Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

Singing on the beats of resistance : Relaa collective and the cultural activists of Maharashtra

, by GURLHOSUR Geetanjali

Inspired by the historical traditions of Jalsa and lok shahiri (folk performance and poetry), several anti-caste cultural groups are active in Maharashtra today. Samata Kala Manch and Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch are part of the pan-India Relaa collective, using their songs to raise voices against inequality and oppression faced by marginalised communities.

They come in uniform,
Upon unarmed people,
They shower bullets
Who knows how many lives they’ve taken!
Now we must take a stand,
How much longer will we bear this?
Why why why are we silent?
Floyd of America,
Fenix of India,
How many corpses must be laid this way!

— Written by Amit Sharma and Mohammad Khan, and translation by Angelina Minocha

Among other protest music curated by the Vettiver Collective in an online concert event called ‘Justice Rocks: Armed and Dangerous’ in 2020 was the above song performed by artists of Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch. The song questions universal police violence upon civilians. This international event, over two days, gave a musical response to the ‘pandemic of police brutality, racism and casteism’ spread across India, South Africa and the USA and shifted the cynosure of protest culture from speeches to music.

Samata Kala Manch members performing at a protest, Mumbai 2020.

With the objective of establishing poetry and music as an independent form of protest, a group of young musicians, actors, writers and composers came together in Mumbai to form Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch-an alternative cultural movement for human liberation. The term yalgaar connotes a call - a musical call - against exploitation and all other systemic divides among humans, says its founder-member Dhammrakshit Urmila Srirang. The group, based in Maharashtra (a state in western India), is inspired by the anti-caste protest culture of the state where folk music has been a site of resistance, the voice of dissent itself.

The protest song in Maharashtra is not an act of solidarity and support alone in a protest rally but an artistic form for organising, educating and agitating. It is written on the wounds of oppression and sung on the beats of resistance. In an article for the Firstpost, writer and publisher Yogesh Maitreya writes that after lok shahir (literally meaning ‘people’s poet’) Bhimrao Kardak’s performance of jalsa (a form of folk music in Maharashtra) at a meeting in 1937, Dr. BR Ambedkar, [1] a Dalit philosopher and political thinker, was thrilled. “The jalsa has said it all. One jalsa by Kardak and his troupe is equal to my ten speeches,” said Ambedkar, also known as the father of the Indian Constitution.

Dalit [2] (belonging to the oppressed castes) jalsa performers like Kardak contributed to caste and class consciousness—from singing about Dr. Ambedkar’s work and life to the class struggle in industrialised India. In his article, Maitreya, an anti-caste poet, writes that the jalsa was a form for critiquing Brahmanical practices and cultural domination. By the 1990s, this took the form of what was called the Ambedkari jalsa, an adaptation of the declining former Satyashodhak jalsa, and helped propel cultural resistance among the masses. Kardak’s legacy of the Ambedkari shahiri-geet (poetry-songs) was carried forward in Maharashtra by balladeers like Annabhau Sathe, Amar Sheikh, Vilas Ghogre, Shantanu Kamble, Sambhaji Bhagat and others who inspire anti-caste cultural groups across Maharashtra today. Among these groups are Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch (henceforth referred to as Yalgaar) and the Samata Kala Manch (SKM).

Jalsa is a good medium through which you can educate people about all kinds of exploitation. Traditionally, the oral tradition has been influential for a long time. I am not saying that someone will change their mind by listening to one song. But, after listening to lok-geet (folk song), people start questioning. ‘Is that true?’ they ask,” said Suvarna Savale on the role of jalsa in building class and caste consciousness. The 26-year-old SKM coordinator for Mumbai added, “Cultural expression is a way of telling others what we have been through.”

Suvarna joined the cultural movement in 2011 at the age of 17 and claimed that being in the chalval (the local word for movement) gave her a new perspective. “The movement has given me confidence and independence. Without it, Suvarna would have been someone else,” she told the author in a late-night phone conversation. Suvarna had had a long day setting up the new SKM office in Govandi, an eastern suburb of Mumbai.

Since 2007, SKM has been the cultural wing of the group Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement, which was formed in response to caste-based violence in the country. But it was named the Samata Kala Manch—samata meaning equality and kala meaning art—only in 2017. The troupe primarily consists of students and manual workers who also double as social activists. The group is growing in size, said Suvarna, who only recently graduated. Today, SKM has 50 artist members. However, with a heavy voice, she added that young people join this movement because they either hear accounts of or personally experience caste atrocities.

