Stories in a song

A charismatic singer spreads Ambedkar's message, one sleepless night at a time

Manjeet Mehra's jagraatas are gaining fans and electrifying Dalit audiences across North India.

It was 11 pm in Banat village in Shamli district in west Uttar Pradesh. A short man dressed in an off-white kurta-pyjama and black waistcoat was on the stage at the far end of a tent filled with 1,500 people.“Bhai, coat, pant aur vote-note ka jisne haq dilaya,haai phir bhi Bhim kyun na yaadaaya?” he sang. “He who, got us the right to wear coat-pant, earn money and vote, why did we not remember that Bhim?” The melody is based on the 1990s Bollywood number, Hui Ankh Nam from the film Saathi.

The event is a night-long jagraata: a performance of song and dance to celebrate the month of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. The man on the stage is Manjeet Mehra, the head of the cultural wing of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

It is a busy month for Mehra. He and his troupe have been travelling to remote parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to perform for the Dalit community. After a string of events in Rajasthan, his tour will culminate at the Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, where Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with 500,000 followers in 1956 to escape the caste system.

Upper-caste groups “use fancy posters, lights, stage to eulogise the unjust acts of Hindu Gods and Goddesses”, said Mehra. “They organise durbars to lure our youth. We are using the same jagraatas and durbars to spread Ambedkar’s message, to enlighten our youth.”

New interpretations

Mehra has modeled himself on Narendra Chanchal, the flamboyant jagraata singer who transformed the tradition of bhajan singing into a multi-million industry in North India in the ’90s.  In his events, Mehra deconstructs events from history and mythology for Bahujans, his preferred term for Dalits, and interprets their political significance. “Most of our people cannot read and write,” he said. “They neither get a chance to look beyond popular perceptions. I use the same popular gimmicks to make them aware of their rights and duties.”

Mehra kept switching registers, moving between songs and standup comedy. Each time he picked a reference from the Hindu epics, he reiterated, “It is not me who is saying this, it is their own holy texts.” In one sequence, he said, “Their Lord Ram went on an exile but who did he kill in those 14 years? Our Dalit rulers. Taadka, Maarich, Bali-Sugreev, Shambukh. Still he is God. No one talks about it. It is a way to erase the Dalit history for convenience.”

Donations, starting from Rs 10, started to pour in as he sang. He asked one of the contributors his name. “Dharam Pal,” the man replied. Mehra continued, “You know, 50 years ago, we couldn’t have such beautiful names. A Brahmin with zero intelligence would be called Brahm Gyaani, a Kshatriya child even if coward would be named Veer Singh. But a Dalit would have go to his upper-caste zamindar to ask him to name his children. That zamindar would ask the day the child was born. If it was Budhwar [Wednesday], he would be called Buddhu. If it was Shukrawar [Thursday] then Shakku. That is how we were named then.” Banter like this fired up the crowd.

When the crowd becomes restless, Mehra imitated Bollywood actor Amrish Puri’s famous bit of dialogue to announce, “Mogambo dukhi hua.” Mogambo is disappointed. Canned laughter played in the background. The crowd’s attention was wrested back with this device several times during the night.

The great emancipator
Mehra turned to address the women,sitting together on the left side. They were more than 500 of them, a rarity in political events in Uttar Pradesh, that too so late at night, except for those addressed by Mayawati. He told them that it was Ambedkar who ensured equality for Indian women when he crafted the Constitution. “Mothers and sisters, according to Babasaheb, the sari that you wear is meant to hold you back from running away unlike the jeans-pant,” he said.

Mehra, 40, has come a long way from the time he was a teacher of arts and crafts. That was 14 years ago. The performer was born into a Dalit family in Chiri village in Rohtak and attended a government school. He decided to kick his steady job and become a musician after coming under the influence of the Dalit leader Kanshi Ram, whose  interpretation of Ambedkar the young man especially admired.

Since then, he has been researching Dalit history and turning it into songs and acts. “My songs involve all those who helped the poor ‒ Guru Ravidass, Jyotiba Phule, Kabir,” he said. His songs are lucid, often simplistic, angry and accusatory, written with a popular audience in mind. They prompt the listeners to ask uncomfortable questions.

At the jagraata, Mehra doesn’t perform all night. As he takes quick naps, Dalit leaders make speeches and other performers belt out Gautam Buddha bhajans .On Monday night, a boy took to the stage to sing a tune about the devotees of Asaram Bapu, the so-called godman who has been accused of rape. Once he was done, Mehra mimicked Asaram and then proceeded to mock the recently arrested Haryana godman Rampal. “The boy sang well but it also shows who conmen are successfully luring our youth by polluting their heads with Manuwadi rituals and servility,” Mehra observed.

The last act of the night, at 3 am, described the life story of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the community’s great champion. Mehra described him as “gol, matol, ghungraale baal and chauda seena”  ‒ a chubby, curly-haired, broa- chested child. Putting a basket full of cow-dung cakes on his head, he narrated the story of Ramabai, Ambedkar’s first wife, who earned the scorn of the neighbourhood by using the patties as fuel when her husband was studying in America and the family was short of money. Mehra went on to talk about how Gandhi opposed the idea of a separate electorate for Dalits even though this could have empowered the community. “That Gandhi did not want rights for us,” Mehra said. “He wanted us to be at his mercy.”

Broad stereotypes

Despite his activist streak, Mehra is not untouched by the entertainment industry. He produced an album last year and in 2011, he co-directed a popular Haryanvi film, Dhaakad Chorra, brimming with gun-flashing machismo. The same virile references are present in his performances. He portrays the opponents of Dalits as effeminate and characterises upper-case women as people “who waste time on lipstick and nail polish”.

The popularity of his jagraatas reflects the growing confidence of Dalit communities across the country. Monday night’s jagraata was held in a part of Muzaffarnagar that was torn apart by riots in September. It isn’t certain whether the empathy and anger in these songs can start a social revolution. But it’s clear that the jagraatas have created an energetic, sometimes emancipating ,alternate culture.

As Mehra wrapped up, he took a sip of water from a Bisleri bottle. “Today, we are drinking Bisleri water,” he said. “Fifty years ago, we were not even allowed clean water by the upper castes.” Then he began to sing, “Phir bhi Bhim kyun na yaad aaya?’ Why did we, then, not remember that Bhim?

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.