A World of “Sound” and “Clash”: An Interview with Taru Dalmia (Part III of III)

by | 5 Apr 2017

This is the third and last part of an interview between legal scholars, Luis Eslava and Sundhya Pahuja, and Taru Dalmia, the Delhi based musician, activist, music producer and public intellectual.

<<< Part II

Image 6. Taru Dalmia and Lights frame created by Begum X. (Photo by Ishaan Chawla, with kind permission).


  1. L&S: We want to know more about the roots of your music. As we understand it, your music brings together a particular new take on reggae, ska, and techno sounds with powerful lyrics. How does this mixture relate to your aim to engage with social struggles? We are thinking here too about ‘tradition’ – an idea that for legal scholars simultaneously denotes social power, respect, order, patterns of thought, and, of course, obedience: inheritance, and mixing?

T: In music as opposed to prose it is not just lyrics but sound that becomes a carrier of meaning. Bass music, dub music, deeply impacts upon people and can be powerful expressions of emotion, of political sentiment, even of metaphor. In the case of reggae in particular we feel that it lends itself very well to expressing the fractured militarised reality that we are engaging with. In a way, I suppose it’s quite strange to play music that was created in a small ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica in India but this is what I know how to do.

At one show that we did in Pune, we had a predominantly Marathi speaking audience. The organizers gave us a long introduction, explaining why we built the sound system so we could to play in non-commercial spaces and outside the market economy, and in order to play songs of liberation from another colony. I was nervous at first and didn’t think that it would work. What the hell are we doing here? To cope with this situation, I had to scale down my expectations. I said to myself, it’s OK if we fail. It’s OK to be who we are. At the very least, people will get a chance to hear and feel music they would not ordinarily have been exposed to. I told myself that the fact that music created by Ghetto super stars like Johnny Clarke, Burning Spear, Sizzla and Chronixx was being played in a part of India was in and off itself amazing and a completely unique moment. This thought gave me some comfort.  Then, after playing the first tune, people instantly began to move. Both old and young, men and women increasingly let go of inhibitions and danced freely and joyfully. For women to dance freely in the company of men in some parts of the country is a big deal. We saw that it worked so this encourages us to move forward and see how we can find ways to deepen and make what we do more meaningful.

We are often consumed by self-doubt but at the same time, I don’t really worry about tradition or appropriation. I just do what I know how to do. What matters is intention and effort. You have to be constantly watchful and constantly refine these two elements. Then you will be OK and even mistakes will help you.

Video 9. Dr Das – Blood Earth Remix – Unity

  1. L&S: So could we say that your music and documentary projects are explicitly ‘intellectual’ engagements with social movements and broadly held political dissatisfactions? What position do you see yourself occupying in relation to these movements and these dissatisfactions? Are you an enabler of change, a transmitter of dissatisfactions, or someone that articulates current situations for the broader public in new ways? Or do you see the relation between your art and social change in a different way?

T: I would say that primarily our projects are not intellectual engagements but rather artistic/creative ones. This would mean for example that when we show up in an area and connect with local revolutionary movements and singers we are not there to document and record. We are there to create something from our experience. It is also a very personal engagement, and often we are thrown into unfamiliar situations. For instance when we were in Kucheipadar village in Orissa, it was the first time any of us had been guests in a tribal area, and one that was rife with violence and decades of struggle that preceded our arrival. In such a situati6n, what becomes apparent to us is how ignorant and intellectually ill equipped we really are. We are forced to attempt not only to make sense of our surroundings and our own being there, but also to create something from this: songs, films, images.

Image 7. Chris McGuinness recording local musicians in Goratikiri, Kashipur Orissa. Word Sound Power – Blood Earth Project. (Photo by Kush Badhwar, with kind permission).

I very much identify with the movements we end up working with and my position would be one of unequivocal solidarity and support. I cannot say whether we are an enabler of change, though we would definitely like to be that, and perhaps it will be possible to evolve into a stronger force for change. We most definitely are transmitters of dissatisfactions, our own and of the people we work with. And yes, the forms that we utilise also mean that we reach new audiences. At the very least, perhaps we can generate debate which is always helpful.