Maharashtra is among the top ten states with the highest number of atrocities against Dalits, with rape being the most frequently reported violence against Dalit women. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, the number of crimes against scheduled caste people has almost doubled since 2000. Even so, the Indian justice system has failed to implement the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to its full extent. The pendency rate in cases under this Act remained at more than 80 per cent up to 2018.

Resistance is part of the Bahujan (a term used to refer to Dalits, Adivasis and other backward castes collectively) culture, added Suvarna. Raising awareness at the intersections of caste-class-gender, SKM members perform resistance through art forms ranging from Koligeet (indigenous music of the fishing community of Maharashtra) to qawwali (devotional songs associated with mystic movement of Sufism) to rap music and the jalsa. The group also organises presentations, book readings, interactive sessions, protests and campaigns in ghettos.

Similarly, apart from experimenting with diverse musical compositions, Yalgaar’s activists’ film and screen resistance cinema, hold art workshops for children and make parody songs on the tyranny of the authoritarian government. Yalgaar’s Dhammrakshit, hailing from Satara district of western India, is a theatre artist and explores the various forms of folk music of Maharashtra. Yalgaar has a more democratic approach to art and culture, said Dhamma. He believes that folk art is not something that one needs to preserve over time.

“It’s folk art because it changes with the people and time. As democratic cultural activists, we wish to bring diversity in the way we protest. One way is to change the lyrics of traditional composition. We have done that with a jagran-gondhal song. We also critique poetry that is sexist in its language, and we replace gender-biased words,” explained Dhamma in a conversation with the author. Hum Yuva Kalakaar Samvidhani (Youth and Artists for Constitution) is Yalgaar’s new initiative to inculcate constitutional values in young people’s art and lives.

Both SKM and Yalgaar are part of a more extensive network of cultural artists, activists and researchers across India that challenges the idea that music in protest events is for entertainment. The network, called Relaa Collective, is a democratic movement of artists in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam. The term relaa has its origin in the language of the indigenous Gond tribe of India and denotes a massive revolutionary convention of people.

Relaa’s work goes beyond music performances; its members told The Hindu Businessline. The Collective is driven to address caste and class politics within music itself. Among its founders and supporters has been Sambhaji Bhagat, a revolutionary balladeer from Maharashtra, who has been working to initiate a loosely structured alternative cultural front to unite all activists. His contribution to the Dalit cultural movement is driven by the need to address communalism, [3] NGOization and neo-liberal views prevailing in the progressive movement today. In an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, Sharmila Rege wrote in 2002 : “In the last two years, sakal (integrated) and vidrohi (rebellious) sahitya sammelans (literary conferences) and cultural movements have sought to negotiate the differences between left, dalit, feminist and Adivasi cultural activists and to initiate the cultural front.”

On the evolving cultural movement, Sambhaji said in an interview, “In the 1990s, NGOs entered the country and social movements, as scattered as they were, put on the back foot. Street plays were commercialised. This is the big difference between the movement before and after the ‘90s. The cultural movement has been commodified in many ways. If we start commodifying our art, then we’ll get stuck.” Sambhaji has been working for an “alternative cultural politics” for decades. His recent initiative, Manuskichi Shaala or School of Humanity, is a democratic network of people who meet on the ground and on the internet to discuss practicing values of humanity in everyday life.

About 40 years in the movement, the music composer and lokshahir believe that a cultural movement has immense potential to bring political transformation in a casteist, capitalist, and patriarchal society. He added, “Even if the fascist leaders step down, Hindu-nationalist outfits hold all the cultural power. We must counter cultural politics with cultural politics. Therefore, we have to reach the masses and sow seeds of cultural change every day.”

It is these seeds of cultural change that a majoritarian hyper-nationalist government is threatened by. According to a report on changing democracies, published by the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, there has been a steep decline in academic and cultural expression freedom in India since 2018. V-Dem’s 2020 democracy report also showed that pro-democracy protests and resistance to authoritarian regimes were at an all-time high across the world in 2019.

