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Decline and fall

By Aritra Bhattacharya

Is the lull in cultural activism in Maharashtra due to the rise of the right-wing and the ideological bankruptcy of the leftist and Ambedkarite political parties which backed cultural resistance post-Emergency?

Vilas Ghogre

Vilas Ghogre, dalit balladeer who sang for the left-leaning theatre group Avahan Natya Manch

Read Part 1 of this series
Read Part 2 of this series
Read Part 4 of this series

Much before sundry lit-fests with their attendant manufactured and hyped-up controversies became the order of the day, there were street theatre festivals that generated a stir of their own. For instance in 1984, when the All India Street Theatre Festival was underway in Bombay, controversy erupted over the presence of a street theatre outfit from Punjab.

At the programme in Bombay’s Ravindra Natya Mandir which marked the culmination of the festival, Shiv Sainiks turned up in large numbers and threatened to disrupt proceedings; they maintained that they would not let ‘Khalistanis’ perform in their fiefdom. This was a time when the Khalistan movement in Punjab was active, and the Sena’s action was on the lines of its current tirade against Pakistanis from any field setting foot in Mumbai. But the group from Punjab, whose presence the Sena raised objections to, was anything but Khalistani; the legendary author Gursharan Singh was part of it.

“People like Shabana Azmi and MS Sathyu were on the advisory board of the street theatre festival, and they were outraged by the Shiv Sena’s action,” says Pravin Nadkar, president of Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch, which had organised the festival. The programme at Ravindra Natya Mandir was the culmination of several performances by left-leaning street theatre groups from all over the country in three to four bastis and working class areas across the city.

The coming together of groups spanning a vast geographical divide was made possible, to a certain extent, by the All India League for Revolutionary Culture (AILRC), an umbrella body that most radical leftist cultural groups connected to radical leftist parties were members of.

The festival provided an arena for cultural activists from across the country to meet and discuss issues that needed urgent attention, including ways to formulate arguments using ‘people’s language and culture’.

“This was a time when the general population had a keen interest in politics and were not plagued by a sense of apathy,” says Sanober Keshwar, a member of a cultural group called Avahan Natya Manch. She recalls the long-winding discussions that followed almost every impromptu act on street corners in Bombay and elsewhere in Maharashtra; people wanted to discuss threadbare the deeply political and systemic critiques raised in their plays and did not shy away from donating money to take the campaign forward.

“In some instances, 300-400 people would sit and deliberate with us about the critiques we mounted. We hardly had resources then, and depended on the public for money to keep our campaign going. Among other things, we used a VAT 69 (whisky brand) container for donations!” she says, adding that in the post-Emergency period, questions about the character and bias of the state had a currency not visible in the present time.

Coming together

“The post-Emergency period saw the merger of two important strands of political resistance, especially in Maharashtra—the radical leftist strand and the Ambedkarite strand,” says Arun Ferreira, a political activist who was jailed in 2007 for his alleged Maoist links. The state lodged multiple cases against him to ensure he stayed behind bars; he was infamously re-arrested immediately after being released from Nagpur jail, from outside the jail, in 2011. Though cops said that he was taken in in connection with another case, Arun was acquitted of all charges and was released from prison in January 2012.

In Arun’s observation, the coming together of these two strands reflected in the arena of cultural resistance as well, with cultural groups professing a radical line, like Avahan Natya Manch, Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch and Samagra coming to the fore during this period. There were other smaller groups, many unnamed and short-lived, and espousing a radical ideology comprising a varied mix of leftism and Ambedkarism that emerged during the period as well. Most of these groups were linked to political parties like factions of CPI (ML) and Lal Nishan Paksh, as well as leftist trade unions.

“Most cultural resistance groups that survived for a considerable period were those that were linked to parties—either organically, where party activists were deputed to the cultural group, or ideologically,” says Sanober.

Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch, for instance, was connected to the Janashakti faction of CPI(ML); Avahan Natya Manch was connected to Navjan Bharat Sabha which later became the People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh; and Samagra was connected to the Lal Nishan Paksh and Shramik Mukti Dal.

Pravin, who was a full-time party activist in Nasik prior to and during the Emergency years, tried reorienting a bhajan mandali towards cultural activism there, but the efforts did not bear fruit as the people involved were ‘not political’. Once back in Bombay during the latter half of the Emergency, he began efforts to establish what would later become the Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch.

