[Book Extract] The Radical Impulse Music in the Tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association


Image courtesy: LeftWord Books


A young woman, Swatantrata, stands in front of a microphone facing a mass gathering of more than 80,000 peasants from the Punjab in Lahore, some time in 1943. She sings a Heer, a traditional ballad of Northwestern India, which relates the story of a young girl from faraway Bengal who has lost her home and family to the ravages of a terrible famine. The lyrics of the Heer, written by Sheila Bhatia, a prominent songwriter of the left cultural movement in Lahore at the time, are as follows:  


kinu phol dassan dukh dard saiyon

mera rog tan la ilaaj disse

kar kaat sain kannu chhutthe maittho

kyun sawaal ai bina jawaab disse


To whom can I tell my sad story?

Who can cure me of my malady?

I have lost my home and family:

Who can answer my innumerable questions?


Interestingly, this particular Heer did not recount a local story, as would appear from the customary description of the centuries-old love story of Heer–Ranjha. It used a local, indigenous form to ask for solidarity from peasants in the Punjab towards peasants in Bengal. The Heer, an evocative lament for things lost, appealed for comradeship based on new solidarities between peasantries, between people across long distances who shared their opposition to colonialism.

The gathering had been organized by the All India Kisan Sabha (Peasants’ Organization) that worked closely with the Communist Party of India (CPI) to generate awareness about the devastating Bengal famine. The programme on the said day consisted of songs and speeches by communist and peasant leaders, many of whom were underground and appeared in public only briefly during the rally. Swatantrata’s powerful singing was riveting and served a purpose: it drew attention away from the activity going on backstage – the arrival and departure of ‘underground’ speakers who ran the risk of being arrested, and who would become ‘visible’ only when they were ready to make a speech. Many decades later Swatantrata recalled how the Heer had reduced large numbers in the audience to tears; in fact some of the peasants, thinking she had sung her own story, met her in the streets of Lahore the next day and offered her food and shelter. Sheila Bhatia, who later moved to Delhi and became a prominent theatre person, became well known for using the many forms of the indigenous Heer in her theatre productions.


hoi hoi hoi japan oi

aishe buji hamaal dite

bairo gramer geri laal deewaar

aisho roheem ai rohomaan

aisho jogesh ai re poraan

gnaaye joto hindu musalmaan

toyyar raakho shob hothiyaar

chaaku laathi chora boksha

dhonuk boti shokto haathe

dhoro haathe dhoro hothiyaar

inquilab zindabad

bolo dushman ho barbaad


Come forth, Raheem and Rahman.

Come, o Jogesh and Poraan.

Come, all Hindus and Musalmans of the village.

Keep all your weapons ready:

Knives, lathis, daggers and boxes.

Hold the bow and the cutting knife in your strong hands.

Hold the weapons in your strong hands.

Long live the revolution! Let the enemy be defeated!


Benoy Roy, a prolific songwriter from Bengal, wrote this anti-fascist song for a play in the early 1940s. Composed as a fast-paced, marching song with hard drum beats and strident singing, it symbolized the fear of Japan’s imperialist motives in Asia and its alliance with fascism during the Second World War.

The futility of war and the contradiction of Indians fighting in what was termed an imperialist war, even as their country was ravaged by British colonialism, was described poignantly by Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Urdu poet and composer from Hyderabad:


jaane waale sipahi se poochho

woh kahaan ja raha hai

kaun dukhiya hai jo gaa rahi hai

bhookhe bachchon ko behla rahi hai

laash jalne ki boo aa rahi hai

zindagi hai ki chilla rahi hai


Ask the departing soldier,

Where he is headed, where is he going?

Who is that woman who cries,

Soothing her hungry children?

Can you hear life cry out amidst the stench of burnt bodies?


When liberation from British rule became a reality, Prem Dhawan, a songwriter–singer from Punjab who was living in Bombay at the time, wrote an exuberant song, ‘Jhoom jhoom ke naacho aaj’, in celebration:


jhoom jhoom ke naacho aaj, naacho aaj

gao khushi ke geet

jhooth ki aakhir haar hui, haar hui

sach ki aakhir jeet


Swing and dance away today,

Sing a song of happiness.

Falsehood has finally been defeated.

Truth has prevailed after all.


The song’s last verse, representing the hope that freedom would bring an end to hunger and unemployment, a hope that national liberation would bring forth a socialist future, runs as follows:


aaj se in sundar kheton mein

bhookh na ugne paaye

factoriyon mein mandaraaye na

bekari ke saaye

desh ka ye dhan daulat ye hai

saari qaum ki poonji

aaj kisi ke aage koi

daaman na phailaye re


May hunger no longer sprout in these beautiful fields.

