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More Than Mere Impulse

A pioneering work on protest music in 20th century India looks into the musicality of IPTA songs and their absorption of genres far and near

More Than Mere Impulse
More Than Mere Impulse
Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association
By Sumangala Damodaran
Tulika Books | Pages: 234 | Rs. 950

Protest music can be more about tunes than literature. To the extent that it gains an aural charm beyond the revolutionary spirit of the lyrics. Such music flourished in India during the cou­­ntry’s transition from colonialism to independence. Wasn’t that breed of songs in vogue over three decades from the 1930s virtually a genre? That’s what The Radical Impulse explores.

The author, Sumangala Damodaran, is a granddaughter of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the first CM of Kerala. The southern state has itself celebrated its Left movement in the 1950s, using, among other forms, theatre, to which music was integral. And­hra was important in this regard too, and so were Bengal, Assam and Bombay, besides Delhi and its hinterland up north, where political music gained immense popularity. And all of this was largely under the aegis of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the cultural wing of the Communist party.

The book senses a dash of piquancy in protest music being called ‘popular’. For, revolutionary verses, however well-liked, can’t be commercial hits. Many of them have been solos and duets. Aesthetically, protest music has had sub-genres, Sum­angala notes, which can be split into three: those based on folk, Indian classical and Western. Folk songs were empl­o­yed in three ways: directly as protest music, literature suitably changed but tunes retained and, finally, as part of a performance (like ballet or drama).

Sumangala met Malayali singer P.K. Medini, who had emerged from the labour movement around the coir factories of Alappuzha in the ’40s, helping her rediscover a hit song.

The folk songs bore no political overto­nes, and were rendered for entertainment at meetings (where they blended with the protest ethos), but had a more serious positivity—reviving forgotten vocal traditions colonialism suppressed. Typically, they required masters to deliver well. That’s how, say, a Bhatiali boat-song, Selam chacha became synonymous with Lokgeet exponent Hemanga Biswas. Int­e­­restingly, the second category was the convenient alteration of traditional kirtans, like Punjabi Prem Dhawan’s Arey bha­ago London bhaago, referring to the Cri­­pps Mission representations. The third, being onstage, came from singer-­dancers or actor-storytellers.

Conversely, rural-groomed Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) went on to craft a ‘new folk’ idiom that retained rus­­tic simplicity, but introduced greater melodic content. For instance, poet O.N.V. Kurup’s near-romantic Ponnarival ambili in the cult play Ningalenne Commu­nis­takki (You Made Me a Communist) from 1952, a year after KPAC’s formation.

Protest music banking on Indian cla­­s­sical flourished in Bombay and Calc­utta, thanks largely to the 1943-formed IPTA’s central squad that had trained musicians guided by stalwarts like Ravi Shankar and composer-writer Jyotiri­n­dra Moitra. Sumangala notes that Hin­du­stani and Carnatic music began acc­­­­ommodating folk and patriotic songs in the latter half of concerts. The Western idiom found representation in staccato phrases, melodies with notes not close to each other (for heightened dramatic effect) along with hard drumbeats. Salil Chowdhury’s IPTA com­positions were examples.

The movement’s focus on revival of folk traditions, according to Communist lea­der P.C. Joshi, was to “wea­­ken chauvinistic traits”. Thus IPTA music incorporated var­­ied traditions: Lavani, Tamasha, Pow­ada of Maharashtra, Ramlila of the Gan­g­etic plains, Bengal’s Baul and San­­­­­­­g­­­eeta­nat­akam down south. In Kerala, the shelf-life of the theatre songs was far greater than the plays that gave them birth, the book rig­­htly notes. The Praja Natya Mandali revved up music in And­hra. In Assam, IPTA music gained from traditional Sattriya and Bihu dances, besides Uday Sha­­nkar’s experiments alo­ngside music and local theatres as well as films.

A trained vocalist who gives recitals on protest music (showcasing scores by Reba Roychowdury, Sheela Bhatia, Swa­ta­ntrata Prakash, Preeti Sarkar), the author’s meeting with singer P.K. Medini, who had emerged from the labour movement aro­­und the coir factories of Alap­pu­zha in the ’40s, helps her red­­iscover the charm of a hit song of that era—she has notated Pacchap­pa­nantatte (as she has quite a few others). More dramatically, Sumangala stumbles upon a South Afri­­can parallel to an Indian song penned after the Jalli­anwala Bagh massacre—fin­ding how Parna Jhanda travelled to Tra­n­svaal, enthusing anti-apartheid fighters.

The narrative often tends to be academic, but such seriousness is inevitable when the mission is to establish the identity of protest music, its social context, the politics-aesthetics relatio­n­­ship and popularity beyond market dynamics. All of that, without being carried away at any point.

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