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Singing in Dark Times

Shanta Gokhale

I have taken the title of my talk from Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Motto’ to the poems he wrote while in exile in Denmark. Again, as we all know, there is more to the four-line ‘Motto’ than these four words. Brecht’s idea is not only that there will be singing in dark times, but there will be singing about the dark times. But it is important to concentrate on the four words of the title first, because they remind us that, in our country where so many social ages and artistic practices live together side-by-side, much of the singing we hear is not about the dark times at all. The loudest songs we hear are often about how bright the times are.

Shubha Mudgal, who thinks the times are dark, has signed an open letter to the PM to say so. Consequently she, along with her 48 co-signatories, is likely to be charged with sedition. To underline how divisive the times are in which we live, let me return to 1999. That was the year Mudgal released an album of monsoon songs, titled ‘Ab ke Saawan’. One of her three lyricists for the album was Prasoon Joshi, screenwriter, poet, advertising man and the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification.

So what was 1999 like that these two artists could make music together quite happily? It was a time when the shock of December 6, 1992 had settled into a grudging resignation to a future in which the RSS and the BJP would have a loud say in national matters. But the face of the two organisations we saw at the time was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s. It was a moderate, reasonable, conciliatory face. Although as PM, he failed to rein in his younger colleague’s supervision of the 2002 massacre in Gujarat, only mildly reminding him of Ramrajya, artistic expression was not more adversely impacted in his time than in any other before him. Nor had the word sedition entered the lexicon of public discourse. The social media revolution that allowed vicious trolls to roam free under assumed names was still 11 years away and private satellite TV news channels, were only six years old, and neither partisan nor viciously belligerent, at least partly because Vajpayee was not interested in deepening existing social fault lines and ideological differences into poison-filled chasms of hatred and division.

This was the time when Mudgal and Joshi created music together. The content of the lyrics Mudgal sang fell neatly into the traditional mould. They were about the rain, the wet chunariya, the drenched tann, mann, the gathering ghata and the pehli barkha of the pehla pyaar. This was familiar ground for Joshi. But it was something of a rebellion for Mudgal. While the album catapulted her to the top of the popularity charts and she became a celebrity, in Mumbai’s vibrant classical music culture, a loud buzz of bigots arose, disapproving her lively foray into Indipop. It had taken courage and a strong belief in pluralism to make that foray. Through the album Mudgal had said loudly and clearly, that music was music. No form was high and none low. Her lyricist on the other hand had made no such statement in composing a song about the monsoon rain. So it comes as no surprise that today, when we are encouraged to look at one another with suspicion and the safest bet is to sing paeans of praise to the PM, Mudgal has been labelled seditious and Joshi has become famous, or infamous depending on how you look at it, as the obsequious interviewer of the nation’s top honcho.

In 2003, the year in which Habib Tanvir had been attacked in Madhya Pradesh, and four years after Mudgal had cocked a snook at Hindustani music pundits, I attended the launch of a book of new bandishes, composed by one of our most loved and respected Hindustani classical vocalists. I bought the book eagerly and flipped through its pages only to find the usual suspects there — the blue god, Radha, gopis filling water by the Yamuna, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and the pardesi who neither returns home nor writes a single chitthi to his lovelorn beloved. Different raagas and different beats maybe, but the same language and the same themes. Around the time when this book of new compositions was launched with much fanfare in the hermetic world of Hindustani music, elsewhere in the city, Shubha Mudgal and Neela Bhagwat had sung the same song, on different platforms and on different days. The song was Kabir’s ‘Sadho dekho jag baurana’. For the author of the new bandishes, the world had not gone mad. And if it had, it was not her business to sing about it. That would be defiling the sacred performance space she occupied. Her listeners would have been shocked too if she had dared disturb their peace with news of the outside world. They were the paying majority, invested with the power to dictate terms to the artist. The mutually agreed terms of engagement here were simple: Tradition good, questioning bad.

As Emily Dickinson says in her short poem about the majority:

‘Tis the majority / In this, as all, prevails. / Assent, and you are sane; / Demur, — you’re straightway dangerous, / And handled with a chain.”

