repression of radical movements and activists.

While there is some work on the theatre tradition of the IPTA, its musical tradition remains largely undocumented in any systematic manner. Though many of the songs created and popularised by the IPTA continue to be popular and are sung in different parts of the country even today, a substantial number have also been forgotten, except in the recollections of people who were involved with the IPTA in the period up to the sixties or so. This paper, based on preliminary research and documentation of the IPTA’s musical tradition in Hindi, Malayalam and Bengali, is an attempt to present the tradition.


A number of questions arise when we consider the music created and sung by the IPTA. First, what were the different traditions that were used, i.e., can one classify them into specific categories such as classical music, folk/subaltern music, or western music based compositions? To what extent did the compositions, in form as well as content, reflect existing traditions that might be considered indigenous, traditions that were borrowed, traditions that were consciously subverted and so on? Second, was experimentation with the grammar of the music (the use of voice, pitch, harmony, orchestration, instruments and so on) a conscious part of the articulation of protest? In other words, to what extent did the range of music created reflect the need for expression through the physical content of the music itself? Third, what were the contexts – international, national or local – that gave rise to the different kinds of music and to what extent did the context itself influence the nature of the music created?

This paper attempts limited answers to the above questions through an examination of music that was produced in the three languages between the early 1940s and the early 1960s in what might broadly be considered the IPTA tradition, though not necessarily under the banner of the IPTA.


What has been attempted here is a very rough schematization which, it must be emphasized, is not intended to straitjacket the tradition. Many songs, even if categorized under a given genre, can fall into more than one category. The following broad genres of music can be identified from the IPTA tradition: (i) The folk genre; (ii) the classical music based genre; (iii) translations/adaptations of songs from the international communist and anti-fascist movements; and (iv) the western harmonic tradition.

To discuss the folk tradition first. The repertoire contains a large number of songs where folk tunes such as the Bhatiali have been directly used, viz. in songs written and sung by Hemanga Biswas and Nirmalendu Chowdhury; Nibaran Pandit and Gurudas Pal have heavily leaned on other forms from Bengal. Within the folk genre is another category of songs that can be classified as ‘native’, where direct protest themes are inserted into commonly used tunes that can be used flexibly and satirically. Examples of this are ‘Raghupati Raghava Mountbatten’ written by Hemanga Biswas, composed in a ‘kirtan’ style; Gaajan singing about the Bengal famine and a large number of songs using the ‘Aalha’ or ‘Sapri’ from U.P. or the ‘Vallamkali’ or boatmen’s songs in Malayalam. These ‘native’ songs were theatrical and simple in terms of tunes – able to accommodate all kinds of lyrics. This form of music continues to be part of the repertoire of groups attempting to convey a political message.


It is instructive to address here some of the concerns that informed the collection and creation of songs in the folk tradition. In a circular about a proposed collection of folk songs to be published by the People’s Publishing House, P.C. Joshi, who was the key person in the formation of the IPTA’s Central Squad in Bombay, wrote that revival and popularization of folk culture was essential to strengthen democratic elements in the ideological struggle. The objectives of this revival, as spelt out in the document, reflect the debates in different parts of the country on what people’s music should be like and the extent to which folk music was people’s music. A key objective of the revival of the folk tradition, according to Joshi, was to ‘help the people of one language group in India to know the folk tradition of other language groups… this would weaken chauvinistic traits in all the languages… Further, folk songs make the most sense to foreign readers, both the progressive in the western world and the citizens in the socialist world.’

Considered relevant to the stated objectives were a wide range of songs, both traditional and completely indigenous, and modern or expressing modern ideas in the folk idiom. It is apparent that the folk tradition had been interpreted in its widest sense while taking care not to reduce the attempt to ‘mere versification of political slogans’. Apart from expressing the sentiments of the people, it was considered necessary to use the folk tradition for the creation of a larger national identity and help forge international solidarity.


As much as the actual diversity spawned by some of these explicit objectives, there were varying interpretations of how the folk idiom needed to be used. Some saw the need for the progressive cultural movement to uncover the true music of the people to provide the context for ordinary people to express themselves, and to preserve it in precisely that form as a celebration of the ‘indigenous’. For them, it was only ‘authentic’ traditional folk songs that could represent the voice of the people and merely using the folk form to express political concerns not only ‘distorted’ indigenous culture, it was unappealing to the people. A large number of activists, however, saw the relevance of the folk idiom as extending beyond its own space, to be performed before national audiences and people for whom the music was not native, especially urban audiences.

