In 1991, the year when India launched its economic reforms, I travelled to the Narmada valley. The Narmada Bachao Andolan – the anti-Sardar Sarovar dam movement – had organised a meeting in which I was representing the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. I stayed on in the valley for a few days.
There were activists of my age at the meeting. We used to go to the river together in groups for there were crocodiles in the water and the banks. There used to be one person, with long hair and beard, who sang full-throated, like a Baul, as the moist wind from the river hit our faces. I knew this activist was from Delhi and used to also play and sing with a nascent band.
His band gained popularity and picked up a near-cult status by the end of the 1990s. I saw him again in 2011, on YouTube, and when I heard his voice peak at the upper notes of Arrey ruk ja re bandeh, I recognised Rahul Ram of the Indian Ocean band as the Baul-like singer from the Narmada valley.
Mongabay-India caught up with Rahul Ram recently for our new series where we will be interviewing achievers in art, policy, industry and other sectors who have strong roots in the environment. Rahul Ram is a vocalist, guitarist, composer and member of the Indian Ocean band, and more recently a sit-down artist with Aisi Taisi Democracy.
The Indian Ocean band was a pioneer that started experimenting with the fusion of rock with Indian folk and classical traditions in the 1990s itself. They draw their lyrics from Indian poetry, folk music, resistance music and other innovative sources. For instance, the lyrics of Kandisa, the title song in one of their albums, is an Aramaic prayer still being used in some of the churches of Syrian lineage in India.
The band has popularity cutting across age groups. One of my classmates, a music aficionado, spelt out his liking for the band succinctly: “They have got a unique sound. They do not copy anyone and listening to their music makes you proud to be an Indian. Their roots are in Indian classical with a deep knowledge of rock as well. Their vocals are very strong and lyrics fantastic, and that’s what endears their music to their fans.”
A generation younger, Munaf Luhar, a 26-year old independent singer, song writer and composer from Ahmedabad, likes the band for another reason. “The Indian Ocean band always raises its voice for the current issues in the country,” Luhar said. “They do not make music only for entertainment, but also have societal messages in their songs.”
If the Indian Ocean band has been reflecting environmental and social issues in their songs, Aisi Taisi Democracy goes a step forward and bases itself as a satire on contemporary political, social and environmental developments. Rahul Ram is the musician in the Aisi Taisi Democracy team, singing new songs in the tunes of popular Hindi film music.
Tehri and Narmada
Ram’s introduction to environment activism started when he spent a few days at the Chipko and anti-Tehri dam activist Sunderlal Bahuguna’s home in Silyara in Tehri Garhwal. After this introduction with village level environmentalism, he joined Kalpavriksh, a student action group and worked on issues in protected areas and a tannery cluster in Tamil Nadu. He did a PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University in the USA.
From 1990 to 1995 in the Narmada valley, working with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Ram learnt about environmentalism in India from the bottom upwards. “I learnt so much about environmental issues and also how the Indian state works and how they deal with people who are not agreeing with what the state wants to do,” told Mongabay-India. “You learn about jail and bail and how the cops are, learn about DMs [district magistrates] and SDMs [sub-district magistrates]. All of it is fascinating for a city boy.”
Born into a family of academics and journalists – Rahul Ram’s parents were botany professors and his uncle was HY Sharada Prasad, a senior journalist who went on to become the media advisor to Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister – these learnings built into the understanding he had picked up from his young age. Ram travelled between the Narmada valley and Delhi, where he sang and played the guitar with a band to earn some money.
The band – Indian Ocean – went on to become popular as the 1990s progressed, and continued to build on its successes in the first two decades of the 21st Century. Ram brought music from the Narmada valley into some of the songs of the band, for instance, Ma Rewa and Cheetu.
The 1990s was also a period when environmentalism was changing in India. Economic reforms were strengthening the hands of the consuming urban middle class in the country. In the national consciousness, environment and livelihood issues of the tribal communities in the Narmada valley was becoming less important. The consumers wanted good and different kind of music. Thus, ironically, while there was a growing demand for the kind of music the Indian Ocean band produced, the national interest in the Narmada movement itself declined.
However, the spirit of the confluence of environment and music that the anti-Narmada movement continued to live on. “I do not know why this is so,” states Ram, “because in the Narmada movement most of the songs are not environmental but political. Ma Rewa is an environmental song in a context. It is just a hymn to the river, which in the context of people living in the river and getting displaced it becomes an environmental song. It is the first song sung in [NBA] meetings.”
Cheetu, he says, is a song written by tribal poet Shankarbhai Tadavle talking about the historical and present-day wrongs committed to the original denizens of the Narmada valley, and exhorting them about their pride. There is another song that the band sings, also by Shankarbhai Tadavla, of the nakedar (head of a police station) coming to the village and asking the Bhil tribals for chicken and the forest ranger asking for bribe. “It is interesting that in four lines the song conveys corruption by the State taking bribe and [the tribals saying that] I used to give these bribes earlier, now I will not give,” said Ram.
“It is so difficult for a town person to put these complex ideas into a simple four-line structure,” Ram said, “When poets in villages write stuff, they write it simply, but the thoughts are complex. When urban dwellers start making environmental music they have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s because we are singing our music to people who do not understand our context. But when Shankarbhai is making a song for the people in his village they understand the context – the minute he talks about nakedar and chicken they understand.”
He insists that there is nothing more boring than a boring political song.
Environmental issues are changing
However, environmental issues are changing, and art has also been changing its approach to deal with these issues. In addition to his involvement with the Indian Ocean band, in more recent years Ram teamed with two political commentators and stand-up comedians – Sanjay Rajoura and Varun Grover – to start Aisi Taisi Democracy.
One of the popular songs that Ram parodied for this group was on air pollution in New Delhi and other parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plains during winter. It talks of asthma, dust in the lungs and ends with policy inaction to prevent this recurring annual cycle. “These songs have become popular because they say serious things in a funny way,” Ram said. “Since the tune is familiar the lyrics will remain in [the listeners’] memory.”
Ram adds, “I do think that all of us have different facets that cannot be satisfied by just one platform, especially an artist, a singer or a musician. … One will have to weigh and bring in environmental issues in ways that are accessible to people, make songs about that which also have the element of resistance built into it and maybe collaborate with other people in other countries.”
“Now that is becoming much more of a possibility with the internet which we did not have earlier,” he said. “We did not have the ability to collaborate. These are things that are opening that I think we can start using – the languages, the issues, the keywords, all of this requires a lot of thinking on our part.”
Rap seems to be providing a good medium, Ram observes. “Young people in India have actually jumped two steps,” he said. “They have gone straight from folk to rap. I have two explanations for this. One is that rap requires less acquisition of musical skills, because it is about the skill to speak, speak well and rapidly, and in rhythm.”
“Two, young people have a lot to say and rap allows you to say all that,” he said. “For example, there is a boy called MC Cash from Kashmir. Look at how he grew up from being a young boy growing in Kashmir with nothing but Kashmiri folk he went to rap and made such strong political statements.”
For Aisi Taisi Democracy, in the coming season, the focus will be on urban decay. “The whole thing that urban life in India has become has to be sung about,” Ram explains. The problems for water, the pollution, the crowding, the mindless numbing of commuting five hours to work every day and doing work for somebody that is equally meaningless – all these are likely to reach you, packaged in humour and satire.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.