“Who all will you arrest?
Birds of freedom, lakhs of them
who all will you arrest?
We’ll fly away with the cage
and you’ll not even know.
The iron of these prison bars,
comes from our toil
and to melt this iron
do our bloods boil.
Imagine what will happen
when the iron will know its match,
We’ll fly away with the cage
and you’ll not even know”
– Deepak Dengle (Kabir Kala Manch)
Three members of Kabir Kala Manch – Deepak Dengle, Ramesh Gaichor and Sachin Mali have been in jail for over three years. They are charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a tool in the hands of the government, to carry out arrests on prejudicial grounds. They haven’t indulged in any violent activity or crime. Their crime is that as part of Kabir Kala Manch, they perform poetry that uses song and theatre to speak of oppression and injustice. Their ‘crime’ is that their songs do not correspond to the glorious uncomplicated version of Indian society. The India they sing about, rife with caste oppression, gender inequality and violence, slum demolitions, and the unending plight of the workers, is far from shining. Nothing has changed for the three with the change in the government at the centre. Instead troubles for KKM have only aggravated.
Back in 2002, the founding members of KKM were just a group of socially conscious students who were also singers and performers. Deeply affected by the communal carnage of 2002 in Gujarat and the prevalent caste and religious divisions, they began re-examining the role of art and cultural activities in society. Inspired by the folk poet and crusader against caste, Annabhau Sathe, and stirred by the suicide of dalit poet Vilas Ghogre following the Ramabai Killings of dalits by the police, KKM was formed by people like Yogendra Mane, Amarnath Chandaliya, Ramesh Gaichor and others.
Leftist-ambedkarite in their vision, KKM resolved early on that the artist has to be an activist too. Their activism served the purpose of connecting with people, their lives and struggles, their oppression and anger – an intense way of living the life they sing about. While ‘gaon chalo’ movement took them to the realities of rural Maharashtra, living in the bastis, among the urban poor under the roofs so low and walls so vulnerable, intensified their urge to sing songs stemming from life.
Jhopadpatti o jhopadpatti
the world is raised so high
and pressed under it remains
Since its inception, KKM has strived to ensure that their songs and artistic practice is not restricted to inspired emotional outbursts but a something long lasting – a sustained inspiration. It is perhaps to sustain their songs indelibly among the common people for whom they sing that they took to the form of folk art and folk songs like powada, bharud and gondhal. Different members of the group sing in different dialects and languages of the marginalised – if Ramesh Gaichor sings in the Konkani of fishermen, Sagar Ghorke sings in the language of the adivasis.
“These are forms that were created by the workers are farmers. This language is born out of their toil.”
The practice of KKM is driven by the virodh and navnirman. Protest and confrontation without providing progressive alternatives to rebuild the structures of society is futile for them. Hence their songs, along with their political content are marked by a keen and conscious sense of aesthetic. Jyoti Jagtap, a KKM member calls this – ‘content’ (the politics) and ‘quality’ (soundarya or aesthetic). While she admits that sometimes if the political content is immediately relevant, some compromise is made on the quality, it nonetheless remains an important part of their artistic process. This is also because KKM is challenging the dominant idea of beauty itself through their songs. What is real beauty is the question one of their songs “Saavli Manjula” about a dark skinned girl raises.
During our conversation Jyoti remembered her early and naïve fascination for patriotic songs she would listen to before joining KKM. As her political churning intensified with KKM, she began realising that while these songs maybe musically sound, their content was highly flawed; like in the song – jahan daal daal par sone ki chidiya karti hai basera, wo bharat desh hai mera.
“These songs glorified India too much. They said things like India, this brilliant civilisation, should rule the world. But we don’t believe in the idea of ruling itself. This is an imperial attitude for monopoly”
This constant questioning of one’s own positions and ideas continues to inform the practice of KKM and keeps the group open for questioning and newer, more relevant ideas. An artist’s poetry and songs are born out of personal emotions and there are bound to be various voices within the group. But Jyoti maintains that the group believes in dialogue and discussion to negotiate these varied voices and find a common philosophy guided by ideas of Marx and Ambedkar. She narrates an incident when a new young member had, in enthusiasm, written a song which said “jai bhi ek hi raja hai” (Jai Bhim is the one and only King). While this assertion of dalit ideal of jai bhim may have been well intentioned, the group decided against singing this song as they didn’t want to propagate the idea of monarchy and authority.