“One to two party full-timers were deputed to work in the group. In addition there were some part-time trade unionists and some people from a bhajan mandali in Parel,” says Pravin. While this organic connection with the party meant that new members of the group could be ideologically tutored and moulded early on in the process, the flip side was that it made groups vulnerable to splits in the parent party. For instance, Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch split when there was a split in the party, and most of the party whole-timers in the group were shifted to Pune and Nanded.

Ferment from below

Notwithstanding the fact that the more stable and long-standing cultural resistance groups were connected to political parties and movements, there were cultural groups that were unaffiliated and yet pursued a radical/ revolutionary programme.

Part of this, many activists feel, is thanks to the place of music among the ‘toiling masses’—people working in the fields and engaged in varied forms of labour have been known to sing along as they worked, in order to maintain a rhythm and ensure that work was done properly. There was, in other words, a natural capacity for music among large sections of the population; there were stock songs and tunes popular among the people that would later be picked up and modified by cultural activists—this ensured that the form stayed familiar, and there was an instinctive ‘connect’ with the songs of resistance.

There is also the question of the caste position of most of the activists who play(ed) a key role in the cultural resistance groups. A famous saying in Maharashtra notes that there is a poet in every dalit household. Indeed many of the folk forms that found space within the cultural resistance lexicon have their roots among the lower castes. Folk forms (like tamasha) were seen as the preserve of dalits, as they were considered too debased and polluting for those high up in the caste structure. As a result, forms like tamasha and shahiri, although quite popular among large sections of the population, remained the dalits’ expertise.

It was these forms that were made use of by cultural resistance groups like Samagra in their efforts to make productions and songs easily accessible. In this, they were following a well-established lineage: Maharashtra had been witness to Jyotirao Phule’s 19th century use of the tamasha form as a means of critiquing the system in his Satyashodhak Samaj. In the contemporary era, there were Ambedkarite jalsas that critiqued the caste structure. In addition, folk forms were used by shahirs like Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh to critique the socio-economic structure. Annabhau and Amar Sheikh, in fact, were instrumental in the mill workers’ movement in Mumbai. Their Lal Batwa Kalapathak was one of the main fronts through which the left, which led the movement, communicated with the working classes in the city. One Hunderd Years, One Hundred Voices by Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon documents their role in the struggle—their songs were used as bookends in political programmes to ensure that people sat through the speeches of the leftist leaders.

Annabhau Sathe was a dalit, as were activists from the earlier era who entered the zone of cultural resistance. This was because, as stated earlier, folk forms were traditionally seen as the sole preserve of the lower castes; they were born into these forms in many ways, and picked them up in a hereditary fashion, unlike the upper caste activists.

No wonder then that most of the cultural activists of the present day have a lower-caste background. There were and are, of course, groups that have a considerable middle class and upper-caste presence. But more often than not, the form they work with is borrowed from a European context, rather than having roots among indigenous masses. The form of productions helmed by middle class upper-caste activists changed drastically once people from the lower castes joined in. Avahan Natya Manch, which will be profiled later in the series, is a case in point—while the early productions of the groups borrowed heavily from German theatre, later productions borrowed from the tamasha framework and used many local practices and myths.

There was also the influence of stalwarts like Badal Sircar. Sircar’s visit to Bombay in the 1970s and the way his productions presented arguments and critiqued the system, as well as used the body to communicate, inspired many cultural activists of the period.

Thanks to all these factors, and the movement for democratic rights following the Emergency, many groups emerged in the post-Emergency years and after. However, most groups faded away after a short burst, says Avinash Kadam of Samagra, a group that was active in those years.

Rashmi’s story illustrates why this tended to happen. Rashmi is a member of a contemporary cultural activist group called Muktiyaan. “Given the socio-economic background I come from, I did not have the privilege of deciding what I wanted from life early on. The focus was always on taking one step at a time and getting by somehow,” she says. “When I was a student, I used to visit the library of an organisation called Prerna. The organisation used to work with students and youth, and was involved in cultural activities.” Here she found the right guidance. “Many youth do not find the right guidance at the right time. Had I not gone to the library, I would not be where I am today,” she says.

Activists of Mumbai-based Republican Panther Jati Antachi Chalwal also refer to failed attempts to start cultural groups across the state. “Though we identified potential groups in many districts, there was no one to guide them and train them in political theory,” says Sharad Gaikwad.

