Dancehall & Dalit Poetry

A group of urban musicians comes together to immortalise a legendary Sikh Dalit farmer’s songs of rebellion

01 December, 2010

THE IMPLICATIONS OF FREE SPEECH have been a hot topic in India lately. Dissent has been dismissed as sedition and opposition to the status quo labelled unpatriotic. But these debates are, for the most part, the reserve of urban, educated thinkers, who have the means to make their opinions heard. After all, free speech is meaningless if you aren’t given a voice.

Imagine you are a poor farmworker, with no land, no stock options and no Google. Your only source of income is tilling land to which you will never hold the deed. You won’t likely have the time, resources or know-how to convey your message; you’ll risk being silenced by your very condition.

Bant Singh defies this assumption. Now in his 40s, he has been singing revolutionary songs since adolescence. Singh is a landless Dalit agricultural labourer from the village of Burj Jhabbar, Mansa district, Punjab. He’s also an activist with the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha (MMM), a local affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Despite having undergone atrocious trauma, including a brutal attack that cost him two hands and a leg, Singh remains steadfast, refusing to keep quiet. He continues to sing songs of protest that detail not just his story, but also that of poor, low-caste labourers across the country.

Earlier this year, a group of urban musicians—Samrat Bharadwaj, Taru Dalmia and Chris McGuiness—travelled to Jhabbar village. Bharadwaj, who performs under the moniker AudioPervert and with his band Teddy Boy Kill, had been working with the Max Mueller Bhavan’s Goethe Institut (Germany’s international arts and cultural organisation) on projects to promote electronic music across India. Dalmia, who performs as Delhi Sultanate both independently and with the BASSFoundation collective, is a poet and an MC whose lyrics and performance style are heavily influenced by the Jamaican dancehall sound. McGuiness is a DJ, producer and multimedia artist working primarily with electronic genres. Although the men had already worked with each other in various capacities, this is the first time all three of them came together to produce one major project.

The men spent four days living with Singh in Jhabbar, collaborating with him musically in what they dubbed the Bant Singh Project. With them was videographer Lakshman Anand, who documented the process. The result was four bilingual tracks featuring the vocals of

Singh and Dalmia, and a 12-minute ‘making of’-type documentary, Word, Sound & Power, created as part of the Goethe Institut initiative spearheaded by Bharadwaj. The documentary, freely available on YouTube, tells the story of the revolutionary singer through his interviews and music, without any need for narration. “The biggest challenge we faced was when we reached [Jhabbar] and we realised that there was a huge language barrier,” says Bharadwaj. “Once we overcame that, we saw that our ideologies matched a lot more.” The documentary is in English and Punjabi with English subtitles, and the tracks are sung in Punjabi and English. Dalmia collaborated with Singh through a translator, writing English lyrics on the spot and then explaining them to Singh. McGuiness and Bharadwaj composed the electronic beats, setting the backdrop for the collaboration between Singh’s Punjabi folk and Dalmia’s dancehall-tinged English lines. Surprisingly, the two voices speak as one on the tracks. “I had planned for a long time to find revolutionary singers in India and to do bilingual collaborations with them,” says Dalmia. “I read about Bant Singh and he seemed ideally suited both because of his personality and orientation towards music as well as his sound.”

The story that the men had read about was confirmed by Singh and retold in Word, Sound & Power. In July 2002, Singh’s 17-year-old daughter was raped by the local landlords’ henchmen. Outraged, Singh took the perpetrators to court, eventually winning justice (three of the four defendants were sentenced to life terms). But his move was avenged with further violence. In 2006, while returning home from an MMM meeting, Singh was attacked so severely that he nearly died. He was rushed to Mansa’s civil hospital, where he was refused treatment, reportedly for some 36 hours. There is considerable speculation about why Singh was denied care, and many have believed that the refusal was politically motivated; it was, after all, a Congress-dominated district and many of the area’s more powerful people were believed to have felt threatened by the MMM’s activities. Others argued that the refusal of treatment was to do with Singh’s status as a Dalit—that his life was somehow not considered worthy of saving. Whatever the reason, the doctor refused to attend to him. Gangrene set in, infecting Singh’s wounds and moving into his bloodstream. Singh was finally transferred to PGI Hospital in Chandigarh, where doctors had to amputate both his hands and one of his legs in order to save his life. He also suffered kidney damage in the assault. Today, Singh lives without hands or prosthetic limbs, and requires the help of his family members and other attendants to do even the most basic of tasks. He can’t walk, and has to be carried around on a charpoy. Despite his misfortunes, however, Singh remains dedicated to fighting the injustices that are carried out against the downtrodden people of his community. The assailants, as he puts it, couldn’t take away his voice.

