Voices for change: Relaa, the Indian arts collective is hitting back against extremism

Relaa, a collective of Indian performers turned activists, is reviving the long-lost tradition of protest songs in its fight against casteism, capitalism and discrimination. We join the troupe as it stages its first Delhi tour.
Indian Folk Band, a group of Dalit djembe and folk percussionists from Karnataka, play at Delhi University as part of Relaa’s Delhi yatra. Shiv Ahuja for The National
Indian Folk Band, a group of Dalit djembe and folk percussionists from Karnataka, play at Delhi University as part of Relaa’s Delhi yatra. Shiv Ahuja for The National

It’s a humid July afternoon and I’m in a rickshaw heading to the outskirts of Gurgaon for the inaugural performance of the week-long Delhi yatra (tour). The yatra is organised by Relaa – a pan-Indian collective of musicians from across the country’s anti-caste and Left movements, who have come together in the name of cultural resistance.

As we near the venue, we get a frantic call from the organisers. Police have shut down the performance, ten minutes after it started. They’re shifting the action to a public park a few kilometres away. By the time I get there, the musicians are in a circle and a crowd of onlookers has formed. A short, wiry man with an intense gaze and the voice of a seasoned troubadour is addressing the crowd. This is Kaladas Dehariya, a poet and balladeer who is a veteran of Chhattisgarh’s worker and farmer movements. “Relaa, my dear friends,” he says, “is a cry against casteism, against capitalism, against the atrocities committed on Dalits and adivasis [tribal people].”

The crowd, a mix of working-class people enjoying some downtime and middle-class retirees out for their evening walks, look on in confusion. With the light running out, the collective runs through a couple of songs before members of the Yalgaar collective from Maharashtra perform a street play on the controversial topic of “anti-­nationals”. They mercilessly lampoon the state of Indian public discourse, where every act of dissent is met with cries of “treason” and “send them to Pakistan”. The children sitting next to me laugh at every punchline, oblivious to the tension building in the rest of the crowd.

Halfway through their performance, a man accuses the group of taking money from Indian National Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi. When the play ends, he’s joined by a handful of other men who accuse the group of, ironically, being anti-nationals and start shouting slogans about patriotism and prime minister Narendra Modi. The instigator has by now moved on to abuse and threats. As the performers quickly pack up their gear, another section of the crowd defends them. “We liked what they have to say,” one Sikh man says. “They also have a right to speak,” adds another. The shouting match teeters on the edge of violence. The instigators, realising they’re outnumbered, slink away.

As we walk away from the park, the members of Relaa are already laughing about the incident. For this group of protest musicians and artists, it’s just another day on the job. These same fault lines – upper caste, upper class, Hindutva vs Dalits, workers and minorities – are playing out in politics and debates all over the country. Just last week, South Indian actress and Ramya faced sedition charges for saying “Pakistan is not hell”. The politics of cow protection has led to attacks and lynchings against Dalits and Muslims across the country. Anger and intolerance are at an all time high.

It is these differences that Relaa aims to bridge with their music and street theatre.

The Relaa story goes back to 2014, when Ekta Mittal and Angarika Guha of the Bangalore-­based arts collective Maraa started looking into the role of music in India’s culture of protest. “We have attended and co-organised a number of protests, and in each, we found the protest song/singer either missing or then, used instrumentally,” says Guha. “Protest music and poetry has gotten locked into specific functions – to gather crowds, appease tired minds, as a ‘break’ between speeches, as a vessel to contain and convey political messages. It got us thinking about the role and relevance of the protest song, about how creative expression could be radical without being reduced only to its political function.”

Around the same time, Maraa was organising its annual arts festival Horaata, with resistance as its central theme. Artists from across the spectrum – Dalits, Marxists, Ambedkarites – attended and started talking about their conviction in the power of the performing arts. It was here that the idea of Relaa as an independent musical collective was born.

“Each group in Relaa has its own history,” explains Guha. “The Maharashtra groups are embedded in anti-caste movements; from Chhattisgarh emerges poetry and songs borne from the workers toil; from Orissa, the fight of the indigenous people against land acquisition; and so on. The fight is against patriarchy, caste, capitalism, fascism – in all forms.”

Relaa was also a response to the increasing differences between India’s left, Dalit and feminist activists. This is especially concerning at a time when many of these groups should be pulling together against what they see as a dominant and resurgent Hindu right.

That initial Bangalore meeting led to another public meeting in Pune in June last year, attended by Dehariya; noted Maharashtrian people’s balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat; and members of the Dalit cultural troupes Yalgaar and Kabir Kala Manch. The same year, the group decided on the name Relaa, borrowed from the Chhattisgarh Gondi tribe’s word for a massive gathering. “In Chhattisgarh, when a rally is so big that it has revolutionary potential, we call it relaa,” explains Dehariya. “It’s a rally that borders on an uprising.”

Back to the Gurgaon event, a day before the performance, Dehariya tells the 30-odd musicians and activists: “We all have the same destination, but our routes are different.” The atmosphere is like a council of war, as they tweak the songs they have written together. Everyone has a voice, with decisions being taken by a collective vote. Apart from Dehariya and the members from Yalgaar, the group consists of Shankar Mahanand and his troupe, who are involved in indigenous movements over land rights in Orissa, and the Indian Folk Band, a group of Dalit djembe and folk percussion exponents from Karnataka, led by a charming young man named Balu. There’s also Bangalore-based independent activist and guitarist Kamaan Singh Dhami.

Over the next few days, I follow Relaa as they perform across Delhi – the park in Gurgaon; at the gates of Delhi University’s arts building; in the working class neighbourhood of Shadi Khampur; and in the besieged Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, where we all had to sneak in past vigilant G4S security guards. Police arrested students at the campus in February for shouting “anti-India” slogans.

The Indian Folk Group – whose leather drums are themselves an act of protest in a society where working with a cow carcass is a mark of caste impurity – kick things off with their percussive noise. Other members of Relaa sing about caste, about the marketisation of Indian society, about the struggles for tribal and worker rights. Some of these are old folk songs, while others are new. Each night ends with Yalgaar’s street theatre. The audiences range from onlookers to radical students and veteran Marxists. The organisations they work with to set up the shows include student unions of mainstream parties to the feminist Pinjra Tod (“break the cage”) movement and the Maruti Suzuki Worker’s Union. There are sessions for workers and also NGOs that work with Muslim slum children. Somehow, all these different strands are pulled together, unified by the power of music.

As Yalgaar’s Charan Jadhav puts it: “Relaa is our way of connecting with human rights movements across the country. If we support each other and work together, we can bring about the revolution that this country sorely needs.”

After pulling off the Delhi yatra successfully, Relaa is already looking ahead. An album is in the works, as is a songbook to archive Indian protest music. The yatra will be an annual event, with the next one tentatively scheduled for Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the state elections probably due in May or June next year. “We’d like the collective to become a pressure group of sorts – where there are enough of us around the country that can rally together and respond to particular instances of oppression and injustice,” says Guha. “Ultimately our goal is that the act of singing is a protest in itself – and that works of art can challenge and transform mindsets and attitudes.”

It’s 2am on Sunday as I walk out of the still bustling Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. Goodbyes have been said, phone numbers have been exchanged and everyone is on the way home. I’m still buzzing from a rousing final performance and enjoying the all too rare buzz of solidarity and hope in a tradition of cultural resistance that has spent too many years on the back foot.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.

Published: August 31, 2016 04:00 AM

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