The rhythms of a protest

How music is playing a key role in catalysing protest movements

Hemanth Subramanian | July 18, 2018


#TM Krishna   #Music   #Protests   #Unilever   #Kodaikanal Protest   #Kodaikanal Still Wont  
A screengrab of the ‘Kodaikanal Still Won’t’ music video
A screengrab of the ‘Kodaikanal Still Won’t’ music video

On June 29, I was able to grab Carnatic singer TM Krishna for a few minutes on the sidelines of the launch of ‘Kodaikanal Still Won’t’, a music video calling out Unilever’s double standards in cleaning up its mercury contaminated factory site at, well you guessed it, Kodaikanal. The video, a fusion of Carnatic, rap and Tamil Gaana Kuthu genres, features rapper Sofia Ashraf of the viral ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ fame, Indie rock musician Amrit Rao and TM Krishna.

Unilever’s stand is contextualised as environmental racism by the campaign for gathering signatures in a petition hosted by Jhatkaa.org targeting Unilever CEO Paul Polman. The music becomes a compelling vehicle to push the narrative forward.

Music has indeed played a key role historically in catalysing protest movements, especially in the last century or two. Genres like hip hop, reggae, rock and heavy metal are rebellions in their own right against the established orders. In India too, the music of protest has taken various rhythms and melodies. But rarely has the orthodoxy of classical music broken its predefined boundaries. Krishna is probably the first deeply entrenched Carnatic voice to have broken the mould and lent his voice for social and political commentary. His ‘Poramboke’ music video, probably the world’s first Carnatic protest song, talks of the paradox of development and environmental degradation in the context of the Ennore power plant project in Tamil Nadu.

What is it that makes a Carnatic musician like TM Krishna come out of his comfortable existence of the sabhas in Chennai or the concerts for eclectic audiences abroad? What is it that makes him break the rigid conventions of Indian classical music?

“The idea of art for art’s sake is defined by what you define art to be,” he chips in as I catch up with him backstage after the concert. “Though it may sound like an absolutism of philosophy, the whole creation of art, which is a human construct, is to make people more sensitive, more aware of oneself, environment, relationship, ideas of community, the problems in it and the complexity of identity, and much more. One hopes that through the sensitivity that you feel, in its melody or in its movement or in its stillness, you will somehow, at least momentarily, transcend these boundaries that humans are bound to create. If that is art, then art is automatically social, political and questioning.”

During his concert piece at the music video launch, he questioned the present by invoking the monochrome of the past. The song he invoked was ‘Endru Thaniyum indha suthanthira daagham’ (When will our thirst for freedom be quenched). The song was popularised in the 1961 film ‘Kappalottiya Thamizhan’ (The Tamilian Who Launched a Ship), based on the life of VO Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known as VOC. The song was written by Tamil revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi, a contemporary of VOC.

The monochrome of the past

Krishna’s choice of context struck an evocative chord. VOC’s life and times becomes an important context for the current milieu in Tamil Nadu. His Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was the first indigenous Indian shipping service between Tuticorin and Colombo. VOC had launched the company in response to the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company, which had subsequently also tried to unsuccessfully buy out the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. Always a threat to British domination in the region, there were several attempts to sabotage his rise as an industrialist. Following the Coral Mill strike at Thoothukudi in 1908, where VOC played a key role in fighting for the rights of workers, he was imprisoned and charged with sedition and two life sentences. Despite the fact that his supporters had raised sufficient funds for his bail, he refused to leave without his other comrades imprisoned along with him. He would continue correspondence and stream of legal petitions from prison, even in the face of being yoked to an oil press like a bull and made to work in the hot sun. He was treated like a common convict and the hard labour deteriorated his health.

VOC’s story, the film justifiably eulogising him, and his comrades including Subramanya Bharathi, ten of whose songs make up the soundtrack of the film, therefore become even more relevant today. There is a poetic resonance to the beginning of VOC’s industrial career, and his arrest that took place in Thoothukudi and led to his gruelling incarceration.

This resonance of protesting against injustice was resoundingly alive much after independence too. “There is a tragedy and a wonderful story here,” says Krishna. The wonderful story is that Tamil Nadu is one set of people – not just a state – who have in the last century, questioned social hierarchy, power, the idea of ownership, and I think the Dravidian movement was a very important moment in the history of Indian democracy itself. And therefore the kind of enlightenment that you see, in Tamil writing, across the caste divide, is astonishing. The Tamil dalit and women writing in Tamil Nadu even today is outstanding. That’s the fabulous legacy that we have.

