India's first Buddhist rock band Dhamma Wings makes music with a purpose: Ending casteism
India's first Buddhist rock band Dhamma Wings creates music that has a mission — to end casteism by propagating Gautam Buddha and BR Ambedkar's teachings.
Right from the beginning of our conversation, Kabeer Shakya, founder of India’s first Buddhist rock band Dhamma Wings is very direct about not wanting to be called the country's first 'Dalit' rock band, and rightly so. Not only is the practice of addressing them as Dalits subliminally discriminatory, it is also against the very motto of the group — to end casteism by producing music replete with the teachings of Gautam Buddha and Dr BR Ambedkar. Excerpts from a conversation:
How was the band formed?
We officially launched the band in 2011. After graduating in computer science, I started Dhamma Wings. Just like me, all the band members are from Mumbai. I found my drummers first and they eventually introduced me to other musicians and that is precisely how the band came about.
The lyrics of your songs hark back to the teachings of Gautam Buddha and BR Ambedkar. Was that what you had set out to do initially?
I was in Bodhgaya as a practising monk for three months. Buddhism encourages you to do that. I came to know the real history of India during my time there, including the influence of Pali literature on our culture. I started digging more and more and that is when I came across most of the information that I propagate now. Initially, I was greatly impressed by Buddha’s preachings.
I came back to Mumbai and after forming Dhamma Wings, I started reading Baba Saheb (Ambedkar) and that is when the plight of the people from the lower castes came to my notice. That is when we started integrating Ambedkar’s teachings into our songs. Therefore, we do not play together just for the heck of it. We come together and create music with a message, a message we firmly believe in.
Do you see a difference in the response of the audiences now from when you started out?
Definitely. There is a vast difference. When I first started out, I used to take my guitar and go off to the slums to play music for people there. Obviously, I did not get the kind of support I required, which is only natural for an up and coming artist. Acceptance is a gradual process. I would say that primarily, Facebook and YouTube were instrumental in making the band as popular as it is today. The academe, in particular, started embracing our music. They were the first ones to recognise that our songs were meant to be heard, specially by the youth of the nation. In fact, we now put up regular performances at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and were even honoured by the the institution for our music, with a mission of course. It was a very proud moment for us.
Apart from the academe, what has the reaction of the other sections which might not be as enlightened as the former, been like?
Frankly speaking, the younger generation is praising our music. The lyrics are leaving an equal impact on them, if not more. Earlier, Ambedkarite songs used to be very critical of Hinduism. Words were used as a tool to agitate the masses because that was also the need of the hour, then. However, today, people are well-aware of the circumstances and do not need to be provoked to react against social injustices. Therefore, we don’t name and blame anyone in our melodies because we believe that the past should be treated as the past and the present is what matters. Our message to the newer generation is that do not let these social evils prevail now. Set course for the future.
Was there a defining moment in which you felt that your efforts were yielding results?
There are many such incidents, but one stands out. I was attending a rally in the city and had met Rajram Patil, a prominent Koli leader. (Kolis are the aboriginals of Maharashtra and are languishing in a pitiable condition at the moment). Mr. Patil shared the community’s plight with me. Due to lack of opportunities, the artists of the community were unable to highlight their social issues through art. Therefore, I composed a couple of tracks to make them aware of what lies ahead and what they can make of it. This was one defining incident that captured the essence of our larger objective.
Here is Dhamma Wings' most popular song, 'Jay Bhim Se':
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