May there be no unemployment in these factories.

The wealth of this nation belongs to all,

May no one have to beg anyone else for anything.


The same Prem Dhawan, in lines written following the violence during the partition of British India, was to lament the kind of freedom that had been won:


basti basti maut ka dera

gali gali shamshaan

dharti lahu luhaan hai saari

dharti lahu luhaan

arson bandookon ka pehra

sangeenon ka raaj

kaisa ye sauraj, kaisa ye sauraj

tum suno suno tum suno suno

suno hind ke rehne waalon suno suno


Death stalks every locality.

Each street is a cemetery.

The earth is bloody, bloody is the earth.

We are surrounded by guns,

It is the rule of the bayonets.

What freedom have we got, what kind of freedom?

Listen, O countrymen, Listen, all those who live in Hind.


Less than a decade later, in 1956, the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote ‘Woh subah kabhi to aayegi’ (‘That dawn will arrive some day’) when social transformation still appeared far away, when the post-independence state had shown itself to be repressive on several occasions and some part of the dream already had been shattered.


manhoos samaaji dhaanchon mein

jab zulm na paale jaayenge

jab haath na kaate jaayenge

jab sar na uchlaale jaayenge

jailon ke bina is duniya ki

sarkar chalaayi jaayegi

woh subah kabhi toh aayegi

woh subah kabhi toh aayegi


When society will no longer breed oppression,

When arms will no longer be cut off and no heads will roll,

When governments will no longer need prisons to rule,

That dawn surely will arrive one day.

That dawn surely will arrive one day.


The songs mentioned above were written and composed between 1940 and 1960, two out of the three crucial decades from the 1930s that marked a ‘transitionary’ period from colonialism to independence in Indian history. Composed and performed by the tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a cultural organization aligned with the left political movement, these songs – along with hundreds of other songs written and performed in different parts of the country during this period – played a crucial role in articulating the role of culture, and specifically music, in and as politics in the country. Formally set up as an organization in 1943, the IPTA’s mandate and agenda were shaped from the 1930s onwards when cultural and literary expression in politics took several forms – an important example was the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), established in 1936. The IPTA came into existence when the left-wing strand of the political movement for national liberation from colonial rule, under the leadership of the CPI, had taken a position that contrasted it from the mainstream nationalist movement. The possibilities for revolutionary transformation in India appeared immense and decolonization just the precondition for that, even as there was a need for this to happen in an atmosphere of international solidarity of working-class movements.

The setting up of the IPTA and other such organizations was a response to a perceived need for new aesthetic forms that represented the people while distinguishing themselves from the cultural traditions of the mainstream nationalist movement, on the one hand, and commercial theatre, on the other. This ‘people’s art and theatre’ attempted to reflect and respond to the travails of a colonized nation, as well as to the specifics of the multilayered oppression of the common people in the colonial and immediate post-colonial contexts. The formation of the IPTA thus marked a formal adoption of the idea that music, dance, theatre and art would be used for conscious articulation of protest and resistance, and this was one of the early, if not the first of such attempts in India. It was the first attempt, also, to define a national-level movement which, in turn, would link itself up with anti-fascist and anti-imperialist movements on a world scale, along with the PWA. Across the country, a large number of the best-known artists of the time became part of the IPTA, attempting to produce alternative aesthetic creations across diverse media.

It was perhaps for the first time that large cultural squads consisting of dancers, musicians, actors, artists and photographers responded in diverse ways to political issues and events, the forms ranging from plays to dance-dramas to songs to dances to storytelling and much more. I refer to this set of organizations as the IPTA tradition, which includes the IPTA itself in its national and regional versions, as well as various others like the Praja Natya Mandali and the Kerala People’s Arta Club that aligned themselves with the IPTA.

Music constituted a significant aspect of the IPTA tradition’s intervention, although this aspect was never studied or documented either by the left movement or by historians. In fact, work on the left cultural movement has been scanty and, where it exists, very specifically focused – becoming region-, language- or form-specific – not allowing for an overall or comprehensive view. The left movement’s or, more specifically, the left cultural movement’s own documentation and analysis of the tradition has been sparse. Further, within the available work on the IPTA, there is a complete absence of scholarship on music – what did get documented and analysed, even if only to a limited extent, were the theatre productions; these studies essentially looked at the IPTA, quite literally, as a theatre organization. As a result, hardly any evidence of the IPTA’s vast musical repertoire is available publicly, let alone any analysis of the debates or processes that went into the creation of music in the most vibrant period that lasted from the few years preceding its formation until the late 1950s. This book attempts to fill this gap in a limited way – it is about the IPTA tradition’s music in a national as well as specific regional contexts, located within the overall cultural and political climate of the transitionary period in India, as well as in the context of the shaping of a radical imaginary in many parts of the world from the beginning of the twentieth century. It is the culmination of an archiving-cum-documentation project of the IPTA tradition’s music that I undertook between 2006–07 and 2009.

