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The Sound of Struggle: Exploring the Dialectics Between Law and Protest Songs

Written by Amulya Anita Gurumurthy, 4th September 2020

K. A. Keraleeyan, a member of the Communist Party of India and secretary of the first peasant union, recounts how he would row a boat at night, singing out the names of peasants living in the banks, urging them to join the union. “Oh Nullikodan Raman, Won’t you join the union, Oh Kariattu Kunjamma, Won’t you join the union?” Far from a unique incident, the communist movement in India, often used protest songs to galvanize support, critique repressive measures and establish a new class based conception of the social order. Through their protracted efforts, protest songs often locked heads with the state, denouncing its perceived bourgeois nature. At other instances, especially within Kerala, when the communists themselves came to embody the state, protest songs flourished and were even given an impetus by the state. Tracing this history of these songs reveals their ever changing relationship with the law.

In the 1930s, under the backdrop of enduring feudalism, caste affiliations were a divisive reality that compromised the class based politics the communists sought to engender. Modern institutions such as the union were absent in the register of the masses, who still identified themselves solely through caste. In this context, the communist movement created a new aesthetics of culture that departed from traditional definitions, as it incorporated the voice of the marginalized. Democratization of the form of music shattered the festering binaries of caste and class, intellectuals and the people, that had hitherto persisted in popular music. This revolution in the lyrical sphere altered social relations, as labouring classes such as the Ezhavas began to see themselves in class terms rather than as members of particular castes. The protest song, novel in its form and content, began to be used as an instrument to increase membership in unions and thereby lay the foundations of a class based politics.

In 1968, the peasants of Kilvenmani refused to abandon the red flag, and in support of the communist party demanded an increase in wages. In response to this, upper caste landlords in cahoots with the police, killed 44 Dalit men, women and children. The Madras High Court reasoned that “the rich landlords could not be expected to commit such violent crimes and would normally hire others to do (so) while keeping themselves in the background,” acquitting the accused. Once again, communist protest songs capture this reality by revealing how the state is subordinated to the interests of the bourgeoisie. One such song states “One by one/Life comes to a standstill/Everywhere in the land/Lords are hardly bothered/Lords of the government are hardly bothered.”In this case, protest songs represent the reactionary face of law, which is dictated by the whims of capital.

Music’s revolutionary potential lies in its ability to challenge the fragmentary nature of the social order, overcoming the alienating and isolating effects of the capitalist system. For instance, the workers of the KGF Gold Mines carried songs with them as they descended into the depths of the coal mines, their collective voices building a sense of camaraderie, dispelling the doom of the mine. They sang, “Mysterious mine-killing work is ours. Blood pouring from our chests we toil every day. Oh brother! Living in an eight foot thatched hut. The brothers think of their plight and crave a better life”.

In response to these material conditions, a class consciousness, evident in the protest songs, was formed in the mines. By voicing their anger against the failure of the company to implement the Workers Compensation Act, which mandated the company to provide protective gear, the KGF gold mines soon became an epicentre for the communist movement. The miners also disputed the necessity to provide their thumbprints to the company officials and launched a 77-day strike in 1946. To quell the unrest, the company attempted to assassinate the trade union leader, comrade Vasan, who barely escaped with his life. Obviously enraged, the workers furiously rose from the mines and protested en masse. The police indiscriminately fired at them, peddling the myth that their strike was a communal riot. Not much later, despite objections from the working classes, the Indian government shut down the mine. In this case, the relationship between protest songs of the communist movement and organs of the state is complex. Protest songs drew inspiration from the legislature and the economic rights its laws bestowed, yet they trenchantly critiqued the executive, who was accused of conspiring with the bourgeois. The face of law appears as varied, at times manifesting as a source of oppression, at other times promising better working conditions, as made evident in protest songs.

