Cultural activism during the election campaign in Bihar

Singing About The Red Wave

Student activists and cultural teams participated enthusiastically in our election campaign. We bring you some notes about their experiences on the campaign trail. Radhika Menon from JNU offers a glimpse of a cultural activists' team, and also reports from Jehanabad and Bhojpur.

The hub of Kaler block in Jehanabad is a neat little bazaar arranged on a single lane. A sleepy market. Sleepier in the afternoon.

However, when the jeep arrived at the bazar, the drowsiness affecting the place was not quite real. It was like that of a household with a marriage in the evening trying to catch a few winks in the afternoon. The shopkeepers dozed but people kept trooping in and out of the election offices of various political parties.

The jeep, with the fluttering red flags had wobbled to a stop near the maley office. And from the belly of the automobile, twelve people pulled themselves out, one by one. A group of primary school children, who had been busy disciplining battered cycle tyres to run over uneven surfaces, stopped at this sight, their canes still held in the air. Then as abruptly as they had halted in their sport, they took a swift turn, and rushed off to report to their families about the visitors.

In ten minutes, something appeared to have stirred in the drowsy market and a crowd started buzzing under the shade of a tree. The ladle that had woken up the market was the announcement, on an amplifier, by local maley activists about the staging of a street corner play. The children with the cycle tyres also appeared to have done their bit for publicity and had regrouped with their parents. A few hundred people had gathered.

Parked under the shade of the tree and surrounded by several rings of curious people, the student and cultural activists, who had arrived in the jeep with the red flags, began the meeting with a vigorous round of drumming and clapping. The rings around the meeting kept getting larger and larger as songs were sung about workers and peasants, students and youth joining hands for resisting oppression and the heroic endeavours of ordinary people charting the course of revolution. A bus loaded with people, on its way to some far off place, had stopped to locate the focal point of the crowd’s attention. And upon noticing the unusual campaign, the passengers and the driver craned their heads out of the window to catch the lyrics of the songs. A bullock cart piled with rabi harvest and exhausted peasants, returning from the field, also had decided to take a break and sway their heads to the rhythm of the red wave.

As the crowd swelled the Jan Sanskriti Manch Unit from Patna, began the satirical play Karavan Urf Feel Good, exploring the complexities of politics in Bihar and the country. The audience nodded their heads in agreement, while the activists of other parties watched with irritation from their offices. The response to the play, as in the other places where it was performed, indicated the political temperature of the participating crowd. In Kaler, it was as warm as the noon sun merrily shining down on the performers. But that was not always the case. In some of the performances elements within the audience, upset by the exposure of the designs of the ruling class parties would try disruptive tricks. Interestingly, however the audience at large, always accepted the logic of the play and the arguments of the campaigners. They often stayed long back after the meeting was declared closed, to chat with the cultural team and the local activists.

In many of the places, the performance had a special significance. The form as well as the content of the play generated an enthusiasm beyond expectation. Upon inquiry interesting stories tumbled out. An old activist of the party and another comrade, associated with the ML movement since the early 80s, whom the cultural team met in Hajipur village of Jehanabad, described, how they had established dialogues with people through songs and plays. Narrating the different phases of the growth of the party with songs, he rendered the ones that had surcharged people with enthusiasm and moved them to organize themselves. They remembered how the caste hierarchy prevented the dalit and the poor, even from the simple joys of clapping and singing and of the songs that people had composed to express their anger. These songs of resistance were then sung in the fields and huts to build up revolt against tyrannical landlords.

Several cultural troupes have existed in the areas of struggle, giving voice to the trials and tribulations of the poor. Upon seeing the campaign play, the people in the villages often remembered singers and performers of earlier groups and specific songs that had inspired them. Interestingly thus, the enthusiasm at seeing the street play during the election campaign was not merely because of the digs being taken at the ruling class politicians or because of free entertainment being provided at a time when things actually looked bleak, but was infact an enthusiasm associated with seeing their thoughts and aspirations articulated. The quest of the labouring poor to be a political pole deciding their own interests against forces that were pushing the country to backwardness and deprivation, was something that they aspired for and it enthused them to see it being articulated through skits and songs, prompting them to stay back and talk about it.

It is necessary to note that the cultural initiatives of the ruling class parties were not lacking. Their form and content, however, reinforced the efforts to turn people into passive consumers of cultural products. This becomes evident from what was offered to people as cultural items. There were those who served a star cast from Bollywood gushing irrelevant dialogues from inane films, others took on the task of awing people with helicopters and dropping entertaining quips for the media. The mafia goons with political aspirations invited notorious singers famous for their obscene songs. In the Bhojpuri speaking belt, obscenities were dished out in the name of folk dances before the campaign, to gather a predominantly male crowd, and their campaign vehicles tried to woo people with film songs.

In contrast, CPI-ML campaign vehicles played cassettes with a brief history of the party and songs written and composed either by Hirawal or by local sympathizers in the different areas. The former set of songs inspired by forms like chaith and qawali stirred popular imagination with its lyrics and music describing the rising red wave of workers, peasants, youth and students. The songs by cultural activists from the areas carried the essence of local struggles and issues. In Aurangabad and Siwan, however, the campaign vehicles had live music instead of audio players. The jeeps and tractors accommodated several bands of tireless and inspired village singers, with a variety of musical instruments, singing from morning till evening.

These elections saw cultural personalities like Bhupen Hazarika and Bashir Badr twisting the words of their progressive poetry and music in order to curry patronage of the fascist BJP. At such a time it was refreshing to witness an alternative model of culture. One which is a reminder of Brecht’s observation that art is not a mirror to reflect society but a hammer to change it. Might as well add, what is the point of reflecting a society that is so unjust, so unfair and so exploitative. Just as well break it.