CUSP music festival: Ganesh Devy, writer Imayam illustrate the role of music, literature in protests

Ably moderated by AR Venkatachalapathy, this hour-long panel discussion at the CUSP music festival saw Ganesh Devy and Imayam effectively contextualise art and the anti-CAA-NRC movement within the framework of both Indian and world history

Cibe Chakravarthy Selvaraj February 04, 2020 16:23:34 IST
CUSP music festival: Ganesh Devy, writer Imayam illustrate the role of music, literature in protests
  • Ably moderated by AR Venkatachalapathy, this hour-long panel discussion at the CUSP music festival saw Ganesh Devy and Imayam effectively contextualise art and the anti-CAA-NRC movement within the framework of both Indian and world history.

  • Music, Professor Ganesh Devy says, made people conscious.

  • Speaking about the role of literature, Imayam said the very act of writing is an act of revolt.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

―Bertolt Brecht

What could be a better illustration of this poem than the protests that are currently taking place across the country, which are employing various art forms to express dissent, including singing? There is Faiz’s 'Hum Dekhenghe', which has been given a new lease of life in several Indian languages, and new songs like Arivu’s 'Sanda Seivom' – rap that has now become a protest anthem of sorts. Music has played a more effective role in these ongoing protests that one could have possibly imagined.

CUSP music festival Ganesh Devy writer Imayam illustrate the role of music literature in protests

Ganesh Devy, Imayam and AR Venkatachalapathy. Facebook/TheCUSPFestival

Music, Professor Ganesh Devy says, made people conscious. The founder of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India was in Chennai to participate in the CUSP music festival, organised by First Edition Arts. He was part of a panel discussion on 'Music and Literature as Protest'. Veteran Tamil writer Imayam was his co-panelist in this discussion which was moderated by historian and author AR Venkatachalapathy on 31 January. “Music made people conscious, it was never the other way around,” Devy asserted.

Tracing the history of the nation-state in an attempt to provide context for the current protests, Devy said that languages came into being 70,000 years ago, which later led to the formation of communities. Until the discovery of surplus production, people remained individuals, with no other tags attached. “Because of the boon or curse that was surplus, communities became restricted and the idea of the nation was finally born. This was because the regulation of surplus necessitated a different social arrangement, resulting in the idea of the nation.” Devy also pointed out how the word 'nation' means 'the people' in certain languages, such as Latin and French. The evolution of the relationship between land, labour, people and regulatory mechanisms gave birth to the idea of the nation, he added. “So in the process of evolution, we were first people, then nations and then citizens.”

In a sense, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has jolted citizens into remembering that they are individuals rather than the nation. Devy said several protests across the world, including the Arab Spring and the protests in Hong Kong, were ignited by the same sentiment.

Drawing parallels from history, Devy said, “At the beginning of the 12th century, many Indian languages started going through a metamorphosis. Social structures were becoming rigid, and God was inaccessible to ordinary people. Then, people like Eknath, Mira, Kabir and Tukaram emerged. Mira was a philosopher too, but we remember her as a singer and poet,” he added, also referring to abhangas written by Tukaram and Kabir's dohe to illustrate his point further.

“At every turning point in history, we have seen human beings take refuge in music,” Devy noted. He spoke about how we are reminded of the entire spectrum of Gandhian values when someone sings 'Vaishnava Jana To', especially on occasions like the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Whenever citizens remember that they are people, they will sing. I have been visiting protest sites throughout the country – in Chennai, Karnataka, Gujarat and other places. I have noticed that in these protests, people are powerfully expressing themselves through slogans and songs, several of which are newly composed.” Music, Devy added, appeals to the subconscious. “The songs that come out of this protest will stay for the next hundred years or more,” he said, just like the songs of our forefathers.

Speaking about the role of literature, Imayam said the very act of writing is an act of revolt. He was responding to the criticism that writers were "not doing enough." Literature has the ability to go beyond the immediacy of protests and sketch the history of movements, he said. “If a society is imagined as being a soul, then it is the writer who expresses it. The writer must express the soulfulness of society, even if it is maligned and banal. The writer is a reflection of the soul of society... He should never sound diplomatic or adopt the tone of statesmen and politicians. It is the fundamental duty of a writer to be bold and critical, to be transparent,” Imayam says.

Known for his raw style and his focus on critical issues, Imayam largely bases his work on real-life experiences and atrocities that are committed. He explained what his creative process is like through a short story titled 'Police'. It is based on a report which documented how a forward caste policeman helped in the funeral of a Dalit. “The story was about how his community would react if they saw the newspaper which featured the report.”

Ably moderated by Venkatachalapathy, the hour-long session saw both Devy and Imayam effectively contextualise the movement within the framework of both Indian and world history.

Cibe Chakravarthy Selvaraj is a freelance journalist from Tamil Nadu

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