TM Krishna has discovered the price of demurring. He has been barred from several platforms here and abroad. Krishna rang the first warning bell against the establishment of Karnatik music with his 560-page scholarly tome, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story. It reminded me of Narayan Surve’s poem addressed to the Marathi literary elite, ‘I am not alone, the age is with me too / Beware! The storm is about to break over you / I am a worker, a flashing sword / High literature I’m planning a crime against your word.’ Krishna’s book challenges the total system of practice, performance and consumption in which Karnatik music operates. In chapter after chapter he shows us its claustrophobic nature, managed and dominated by the Brahmin cultural elite. The ‘caging of art’ as he calls it, begins in the classroom where students are taught that the music they are learning is not just music, but ‘Hindu-Brahmin-music’. On the concert platform music is to be seen as faith and faith as music. Says Krishna scathingly, ‘Listening to Karnatik music is not mere exposure to the music; it is a complete Brahmin brainwashing package.’

The Brahmins of Chennai naturally bristled when the book came out. The singer whom they had been used to speaking of as talented had suddenly sprouted contrary opinions and needed to be chastised. Perhaps he was not a talented singer at all. Perhaps he was a charlatan only looking for publicity. But what could this system do to an artist who was himself about to abandon it? In 2015 Krishna quit the December music season in Chennai, the platform on which musicians from home and abroad vie to perform. His reasons for doing so seemed strikingly similar to the ones that had made Badal Sircar move from the proscenium stage to community halls and parks. Sircar wanted to and did create a free un-ticketed theatre that he took directly to the people. His intent was political. It was to engage people in spaces where performers and audience were on one level, where theatre could be used to inform them of who their enemies were and how they operated. Sircar was doing what the revolutionary balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat was saying in his popular song:

‘Inko dhyan se dekho re bhai / Inki surat pehchano re bhai’.

Four decades later, Krishna took Karnatik music to a fishing village. He won the Ramon Magsaysay award in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions.’ The Hindu Right spewed venom. One of its many bloggers wrote: ‘Attempts by the likes of Krishna are divisive and these attempts get awarded by agencies with an ulterior motive of seeing India divided and broken.’ This is a familiar tune. To say that an unjustly divided society is unjustly divided, is to divide the nation. To actually divide the nation is to unite the nation. Unfortunately the Magsaysay award doesn’t go to dividers, even when they erect a monumental statue and call it the statue of unity.

In theatre there was once Habib Tanvir who ruffled the same feathers that Krishna has done. To the best of my knowledge, so far Krishna has not been physically attacked. Habib saab was. We had heard the same tune then that was played when Krishna won the Magsaysay award. Uma Bharati, in full support of the right-wing fanatics responsible for the attack, accused Tanvir of spreading communalism through his plays, chiefly a folk play called ‘Ponga Pandit’. How was the play supposed to be spreading communalism? By showing a jamadarin outwitting a temple priest. How dare she not know her place? Unfortunately, this concept of human rights has put the time out of joint for the Right. The trampled and the oppressed are no longer willing to just lie down and die. There is a documentary film titled 18 Feet, scripted, directed and edited by filmmaker Renjith Kuzhur. It is about a band of dalit musicians in Kerala who are bringing back and popularising the traditional songs of their community. The title of the film, 18’ Feet, refers to the distance dalits were once expected to maintain from caste Hindus in order not to pollute them. The camera in this film is not brahminical. It mingles with the musicians on stage, in their homes and during rituals, on terms of unforced equality and warm affection. In the process, it tells a counter-story to the one told by the title of the film. While caste always gets brushed under the carpet today, it has shown up in many ways in the band members’ lives. Caste is therefore never too far from their conversations with each other in the film. Remesh, a bus conductor and the co-founder and leader of the band, is the son of a man who was once bought by a local landlord along with many other dalits. Remesh asks his father, ‘How can anybody buy human beings as if they were inanimate objects?’ The father has a simple explanation. ‘A landlord needs serfs to work on his land. He has the money. So he buys them.’ The father belongs to a generation that didn’t ask questions. Remesh asks many. Out of that questioning comes confidence. He tells the younger members of his band, ‘Black is strength. Don’t deny who you are. Hold your head high and say you are a Pariah.’

Uma Bharati would approve of Remesh’s father. But she would call Remesh divisive.