There were those who went still further and used the simplicity and directness of the folk idiom (both in form and content) to express something completely modern and possibly ‘displaced’ from the original. In Kerala, for example, activists of the KPAC decided to ‘mould’ folk tunes and craft a ‘new folk’ idiom that used simple lyrics and lilting tunes that were soon accepted as the voice of the people. This new idiom consciously worked on the structure of folk music by introducing greater melodic content as it was felt that the Malayalam folk tradition consisted of forms that were monotonous and repetitive and that a message to change the world needed to be packaged within a new, more appealing aesthetic. The Kerala song tradition, therefore, used fewer ‘authentic’ and traditional songs in their protest song repertoire. I will return to this later, as this tendency also sought to define an identity of ‘Malayaleeness’ through music and theatre.


It was in Bengal and in Bombay that the IPTA repertoire saw the significant emergence of Hindustani classical music based songs as a conscious contribution to the cultural movement. With classically trained musicians like Ravi Shankar and Jyotirindra Moitra as important members of the IPTA Central Squad, a large number of songs had complex classical tunes. These songs, mostly chorus songs with solo voices singing small parts, involved complex tunes, modes of rendering and orchestration. Jyotirindra Moitra’s ‘Nabajeebaner Gaan’ and Ravi Shankar’s ‘Jaaga Desh Hamara’ are examples.

These kinds of songs were written and composed with the explicit recognition that alternative music that attempts to convey a message should not be inferior or less rigorous in form to those from the mainstream tradition and that artistes performing under the alternative tradition should be as accomplished as mainstream and commercial singers. However, from the mid-1950s the production of such protest songs in India ceased, possibly because it was difficult for non-classically-trained singers to sing them. Also because, over time, protest music came to be more associated with collective songs that were more ‘marching-tune-like’. We turn to this below.

Coming now to the songs of the nationalist genre. These songs, similar in form to the nationalist collective song tradition, constituted a substantial category in all languages. Some prominent examples are ‘Balikudeerangale’ in Malayalam, ‘Esho Mukto Karo’ in Bengali, Ravi Shankar’s ‘Jaaga Desh Hamara’ in Hindi and a song celebrating the red flag in the tune of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ in Malayalam. In form, many of the songs were rooted in the Indian classical tradition with uplifting tunes, sung at high scales and tempos to the accompaniment of large orchestras using instruments like the sitar, veena, violin, tabla and the bugle. Most of these songs were openly mobilizational, exhorting people to rise up against colonialism and oppression.


Finally, there were a large number of songs, mostly in Bengali and a few in Hindi, drawing on western musical traditions. Within this lot, there were two clearly discernible trends: collective songs, mostly translations and adaptations from the international protest music tradition, but also those inspired by it and, the second, consisting of songs in the harmonic tradition. As argued earlier, a deep internationalism was considered as necessary as identification with local and national traditions.

From the 1930s onwards, there was also increased interaction between theatre persons and musicians from India and abroad, resulting in translations of the well-known songs of the international cultural protest movement such as the Internationale and La Marseillais into different languages. Hemanga Biswas wrote songs about Paul Robeson and the Chinese Revolution which had western tunes; Bhupen Hazarika adapted Paul Robeson’s ‘Mississippi’ to talk about the Ganga. In the latter half of the 1940s, Salil Chowdhury wrote songs in the harmonic tradition which completely transformed the dominant style of composition and singing in India. Subsequently this tradition was developed elaborately in Bengal and to a limited extent in other parts of the country.


A significant part of the IPTA’s repertoire was ‘borrowed’ from within the country and outside. One aspect of the borrowing came from making folk traditions in one part of the country the basis of compositions in another language. For example, the repertoire of the Central Squad consisted of songs in Hindi using Lambada tunes from Telengana, Powada from Maharashtra and so on. Salil Chowdhury’s highly popular song ‘Maanbo Na Bandhan Ey’ used the tune of a farmers’ song from Andhra Pradesh. The popularity of these compositions reflected the possibilities of universalization in folk idioms and the role this could play in the creation of a national identity. Regular conferences of the IPTA played a major role in facilitating exchange and discussion between activists from different parts of the country.

A second aspect of borrowing, that from non-Indian traditions, reflected the internationalism created by the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggles. The direct use of western tunes such as from Paul Robeson, the writing of anti-fascist ballads in Malayalam and Bengali on the lines of Brechtian war ballads, translations and adaptations from the Internationale, Youth International, ‘La Marseillaise’ and so on, reflected this tendency.

I now turn to the creation of new genres by looking at two examples: the new folk tradition created by the KPAC and its predecessors, and second, the harmonic tradition introduced by Salil Chowdhury.

The KPAC’s music was created out of intense discussions among activists of ‘people’s music’. The debate was about how best to depict the conditions, hopes and aspirations of the Malayali people, i.e., how a ‘Malayalattanima’ or ‘Malayaleeness’ could be expressed. The dominant popular commercial tradition consisted of music and theatre in the ‘Sangeetanatakam’ tradition, which drew heavily from Tamil culture. Not only was expressing ‘Malayaleeness’ essential to the establishment of the Malayali linguistic identity, the left’s role in doing this was considered critical. The new folk idiom that got crafted in the definition of this identity needed to be both simple enough to express the feelings of the common people and, at the same time, expressive enough to convey a range of emotions.


