Over the last four decades, there have been many compilations and interpretations of “songs of resistance” from varied perspectives. Each progressive group has also presented and published its ideological positions on them. Even though I have had an umbilical relationship with “songs of resistance”, I have refrained from sharing my position or experiences so far. Nor did I feel the need to bring out a compilation of the songs I have translated from Telugu and the songs that I have written in Kannada. But recently I have begun to consider it a historical responsibility to trace and record the imprints of the journeys that “songs of resistance” have made across the region in the ways that I have seen it.
Songs of struggle
I will begin when the phrase horatada hadugalu (songs of resistance) was coined. This was when songs of struggle were still on the tongues of singers and the pages of their notebooks. At that time, the Kolar branch of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti wanted to bring out a collection or compilation. At that point, singing these songs was the domain of N Venkatesh, who would belt out several of them in his sore voice.
Our own “Gaddam” Venkatesh brought these songs from neighbouring Andhra and saddled them on us in the border regions. This man literally howled these songs at protests organised by the Dalit Student Federation in front of the office of the District Collector. All those who had gathered would provide a chorus to this screeching and howling. But I would stand away and, from a little distance, make a note of the content, poetic quality, and dry blurting of the lyrics.
The songs didn’t feel intimate to me, and I didn’t show an interest in them then. This included his favourite song, “videnamma dabbunna badkovu” (ivanenamma duddiro dhagakora in Kannada; Here is the Moneyed Marauder). But later, he started singing “intinta cikati” (mane maneyu kattale in Kannada; Darkness in Every House), “e kulamabbi” (yavakulavayya; What caste are you, Man?), “sirimalle cettukinda laccumammo” (kanagile gidadadi laccumamma, Lachumamma under the Jasmine Tree); “palleturi pillagada” (halligada hasuguse; Boy from a Village). I began to be drawn to the stream of resistance against the feudal system in these songs. And I translated all these songs into Kannada and handed them to singers who began singing them. The songs travelled from mouth to mouth. It led to a social movement that none of us could have anticipated, creating a flow that transcended borders.
Why these songs called out to me to translate them is hardly a matter of wonder. In these songs, I saw my life mirrored. The figure of Lachumamma that Gaddar placed in front of himself while composing “sirimalle cettukinda laccumammo” (Lachumamma under the Jasmine Tree) was none other than the portrait of my mother. If Gaddar’s mother sat listlessly under the Sirimallige tree, my mother crushed up and extracted the roots of the Kanigele tree, pushing open the doors of death, only to return.
For this reason, I brought in the Kanigele tree instead of Sirimallige in translation. Similarly, the singers and listeners found their mothers and sisters reflected in these songs. They found themselves or their adolescent brothers who worked as bonded labourers in the song “halligaada hasuguse” (Boy from the Village). And because of this, the songs became a significant part of social life during that time and played a major role in expanding the consciousness of the Dalit Movement in Karnataka.
Until then, the songs or texts which spoke about the life of these strata of people had not crossed over to reach Dalit keris (ghettos) and the un-lettered masses. There was a sudden sprouting of voices which gave a magical strength to people. That is how singers and songwriters were born across the region. Their “sollu” (voice and song lines) of resistance was heard everywhere.
On the soil of Kannada too, songs emerged and resonated, creating a profound impact. Siddalingaiah had established himself with his folk aesthetic with songs like “holemadigara haadu” (Songs of the Holeyas and Madigas) and then “nenne dina, nanna jana” (Yesterday, My People), “elliddaro avaru” (Where Are They?), and “saviraru nadigalu” (A Thousand Rivers). Janardhana (Janni) and Basavalingaiah lent their voices to this new emergent tradition. The use of symbols, metaphors, and idioms in the “songs of resistance” by Siddalingaiah was better than the “influential” essence from our neighbours in Andhra. But Siddalingaiah’s songs did not reach the people in Dalit keris as much as the Telugu origin songs, which kindled a fire in people. But his songs travelled in literate and aware Dalit circles.
