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Rebels for a Cause

Sumangala Damodaran and Susmit Sen team up to revive protest songs of IPTA

Neha Sharma Nov 10, 2010
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Mimi Chakrabarti

Sumangala Damodaran has been performing ”˜Jaane Wale Sipahi Se Poochho’ for over two decades now. Written by poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin during the Second World War, the song was, in some way her introduction to the forgotten tradition of protest songwriting. Damodaran, a professor of economics at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, is also a trained singer. For the past four years she has been investigating the contribution of left leaning artists – to the Indian Nationalist Movement of the Forties – as part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

Formed in 1943, during the tumultuous period wrought by British colonialism, the Bengal Famine and the Second World War, the IPTA united various luminaries ”“ like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Kaifi Azmi, Salil Chowdhury and Bhupen Hazarika of that era ”“ expressing resistance through art. While the theatre tradition is well documented, Damodaran realised that there was a treasured vault of poignant protest songs that got lost along the way. “The American protest song tradition has inspired very interesting academic as well as popular work which tells you exactly what artists like Woody Guthrie or the Almanac Singers were trying to do. I’ve also been reading some fascinating stuff about the Composers’ Collective and Workers’ Collective from the 1930s,” she says. While drawing parallels, Damodaran stresses upon the importance of documenting the equally rich legacy of the Indian protest song tradition. “If you look at the historical importance of this – it is the first time that you formally had culture being used for protest in an organisational sense,” she adds.

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It’s been an adventurous yet tedious process – of uncovering, archiving, documenting and authenticating – for Damodaran. In some cases, the reconstruction of a song relied on an uncertain hum, a tattered lyric notebook retrieved from under someone’s bed and when in luck, a rusty cassette recording. Many of Damodaran’s sources comprised of octogenarians with hazy recollections, and arriving at the root melody of a song called for various leads and revalidation. Collaborating with Indian Ocean guitarist and songwriter Susmit Sen, Damodaran is releasing an album, Songs of Protest: Forgotten Traditions of the Forties/Fifties, reviving/rehashing these protest songs, this month.

Even before she started this project, Damodaran had been performing songs from IPTA with her band Parcham. Susmit Sen watched her perform for the very first time at a workshop held by Pete Seeger in India in the year 1996. Sen’s keen interest in Damodaran’s project led to the collaboration, work on which began about a year back. “Working on this repertoire and then taking it ahead with Susmit has taught me that there is that space in India today. It almost seemed to be this niche which was waiting to be tapped,” says Damodaran. The nine-track album features four languages – Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali ”“ and is supported by the National School of Drama.

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Sen reveals a sense of unity that underscored this movement, transcending cultural boundaries, “there is this Bangla song (”˜Phir Aayi Yaade’) which laments the death of four farmers killed by British soldiers in the village of Kayur in Kerala.” Damodaran reiterates the “forging of people to people solidarities” and “plurality of language” that defined this music with another example in the Punjabi song ”˜Heer’ which was written about the Bengal famine. “At some level, it also evoked international solidarity as songs like ”˜We Shall Overcome’ and ”˜The Internationale’ were being translated,” she adds. For the most part, Damodaran’s mellifluous vocals are cocooned in Sen’s dreamy web of strings. The album weaves a rich sound tapestry detailed in various elements from grave, melancholic phrases of the cello to buoyant spells of the mridangam and ghatam. “Each song has been treated differently. In fact each song tickled me in different ways hence so many different treatments,” says Sen about his approach on the album. Touching a raw patriotic, humanist nerve, Songs of Protest is a heartrending piece of work and an exposition of an awe-inspiring legacy.

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