“The government is watching me, and they are waiting for a good time. We are not only cultural performers, but we are part of the women’s movement, the trade union movement, students’ movement, Dalit  movements, farmers movements and so on. We are involved everywhere, and that’s why we believe there is a chance of attack, but we have a ground base. Perhaps because of that, there is a hesitancy on the part of the government.”
These are the words of Kaladas Deheriya, veteran trade unionist, writer, poet and cultural activist from Chhattisgarh, a state in Central India, and founding member of the cultural collective Relaa. He explains that Relaa, a word in the local Gondi dialect, means a big rally, something significant and revolutionary, which can change things.
The group emerged through several conversations, performances and travels over a year in 2014-15, starting with a gathering of Marxists, Ambedkarites (followers of tallest Dalit leader Ambedkar ), and feminists in 2014 at the resistance themed arts festival Horata (struggle) organised by the NGO Maraa in Bengaluru in 2014. The times were changing with the ascendence of Hindutva (Hindu fundamentalism) campaign and big win of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Modi in the General Elections of May 2014. There was a growing cultural attack, and the need was felt of coming together to resist this onslaught through cultural resistance at a pan-India level. Each of the groups, now part of Relaa were performing and singing in their regions and were part of various movements. Still, they needed to come together at a broader platform to promote people’s culture against the capitalist and Hindutva culture.
Kaladas, in another interview, explained that apart from giving protest music a different platform, many of the musicians were divided by both region and language, and Relaa could become a uniting force. "Look, I am an Adivasi who talks about jal, jungle, zameen (water, forests and land). Yalgaar talks about caste oppression and the Indian Folk Band, which does the same but through their drums. In contrast, Shankar Mahanand, a musician and theatre person from Odisha, talks about the same jal, jungle, zameen, but in Odia. What do we have in common? The answer is, everything. We might speak different languages, but we are united through the experience of oppression and the hunger for equality," he adds. Overcoming this barrier, through their writing and signing workshops collectively, they came up with their group’s theme song,
Aye relaa, relaa re, aye relaa relaa re
Yes, we shall fight, yes brother, we shall fight
The fight is long, a long way to go
Aye relaa, relaa re, aye relaa relaa re
Relaa sees itself as a collective of cultural activists and independent artists across the country. Theirs is an ongoing journey to keep the space for dissent alive, for diverse understandings, imaginations and embodiments of resistance. They do not wish to use the arts as an instrument for politics but want to create forms with rigour, passion, boldness and conviction – forms that can haunt, move, disturb and provoke people to think beyond facts.
Relaa has its members from Tamilnadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka and has grown in stature. Sambhaji Bhagat was already a well-known balladeer from Maharashtra, so was Kabir Kala Manch, but then Samta Kala Manch, Yalgaar, Indian Folk Band and others in the last five-six years have become famous and known. Over the years, they have performed at different venues and travelled as a collective troupe to different cities. In their first Relaa yatra in 2016, a series of workshops and performances across colleges, slums and worker’s colonies in Delhi culminated in a rousing performance at Jawaharlal Nehru University. They have performed at the national convention of NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movements) at Patna, Bihar in 2016, at the People’s Forum on BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Goa in 2016, at the People’s Health Movement national convention in Raipur in 2018, at People’s Convention against AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) in Mumbai in 2018, Jashn -e-Sangharsh (celebrating resistance) at Chaibasa, Jharkhand in 2017 etc.
In addition, Relaa members have focused their energy on organising cultural workshops with the people’s movements, to sing and write about the struggles and oppression they face. Given the state of the media and political situation, it is crucial that oppressed people use the tools available to expose the oppression, resist exploitation and corporate loot of community resources and labour. Today’s situation is dangerous, and democratic expressions for cultural artists don’t have freedom. Painters, singers, writers have been killed or jailed and are being framed daily in false cases. This is happening in BJP ruled states, but situation in opposition led states are not significantly different. Kaladas says, “look at what’s happening in Bastar (a region in southern Chhattisgarh, where adivasis are sandwiched in conflict between the state and Maoists), despite there being the Congress party in the government. Indian National Congress is the main opposition party at national level. Government’s change but things remain same for the activists.”