Bant Singh and locals with the Word, Sound & Power crew. {{name}}

“The people [in Jhabbar] took great offence to the fact that I, a small-time labourer, had taken the landlords to court,” he says in the film. As a ‘low-caste’ landless labourer, Singh’s choice to stand up for the rights of his family clearly upset his town’s status quo. “Bant Singh points out a lesser-known fact,” notes Bharadwaj, the project’s director, that like many agricultural workers in rural Punjab, Singh is a Dalit Sikh. “Most people think that Sikhism is without caste, but [Sikhs] actually have fallen prey to the caste system. Caste distinctions exist very deeply within the culture and landowners have taken up the upper-caste positions, while landless labourers have become the Dalits.”

Singh’s ideas, however, are relevant to more than just Dalit Sikhs. “From what I gathered, Bant Singh’s songs and politics speak more the language of class and labour rather than caste,” says Dalmia. Singh draws much inspiration from Sant Ram Udasi, a celebrated revolutionary Dalit poet-singer from Punjab, and some of the songs he sings in the documentary are taken from Udasi’s repertoire. Despite having their roots in the 20th-century Punjabi Dalit literary tradition, these songs tell a story that speaks to the sentiments of a much larger segment of the population. As one song goes:

We have broken the chains of slavery

And have endured much suffering

We want this government to know

That we will not let them sell our nation.

Although his is the story of many landless labourers across the country, Singh’s audience is limited to his community due to the language in which he sings. True protest music and revolutionary arts have played an important role in spreading political messages at the local level since the early 20th century through poets such as Udasi in Punjab and groups such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association in Bengal. However, in the large, linguistically-diverse country that is India, language and other restrictions have kept such arts from gaining a widespread following. Most rural revolutionaries are virtually unknown outside of their communities and select academic circles. In the rare cases where arts from rural communities are brought to the attention of metropolitan consumers, they are often perceived as folksy entertainment rather than potential vehicles for empowerment and mobilisation. The Bant Singh Project set out to change that.

“Music and other creative forms of lyricism have much more impact because most people don’t want to take up guns or political propaganda,” Bharadwaj points out. “Using creative forms of expression to highlight [issues] is a fairly new phenomenon in India, where most action is taken using social non-creative platforms, such as through litigation or political propaganda,” he continues, a nod to the fact that the average urbanite’s understanding of the rural struggle is inextricably linked to what is showcased by national news media. “Now, with the clever use of technology, people can see a lot more,” he adds. “A message like this is much more empowering than publishing a book or having a seminar.”

Indeed, a big part of the Bant Singh Project’s appeal stems from its accessibility. While Word, Sound & Power succeeds in making Singh’s narratives available to the net-savvy urban elite, it also has been well-received back in Mansa district. Bharadwaj notes that some of the people he met in Jhabbar seemed a little sceptical during the recording of the project, but that they were relieved when the film finally came to fruition. “They were more appreciative of it and liked the crossover,” he says.

The internet is the global agora of our era. However, even in our text-driven information age, literacy is not a prerequisite for the dissemination of knowledge or community empowerment. In the days before the internet or the printing press, when man had yet to develop any form of written language, the stories of entire civilisations were kept alive orally, through arts such as storytelling, dance, drama and song. Systems of writing were gradually formed, initially used as a means to keep records and convey political information, but reading and writing remained the reserve of scribes and learned men. When the urban masses eventually learned to put pen to paper and, later, to type, email, blog and tweet, the voice of the formally educated became the presumed voice of the masses. However, any good historian will tell you that in order to understand the way a society operates, to truly comprehend the way its people think, you must first examine its cultural artefacts, the fruits of its artistic traditions. The arts are certainly not the strict reserve of literate urbanites; instead, with the proper distribution, art can serve as a voice for those who most of us erroneously presume to be voiceless.