09 Jul 2017 17:31 IST

United we sing

Relaa is more than a protest music supergroup

On June 25, a few days before our social media timelines were flooded with selfies from the #NotInMyName marches in Delhi and Mumbai, a very different kind of protest gathering took place at the small, rundown performance hall at Nityanand Municipal School in Andheri East. This one had no TV camera crews, no celebrities popping in to make an appearance. Just a solitary policeman sitting on his bike outside the venue, taking notes on everyone who walks in the door. As I join the 50-odd students, workers and activists in the audience, I’m greeted with the sight of 20 musicians dressed colourfully in symbolic blue and red kurtas, singing a Marathi song parodying the cult of Narendra Modi. The song ends, and a short, gaunt man steps forward. This is Kaladas Deheriya, a poet and balladeer from Chhattisgarh who has spent the past three decades immersed in the State’s vibrant worker’s movement. “Friends, just yesterday one of our friends from Odisha, a musician and playwright named Hemant, was fired from his government job for participating in protests,” he tells the audience. “This government has been running a campaign against cultural activists in the country. That is why we’re here today, to sing our songs of protest.”

The event was called ‘Songs of Resistance’, a two-hour performance of protest songs and agit prop street theatre organised by a collective of musicians, artistes and activists across the country. They call themselves Relaa, a word of Gondi extraction that describes a massive gathering of people, a rally with revolutionary potential. Formed in 2014, the group includes musicians and troupes from Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttarakhand. Some are veterans of mass political movements in their home States who have performed at protests and mass gatherings for decades. Others are younger, bright-eyed kids who took up music as a way to articulate their newly developed political consciousness. Some sing about caste and women’s rights. Others focus on worker’s rights and indigenous peoples’ struggles against land acquisition. But they all share a commitment to progressive causes and a belief in the transformative and revolutionary potential of art. “The situation today is that bourgeois politics has become entrenched in the psyche of the people,” Deheriya, one of Relaa’s founding members, tells me after the performance. “They are sick of speeches and polemics, they don’t want to listen anymore. So we feel that at this time, only cultural work can spread awareness amongst the people.”

The idea of forming an independently funded, non-affiliated collective of like-minded cultural activists first surfaced in 2014, when Ekta Mittal and Angarika Guha of Bengaluru based media arts collective organised a resistance-themed arts festival called Horata. The final day of the festival featured a lineup of protest musicians from across the country, drawn from a range of movements and ideologies — Marxists, Ambedkarites, feminists. A day before the performance, all the musicians gathered together to get to know each other, talk about their work and share their experiences. “That’s where Relaa was born,” says Guha. “In a room full of people with similar concerns and preoccupations, and a firm conviction in the power of cultural resistance and the arts.”

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The first of those shared concerns was with the role music plays in India’s thriving culture of dissent and protest. Traditionally, the political leadership of mass movements — especially on the Left — has treated music not as an art form but purely as a tool for political messaging and mobilisation. The musician is there to bring people to the gathering and provide a break in between long speeches. This purely utilitarian view of culture not only undervalues the work the musicians put in, it also ignores the potential for culture to become a site of resistance in and of itself. “There is a growing disillusionment and dissatisfaction at being considered entertainment peddlers, or vehicles for sloganeering/political messaging,” says Guha.

Relaa was also a response to the dwindling spaces where such activists can get together, share ideas, experiment and collaborate. “I remember in one of our meetings, Sambhaji Bhagat was reminiscing about the figure of the protest musician as a travelling bard of sorts, journeying from place to place, collecting stories and songs,” says Guha. “The act of singing was the protest, the musician in many ways the carrier of news, linking people and experiences together through their songs. Protest music doesn’t travel in this way any more — the climate and circumstances have changed. So how can artists meet one another, experiment and collaborate?”

Many of Relaa’s founding members were also frustrated with the growing factionalism within progressive movements in India. At a time when unity and solidarity was needed more than ever before, ideological nitpicking, party lines and differing priorities were hobbling their ability to be an effective resistance. Many of these differences also emerged in the initial discussions about forming Relaa in Bengaluru, and later at a meeting in Pune, as they often do when two or more activists get together and start talking. But Relaa believes that art can help transcend those fault lines, pulling everyone together on shared principles and common goals. “As a friend of ours once commented in a Relaa meeting, we must learn to work together, in all our friendly contradictions,” adds Guha.

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In the three years since its formation, Relaa has been active on a number of fronts. Last year, they held their first Relaa yatra, a series of workshops and performances across colleges, slums and worker’s colonies in Delhi, culminating in a rousing performance at Jawaharlal Nehru University. They’ve performed at the national NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movements) convention in Bihar, at a PUCL (People’s Union for conference in Chhattisgarh and at the People’s Forum on BRICS (Brazil Russia, India, China and South Afirica) in Goa. In April, they made an appearance in Chaibasa, Jharkhand, as a part of a cultural festival on women’s resistance. And last month’s performance capped off a week of workshops on songwriting, theatre and video production in Kharghar.

But Relaa is much more than a protest music supergroup. Its members envision it as a fluid and flexible collective that responds to the needs and demands of the time. One day it’s a performing troupe. The next day it’s a network that coordinates the efforts of different groups spread across the country. On the third it’s a skill development programme where everyone pools their resources to learn and grow as artistes. “Each member of the group has their own expectation/interest/investment in the group and we aren’t in a hurry to define it or standardise it,” says Guha. “Of course we are working on a manifesto of sorts, our own articulation of cultural resistance, of cultural politics that lays out clearly our stances. But the collective also exists to meet the needs of independent groups of artistes. We had a long discussion about whether we were a network or a collective or a movement and decided we were probably a combination of all three!”

They’re also working towards expanding the group to include members from all the states of the Union. Apart from Deheriya, the group consists of Pune-based Dalit cultural troupes Kabir Kala Manch and Yalgaar, Shankar Mahanand and his troupe (who’re actively involved in indigenous movements over land rights in Orissa), and the Indian Folk Band, a group of Dalit djembe and folk percussion exponents from Karnataka led by a young man named Balu. At the recent workshop, they were joined by Mumbai’s Samta Kala Manch, the cultural wing of the Republican Panthers.

“In the next year or two, we want a team of Relaa in each State,” says Deheriya. “And we want to organise a mass performance of artists from all over the country who will showcase their own local art forms. We want this performance to be a big protest that says we’re against the state’s attacks on cultural activists. And also speak up against the state’s dilution of forest rights — and its continued attacks on adivasis, Dalits and farmers.”

The collective’s short-term plans also include their second Relaa yatra, this time across colleges and student spaces in Bihar and Maharashtra, as well as recording and releasing a collection of the new protest songs they’ve written. There’s also plans for a songbook that serves as an archive of Indian protest music — both old and new. With the members spread across the country, and financial resources severely limited, the going is slow. But Relaa is here for the long haul. “Ultimately our goal is that the act of singing be a protest in itself,” says Guha. “We want to show that works of art can challenge and transform mindsets and attitudes.”

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)