Taru Dalmia is a New Delhi-based Indian reggae/dancehall artist, poet, academic historian and social activist. Taru, also known as Delhi Sultanate, is the lead singer of The Ska Vengers, the mastermind behind Bass Foundations Roots – BFR Sound System along with his partner Samara Chopra, aka Begum X, one of the first Jamaican-style sound systems in India, and the co-founder of Word, Sound and Power with producer Chris McGuinness, a collective dedicated to producing documentary films and musical collaborations with grassroots movements. First attracted by the intensity, sophistication and rendition in a different medium of our own concerns with international law and the destructive motion of the global development project, World, Sound, Power was our entry point into Taru’s work. A few years ago, we made contact with him. We invited him and Chris McGuinness to be part of an event, and persuaded Taru to be interviewed about his work. As time passed and our scholarly journeys led us closer to a ‘Word Sound Power’ view of the world, and the South, and as we grew more intimate with the music that Taru likes and produces, the questions and answers that form this interview began to fall into place. The final result of our conversation is published here in three parts. We accompany Taru’s answers with images, videos and music from his work.
PART I: FROM THE SOUTH
As Taru explains in what follows, he is engaged in a ‘sound clash’. Borrowed from reggae, this means to speak with ‘an assertive voice, in a challenging and at times mischievous tone’. The starting point is the realisation that the world is saturated with discourses and sounds. The aim is to propose new ones, better sounds to offer ‘glimpses of another reality, of other possibilities’. Reflection and action rather than submission. We think that legal scholars and our fellow travellers can gain from listening to the sound clash Taru is engaged in, and learn something from how he is fighting in challenging times. Engagements like Taru’s, and scholarly engagements with them, seem crucial today when the sounds of fear, violence, xenophobia and environmental destruction criss-cross the world from India to the US and round the other way, through the Philippines, to Russia, to the Netherlands, to United Kingdom, to France, to Colombia, to Brazil and Australia.
- Luis and Sundhya [L&S]: Taru, in an interview you gave to the Indian based magazine Motherland in 2012, you mentioned that ‘in India you go to even some tiny little village and people have a context: They’ve heard of Shakespeare and Michael Jackson. But it doesn’t work the other way around. The West doesn’t understand the East.’ With this in mind, what does it mean to be a musician or a political actor in the South?
Taru Dalmia [T]: The motherland interview happened a long time back and I think in the meantime I would shy away from making such categorical statements. At the time, I think I was trying to comment on the inequality of the encounter when it comes to cultural exports / mutual cultural intelligibility. Some semblance of knowledge about Europe and America will exist even in the far corners of India. I mean our identities, our legal system, state structures, our systems of policing and our forms of nationalism are all derived from Europe. To some degree this extends to taste and aesthetics as well. American TV shows and movies are broadcast to the far corners of the world. When Americans or Europeans travel, they are preceded by a long history of cultural export. Relatively speaking, they don’t have to explain themselves much, whereas we tend to have to do a lot of explaining.
If a decision is made that a mountain is to be mined, its minerals extracted and its inhabitants forcibly vacated, then the vision underlying this decision is not explained to us much. A narrative shield is built around it, enforced by the threat of harm. This makes it very difficult for us to effectively question and understand these decisions. Those who resist that narrative, on the other hand, tend to have to explain and justify our vision constantly.
If I play let’s say rock or classical piano or techno music or top 40 pop music in India, I don’t need to explain myself. If I play Afro beat or Reggae, people will ask me to justify what I’m doing.
These are conditions that all of us have become accustomed to, yet if you can step away for a moment and consider them, it seems that we live in an aberrational reality.
Video 1. BFR Sound System @ JNU Hunger Strike May Day 2016
East and West were always tenuously constructed categories and I’m not sure how helpful they are as categories at present, to make sense of our existence and the structures around us. Colonialism (past and present, external and internal) profoundly affects how we constitute our very being, and how things like class, caste and religion function in society. I think art or political action is meaningful if it can help to make sense of this, or if, in the very least, it can help to de-familiarise the surroundings which entrap us – if it can effect a momentary shift in perception that allows for glimpses of another reality, of other possibilities, and open up the imagination. Perhaps seeds of freedom and emancipation lie in this.
In reggae music, this is referred to as ‘emancipation from mental slavery’. How does all this affect me as a musician in the ‘South’ as someone who is pushing Jamaican music in India? No cultural production is innocent.
- L&S: Taru, within both the context of your collaborative work in Word Sound Power, and work with your band The Ska Vengers, you sing from the ghetto, and from the perspective of the colonized. But you sing to the “Centre” or the North, so to speak. How does this work? What is the function, or purpose of this exercise?