Apart from the historical relevance of the archive, such as the one this project is based on, and of a tradition such as the IPTA’s, there are compelling reasons for my interest in protest music per se. The first reason arises, as mentioned at the outset, against the stereotypes that have existed, certainly in more recent decades in India, about protest music having a typically standardized structure – for example, sounding agitational and mobilizational, conveying political messages stridently through lyrics, tunes and tempo, and mostly being sung by a collective – and perhaps for these reasons, not being good enough music. This stereotype has resulted, on the one hand, in activist musicians as well as political formations not considering songs as protest songs unless they conform to the standardized stereotype with respect to form and content, and, on the other hand, non-activist musicians dismissing protest music as ‘mere sloganeering’. From a perusal of the IPTA tradition’s music, it is possible to understand protest music as a highly varied and historically evolved kind of music, and to engage with the stereotypical protest song as being only a particular type within this larger genre. It is possible to argue for the legitimacy of protest music as music meriting analysis on its own terms, i.e. as music. This is a primary objective of this book.

The second reason for focusing on protest music comes from looking at music as social text, with the structure and grammar of music enabling us to draw inferences about the contexts of its creation. Especially in societies where music is not usually written down or notated formally, even when music is created with an explicit social purpose, like protest music, the objectives of creation and the nuances of particular forms used have to be understood from within the music itself. In this case, the available archive, incomplete as it is, has been compiled through a diverse array of modes and materials, such as interviews with artists, anecdotes, personal stories, old recordings and songbooks. The songs themselves, often reconstructed from incomplete or damaged recordings, have acted as a text from which it is possible, along with the recollections and anecdotes, to read back into historical events as well as into fascinating debates on culture and politics. In this sense, the ‘aural archive’, especially in the absence of formal documentation, serves as a rich corpus of concepts that allow us to understand, in this case, the relationship between music and politics in a crucial period in India’s history.

Third, the analysis of the IPTA tradition’s music led me to try and understand it in the context of radical left-wing politics of the first half of the twentieth century, when the relationship between aesthetics and politics was debated vigorously in different parts of the world, both in Euro–America and closer home, for example, in East and Southeast Asia. It became apparent that the musicians of the IPTA tradition engaged with questions that were varied as well as fundamental issues of representation in the music–politics relationship, even if the debates and conceptualizations were not as well laid out and documented as elsewhere in the world. More specifically, it became apparent that particular questions, even if their expression was through creative practice rather than in theory, highlighted the nuances of the role of music in societal change quite distinctly from the Euro–American cases, including that of the Soviet Union. By turning back to this distinctiveness, notably with respect to tradition, in the approaches to nationalism, modernism, the idea of the ‘indigenous’ and so on (shared, perhaps, with other colonized or less developed countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America), this book hopes to highlight that the radical project of the first half of the twentieth century was not only varied and geographically dispersed, but also that it threw up fundamental questions through these non-metropolitan experiences. As Priyamvada Gopal has done in the case of the literature of the PWA, it is hoped that the analysis here of the musical repertoire in the IPTA tradition can help ‘reconstellate key concerns’ in the relationship between music and politics.

Fourth, protest music in the period that we are addressing here had an interesting relationship with notions of ‘popular culture’, as the idea of the popular was played out in interesting ways in the context of early twentieth-century modernity and in the formative years of the Indian nation. Not only did the conception of what constituted protest music require an interrogation and explication of the music of the ‘popular classes’ in a Gramscian sense, but the IPTA tradition’s musical forays and experiments significantly impacted the commercial arena, in this sense playing a role in shaping commercial mainstream culture too, even when standing in ideological opposition to it. This book, it is hoped, will highlight the ways in which the engagement with the idea of the popular happened as part of the radical imaginary, through structures and processes of music-making, and in this sense will help reclaim the notion of ‘popular music’ from a mere focus on the market.

I use the idea of a radical impulse to describe the interplay of considerations that went into the crafting of a radical left-wing aesthetic in the first half of the twentieth century, and which may be seen to have informed the Indian experience substantially. The idea of a radical impulse and its role in shaping popular culture, as well as the conceptual framework for presenting protest music as a certain kind of popular music are presented here. Through these two ideas, I interrogate the nuances of the relationship between music and politics.