In these turbulent times, when parodists are fast becoming persona non grata, can singing the truth be a survival tactic? Hard to say. But dissent through music is not a new idea. It resonates across the world — in democracies, theocracies, autocracies, you name it.
Read more. My column in The Asian Age
Dev 360 / Patralekha Chatterjee
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Bengali girl will be asked to sing a Rabindrasangeet (song by Rabindranath Tagore) sometime in her life by a well-meaning relative, friend or neighbour. There is no getting away from it, and absolutely no use pleading that you don’t have a tuneful voice. But as a child growing up in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in the seventies, I discovered that you may wriggle out of such a situation by dancing to a Tagore number instead. A favourite was “Momo Chitte Niti Nritye Ke Je Naache…” (I wonder who is always dancing in my heart…), a fast-paced song by Tagore, which most Bengali children in my neighbourhood knew. At cultural events, we went up on stage, twirled our palms and swayed to its popular beat.
Those were innocent times. This mystical song has now morphed into protest music, frontally assaulting one of India’s most whimsical politicians. The irony is that the attacker and the attacked belong to the same political party and the former, one of Bengal’s most popular singer-song writers, is now a musical resident dissident. ‘Momo chitte’, in its latest avatar as a parody of the Tagore classic, pays homage to Shiladitya Chowdhury, a Midnapore farmer. Shiladitya was catapulted to national fame earlier this month when he was thrown in jail for firing a volley of uncomfortable questions to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a public rally in a Maoist-affected patch of West Midnapore.
Shiladitya, the song, has been written, set to the tune of ‘Momo chitte’, and sung by rebel Trinamool Congress MP Kabir Suman. It is a poignant comment on the plight of an ordinary man in Mamata Didi’s Bengal. The lyrics capture the trials and tribulations of being Citizen Shiladitya pursued by the mighty State, hell bent on catching him ‘red-handed’ and packing him to jail. It also pokes fun at the chief minister’s certainty that every protester must be a Maoist. Didi is not mentioned explicitly in the song, perhaps because Suman is not keen to follow Shiladitya into jail; but no prizes for guessing. Suman posted the song on his website http://www.kabirsumanonline.com/soon after Shiladitya was arrested. Thereafter, it acquired a life of its own on Youtube and now on Facebook and Twitter.
Today, Shiladitya the farmer and Shiladitya the song are both national news. Who is Shiladitya? What was his ‘crime’? Angry about rising fertiliser prices and plummeting paddy prices, the poor farmer had broken through a security cordon in a public rally and bluntly demanded answers to his questions on these matters from the Bengal CM when she came visiting his village. His bravado proved costly. He was accused of creating law and order problems, was branded a Maoist and frogmarched to jail. When his bail hearing came up, the public prosecutor argued that releasing Shiladitya would vitiate the law and order situation. But the police who had arrested him could not find anyone he was alleged to have injured, or witnesses to back their charges.
Last week, Shiladitya was out on bail after 14 days behind bars. TV crews flocked to the local court to hear his bail petition. Reporters chased his wife, his mother, his brother, his neighbours for quotes. The farmer from the backwaters of Midnapore suddenly found himself the unwitting hero with a musical tribute to him. Last time I checked, one Louie Conceicao from Canada was tweeting the song and the West Bengal Human Rights Commission was probing if Shiladitya’s rights had been violated.
In these turbulent times, when parodists are fast becoming persona non grata, can singing the truth be a survival tactic? Hard to say. But dissent through music is not a new idea. It resonates across the world – in democracies, theocracies, autocracies, you name it.
In India, “Mehaangaai daayan’ (The Inflation witch), that corrosively humorous song about galloping prices from the much-acclaimed film Peepli Live (2010) comes to mind instantly. The song, a satirical take on the soaring costs of living, personifies inflation as a witch who empties a man’s pocket even if he earns a lot. The song was played a lot in the anti-corruption rallies of Anna Hazare and provided ammunition to the BJP in its battles against the Congress-led UPA government.
Across the border, in Pakistan, there is a treasure trove of satirical songs on Youtube and social media. There is the “load shedding” song – ‘Haey wey! saddey mulk di bijli ji ‘(O! electricity of my country). The lyrics can be roughly translated as “I am electricity, I am Pakistan’s butterfly, I come for half an hour and vanish for eight hours; the fan above sleeps, the man below weeps, there is no respite from the heat… O people, get ready and get UPS (inverters) installed in your homes. It will put life in the fans, and make at least two energy saver lamps glow…”
Last year, “Aalu Anday”, (Potatoes and Eggs), a satirical music video about Pakistan’s top politicians and generals, took the nation by storm. The brainwave of a group of three young men who call themselves Beyghairat Brigade, or A Brigade Without Honour, it openly mocked the military, religious conservatives, nationalist politicians and conspiracy theorists.
One of the greatest musical satirists of all times is Tom Lehrer, the Harvard mathematician who gloriously sang about a nuclear war to a cheerful tune. “Remember, mommy, I’m off to get a commie. So send me a salami, And try to smile somehow. I’ll look for you when the war is over, An hour and a half from now…” That was way back in 1965.
“Every joke is a tiny revolution,” George Orwell famously said. Indeed, humour is resistance and is being resisted as we are seeing in many countries across the world. One of the most extreme cases being the example of Pussy Riots, the female Russian punk band, some of whose members have been sentenced to two years in prison for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral.
But musical satirists have always proved a hardier species than their detractors. After all, no dictator has managed to stop people from humming a tune, to lyrics of their choice. We may be in a hole, about our coal; that won’t stop us, from making a fuss; and humming a parody in our soul.