Songs of resistance
The earliest publication of a collection called Horatada Hadugalu (Songs of Resistance) by the DSS, born of this history, has many important threads which might seem insignificant at first glance. Behind this collection of songs, H Govindaiah’s effort and dedication are notable. For the cover page, we chose a sculpture from China. The statue depicted a boy who was chained. To write the book’s title, the materials included a bottle of red ink and a broken beedi as the brush. Devanuru Mahadeva dipped a beedi in a bottle of red ink and wrote: “Horaatada Haadugalu.” This became the title.
This collection comprises all the songs which were written in the beginning. After this, some ideological factions did bring out collections of songs relating to their particular worldviews and ideologies. But the collection Songs of Resistance by the DSS was the primary source for many singers.
There were at least five or six singers of songs of resistance in each district. This was made possible by the Dalit Kala Mandali. Kolar and Raichur’s Kala Mandalis, particularly, gave birth to influential singers and songwriters. Since both of these regions were influenced by Telugu, singers and songwriters could sing and write in both languages. Kolar’s N Muniswamy, Gollalli Shivaprasad, and Raichur’s Danappa Maski are some of them. They are as talented as Gaddar himself.
As long as the Dalit Kala Mandali was alive, I was a part of the process of writing songs. I must share some experiences when songs were created with the Kala Mandali. There are many unforgettable memories behind each one of them.
“Kallu bunde” (Pot of Hooch) was written for the Dalit Vidyarthi Okkuta convention. Picchalli and I were travelling on a train to Gulbarga. This was at a time when the DSS raised its voice against hooch liquor. In support of it, Gaddar wrote a song. Picchalli would sing it. I felt that if this song could be translated into Kannada, it would reach more people.
That night, Picchalli sang this song on the train. I began translating it as he sang. When we got to Gulbarga, Kannada’s “kallu bunde” (Pot of Hooch) was ready. Not just the vessel but also the alcohol in it had the essence of the Kannada language. Similarly, I translated “hacchabyada hacchabyadavva jeetakke nannanna” (Don’t Send Me for Bonded Labour) when Picchalli sang it on a train to Bijapur from Bangalore. It is based on a Kannada folk song, “haakabyaada haakabyaadanna o betegaranna.” (Don’t Injure Me, O Hunter) I changed the song’s subject from a rabbit to a Dalit bonded-labourer who is as tender as the rabbit itself.
‘Why shouldn’t the palanquin of pearls enter our keri?’
Although I wrote many such songs when I was with Picchalli, I particularly remember one Telugu song I wrote. Later someone translated it into Kannada as well. The song was “mavori gudliona” (In Our Village Shrine). I still remember the moments when I wrote that song.
There was an ongoing protest in Kammasandra for the palanquin of the god to enter the Dalit keri. During the height of the Dalit movement, we visited villages and stayed overnight in Dalit keris. We always had a minimum of five to six activists with us. If the villages were far, we would travel on rented bicycles. If the villages were close, we would walk.
It was already nighttime when we reached Kammasandra after finishing our meeting in Chigarapura, and yet, the keri was awake and waiting for us. They even prepared a meal for us. After having food, we decided to stay there overnight. Since there were many bed bugs in that house, Gopal and his friends spread paddy grass on the floor, which became a bed for us. After dinner, we began discussions, and it was past midnight. Picchalli Srinivas (from the Dalit Kala Mandali) sang a few songs.
A woman in that house was waiting impatiently to sing as well. But the men wouldn’t let her sing. Noticing this, I requested them to give her a chance to sing. The men did not like this idea but finally allowed her to sing due to my persistent requests. When she started singing, the tune and the song put us in a trance. But the content of the song was filled with the debris of feudalism. It was a song about a landlord’s daughter-in-law’s pain while she grinds and pounds a khanduga of ragi and wheat. The Dalit girl resonated with the pain of that daughter-in-law even though she did not find the grinding and thrashing difficult. I found this to be somewhat paradoxical.
That same night, I took a lantern and wrote a song about the reality of their village, keeping in mind the structure and style of the song. Their village was famous for a pearl palanquin of the Venugopalaswamy temple, but that Palanquin was never brought to the keri of Dalits. Under Gopal’s leadership, the Dalits of that village had begun a protest regarding this issue and demanded the Palanquin be brought into the keri. The successful protest by the DSS in nearby Gattakamadenahalli regarding temple entry encouraged the Dalits of this village. A protest to bring the palanquin to the Dalit keri was ongoing. I shaped the song with this struggle as a backdrop. I asked Picchalli to learn it. And he did.
