Gaddar, poet, singer, revolutionary, is among the most well-known of the creative minds associated with people’s resistance movements in India. Born Gummadi Vittal Rao in 1947, in Tupran village of Medak district in what is now Telangana, Gaddar became an activist in his youth after dropping out of engineering college due to poverty. With a gift for singing and song-writing, he travelled the road—for some time underground—reaching lakhs of people with his music, and became the cultural face of‘ rebellion’, the literal meaning of his nom de guerre.
Of the thousands of songs Gaddar performed, only a few were ever recorded in print. My Life Is a Song brings together, for the first time in English translation, twenty-three representative songs, selected by his friend and fellow traveller, Vasanth Kannabiran.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Gaddar.
A slave in Telangana is one who buries his head in the earth. Banchodu in Telangana is a slave who is only given a gruel of broken grain. Not wages. But the true horror of the situation can be understood when you think of what this declaration means: ‘Nee Banchonni, Dora. Nee uccha taaguta, Dora,’ says the Scheduled Caste person to the upper-caste person. That means: ‘I am your slave. I will drink your urine.’ Think of that for a moment. Think what it would do to your self-esteem. Think of what it would do to you to say it again and again, to repeat it all your life. Think of what it would do to the upper-caste person too, to hear it all his or her life. How it would deform them both. This is what caste does. It deforms those who it reviles but it does not leave the upper castes unscathed.
Do not fool yourself because you see a Scheduled Caste person in a city who drives about in a car. In Indian villages, we can still see this slave.
This slave must go around cleaning the village and lives outside the village. He can only enter the village when it sleeps. That is his life. I was born into that life. My father was an Ambedkarite and revolted against this slavery. He believed that revolt begins when the slave is taught the alphabet. He worked as a contractor in Milind Vidyalaya set up by Ambedkar in Aurangabad. Both my mother and my father used to have conversations with Ambedkar. My mother used to sing a beautiful translation of a Marathi song on Phule:
A jasmine grew on a dungheap
It bore a basketful of fragrant blooms
One flower spread its fragrance far and wide
That fragrance roused the whole village to rise and walk Slowly, the whole village came to the dungheap
And asked for the name of the flower that spread such fragrance
That blossom was Savitribai
That fragrance was Jotiba Phule
Our family was liberated because of education.
I wrote a number of songs that spoke of the need for people to have an understanding of caste, not an obsession with caste.
When there was violence against Dalits in Tamil Nadu who had converted, I wrote on slave life in the caste order.
A Slave Life
I am your slave, your slave.
I am your slave, Lord.
How long will you live like this, Malanna?1
Why don’t you strike back, Madiganna?
He calls your sister and mother
slut and bitch!
Why do you shrink, Madiganna?
Rise like a lion, Malanna!
In broad daylight
When they shoot your people
like birds in the sky.
Shoot back, explode,
Why do you shed tears, Malanna?
Rise like a sword, Madiganna!
When they surround your huts
Firing bullets into your heart
And trample on babes and old alike,
Dragging them out brutally,
Cutting them down ruthlessly,
Why do you weep loudly, Madiganna?
Rise like a spear, Malanna!
When he comes for votes,
He makes false promises,
He sits on your stone bench
Fondly calling you, ‘Elder brother! Younger brother!’
He asks for a glass of water
which he gargles and carefully spits out.
He won with your votes, Malanna!
And showed you empty hands, Madiganna!
When disgusted Malas and Madigas became Muslim,
In Tamil Nadu, the Sankaracharya was shocked
He went crooked and twisted with rage
And all of Hindu society
Chanted, ‘Vande mataram!’
You can bend a slave
By putting a huge rock on his back
You can stamp him down.
His back may be bent
But his heart will not submit.
He will keep seeking the right moment
To straighten his back.
To set down the stone.
I am your slave, I am your slave
I am your gulam, Dora!
How much longer will you live like this, Madiganna?
When will you strike back, Malanna?