Theatre in Maharshtra is riddled with those who believe that the times have at last passed from dark to bright. Unto us a son is born and we shall be saved, they sing. After two incidents in Mumbai and Pune designed to warn theatre people against transgression, Jayant Pawar, one of our leading playwrights and an award-winning short fiction writer, wrote an open letter addressed to his friends and colleagues in theatre, condemning the events. The first instance that he recorded happened when Jana Natya Manch performed ‘Tathagat’ at the Harkat Studio in Andheri. Two CID cops turned up there, took pictures of the set, made inquiries about Sudhanva Deshpande, asked about the nature of the play, asked the manager of the studio why he had permitted such a play to be performed at his venue, took pictures of the people waiting to buy tickets, barged into the auditorium, stood at the door through the play and then left. The message was clear. You are suspects. We are watching you. So you better watch out.

A similar message was sent out in the second incident. The group Qissa Kothi was scheduled to perform its play ‘Ravidas Romeo and Juliet Devi’ in Pune. Two policemen visited their hotel in the early hours of the morning looking for Yash Khan, a member of the group. They examined his ID proof, wanted to know how the other members of the group knew him, searched through their belongings and properties and left. They did not have a search warrant. As a result of this targeting, Pawar says, ‘An ordinary youngster who manages the backstage operations of a small theatre group as well as his family will forever live in terror.’

I asked Pawar how his colleagues had responded to his letter. He said with silence. He then told me that the celebrated actor Vikram Gokhale’s response to the news of the open letter written to the PM on July 29 by 49 celebrities was to write an article titled “They should be soundly thrashed”. However, Gokhale was rather disturbed by Pawar’s letter and vowed to take it up immediately with the concerned minister. That happened to be Maharashtra’s CM. So Gokhale did nothing except maintain a judicious silence. Pawar who comes from a textile mill background has taken on the mafia of politicians-builders-corporates in his own work. He has felt empowered to do so at least partly I think because he is a caste Hindu and therefore not a born target of the Right.

This does not hold true for another fine Marathi playwright-director, Shafaat Khan. He is a Muslim and therefore fundamentally suspect. He has written a long article about the years when he fell silent, unable to write. ‘Sadho dekho jag baurana’ is exactly how he saw the absurdities of the late eighties when leaders carried swords, wore crowns and rode automobiles converted into raths. Khan wrote in the article, ‘When the Babri Masjid was demolished, my heart sank. I felt the first intimations of something drastic and terrible that was about to happen. It depressed me to realise that I had not been aware enough of the rehearsals that had preceded the tragic scenes of burnings and killings that were being staged on the streets of Mumbai. We had known riots earlier but what was happening now was on a different scale altogether. I locked myself up at home and tried to write. I wrote in bits and pieces that would not cohere into a play. I found myself unable to write about what was happening outside, and unable to write about anything else. So I decided to give up on theatre. I simply stopped writing.’

It was only three years later, in 1995 that Khan saw a glimmer of hope for himself. He was persuaded by a director friend to do what he had been avoiding doing for all these years. He attended a play-reading. The play was Asghar Wajahat’s Jis Lahore Nahi Dekhya. Somehow, listening to the play released all the knots in Khan’s writing process and he found himself writing. He wrote Rahile Door Ghar Majhe (My home is left far behind), an adaptation of Wajahat’s play, which went on to become a hit on the Marathi stage.

Artists have often suffered this kind of despair in dark times and contemplated putting a full stop to their singing. Poets in particular have questioned the efficacy of their work when action rather than words seem to be called for. Often they have found reassurance in what other poets have said. Some poets have recorded their debt to the lines in Auden’s tribute to WB Yeats. The lines which end the tribute are,

‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / A way of happening, a mouth.’

Even to survive in dark times is to win. And a mouth that is ready to speak out is as important as hands that act. Brecht’s poem ‘To Those Born Later’ poses a question that troubles many of us in repressive times:

‘What kinds of time are they, when / A talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?’

Brecht himself answers the question in his poem, ‘In Dark Times’. It is a clever poem in which he intersperses the lyric poet’s usual themes about trees and children, rivers and women with lines referring to the horrors of the time. At the end he says, referring to future generations,

‘They won’t say times were dark / Rather, why were their poets silent?’

