In January 1991, Kaladas Dehariya had his first encounter with the charismatic and potent trade union leader of Chhattisgarh Shankar Guha Niyogi. Niyogi’s crusade for the working class, his deep sense of equality and justice, not just in theory and words, but in life and action deeply moved and inspired Kaladas. Kaladas had been singing songs since his school days and even then his songs reeked of anger against the injustice wrecked on the humble farmers and workers around him – land being grabbed away from the farmers, corruption in bureaucracy, dire poverty and inequality. With Niyogi, this restless anger found its meaningful direction. Niyogi inspired Kaladas to find a form of music that connects to the land and its people – a music that can become a culture force of resistance.
Ghungroo (metallic anklet of bells) strapped around his feet and a daphli (tambourine) in his hands, he embraced the a form of street performance called ‘nacha’ popular among common folk of towns and villages of Chhattisgarh and started singing and performing songs that were born out of lived experiences. The plight of the oppressed rendered in a form replete with paris (angles, played by boys in drag) and jokers resonated with the people, stirring them into action.
“People are easily bored of tepid speeches. But they listen to our performances with rapt attention. They’d say ‘this is ours’
He travelled with his songs in various forms and through various groups formed along the way in close connection with the people of various regions and backgrounds – farmers, urban poor, adivasis etc. Kaladas’ music today is textured with the complex experience of working class. More than being a mere angry rant, it evokes the pain and tragedy of a worker’s toil. For Kaladas, art is born out of this toil and his songs are a medium to echo that pain. Conscious never to abandon the language of the people he is singing for and about, he also strives to bring that voice into the mainstream. Having abandoned religious songs long ago out of disillusionment, he instead takes the tunes of religious jingles and infuses the poetry of the oppressed and their resistance into it.
“People believe that god graces these religious songs. So I told them, here’s the song with the same tune; will your god grace this too?”
A man with deep belief in science and its potential, Kaladas has earnestly taken to technology and media. Apart from recording his songs, he has also started to resister his presence on platforms like facebook and watsapp. This Kaladas sees not as drifting away from roots, but as a way of reaching out to other progressive groups and their music.
“People’s cultures are varied but the tools and patterns of exploitation are the same. The oppressors are uniting and the progressive forces are divided. Struggle cannot be isolated”
Kaladas actively works with various groups and unions under the vibrant umbrella of Shankar Guha Niyogi’s iconic Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha which thwarted the divide between workers and farmers and also promoted gender equality and rejected caste and religious divisions. This organised struggle, maintains Kaladas, is impossible without art and culture. Through his music and a dialogue with other artists from across regions, Kaladas hopes to turn protest into a cultural aesthetic extending far beyond mere ‘folk art’.
“Resistance has to be given a cultural form. There is no other way”
His tireless spirit has taken a toll on his body with repeated bouts of illness and yet this has only made him even more restless to bring out, with an immediate urgency, that dard – the pain of people, through his songs. Today, Kaladas embodies the message his mentor Shankar Guha Niyogi gave him on that fateful night of January ’91 – ‘singing in itself is a struggle’.