Changed circumstances

The situation in the country changed considerably post-1990 —the New Economic Policy was introduced; politics in the country took a rightist turn, signified by the demolition of the Babri Masjid; leftist parties across the country lost valuable ground, accused of being out of touch with changed realities.

“There were new issues confronting resistance movements: older formations of the left based on privileging class over caste, recognising and working to overcome the two axes of oppression no longer offered a credible analysis of the situation,” says Sambhaji Bhagat, a cultural activist who continues to soldier on to this day. Sambhaji distanced himself from CPI(ML) during this period as it saw everything through an economistic lens.

“Following the demolition of Babri Masjid, there was an environment of fear…With the Shiv Sena-BJP government coming to power in Maharashtra in 1995, fascist forces gained ascendancy, and the culture of intolerance grew,” says Avinash of Samagra, quoted earlier. Impromptu streetcorner plays were a thing of the past now, as one needed prior permission from the police and state machinery for any kind of action in public places. 

Growing intolerance, the iron hand of the state, and ideological bankruptcy among leftist and Ambedkarite political parties brought about a lull in cultural resistance in the state. However, activities in and around the Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan in the late-1990s provided a new ray of hope. Mounted as an opposition to the brahmin and Maratha-dominated Marathi Sahitya Sammelan started by the Sena-BJP regime after 1995, Vidrohi brought together progressives from across political divisions, and managed to project itself as a platform of solidarity.

However, within three years, the broad base gave way and Vidrohi split into three to four factions, each holding their sahitya sammelan in different areas. But Arun Ferreira contends that the split in Vidrohi was only at the leadership level, for there was consolidation at the grassroots.

“Because of the various pulls that Vidrohi functioned under, people like Sidhir Dhawale were working towards keeping it all together. His efforts as part of the Vidrohi Ekikaran Samiti after the split were crucial in the formation of Republican Panther Jati Antachi Chalwal (RP), as it put him in touch with many organisations across Maharashtra that were part of Vidrohi, and later went on to become part of RP,” says Arun.

The Khairlanji massacre of 2005 also played a big role in politicising large sections of the population; after many years dalits came onto the streets in the state without being goaded or directed by a political party. Some of this and the discontents of globalisation fed into the various cultural resistance groups existent now, and partially contributed to the radical nature of groups  like Kabir Kala Manch.

Though quite a few groups exist today, activists from the 1970s feel the involvement among youth is much less now.

“It is part of the liberalisation current,” says Sanober, adding, “While the space for protest is shrinking exponentially, the absence of ground-level movements and trade unions is the reason why you don’t see enough activity.”

“It’s no longer possible to be full-time activists; now we must ensure that we fend for ourselves before doing anything else. That is partly the reason why none of us will perhaps go full-time into cultural activism,” says Rashmi of Muktiyaan.

“As most of the radical groups that function today are not linked to political parties, when they face the wrath of the state, there is no one to back them. Take the case of Kabir Kala Manch, for instance…They are political orphans,” says playwright Ramu Ramanathan, a member of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee.

Perhaps, in a way, this state of being political orphans can work to advantage.

Consider what activists have to say about the connection with political parties. “Cultural groups have a dynamic of their own, and cannot be directed by political parties…they can, at the most, act as guides,” says Pravin Nadkar of Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch.  He goes on to add that within parties, there is an unquestioned hierarchy between the cultural and political: cultural activity is seen as subordinate to political activity, and many groups have been devastated by their core cultural activists being shunted out to the ‘political’ wing of the parties.

Without the organic connection to a political party, there is no question of hierarchy; there is no question of being stuck with an archaic ‘line’ even though members feel it does not hold.

And there is also the space for civil society to move in and play a role in calling the state’s bluff—as it has done in the case of Kabir Kala Manch. Despite serious critiques of the KKM Defence Committee, Deepak Dengle, a member of the group who was arrested in 2011, was released on bail a few days ago, thanks to the committee’s efforts in coordinating legal assistance, and countering the media blitzkrieg announcing KKM as a Maoist front.

(Aritra Bhattacharya is a researcher presently based in Maharashtra. This is the third in his series on the repression of cultural activism in Maharashtra, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012.)

Infochange News & Features, May 2013