Jyoti spoke passionately about the increasing atrocity on dalits and the lack of justice but also cautioned me against bracketing them as a ‘dalit group’ like other interviewers, researchers and documenters. While KKM is a group of dalit-bahujans which was helped majorly by the solidarity and the mass mobilisation of people with the dalit movement, lables such as ‘dalit group’, ‘dalit songs’ exclude them from larger collective of exploited people as if their songs are meant only for dalits. “We want to sing and work for everybody”.
The spirit of self-criticism leads KKM towards questioning dalit politics too. They are against deifying Babasaheb Ambedkar and use euphemisms like ‘Babasaheb the great’.
“We don’t sing about coat-boot of Babasaheb. People should have the courage to look at Babasaheb and his ideas critically. Otherwise we’ll only be replacing the name of Gandhi with Babasaheb’s in these glory songs”
Their interest lies in the imagination and ideals of Ambedkar – his vision of a society without hierarchies – a vision that has the potential to and must transcend just the dalit community and speak about all forms of exploitation be in communal or gender based in its just spirit. Labelling them as ‘dalit troupe’ severely limits this potential and can at best only appease an anthropologist’s hypothesis. “Filmmakers and researchers are merely looking for some validation of their own preconceived ideas of us” says Jyoti. Jyoti feels that the popular storytelling traditions especially that of popular cinema have made the need for a central ‘hero’ so necessary that many a times even alternative art practices be they writings or documentary films succumb to this urge to glorify an isolated act of heroism and deification of a person. The collective movement takes a backseat.
During the course of the interview, Jyoti stopped me and said – “I want to say one thing. It is not so easy for a woman to be part of a struggle like this. We are bound by several notions of the role of a woman which many of us internalise. One of the things about KKM that appealed to me the most was their attitude of man-woman equality. We constantly have debates about gender in our meetings. We are ready to discuss this problem of what the role of a woman is. I remember going to one of our founders, Amarnath Chandaliya’s house for the first time. His wife used to work and he would stay at home and dedicate his entire time to the movement. I remember noticing that he was always in the kitchen. He did everything that one expects from a mother – cooked, cleaned, took care of his children and yet never showed off. It seemed very natural.”
“I realised that if I have to sing about progressive ideas, I cannot, as a woman, be myself bound by conventional roles. The fight was harder but I had to do it. I am not talking about any great rebellion, just an understanding of the needs of life. You see, these are small battles, but they are important”
Rupali Jadhav, fellow comrade of Jyoti from KKM also maintains that the space within movements for women’s personal struggles remains limited. Men are allowed to step out and explore, sit in public spaces and engage in discussion, but women are limited to the house. Yet, Rupali, Jyoti and Sheetal Sathe, who was arrested with the other members of KKM when she was six months pregnant but had to be granted bail after massive public outrage, along with many other women in the group continue to overcome these barriers and sing fearlessly. Rupali’s husband Sagar Ghorke, Jyoti’s husband Ramesh Gaichor and Sheetal’s husband Sachin Mali have been in jail and they are leading from the front, keeping the struggle of KKM alive. They are asked by their families to leave all this but Jyoti says – “once we leave, we’ll never be able to come back”.
The biggest impediment to sustaining their struggle against injustice is the ‘naxal’ tag that heavily hangs on them. There have been several protests which began with massive public support but numbers dwindled when rumours of naxal links were dispersed. It is also difficult to access performance spaces or freely travel. ABVP, the students’ wing of BJP, has repeatedly attacked them, stalled their performances and even intimidated the organisers against inviting them to perform.
“As they say, if you can’t convince them, confuse them. The state and conservative forces are confusing people to distract them from issues of dalit atrocities by scaring them with naxal threats”
The most poignant moment in the interview was when I asked Jyoti about one defining moment according to her for KKM and she said – ‘arresting’ and started laughing. A laugh which was tragic yet suggested a deep sense of resilience – a playful determination to combat this setback head on. Her laughter declared that these arrests are not going to bog them down but will make them even more resolute. Poetry has not stopped sprouting from their nibs as the members inside the jail continue to write poetry about their life in jail, about their families and wives – poetry which is political but also deeply romantic. Once again it is redefining the idea of protest.
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