In the 1920s, musical dramas in Kerala were saturated with Sanskrit verbiage, thereby operating firmly within the framework of upper caste sensibilities. The only form of music accessible to the working class were plays in Tamil. In the 1950s, the Kerala People’s Art Club (KPAC), a wing of the Communist Party of India, sought to create an art for the people, devoid of upper caste influences. They staged the play ‘You Made Me a Communist’ which grew immensely popular through the numerous revolutionary songs within it. These songs extolled the labouring classes and promised revolution. One such song stated, “Oh farmer girl in the canoe, who made your sickle for the harvest? It is the same black smith who created a sword for the king. She is the same one who created lamps for the huts and the Veena for the songs of our revolution. Oh, working woman, by blowing the wind to the kiln, you spread the fire in the red sky.”

The revolutionary fervour fostered by these protest songs were instrumental in securing the electoral victory of the communists in 1957. Threatened by the class consciousness the protest songs in the play kindled, the Congress, under the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, banned the play. The Kerala People’s Art Club, however, continued to stage the musical as an act of dissent. In response, members of the troupe were arrested. Janardhana Kurup, the President of KPAC filed a petition in the High Court against the ban of the play that was ultimately successful. The protest songs led to the erection of a people’s government in the state and the bourgeois government at the centre was intimidated enough by the songs to stifle them. In Kerala, there then emerges a constant struggle between the state and centre in their approach to revolutionary music.

Instead of viewing culture as reproducing the social relations of the economic base, the communist movement in Kerala recognised it as a transformative force that was vital to the construction of a novel social order. Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad (EMS), a prominent leader of the communist movement, asserted how Marx’s conception of the base and superstructure relation must be viewed within the paradigm of dialectics. That is, the relation between the base and superstructure involved a struggle, wherein culture could emerge as an autonomous structure. Engles himself clarified how if anyone asserted that the ‘economic element is the only determining one’, this would amount to a ‘meaningless, abstract, and senseless phrase. A solely economic based deterministic view negated the possibility of art, music and literature ushering in revolution. It reduced dialectical materialism to mechanical materialism and historical materialism to a mere dogma. 

Aware of the radical potential of songs, EMS founded the Progressive Association for Art and Letters (PAAL). Vylopilli Sreedharan Menon, the President of PAAL, was a trenchant critique of the Emergency, and wrote the song ‘Cartoon Poem,’ articulating his opposition to the ruthless policy of repression carried out by Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency, in 1975 resulted in the suspension of fundamental rights and a crackdown against dissent. Satchidanadan, a communist poet, voiced his dissent through the vehicle of the protest song and was consequently arrested and interrogated by the Intelligence Bureau for it. Law, as represented in protest songs, appears as a tyrannical apparatus that enables the creation of the totalitarian state.

Clearly then, not only do communist songs critique the nature of the state, but the state also responds and attempts to quell the unrest the songs inspire. However, the state cannot be viewed as a uniform structure that operates solely for the interests of the bourgeois. Instead, a distinction must be drawn between the executive, legislature and judiciary, as well as between the state government and central government. At times the application of laws by these organs results in greater equity, at other times the law appears as an authoritarian force. In evaluating the interaction between the protest song and law, there is dialectics at play in two levels- one between revolutionary music and the government and another between the different instruments of the state. Regardless of the changing material conditions, communist protest songs retain an important role in society for viewing the law critically rather than myopically, for inspiring rebellion in the face of autocracy and for striving to ensure the implementation of rights. 

“Slaves we are not. Rest we shall not. Fight we shall unshaken. Until we acquire the power and rights entitled to us” 

Experience Further: Bursting with revolutionary spirit, ‘Uttho Meri Duniya’ carries the promise of an alternative world and inspires class consciousness. It reveals how music can stir resistance and unmask ideology, unveiling the underlying material conditions.

  1. Enjoyed this read ! Music tastes are the most intrinsically linked to social groups we belong to, and most difficult of all other ‘tastes’ to imbibe or shake off!

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