“But it’s also true,” he laments, “that in the last around 25 years, we have politically completely destroyed that legacy. We cannot run away from the fact that we have politically become very passive. We have become people who have been consumed by megalomaniacs who have been in power, who have played the role of governance like they were in tinsel town. And we have not bothered about it. There is a certain loss of ethical gravitas that has happened among the Tamil people.”

The resurgence of questioning

This is probably true not just of Tamil Nadu, but the rest of India as well. The economic liberalisation of the 1990s and the second wave of the 2000s probably lulled the thinker, the artist, the poet and the painter into the luxurious embrace of the consumerist culture. In today’s context of the multiplex culture, the very medium and the delivery of the message are subject to the mores of this consumerist and capitalist structure, of which Unilever is not only an integral and inescapable part, but also has great influence in shaping social, political and cultural narrative.

Krishna’s presence at the protest is but natural, given his stand against the rigid orthodoxies of Carnatic music itself. One might remember his remarkable decision to quit the Chennai December music season in 2015. He then became the maverick Carnatic musician in the eyes of the media houses. But his protest was anything but symbolic in terms of challenging the convention. But he still considers himself to be child of the sabhas of Chennai, and has great hope of change within.

“Of course, you create parallel structures,” he says, “but you also need to subvert the existing structures. You need to use dominant structures that are in play and subvert them, because these are also made of people with consciousnesses. Why not question those consciousnesses? Because when you say nothing can be done, you are also judging all the people in it. I don’t want to do that. In some way I am also part of it. I am not away from it. So I want to also use those structures to raise questions within those structures, and also show probable parallel structures. Maybe there is a mutual enlightenment that can happen.”

But will the sabhas in Chennai pay heed? Will Unilever accede? As the socio-economic and environmental cost of development continues to accrue at an accelerating pace, what is the right way to enlightened governance that ensures not just fiscal compliance but also environmental and social compliance from these structures that make up the consumerist culture? Does it take a Thoothukudi for people to sit up and take notice?

“Today you see a certain resurgence of this questioning, resurgence of people’s voices,” says Krishna emphatically. “Whether you agree with an issue or not is not the point, but you recognise that there are these issues, is the point. And I think the Tamil people are recognising these issues, and these are very important moments in our history. You may not see a political change tomorrow morning, but I think that you will see socio-political movements continuing with this momentum. And I sincerely hope I am right, that within the next five or six years, you will probably see a more enlightened kind of governance – the kind of governance that I think we did have for a long period of time. Irrespective of which party was in power, there was a certain understanding about people and why there is the idea of the political construct itself.”

He is probably right. The people of Delhi were able to make their voices heard till the corridors of the high court, which has put the felling of trees in the city. As one voice against the Chennai-Salem expressway is muzzled, another one takes up the call. A fresh petition against the project has been filed in the Madras high court. Prevailing public sentiment has caused Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, who was earlier batting for the project, to go on the backfoot and declare the project to completely be a central government scheme. Whether he pulls a Pontius Pilate or not remains to be seen. But as Krishna said, the voices seem to be picking up volume and resonance. In a country where compliance seems to be increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, it is important that these voices be addressed. Otherwise there is the danger that this situation can vitiate the atmosphere for legitimate business and industry. After all, it is in the interest of society, environment and our continued existence as a species that these voices are not seen as anti-development itself, but as voices that are pushing for a more egalitarian and inclusive form of development. Because as Henry David Thoreau has said, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” And as Leonardo Da Vinci has said, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” And finally to come back to the context of our freedom struggle and to VOC’s life and times, Subramanya Bharathi has sung:

Thanneer vitto valarthom sarvesa
Ippyirai Kanneeraal Kaathom
Karuga Thiruvulamo
[Not with our waters O’ Lord
But with our tears did we protect this crop (freedom and the longing for independence)
Is it your divine will that this (crop)should be charred]

Subramanian is an independent consultant and part of a social entrepreneurship for bio organic farming technologies.

(The article appears in the July 31, 2018 issue)

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