Video 10. REDS Ft. & Delhi Sultanate – Fever

  1. L&S: Following on from the last two questions, there is a long-held (mis)apprehension in both the Left and in the social sciences about engaging in grassroots politics when one doesn’t have local credentials. But there are, of course, other ways of understanding or framing the role of intellectuals, and the type of alliances one can create in order to act together in the political realm. In this context, how do you understand the work that you do with local communities and local political organisers?

Video 11. Word Sound Power – Bhagwan Majhi remembering 16th December 2000

  1. L&S: India, like many other countries in the South, has been passing through a massive process of neoliberal transformation over the last three decades. How has this transformation affected both the political landscape of India, and the way you look at the relation between urban India and rural India, and the relation of these two worlds via popular culture? We raise this point here because we are still thinking about your position as a singer in the city, of social struggles that seem to take place ‘somewhere else’.

T: In my own experience, these categories cannot be as neatly separated anymore. It is true that the violence of the state is more brutal and naked outside of big Indian cities. In Bastar, sexual violence by security forces is the norm, the same holds true for Kashmir. In Kashmir there are regular disappearances, and during public protests the state forces use pellet guns that have left many permanently blinded. These pellet guns are not used anywhere else in India. Yet, at present, when students on campus in JNU tried to organize an event to commemorate and criticize the execution of Afzal Guru,1On Afzal Guru, see: http://www.amazon.in/Hanging-Strange-Attack-Indian-Parliament/dp/0143420755/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1488612320&sr=1-1&keywords=afzal+guru the students were branded anti-national and arrested. At the time, Arundhati Roy remarked that slowly Kashmir is coming to the rest of the country. At present, the space for open debate on these issues has shrunk drastically. So we perceive what happens ‘somewhere else’ on a daily basis next to us. As a result, we are no longer only singing about what happens in far-away places. It has reached our door step. In the same way, Europe has always exported violence to the colonies, yet in some way it is finding its way home and manifesting itself.

It seems to me that at present the current neoliberal model has been effectively sold to the vast majority of the voting population. The current right wing government was elected on the basis that it promised that the consumer lifestyles at the heart of the current model would become accessible to all. They awoke a sense of entitlement and desire and this is constantly reinforced by advertising. Ten years ago there were no shopping malls to speak of in India. In the last 10 years they seem to have become new signs of development and there has been a building surge. In Mughal times Delhi had some 2-300 public water bodies that were designed to cool the city and provide public spaces. The fact they we have so little say in how our cityscape is changing and the complete absence of debate are indicative to me to what extent neoliberal approaches have become the norm. Not too long ago, finance minister, P Chidambaram said he foresaw that a majority of the Indian population should live in cities in the century to come. A few weeks ago, environmental norms for industries were relaxed to more large scale resource extraction projects, again with very little public debate. All of this in the interest of development. What this development means concretely is not discussed at all. 

  1. L&S: One thing that your project Blood Earth confronts is the view that behind indigenous resistance there is just ignorance or manipulation. What one comes across in Blood Earth, however, is a subtler reading of indigenous people as subjects with a voice and a political impulse. The trailers are a good example of this. What have you learnt from entering into collaborations with indigenous groups, Dalit singers, etc?

T: Time and again we have seen the state and company forces claim that various forms of indigenous resistance from Kucheipadar and Niyamgigi to the resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear plant were instigated by outside forces. This is a lame attempt to delegitimise movements and could not be further from the truth. In India, the most dynamic and successful movements have been led by Adivasis and Dalits. There is a lot we can learn. Most recently, after the Una incident in Gujarat where four Dalits were publicly flogged, Dalits in Gujarat showed everyone how it’s done. The dumping of animal carcasses and stated refusal to do demeaning work amounted to a labour strike.2On the Una protests see: https://scroll.in/article/814665/how-the-una-protests-reflect-ambekdars-great-wisdom-in-the-constituent-assembly The government became afraid and it led to one of the few instances where the prime minister broke his strategic silence and was forced to comment. In earlier instances, for example when authors M N Kalburgi, Gobind Pansare and Narendra Dalbholkar were murdered you would not hear a thing from him,3On the murders of Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Pansare see: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/darkness-dawn-dabholkar-pansare-kalburgi which many interpreted as tacit approval.

