Indian classical ‘protest music’: snapshots from the North and South

All music is an inherent reflection of its circumstances, shaped through the routines, beliefs, and lives of those who create it. Indian classical is no different – while undoubtedly a contemplative, meditative art form, it never exists in isolation, and cannot help but respond to its changing contexts.

Classical artists often speak of inspiring compassion and fostering visions of a better world. And while most tend to remain largely apolitical, focusing their highest impulses towards ‘pure’ classical performance, some have applied their talents in more direct response to the messy social and economic struggles of the day. Here are two snapshots of Indian classical ‘protest’ music:

Pollution & Chennai Poromboke Paadal – T.M. Krishna

T.M. Krishna, an acclaimed master of South Indian song, has long been known for his forthright, progressive social stances, railing against the exclusionary aspects of the Carnatic establishment, and taking aim at the vast structural inequalities in broader Indian society.

Always seeking to loosen the strictures of caste and gender, he took to teaching classical music in Chennai’s slums, instructing any who wished to pay attention. He has also performed publicly with transgender jogappa musicians in Karnataka, as well as criticising the discourse of the Hindutva nationalist movement, which he sees as toxic, intolerant, and musically ill-informed.

In 2017 he teamed up with environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman for Chennai Poromboke Paadal. The ten-minute ragamalika (multi-raga) video is set to a bleak backdrop of Chennai’s Ennore creek, polluted beyond recognition by the adjacent power plant. Lyrics (subtitled) evoke the rights of nature to exist for its own sake as well as for the beauty and sustenance we can find through preserving it.

Poromboke’ means ‘shared community resource’ in old Tamil, but has also become a pejorative in more recent years, describing a ‘worthless place or person’. The title’s ambiguity, a 21st-century spin on the Carnatic idea of shlesha (lyrical double meaning), is just one of many devices Krishna employs in order to connect clear, emotive ethical messaging with the sublimely persuasive powers of India’s cultural heritage. After all, the music’s ultimate origins lie in the divinity of natural world.

Egalitarian nationalism: the Indian People’s Theatre Association

In 1943 – the year of the Bengal Famine, which claimed up to 3 million lives – the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed. The setup saw writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other creatives of the era collaborating to promote egalitarian visions for the soon-to-be-independent Indian society. They sought to give vivid emotional shape to their progressive ideals, working to raise inter-caste solidarity and left-wing political awareness through their words and performances.

In the words of Sumangala Damodaran (Professor of Economics, Development, and Popular Music at Ambedkar University), the formation of the IPTA 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”. Among many other initiatives, the group sought to share the folk songs of different Indian language groups (according to local organiser P.C. Joshi, this would “weaken chauvinistic traits in all the languages”).

By 1945, the IPTA’s Bombay-based ‘Central Squad’ counted several Bengali classical stars as enthusiastic members, including Jyotirindra Moitra and Ravi Shankar – as well as Uday, the latter’s elder brother and a world-famous choreographer in his own right. Though concerts were often hindered by the general chaos of the group’s circumstances, the IPTA produced some captivating works, such as Shankar’s Jaaga Desh Hamara and Moitra’s epic 23-song suite Nabajeebaner Gaan, dealing with issues of famine, war, material deprivation, and anti-colonial freedom. I, for one, wish that today’s classical artists would look more to such examples for fresh personal and musical inspiration – the future of the tradition depends on it.

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