T: You mean the ‘North’ is the implied listener or receiver in our music? I’m not sure whether this is the case. We don’t necessarily think of function when we perform or write songs. It’s something that is at times ascribed retrospectively, sometimes by critics rather than by ourselves. In a broad sense, the genres we dabble in – whether Reggae music which originated in the former slave plantation colony of Jamaica, or musical traditions from India – have a tradition of speaking truth to power. For us, this forms the connecting thread between them.
So I would not say that we speak exclusively to the Centre or to the North. Artists are dangerous because they have the ability to meet all sorts of people. We strike a defiant tone when we perform or create music. At times the odd intelligence agent or undercover cop might be present at a show, but by and large we address ourselves to our comrades.
The fact that we sing in English and the fact that we are situated in Delhi, however, sets limits for us and means that often we play to largely Anglophone and Anglicised audiences, and that people outside of India may take more note of what we do. For instance, if The Ska Vengers makes a song about Modi, it is featured on BBC, AFP and the English speaking media in India, whereas a song in other Indian languages may not receive the same attention even though it may have a listenership and resonance with the masses that is far greater than ours.1 By contrast, singers who perform in regional languages often face much harsher punishment by the state than us.2
Word Sound Power though, includes regional languages and over the years I have observed that the demographic at some of our shows is changing. Increasingly, our audience is not only an urban one. With The Ska Vengers as well as with Word Sound Power, or our sound system project BFR Sound System, we have done shows for Hindi and Marathi or Khasi and Meitei speaking audiences and it worked. At present we are on a tour of the North East of India with our sound system, to Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam, states with their own resistance movements and insurgencies. So far the response has been incredible and we are already thinking of ways to return here regularly and build on what we have started. Connections also develop in many directions as time passes. A group of rappers from ghetto areas in Bombay called Swadesi met me recently and told me that Word Sound Power’s Bant Singh Project was a formative influence for them.3
Video 2. Word Sound Power – The Bant Singh Project
With Ska Vengers, one of our strengths lies in inserting a certain kind of discourse into spaces that would otherwise be completely apolitical. Music festivals and club venues in India, probably as elsewhere in the world, don’t tend to necessarily be conscious or ‘woke’ spaces. At the best of times we can create a cultural bridge of sorts and confront people with a social experience that is not their own. Maybe some of them will wonder why is he saying these things… what are the references to Naxalites,4 Birsa Munda5 or the Black Panthers about? I consider the heritage that made Reggae to be part of my heritage, and my work aims to bring this into the Indian context. For me there are also clear links between the forces that underpin Reggae music and things that are happening in India today. The colours red, gold and green have concrete meaning here, incidentally the first national flag of India or the flag of the revolutionary Gaddar party6 also featured Red, Gold and Green. Red stands for the blood of the martyrs, green stands for natural abundance, and gold stands for the wealth that is inside the earth. To me, this is equivalent to the tribal slogan which is echoed by the Naxal movement of ‘Jungle, Jal and Zameen’ (forest, water and land). We need to take back control of the resources that sustain our lives. Maybe others will also perceive these conceptual connections and will also be able to draw strength and inspiration from it… and build networks of solidarity?
Apart from this, I think we can also contribute something to more traditional protest spaces, like we have done in the past at Jantar Mantar in Delhi7 or in Universities. We have just begun on this journey and I see a lot of possibilities lying ahead. We can make people dance and move their bodies in unison, I can think of a number of scenarios where this could be of value.
The function of these exercises then would be to rupture and undermine the dominant discourse. To foster a sense of unity and strength in ourselves and our audience. To celebrate each other. To sing and to dance. Wherever we set up our sound system, we also set up a book stall with revolutionary books, films and stickers so a certain world of thought is always present at our dances.
All of us who are involved in cultural production on some level, want to capture people’s imagination. We are up against powerful forces. Power consists of asserting your version of reality, of affecting or even dominating how people interpret the events around them or even themselves. It is in this context of competing narratives that I view our musical activity as ‘soundclashing’, to take a metaphor from the reggae world.
- L&S: Thanks for arriving at that shore, Taru. In the same interview with Motherland that we mentioned before, you also talked about your work as being engaged in a ‘sound clash’. Can you tell us more about this concept?
T: I think it is evident to most that dominant interests in society are fighting to gain a hold over people’s imaginations, and have considerable means of cultural production at their disposal. Often times, the best graphic designers, film makers, editors, and musicians are absorbed in corporate jobs, engaged in the selling of ideas. Everyone is fighting to grab people’s attention and we are all implicated in a perception war. Big media houses in India are owned by people with vested interests.