In my Marathi novel Tya Varshi, translated in English as Crowfall, I had wanted to explore how art could respond to the violence that had gripped the country and the world. This novel was written two years after the 2002 Gujarat bloodbath. Two pieces of writing guided me then — an article by an Iraqi ceramicist Nuha al-Radi and Mathew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’. In her article al-Radi says that she had expected her well-known book, Baghdad Diaries, to make some difference to America’s attitude towards her country and its citizens. But that did not happen. America attacked Iraq a second time. This time around she says, she simply put her head down, did her work, hoped that she would survive the bombing while attempting to preserve some shreds of humanity in herself. ‘Dover Beach’ told me how this could be done. Arnold speaks of his despair at the ebbing of faith in the world. He means of course religious faith. But to me it was faith in the principles of equality, liberty and brotherhood.  The lines from ‘Dover Beach’ that I related to most were:

‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

And so, my novel revolves around a group of artist friends, unsentimental, truth-seeking, bound by mutual respect and affection, working out their individual ways to respond to the surrounding violence.

However overwhelmed the writer is by despair, her choice can never be between writing and not writing. Perumal Murugan tried to stop writing, but could not help composing 40 poems during his self-imposed exile. Writers write because they must. They have no way of shedding their lifelong habit of working with words. So the question is not whether to write, but how to write, particularly when times are dark. One way perhaps is to strike the enemy from within. One of the cheekiest plays on the Marathi stage, Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla, has done precisely that.

In Maharashtra, the political party that has named itself after Shivaji the warrior king, has ignored every other quality of that wise and generous ruler except his campaigns against Aurangzeb, turning them ahistorically into a Hindu-Muslim battle aimed at establishing a Hindu rajya. Three men from disparate backgrounds came together to write this play that challenged this narrative and liberated Shivaji from his devotees’ clutches. The three men who made the play were Sambhaji Bhagat, a dalit activist and revolutionary balladeer, Rajkumar Tangde a farmer from Jalna, one of Maharashtra’s most backward districts and Nandu Madhav, the actor who discovered Tangde when he saw his play Aakda on the State drama competition circuit and brought it to Mumbai. Aakda was about farmers being compelled to steal power in order to survive, sometimes at risk to their lives. The play was performed in near darkness to give the urban audience a taste of the villagers’ lives.

Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla had a hilarious cover story about Yama being sent down to earth to fetch Shivaji along with his ideas. Shivaji forgets to bring his ideas, so he is allowed to go back to earth to get them, leaving his turban behind with Yama as surety. But Shivaji hoodwinks Yama and goes underground in Bhimnagar. Yama comes down with the turban looking for him. The head that the turban will fit is Shivaji’s. The turban fits nobody. This forms a running gag in the play. The play ends with a sawal-jawab competition between the dalit shahir and the Shivaji bhakt party’s shahir. Both sides are to sing Shivaji’s praises. The bhakts have nothing more to say than how brave he was and how the corn was plentiful and golden in his time. The dalit shahir on the other hand extols Shivaji’s policies regarding women, caste, religion, agriculture and revenue. It is a contest between myth and history in which the Bhimnagar shahir wins hands down. On the day of the first show of the play, Sambhaji Bhagat and his boys were positioned outside the theatre, all set to face disruption by the police and/or political hoods. After all, the play was about Shivaji, the holiest of holy cows in Maharashtra. But nothing happened. Strategy had won. For who could object to a play in which Shivaji was lauded for virtues nobody had ever even heard of?

A complex work of art stumps Rightist regimes. Complexity requires subtle thinking. Their way is to win by appealing to people’s sentiments. And nothing is more sentimental than the idea of patriotism. Patriotism is love for the land, never for its people. In our country, love is slyly turned into worship. Worship is made concrete with a symbol. The symbol is a goddess, white skinned, wearing white or orange and bearing the national flag. With such a beautiful goddess, what a divine thing patriotism becomes. It puts into your hands a powerful trishul to stab doubters with.

Shaw has something scathing to say about patriotism in his play, O’Flaherty V. C.  ‘You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.’ The play subverts the whole notion of courage in war by depicting its protagonist O’Flaherty as a slob of a soldier more afraid of running away from the battlefield than staying on and fighting.