In 2019, civil society members across India were demonstrating against a highly discriminatory citizenship regime that the Hindu-nationalist government rolled in with theCitizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. During this time, SKM member Suvarna and her mother were participating in street marches and rallies in Mumbai when the police charged them with criminal offences. Suvarna’s mother, who introduced Suvarna to protest music, has three court cases against her. Being served notices for assembling and protesting in public spaces is a common occurrence in the lives of SKM members.

“But, it doesn’t bother us anymore. Before organising an event, we just have to make sure it does not coincide with our court summon dates,” Suvarna added with a half-laugh. Like SKM, Yalgaar’s members face harassment from law enforcement agencies regularly. Because of the group’s name, people usually misidentify Yalgaar as Elgar Parishad, a cultural event that came under the state’s notorious scanner since 2018. “A considerable number of people have advised me to change the group’s name. Once a documentary film screening organised by Yalgaar was interrupted by suspecting neighbours and the police. But we will not be changing our group’s name,” said Dhammrakshit, who is determined not to fall prey to police intimidation.

Many in the cultural movement believe that reaching the masses through meetings and performances on the ground is vital to the movement. For Dhammrakshit, it means access to the masses and working with every citizen of the country. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted mass mobilisation since 2020. While physical protest sites have been replaced with virtual ones, hampering the movement’s accessibility, artists have also not been able to fund their activities. Both SKM and Yalgaar members pointed out that full-timers in the Vidrohi (rebel) movement require funds to pay for travel, print Vidrohi magazines, music instruments, education and rent, and other expenses of the groups. For these, they mostly rely on people’s donations.

Both SKM and Yalgaar follow a strict rule: they do not accept any funds from casteists, capitalists or agents. In a video on SKM’s YouTube channel asking viewers to donate to the Republican Panther Caste-Annihilation Movement and its student and cultural wings in a time of financial crisis, Suvarna says, “This is a people’s movement, and it should move forward with funds from the people.” With the percussion instrument dhol in her hands, Suvarna sings poet Yash Malviya’s melodious composition:

Light is creeping in,
And stories are being scrutinised again,
Through the mist is emerging a face,
Somebody is writing dawn on the horizons,
Silences are about to be broken with words
And hearts are simmering with anger.

You can support Samata Kala Manch’s work by donating money, instruments, study material, clothes or audio-visual equipment at this link.


[1Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891‑1956): One of the most prominent Indian leaders of the twentieth century, who founded the dalit discourse in Indian politics and helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India, a movement now known as neo-Buddhism. Also, as the first law minister of independent India and as the Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly for drafting of the Constitution of India, he is considered the ‘father’ of the Indian Constitution. He resigned from the post of law minister in 1951, following the stalling by Parliament of his draft of the Hindu Code Bill through which he sought to promote gender equality. His birth date, April 14, is now a public holiday in India and is known as Ambedkar Jayanti. As a sign of respect, many Indians use the title Babasaheb for him. “Jai Bhim!", referring to his first name, is used as a greeting among many Dalits and the progressive circles. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, the government of India’s highest civilian award.

[2Dalit, also achuta or untouchable: A person outside the four-fold caste system of Hinduism and considered below them in the social hierarchy. Typically, dalits have been leather-workers, scavengers, landless labourers, and poor farmers, though a small minority has broken out and moved into other, more intellectual professions in which they are traditionally denied entry, for example administration and academia. The term dalit, which has been chosen by dalits themselves, is variously translated as crushed, stepped on, or oppressed. Based on the British colonial system of social categorisation the current official term for them is the Scheduled Castes. Other terms have also been used to refer to dalits in the past. Gandhi called them harijans. Many caste Hindus use disparaging terms to refer to them, which may differ from region to region.

[3Communalism, or communal: A South Asian term for sectarianism, which is seen as a force separating different communities on social or sectarian grounds and a stimulant for violence among those groups. In contemporary India the word communalism has taken the more specific sense of discrimination against religious minorities, with many politicians labelling their opponents communal. Equally, civil activists often accuse political parties of being communal. For example, in India the BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) is always labelled communal by its opponents and critics, such as the Congress, the communist parties, and civil organisations fighting for communal harmony, because it targets religious minorities, particularly Muslims, to consolidate its Hindu vote. The corresponding antonym for communalism is secularism, which means no bias against any religious community.


Geetanjali Gurlhosur is a freelance writer, researcher and filmmaker.