Notes from ‘BHEEM DRUM’
“I respect my father’s tradition, his attire and his way of life. But I have also resolved that I am not going to sing in a dhoti and chest bare. I will wear jeans and t shirt and sing the songs of Ambedkar and Phule. We will modernise Dalit song.”
So declared Nalliganti Sharath Chamar, holding forth on the stage that he has set for a cultural congregation called Bheem Drum that brought several dalit-bahujan singers from across Telangana under one umbrella through a massive musical concert at Osmania University on the evening of March 3, 2015. Lush green lawns flanked the central walkway to the entrance of the college building; a row of fountains in the middle of this walkway neatly divided the hundreds of white plastic chairs placed there into two neat files. A line of VIP chairs, draped in white satin and adorned with deep blue ribbons overlooked the huge stage. Sharath was standing on the stage against a huge banner which announced the name of the event BHEEM DRUM. The banner is a pastiche of potent symbolism and assertion of identity. The Ashoka Chakra at the centre is turned into a drum; an electric guitar looks ablaze with flames leaping out; there is a picture of a buffalo one corner – symbol of buffalo nationalism. Most fascinating is the array of faces that this platform identifies as its leaders. Ambedkar and Phule adorn the banner most prominently, while Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Micheal Jackson and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan find themselves in the company of pioneers of anti caste movement like Kabir, Tukaram, Savitri Phule and Periyar. This banner is only a manifestation of the larger project of Bheem Drum – to find a new idiom, style and form to assert Dalit identity; to bring dalit politics out of its conventional narrow confines and connect it to the larger struggle against exploitation rather to appropriate various identity politics within the assertion of dalit identity.
*Sharath performs in Bangalore, Oct 2014
The event clearly marked itself off as a young, exuberant celebration of dalit identity. Osmania University, an academic space which never shied away from active politics, proved to be a fertile ground for the provocative launch of an idea called Bheem Drum. Young students, volunteers, and performers dressed in identical blue t shirts bearing the face of Ambedkar roared with their songs. No longer tied to only the folk roots, these songs confidently appropriated the rhythms of rock, pop and reggae bringing to the surface the growing restlessness among the dalit youth to modernise and to expand the horizon of the Dalit song and thereby the dalit identity. Here was an attempt to take cues from and expand on the forms of art that emerged out of exploitation and the resistance to it across cultures and history.
“Like we are exploited on the basis of caste here, the African Americans are exploited on the basis of race. They are our brothers in struggle. We must embrace their music and their spirit.”
These young singers, experimenting with songs found tremendous support from veterans like poet Jayaraj, singer Goreti Venkanna, Vimalakka and the firebrand academician and writer Kancha Illiah. Jayaraj delivered a stirring speech which recounted his disillusionment with the leftist politics, his eventual embracement of the vision of Ambedker and Buddha and his thirst to keep the struggle alive.
“Every hungry person needs Marxism. But the leftist parties are playing dirty politics and disintegrating in their lust for power. I searched for Marx in these parties, in temples, in forests, hills and mountains but found him in Ambedkar”
The most fierce and reactionary critique of nationalism which excludes dalits, came from Kancha Illiah who turned the recent beef-ban controversy into a matter of potent political violence. He asked Sharath to sing his famous ‘Beef Anthem’ while foot tapping to the song all along and declared that beef-ban will not be tolerated. He spoke of Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Buddha, Marx and Ambedkar – who changed the world and pointed out that all had eaten beef. In an affront to gandhism he called for rapid modernisation of dalit identity and come out of the image of victims – an image that the upper caste establishment wants the dalits trapped in.
“Dress like Ambedkar, not like Gandhi. Dalits should now have English medium education and a coat on their body. Wear jeans and t shirt and coats and play the drums. Women will come out in jeans on this stage. Why, I will say even Gadar and Vimalkka will perform in jeans and coat”
While the political force behind this concert was palpable, it was music that reverberated most immediately with the audience. Youthful exuberance of Sharath’s songs sung in broken English without abandon and with complete audacity found a perfect foil in the songs of the stalwart of dalit song, Goreti Venkanna. As Venkanna performed on stage, the crowd was swept by a frenzy of madness. Venkanna’s music was firmly rooted in the folk idiom, assured in its belonging to the tradition of historical struggle and poetry which despite the refinement never felt archaic. As he performed his songs, he’d break into an impromptu dance – beats and rhythms pulsating through his body stirring teasing the crowds out of their comfort. The modernisation of dalit song, as being attempted by Sharath and his peers is yet to reach a point where it naturally connects with the people without any gimmickry. For now, Goreti Venkanna was both the star performer and the emotional crescendo of the event.
“The tumbler turns impure they say
if we have tea in it
if we pray to god
he’ll lose his divinity they say
if we enter the temple
they’ll abandon it they say
We have inhaled the air
and let it out
now will they abandon the air?”
Yet having Bob Marley’s Buffaloe Soldier, Qawallis from Hyderabad, and songs by young rock and reggae musicians from India like Anhad, in company of the traditional dalit songs opens an important avenue. The grand concert at Osmania, is first of the many that the group wishes to hold to spread the vision of Ambedkar and Phule through songs which are at once political and historical while also being contemporary and relevant to the times. The goal of Bheem Drum is to bring alive Ambedkar’s dream that a ‘cultural movement will translate into a political struggle’.