The battle of reason against unreason cannot be fought with simple answers. Artists repeatedly assert that it is not their job to offer solutions but to raise questions. The finest writers also attempt to raise such questions as will allow their work to cross the boundaries of time and space and make sense to future generations. Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s harrowing play Death and the Maiden, was written a few years after Pinochet’s rule had ended. During the terrible 17 years of that rule, Chileans had been mercilessly tortured and punished for the slightest hint of rebellious expression. Dorfman’s protagonist Paulina has also been tortured and raped by a doctor. Only her husband knows about this. Although those dark times have passed, she is still gripped by fear. A man, whose car has accidentally broken down, comes to their door in the night seeking shelter. She hears his voice and is instantly convinced that he was her tormentor. Sentiment would require that she be allowed to have her revenge. People who have bayed for the blood of rapists in our country, have been unable and unwilling to consider capital punishment in its larger implications. Dorfman stands back from this demand for revenge and looks at the problem in the context of his country’s future. He makes Paulina’s husband a lawyer in charge of investigating the deaths of dissidents under Pinochet’s regime. The husband must therefore defend the man in his living room against his wife’s anger and need for revenge. Dorfman says in an article written on the occasion of the play’s revival in London 20 years later, ‘The husband had to do this because, without the rule of law, the transition to democracy would be compromised.’ Then he adds, ‘But one does not create such a transgressive play in a country still reeling from many years of pain without suffering the consequences oneself. My compatriots hated what I had done and reviled it.’

Consequences come with transgressive action. Abhishek Majumdar’s play The Djinns of Eidgah is complex and layered like all his plays. But for the police who stopped its staging in Jaipur recently, its complexity was the artist’s business. As far as they were concerned, his play was about not Kashmir alone but the people of Kashmir. Now that was transgression because he not only treated the people with sympathy but to add insult to injury, he examines the attitudes and actions of Indian security personnel in Kashmir. For this and other such transgressions, the Bengaluru police have prepared a dossier on him and occasionally call him in for a friendly chat.

I once questioned Habib saab about not providing solutions to the questions he raised in his plays. His answer was, ‘The moment you say things out clearly and produce answers your audience says thank you, nice evening, goes home, has dinner and sleeps. Also there is no single answer to a question. If you incite them with a disturbing question, there may be more answers than you thought of.’ In street theatre you take immediate problems and produce answers, because there are answers. But even street theatre can be artistic. Safdar Hashmi went back to straight theatre to make his nukkad natak more stimulating; also to get his actors to give more rounded performances. He was a rare fellow, imaginative, open-minded, always ready to learn. He was the only person who wrote a sensitive critical appreciation of my play Hirma ki Amar Kahani.

I asked Habib saab about this problematic play in which he seemed to suggest that feudalism was a good thing. He said, ‘Safdar talked to me at length about this dilemma. He came on several evenings to watch the rehearsals and saw the show at least three times before he wrote about it.’ He said the play does present a dilemma with no solution. My dilemma was this — that democracy, though desirable, has a propensity to turn into fascism. And yet democracy is more acceptable than dictatorship. But feudalism, no matter how condemnable and exploitative, has its own silver lining. It has supported the arts, not just classical but folk arts. It can teach us something even about administration. So there is a dilemma, and I have left it at that in Hirma….

I told Habib saab that many artists in troubled times feel there is no point in writing poetry or fiction or plays. Artists wish their work could be seen to change society to make it worthwhile. In this context I wanted to know from him if he felt his work had changed anything at all. He said, ‘Yes and no. Art never changes society. It cannot be the vehicle of change. But art, particularly theatre, does something very precious. It paves the way for change, it affects opinions, it opens up minds. I think my work has had its effect in the sense that I have revived some dying arts and caused ripples to spread.’

Finally he had this to say about singing in dark times about dark times: ‘The worst society often produces the best of art,’ he said. ‘Art is always anti-establishment. It is like the hilsa of Dacca. The Bangladeshis are proud of theirs. They say it is better than the Hooghly hilsa. I ask them why — it is the same hilsa. They say no. The Hooghly hilsa goes with the current. Ours goes against the current so it is tougher and sweeter. Art goes against the current to flourish.’ At this point he took a light drag on his pipe and said very thoughtfully, ‘You almost wish for a bad society if you want art to flourish!’

This is the text of the 26th Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture delivered by Shanta Gokhale at New Delhi’s Studio Safdar at Shadi Khampur.

Shanta Gokhale is a playwright, novelist, translator and theatre scholar. She has written two novels, a few plays and a scatter of short stories including Crowfall (2013), The Engaged Observer:The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale (2018) and One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body (2019). Besides essays, short fiction, novels and autobiographies, she has translated Jerry Pinto’s novel Em and the Big Hoom from English into Marathi and several plays from Marathi into English. In 2019, Gokhale received a lifetime achievement award at the Tata Literature Live.