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Ramjas College row: Here’s how protests shape songs with a view

As Delhi University students debate free speech after the Ramjas College incident, musicians and theatrepersons tell us how protest shapes their songs and plays.

Written by Dipanita Nath, Somya Lakhani, Suanshu Khurana |
March 1, 2017 12:17:49 am
Ramjas College, Ramjas protest news, Artists musicians and Theater-person on Ramjas protest, latest news, India news, National news, India news, National news, India news Taru Dalmia with musician Samara Chopra at JNU during a performance.

Maya Krishna Rao, Theatreperson

I was a part of the first session at Ramjas College and had talked about “Bodies in Protest”, specifically in term of theatre, theatre-making, body and gender. My own ideas regarding protest got refined in the process of making theatre. Way back in 1979, we had made and performed a street play, Om Swaha, and, in 2012, after the gangrape of Jyoti Singh, I did a solo called Walk. Gender figures prominently in both. In my presentation at Ramjas College, I mentioned that the first performances of the play ended with the slogan Hum na dahej denge na lenge. We soon realised that dowry was not simply about fist-raising protests. There were deeper issues. In subsequent shows our attention shifted and our message was ‘give the same opportunities to your daughters as you do to your sons — whether of food, education or property’. Likewise, in Walk, early performances focused on the need for security, early convictions for the accused and the legal system. As it went along, the focus changed. Given the nature of responses and fast-changing events, including a change in the law, I began to introspect. The focus shifted to looking at how we are as people and how we conduct our relationships as a society. It became about consent — how we negotiate consent in our daily lives.

Theatre is a medium where, when you are dealing with a problem, you find yourself getting into deeper questions. The more you work on a piece, the more refined your thinking becomes. Who to resist? Why resist? How to resist — what forms? Where is the resistance coming from? I made another point at Ramjas that I am a solo performer. When I am on stage, even before I say anything, a message has already gone out because I am a woman standing alone on stage.

In the ’70s, when I was a part of protest marches, the issues were largely economic, such as price rise. At Ramjas, I noticed, when I came down from the session, I could hear slogans. Having seen the JNU experience last year, I asked somebody, ‘Do you want to make arrangements?’ Within 10 minutes, the police came in and a group of 25-30 people aggressively marching in shouting. ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. In my days at Delhi University, we never ever saw the police on the campus. I have never seen a teacher assaulted in a university.

I have to say that the students of Ramjas responded brilliantly, taking leadership roles and not backing off. I heard them shout only ‘Azadi’, and nothing else. This was, of course, only the first day. The next day was something else. It is telling — on the first day while tension was building up, a Ramjas a student asked, ‘Is sab ke bare mein theatre kaise banaya jai?’

Ramjas College, Ramjas protest news, Artists musicians and Theater-person on Ramjas protest, latest news, India news, National news, India news, National news, India news Sumangala Damodaran with guitarist Susmit Sen;

Sumangala Damodaran, Professor, Economics and Development Studies, Ambedkar University

I was planning to do a long, hour-and-a-half performance at the seminar comprising IPTA (Indian People‘s Theatre Association) songs apart from a couple of other songs that I had composed. I have been singing these songs, one, as a historical record in terms of bringing forth the beliefs of those times but also because a lot of that music is as relevant even today. These include issues that people then were talking about — unemployment, hunger and war among others. Also, the way they were looking at protest, not just through flag waving but also through the musicality of various traditions — that continues to be relevant today. That’s the way I have been looking at that repertoire. I have performed at schools very often. My point has been that songs of protest need not sound like songs of protest. They are not always talking about bringing someone down, destroying and confronting and so on. Songs of protest could also be love songs, songs which draw heavily from folk and religious traditions. Bhajan-kirtan has been a part of this and is not difficult to understand for the students. It is possible to demonstrate that. My whole point at the seminar was to put out these slightly different kind of songs which break the stereotype of protest songs.

I wasn’t there when the trouble broke out at Ramjas. But even in the past, I have never witnessed this kind of disruption before. I studied at Kirori Mal College and then at JNU in the ’80s, which in the history of the nation was a very violent period. There used to be a lot of intolerance. And I have seen a lot of protests before, even at JNU. In JNU, it wouldn’t take such an ugly turn in the form of actual violence but the aggression was there even then. But what is unprecedented and is different than the last decade-and-a-half or so is that the students of the same college are targeting the faculty of the same college. There used to be a little bit of deference for the faculty irrespective of how violent the politics might have been. But this kind of taking pride in ‘The faculty will not go out alive from here’ has been unheard of.

Ramjas College, Ramjas protest news, Artists musicians and Theater-person on Ramjas protest, latest news, India news, National news, India news, National news, India news Maya Krishna Rao

Akhu Chingangbam, Musician

Protest music will always be important. You can look at it as self-criticism. And without self-criticism no nation or individual will grow. We have to open our eyes to see the truth. We can’t be blinded by some saffron cloth or some religious books. We need to fight and sing for what we stand for. I have performed at Ramjas, Kirori Mal, St Stephens and Hindu College, apart from other universities in India. In Delhi, the professors are always very encouraging when it comes to my kind of political music. The students have often came up to me, and said how my music opened up another side of India (Northeast) which they have never experienced through their textbooks. At the same time, I have had students who came up to me after shows and threaten, saying, ‘If you were not called here to perform by the college authorities, I would have chopped you right here’. But I am used to such threats. I’m glad my music provokes them.

Taru Dalmia,Vocalist, Ska Vengers

Campus shows as opposed to music festivals or club gigs are very refreshing because you have a young, energetic and critical audience. So far, we have not faced any violence or backlash from students or the police. Though our JNU show was shut down at 11 pm and the organiser students were fined after an official complaint. Some of these students now come to our regular shows outside campus, as do some of the professors. Music and culture play an important role in protest. Music can motivate the mind and body and it’s important for us to bring joy into this struggle. There are times when it’s important for us to celebrate. To sing and to dance in the face of hate. So far we have performed at National Law University and Ambedkar University Delhi with The Ska Vengers, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University with Bass Foundation Roots (BFR) Sound System. We are playing with BFR Sound System at Ambedkar University today. This show is independently organised by students from the campus.

Ramjas College, Ramjas protest news, Artists musicians and Theater-person on Ramjas protest, latest news, India news, National news, India news, National news, India news Moloyashree Hashmi (extreme right)

Moloyashree Hashmi,Theatreperson, Jan Natya Manch

A protest is about something one feels strongly about. It is, I think, a clash of ideas. I may disagree with you and that’s okay. We may never see eye to eye but nothing gives either of us the right to bash up each other or other people because they have a contrary point of view. What happened at Ramjas College in Delhi was not a protest; it was violence. In a protest, you come armed with your point of view.

Protest theatre is non-violent. My fellow artistes and I at Jan Natya Manch have protested as part of dharnas and rallies. One of our strongest protests was on January 4, 1989, when we protested the attack, four days earlier, in which Ram Bahadur, a local worker, and Safdar Hashmi were killed (by political goons) while performing a street play in Shahibabad. We went back and completed the play. I think, people respect us for this. Across the years, wherever I have travelled, people have spoken to me about

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