Let me give you a concrete example. Arnab Goswami is a popular right wing news anchor. The language and mode of engagement that he popularised played no small role in legitimising police action and mob violence against students of Jawaharlal Nehru University early in 2016, when some students, and in some sense the entire campus, had been targeted for ‘anti-state’ activity. Often times, when describing war and conflict, such media channels unquestioningly adopt the vocabulary of politicians or dominant interest groups. At the time, the term ‘anti-national’ was popularised and used to whip up hatred.8
For a time, being from JNU was enough to risk being at the receiving end of verbal and physical violence. You begin to feel unsafe in your own city. Professor Nivedita Menon9 and poet Gauhar Raza10 were similarly targeted. These are just examples from Delhi because this is where I live, but much worse has happened in other parts of the country.11 At the same time, one of the biggest investors in his new television channel, The Republic, is a minister of parliament with business interests in the defence industry. According to an internal email that this investor sent to editorial heads (it was later retracted) he clearly states that editorial talent should be ‘pro-India’ ‘pro-military’, well familiarised with the ‘chairman’s (meaning himself) thoughts on ‘nationalism and governance’.12
This is the state of large portions of the media in India today and it has had a devastating impact on public discourse as a whole. There have been many expositions of paid news as well. You also have a huge movie and advertising industry and machinery of cultural production. They speak with a very loud voice and have a profound impact over how people perceive themselves. Both in terms of how they interpret and assess how society is organized around them, what their place in this organization is and furthermore what power they have to change all of this.
So we are also fighting for people’s imagination. It is important for a plurality of voices to be out there so that the average person is exposed to more than one narrative. People should be forced to make choices and to take responsibility for their choices.
Video 3. Word Sound Power – Blood Earth – Back Against the Wall
Luis Eslava (Kent Law School) and Sundhya Pahuja (Melbourne Law School)
- Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, represents the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP’s political ideology and Modi’s ideological training is owed to the work and thinking of the fascist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Modi was the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where under his administrative watch, a pogrom against Muslims was carried out by Hindu mobs. For more on the relationship between fascism and Hindu nationalism, see, http://www.threeessays.com/books/fascism-essays-on-europe-and-india/. Word Sound Power produced the video in the run up to India’s 2014 general elections in which Modi was considered the undisputed front runner. His popularity was mobilized through a sophisticated combination of hard neoliberalism and soft Hindu nationalism. See the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw8fn3Ie8WU. For more on Modi’s electoral tactics see: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10361146.2014.937392 ↩
- This has been the fate of the group of the Marathi anti-caste protest music group Kabir Kala Manch whose key members were arrested on grounds of sedition. See, http://www.firstpost.com/living/songs-of-freedom-jailed-for-4-years-kabir-kala-manch-members-are-now-ready-with-new-music-3223778.html and http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reviews-and-essays/revolution-will-be-sung ↩
- On Bant Singh and his music, see: http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/the-ballad-of-bant-singh-a-qissa-of-courage/ ↩
- On the history and politics of the Naxalite movement in India, see: Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement (Subarnarekha, Calcutta, 1980). ↩
- On Birsa Munda, see: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=lFSgAAAAMAAJ&q=Birsa+Munda&dq=Birsa+Munda&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y ↩
- On the Ghadar Movement, see: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=lFOKArfI8RUC&pg=PT79&dq=Ghadar+Party&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOlI_ym7zSAhVCpY8KHdnODmM4ChDoAQg_MAg#v=onepage&q=Ghadar%20Party&f=false ↩
- “Jantar Mantar is an old observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 1710. In those days it was a scientific marvel, used to tell the time, predict the weather and study the planets. Today, it’s a not-so-hot tourist attraction that doubles up as Delhi’s little showroom for democracy.” See: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-trickledown-revolution/267040 ↩
- On Arnab Goswami and media nationalism, see: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/fast-and-furious ↩
- https://thewire.in/24844/vilification-of-jnu-professor-nivedita-menon-as-anti-national-labelling-continues/ and http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/This-attack-on-Nivedita-Menon/article14158131.ece ↩
- https://thewire.in/24546/well-known-poet-scientist-gauhar-raza-on-being-labelled-an-anti-national/ ↩
- Another key incident of university students being targeted for their critical position on state violence was at the University of Hyderabad where Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar, was driven to commit suicide because of intimidation by the university administration, and the government. See: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/from-shadows-to-the-stars-rohith-vemula ↩
- http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/mp-rajeev-chandrasekhar-biggest-investor-in-arnab-goswami-s-republic-117011300345_1.html ↩