Kucheipadar was an extremely sophisticated movement that with little conventional political and economic power, held very powerful interest groups at bay for years on end. People there had to constantly revise their strategies in dealing with state actors, corporations, police, thugs and researchers. Bhagwan Mahji told us extensively about his long learning curve. Observing elders in the movement as a kid, reading history and law books and learning from experience. The Dalit singers we have worked have a much more sophisticated and evolved understanding of both culture, power politics and the economic and political reality in India than us. The brutal and catastrophic nature of the current civilizational moment is more apparent there. The use of song we saw in Kucheipadar at the time was infinitely more effective than ours, concretely connected to on the ground action. Bhagwan told us that singing was an integral part of the movement from the start. At crucial moments, for instance when comrades were killed by police, a song was written and became a rallying point. Bhagwan told us that many a times, a gathering would begin with singing and slogans. He said that son6s were effective in attracting people and would speak to their hearts. We were astonished how many people were writing songs and poetry as part of their involvement in the struggle. This might be a unique feature of the Kucheipadar movement though.

Image 8. BFR Sound System at JNU. (Photo by Reyazul Haq, with kind permission).

  1. L&S: Law underpins many of the issues that you explore in your lyrics and your current work about broader problems in India. Through your own life experience and through your work, how have you learned to see law ?

T: Law is important and there are areas where people successfully use it. On the other hand, we have also seen blatant violations of all kind of laws with little recourse to legal means of redress. The people we worked with in Orissa did not seem to have much faith in the legal process – they clearly had the sense of confronting a system where the odds were stacked against them. They understood that the extent to which their needs would be incorporated into the decision-making process depended on the ability to mobilise large numbers, to have unity and the ability to make and execute decisions collectively.

At the same time, legal discourse is always present. Initially, for instance, people were told that they had no claim over their land and would fare better if they accepted whatever compensation was offered to them. They were told that only 2 feet of land in depth belonged to them and that anything below that was government property. In short they would be dispossessed anyway. At the same time, I have seen tribal people often mentioning the Indian constitution in their discourse. At present, at the final instant, the law has been our only means of redress. We challenge the legality of government orders, of extra judicial killings and arrests. Of environmental destruction. Of discrimination and institutional murder, as in the case of Rohith Vemula.4On Vemula, see: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/from-shadows-to-the-stars-rohith-vemula We hope for a just verdict. Sometimes there is relief, many times there is not. Many times it is unjust and completely unequal. In cases when courts at the highest level don’t rule justly, we don’t know what to do.

  1. L&S: We are about to finish this interview, and we don’t want to miss the opportunity to ask you this. It is hard to think about revolution in our current times, but it seems that may be exactly what we need today. In your lyrics, the idea of revolution features constantly. Is revolution in your horizon?

T: We are in the midst of a profound crisis, and a radical transformation of how human society is organised is desperately needed. We are tearing ourselves apart. The discursive and physical violence that we have been witnessing in the last few years across the world is deeply frighting to me.

On a more personal level, all the movements that we have engaged with in our work, somewhere echo a cry for revolution. In India the cry for ‘Azadi’ seems to have started on the streets of Kashmir and has become a popular slogan in many parts of the country. So revolution has ended up informing our imagination and lending strength to our discourse, and with this it has contributed in many important ways to our aim of overcoming the limits of our thinking about the world. But is there a concrete actual revolution on our horizon? Can we imagine the overthrow of the state?

Utopian ideas are very important for the energies they unleash, which can have concrete and very real impact on present conditions. I am sympathetic to the struggles we have in the country now, to everyone who is pushing for change and challenging the current system, ideologically diverse and at times conflicting as they may be. Do the Naxals in the forest really believe that they have the power to overthrow the present government and install their flag at the red fort? Perhaps not, but the leap of faith that some of the poorest and least powerful people in the country have taken in challenging the basic premises of the present system has been profoundly empowering for people from all walks of life.

Luis Eslava (Kent Law School) and Sundhya Pahuja (Melbourne Law School)

  • 1
    On Afzal Guru, see: http://www.amazon.in/Hanging-Strange-Attack-Indian-Parliament/dp/0143420755/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1488612320&sr=1-1&keywords=afzal+guru
  • 2
    On the Una protests see: https://scroll.in/article/814665/how-the-una-protests-reflect-ambekdars-great-wisdom-in-the-constituent-assembly
  • 3
    On the murders of Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Pansare see: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/darkness-dawn-dabholkar-pansare-kalburgi
  • 4
    On Vemula, see: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/from-shadows-to-the-stars-rohith-vemula


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