Talking of the last two years when pandemic has forced people off the street, Kaladas says the pandemic has become an excuse to suppress dissent, stop anyone from standing for people’s rights, oppose evictions, demolition, labour rights violations etc. It’s an awful situation today. Earlier, activists could express their resentment and make people aware through cultural performances in public; but now government doesn’t want that to happen, and their falsehood and propaganda exposed.
Despite restrictions, Relaa members have continued to perform online and at times offline as well. Kaladas firmly believes that because of the support of the people and the goodwill they have, they can continue doing what we have. They have not been able to physically perform everywhere, but continued their work within the industrial area amongst workers’ colonies in his hometown, the industrial city of Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. Whenever police and administration try to stop them, the people’s support plays a significant role in resisting.
But there is also this desire not to get confined by the situation; they have to resist and break these restrictions. There is no other option for them than to keep singing pratirodh ke geet (songs of resistance).
For the group members, protest songs and poetry are emerging from their lived experiences. They write their songs based on what they see, observe and go through. Ajit Sangrami from Odisha, a daily wage worker in the government rural employment guarantee programme, writes and sings about corruption and exploitation. He says the songs just come; they are his feelings and emotion. He wrote the song sangrammi aami sangrami aami, (I am a fighter) while being part of the movement against water capture and displacement in 2006. He has not stopped writing since then. Seeing the growing dominance of the market, he composed,
Listen to me, O brother, this is the age of the Bazaar
Everything sells, everything is being sold,
From the grains to our dwellings, to our very lives
Listen to me, O brother, this is the age of the Bazaar
Kaladas himself grew up in extreme poverty in a Chhattisgarh village and started writing in his school days. He experienced poverty and hunger and expressed his anger against the exploitation of farmers, Adivasis, workers, and resource appropriation by state and corporations. For Balu Djambe of Indian Folk Band, playing Djambe, the traditional percussion instrument made of leather, is about reclaiming their Dalit identity and culture, connecting to folk roots, and give them the prominence it needs. Members of Kabir Kala Manch, Yalgaar, Samta Kala Manch sing about their broken lives, the lives of poor farmers who die every day in the fields, the lives of Dalits as they are killed as it happened in Khairlanji, Una or as it happens every day. These songs are the songs of experience. And that is what art is all about. Lived experiences. Dreams. Resistance and Visions.
Kaladas left his job in the public works department because he couldn’t stomach the exploitation of the workers and corruption. He needed that job, but it didn’t fit in with his thought process. He found real purpose and direction when he met the firebrand leader and trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi in Bhilai sometime in the early 90s, just before the goons murdered him on 28th September 1991. Niyogi invited Kaladas to join Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Chhattisgarh Freedom Front, CMM) and entrusted him with the responsibility of cultural work. After his death, Kaladas and others formed Lok Kala Manch (People’s Cultural Forum), the cultural wing of CMM. Ghungroo (metallic anklet of bells) strapped around his feet and a daphli (tambourine) in his hands, he embraced the form of street performance called ’nacha’ popular among the common folk of towns and villages of Chhattisgarh and started singing and performing songs that were born out of lived experiences.
When Advocate Sudha Bhardwaj, senior leader of CMM and General Secretary of PUCL (People’s Union of Civil Liberties) Chhattisgarh, was arrested on fabricated charges in the Bhima Koregaon case in 2018, the responsibility to keep running the union and campaign to release her fell on Kaladas and his colleagues. He is trying to keep the cultural team together, continue CMM’s activities, and fulfil his role as a national convener of NAPM from Chhattisgarh.