The following day before we left, we made her sit in front of us, and Picchalli sang this song in front of everyone. Since it was a song written about their own problems and since it portrayed elements of people’s rights and awareness through the refrain, “Why shouldn’t the ‘palanquin of pearls’ enter our keri? We built that gudi (shrine)”, it encouraged people to claim their rights. It became their song of resistance. Later someone else translated it into Kannada, and it travelled as “nammura gudiyalli” (In our Village Shrine)across the region.
I want to relate more memories of the songs labelled “Telugu influence”. Besides Telugu martyr songs and songs about armed resistance, songs about social, economic, and political education were written mainly by Gaddar and Cherabanda Raju. The songs written by them and translated by me as “Mane Maneyu Kattale,” (Darkness in every house) “Prati Kannu Kanneeru,” (Tears in Each Eye) and “Yava Kulavayya” (What caste are you, man?) became so famous that they were considered to be Kannada songs.
Cherabanda Raju was hospitalised with a brain tumour in jail between all of this. During this time, I wanted to write a letter to him. I wanted to write a few words of gratitude to the poet of the people for his contribution. I do not know whether the letter reached him or not. But in that letter, I mentioned that his song “mane maneyu kattalu” (Darkness in Every House) was sung by farmers when they travelled from Naragunda-Navalagunda to Bangalore on foot. I also said that this is the ultimate gratification a poet of the people can get in his lifetime.
Until today, I have not claimed ownership over my songs, thinking that they will be needed in the future. I am just a labourer. Someone shows me the land… their land. The work is mine. But, after my work is done, I search for another landowner. But it is impossible to explain the praise, love, respect, and care sometimes given to the songwriter. Many times, when women in villages in corners of the land sing songs, my song sneaks through. And I ask them, “Nice song; who has written it?” And realising that it is me, I feel joyful. So, although I don’t keep anything with me, many songs have appeared in albums, articles, and journals. Collecting these songs sometimes feels like digging my grave and searching for one’s remains.
I’ll not measure the literary weightage of my songs, but I know that a face that had disappeared in history looked through the curtain to look at its reflection in the mirror through them. This isn’t an insignificant matter. During the early phases of the songs of resistance, women were the focal point. The reflection was of the face of women –– amongst the most oppressed in this land. We drew on this metaphor for our practice. Andhra’s Gaddar, Cherabanda Raju and others were the first ones to shift their focus to addressing women in their songs.
CG Krishnaswamy, Kannada theatre director, organised Gaddar’s performance in a temporary tent on the grounds of Ravindra Kalakeshtra in Bangalore. In preparation, a workshop was organised in Kumbalagodu. It was an event where Gaddar, Picchalli, and many other Kannada singers sang together. Gaddar had written “adavi talliki dandaalu” (Salutations to the Mother Forest) just then. They brought me to Kumbalagodu to translate it into Kannada. As Gaddar sang it, I translated it along with him. The song “adavi taayige vandane” (Salutations to the Mother Forest) is still popular and often sung by schoolchildren in competitions.
I stayed back there that night. Lakshmipathi, Picchalli, Ramachandra, Gaddar and I, along with many others, talked all night. Gaddar shared some issues he was facing because he was Dalit. We learned and understood how caste had grown its roots in Left-wing politics as well. As we continued to talk, there was a power cut. Someone lit a candle and brought it in. We were distraught when we realised how much an influential artist-singer-cultural leader and a legend of the Dalit world was affected by left politics. Later, Gaddar’s performance in Kalakshetra was a massive success among the crowd who had come to listen to him.
When building an organisation, we needed orators. But they were very few orators amongst us. Even though we depended on them, we could only expect them to be in some places. Furthermore, there was a limit to reaching people through just the content of speeches. Songs could affect people more than speeches. And songs, therefore, would naturally get imprinted on people’s tongues. Keeping this in mind, we started to write simple songs rather than poems.
This article was translated from the Kannada by Mohit Kaycee, Lakshman KP, and Skanda Ghate.