In terms of form, what was easily available – the folk music of Kerala on the one hand and music from the Carnatic tradition on the other – was seen as constraining. In the case of a large number of indigenous forms the dominant perception was that they would not attract the people to ‘think new’, since folk music from Kerala, unlike in many other parts of the country, is fairly limited in terms of pitch, range of notes explored and variety in melodic forms. At the same time, the use of Carnatic music was not only considered much too ornamental and elaborate to express simple feelings but also constrained by its structure and rules of rendering.

It was instead felt that Hindustani music, or the North Indian tradition, offered greater freedom and variety of expression because it allows for rendering the same raga or combination of notes to suit variation in moods. In addition, there was sufficient familiarity with the North Indian tradition because of a thriving Ghazal culture in Malabar and also the growing popularity of Hindi film music in Kerala. 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.


This innovation with form was also accompanied by fresh lyrics that reflected the same objectives. Again, in contrast to Sanskritized and Tamil-based lyrics, there was greater emphasis on colloquial usages while consciously eschewing anything that might sound like sloganeering. These songs typically talked about the lives of peasants and their families and did not directly refer to class relations or exploitation except through symbolism, such as references to the ‘sickle shaped moon’ that attracts a poor peasant girl. The love motif, invoking the pure love between ordinary people, became a hallmark of KPAC songs. This new ‘language of the people’ got a tremendous response and the plays and songs of the KPAC were performed to large audiences all over the state.

The harmonic tradition of Salil Chowdhury’s music can be considered as yet another major innovation of the IPTA, marking a complete departure from existing music, even that which already existed in India’s ‘westernized’ tradition. By the 1940s, the use of western tunes as well as that of western orchestration in dominantly Indian melodies was common in Bengal, for instance in Rabindra Sangeet and other music from the Brahmo tradition, compositions by Pankaj Mullick and so on. However, these innovations continued to retain the ‘modal’ nature of the Indian musical tradition, where a basic melody uses a certain combination of notes, whether raga based or based on western tunes. When western orchestration was used with the main melody, what made it as pleasing as the original melody was the exploration of harmony in the orchestration, even though the instruments might explore notes not contained in the dominant melody.

Salil Chowdhury’s compositions for the IPTA, exemplified by ‘Dheu Utchhe’ on the Naval Mutiny of 1946, moved away from the modal structure by using a series of modal melodies, each with its own given combination of notes and accompanied by harmonic orchestration, but such that each of the pieces of the song sounded very different from the other. He also introduced significant silences, varying speeds in the different sub-melodies, harmonies in singing, superimposition of one scale upon another and so on which went on to become the hallmark of the Indian choir tradition, first in Calcutta and later in Bombay and Madras. For him, as with the KPAC, the creation of the new aesthetic involved innovation not only in the poetic content of the composition but also in form.


What were the aspects of the musical tradition of the IPTA of the first two decades that got carried forward? In terms of form, from the mid to late-1960s onwards, the protest music tradition in India limited itself largely to producing songs in the collective tradition, with solo songs gradually disappearing. This, in my opinion, was an unfortunate development. The solo songs of the IPTA repertoire, rendered by a single singer, sometimes accompanied by a chorus, had been very effectively used to convey a critical message. Most of these songs were not directly mobilizational and had an evocative quality that played on the emotions of the audience. Today, most of these songs have disappeared from the repertoire of the left cultural movement in India.

Even within the collective music tradition, what is most common is the use of satirical folk tunes which can accommodate lyrics for every situation, this form being most commonly seen in street plays. Another form that has been developed elaborately, although much more mechanically, is the harmonic tradition, with large choirs singing songs with multiple harmonies and with each song consisting of several ‘pieces’ put together.

IPTA used theatre as a political weapon and presented a truly alternative model of cultural production. It aimed to craft a cultural consciousness of the Indian people that would enable them to give expression to the multilayered oppression that they suffered from, build on the rising sentiments against this oppression and mobilize them in the struggle to overthrow the oppressive colonial system and its institutions. Towards this it was necessary to forge a national identity that was both rooted in its traditions and sub-national identities on the one hand and identified with international protest and working class movements on the other.


How all this was possible through the musical idiom was seriously deliberated through the organizational structure of the IPTA at the national and regional levels, finally resulting in its highly varied, representative and innovative music tradition. That the influences from one region in the country or part of the world were being comfortably used, worked upon and received in another, reflects the ability of music to transcend contexts, and demonstrates the universality of the musical idiom. It also demonstrates the extraordinary creative ability and the clarity of thought behind the creation of this alternative aesthetic. It is, therefore, the musical tradition of the IPTA that perhaps best represents, in its essence, what the left cultural movement was trying to do.