Most of the members of Relaa in Chhattisgarh are labourers, workers or children of workers who are part of CMM. Some are just interested in cultural form, but many are inspired by cultural activism and have chosen culture as a form to struggle. They study and do some odd jobs but are part of the team. Kaladas’s son Geet Deheriya studies law but is also a part of the cultural team. Pawan, another member, is a cloth seller who goes daily door to door.
This is the story of every member of Relaa in other states. Ajit Sangrami from Odisha is a Brahmin but gave up his family profession of being the priest and earns his livelihood as a manual labourer or whatever he gets when they perform from the public. Relaa is loosely structured, with no core resource support or anything, but each of them sees this as their contribution to cultural resistance. They are part of the Sanskritik Andolan (Cultural Resistance), which is supported by the people’s donations and contributions.
Everyday events around them inspire each group to compose and sing, but at the national level, they talk regularly and decide on performances and compositions. They came together in 2020 for the online performance by Maraa titled ’ideas cannot be arrested’, or a few months ago when known cultural and theatre activist, Veera Sathidar died of covid in May 2021. They have together campaigned for the release of Sudha Bhardwaj and other political prisoners. During the anti-CAA protests, they composed for Shaheen Bagh protests. They sang Halla bol (speak up), a song written by Kaladas after a massive rally of Adivasis protesting against fake encounters in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh. Many of their songs and performances come from these experiences. It’s not always easy, and they often face allegations, but then they try to counter claims by their work, and that’s the most important thing. Kaladas says yin and yang, duality is part of nature, but then the duality of solidarity and struggle inspires them to move forward and keep composing and singing.
They often argue, debate, and discuss in their meetings since their members speak a different language from all over the country. But then they have developed understandings and techniques to transliterate songs in various languages and sing the way it was. They integrate words and phrases from other languages into their songs. Many of their songs have words from different languages, and they all sing them together.
Kaladas has been around for more than 30 years and has seen difficult times, but still, he believes the impact of fascism is far more visible today compared to what we saw before. There was much greater resistance back then compared to today. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, killed by her Sikh bodyguards, in 1984, he remembers how Niyogi said no one would attack Sikhs and CMM ensured that Sikhs were safe in Chhattisgarh. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, there were widespread riots in different parts of the country, CMM ensured peace in Chhattisgarh. He laments the fact that today Hindutva forces are far more potent than us. We are witnessing challenges and resistance, but there are weaknesses in self, organisation and movement, but beyond that there is indeed stronger repression today compared to earlier times.
He feels hopeful that there is a whole new generation of protest music that has emerged in the last few years as a response to circumstances in the country. Some of them are from a different class, educated youth, stand-up comedians, rappers, etc. He thinks it’s a positive development, that despite the capitalist system impacts, they are working with the movements and reaching out to the new generation. Hip hop, rap songs attract new people and a new approach to culture, are good signs. These are positive developments, but we should not let go of our past and cultural history. We need to use new tools but then also ensure how do we keep using our old instruments.
Despite everything, Kaladas is hopeful and believes, “people rise in resistance whenever there is a crisis. Farmers movement has been going on for a long time, and despite the government showing that it is not impacting the state, we know it is having an impact. They know it; we know it. It’s the same for the cultural resistance; the result may not be visible in a material sense, but then it’s there, and we know it. We know that it has an impact and it contributes to change. Relaa has expanded over the time, and we may not be alive to see the social transformation and bigger change, but perhaps his children or their children in future will see the difference and be part of that better times.”
Kaladas and his colleagues believe it’s only the cultural resistance that can bring real change today. There is a significant need for it, but unfortunately, there is a shortage of it. We need more of it. Hindutva forces have promoted their own religious culture, which is reflected in small little things, like the bhajan ringtone. Many of us would hesitate to use progressive songs for something like that. We have to work at minute levels, small minor changes, and make the everyday forms of resistance real. It can be in anything writing, singing, performing and so on. Art is also a movement; we can’t see it separately from other movements.