When Protest Meets Poetry

‘CHAND ROZ AUR, MERI JAAN! FAQAT CHAND HI ROZ, ZULM KI CHAAON ME DUM LENE PE MAJBOOR HAIN HUM.’

Written by Shreya Gupta

 Illustrated by Ojaswi Kejriwal

Chand roz aur, meri jaan! Faqat chand hi roz, zulm ki chaaon me dum lene pe majboor hain hum.’(A few more days, my love, only a few days more/ It is our lot to live under the shadow of tyranny)

While in prison, Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz had penned this famous nazm in a letter to his wife Alys. The song eventually became one of the more eloquent songs in the history of protest music.

There runs a long history of protest poems in India. Renowned linguist Dr Ganesh Devy traces the tradition to the times of saint poets like Kabir and Mira — unspooling history from its etymology. Much like the origin story of Protestantism — opposing the errors in the Catholic church — these poets, as he says, “were protesting in the strictest sense of the term, that is against religious orthodoxy in the name of humanism”.

Politics and poetry realised through sloganeering has been a tool to challenge the colonial powers as far back as our subcontinental memory goes. The partition of Bengal in 1905 received stiff resistance from Rabindranath Tagore, whose “Banglar maati, Banglaar jol, Banglaar bayu Banglaar phol / Punya houk, punyo houk, punyo houk hey bhogobaan” (The soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal, the breeze of Bengal, the fruits of Bengal/Glory be, glory be, glory, O dear lord) became the rallying point for protesters to maintain Hindu-Muslim unity.

As the domination shifted from religious to political, so did the protest against it. “Mass protests, different from protestant thinkers and saint poets, was a world phenomenon that emerged in the second decade of the 20th century, influenced majorly by the Russian Revolution,” he adds.

It was in the second half of the 20th century when local languages were starting to be used. Hindi, became the language of protest in northern parts of India as a lot of poets contributed to it. The language has a wealth of poems which are normally rebellious in nature. They are easy to remember, making them stable for reception. “By and large, Hindi poetry has been anti-establishment for more than half a century. Poets as different from each other as Agyeya, Muktibodh, Nagarjuna, VDN Sahi, Raghuvir Sahay, Shrikant Verma have determined and shaped the dissident character of this poetry. It continues unabated now. A critical impulse has always been vital in this continuum”, says poet Ashok Vajpeyi.

 

Hussain Haidry, poet and lyricist whose 2017 poem, I am a Hindustani Muslim, was recited and listened to at protests acknowledges this and identifies himself as a Hindustani poet. He recounts learning the tonality of protest from poets like Sahir Ludhianvi and using it to write poems in different languages. Lyricist Varun Grover’s ’Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge’ assumed a life of its own online, so did Aamir Aziz’s unrelenting, Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega (We will remember everything). Aamir realised then that he needed to write something to dissuade people from taking up arms. What followed was the words: ”Hum goli nahi chalayengey, hum aawaz uthaayengey” (We won’t shoot bullets but will raise our voice). He says that writing the poem was his way of partaking in the protests not as a Muslim but as a citizen of the country.

However, protest poems are often worded in local languages, like the famous 

Bajok doba bajok xonkho
bajok mridang khol
Axom akou unnati pothot
Joi Aai Axom bol …

 

(Translation)

Sound the doba

blow the conch

let the mridang and khol beat

Axom is on the rise again

say Hail Mother Axom and repeat

 

This immortal verse from Lakshminath Bezbaruah, the towering “Junaki Jug” poet of Assam, acquired a different meaning from the one the poem’s larger vision signified. It became the mantra, the slogan, the clarion call for the 1979-85 movement against “outsiders” led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Poetry, time and again, proved itself a handy tool for the sloganeering masses. Joi Aai Axom, especially, became the ultimate verbal marker of patriotic fervor.

The connection between Hindi/Urdu poetry and Bollywood cinema, begun in the 1940s and 1950s, is evidenced by two widely-cited poems by Bollywood lyricists Rahat Indori and Varun Grover.

A lot of words of protest as well as slogans have remained etched in public memory via the power of poetry. And we have not even started talking about Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing and masterful The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a constant inspiration for poets and protesters alike –most recently, for poets from a marginalised group in Assam.

 

Politics and poetry realised through sloganeering has been a tool to challenge the colonial powers as far back as our subcontinental memory goes. The partition of Bengal in 1905 received stiff resistance from Rabindranath Tagore, whose “Banglar maati, Banglaar jol, Banglaar bayu Banglaar phol / Punya houk, punyo houk, punyo houk hey bhogobaan” (The soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal, the breeze of Bengal, the fruits of Bengal/Glory be, glory be, glory, O dear lord) became the rallying point for protesters to maintain Hindu-Muslim unity.

 

Avtar Singh Sandhu, better known as Pash, was one of Punjab’s acclaimed poets of resistance. His work, which is inspired by the Naxalbari uprising in 1967, is reflective of the suppression, immorality, religious fundamentalism and feudalism in Punjab of the 1970s and 80s. In his poem, “Sab Ton Khatarnak” (The Most Dangerous), Pash makes a searing argument against apathy and against getting so caught up in the mundane that we lose sight of larger realities. His words ring as true today as they did back then.

Urdu poetry has been central to the protests. The use of ‘Hum Dekhenge,’ as a song, visual art, and internet meme, speaks to the widespread citation and circulation of certain Urdu or Hindi/Urdu poems during the anti-CAA protests. First composed in 1979, Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We Shall See) became a rallying cry for protests both throughout India and around the world against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by India’s Parliament on December 19, 2019.

Other poems popular among protesters are Habib Jalib’s (1928-1993)”, ‘Dastur’ (The Constitution), originally composed in opposition to Pakistan’s 1962 Constitution instituted by General Ayub Khan, and Faiz’s ‘Bol’, published in his 1942 collection Naqsh-i-Faryadi, which exhorts the listener to “Speak, for your lips are still free.” Thus poetry transcends its original time and contexts.

The connection between Hindi/Urdu poetry and Bollywood cinema, begun in the 1940s and 1950s, is evidenced by two widely-cited poems by Bollywood lyricists Rahat Indori and Varun Grover. ‘Hum Dekhenge’ has also been translated into other languages including Bhojpuri and Kannada, and sung in demonstrations. 

Protest poetry and songs have become the soul of the current agitations. When masked thugs ran riot inside Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Mumbai-based singer-songwriter, Aamir Aziz, 30, decided to fight. He picked up his pen, and composed the nazm, Sab yaad rakha jayega: Tum syahiyon se jhooth likhoge humein maloom hai/ Ho hamare khoon se hi sahi, sach zaroor likha jayega.(We know that you will draft lies with ink/ Be it with our blood, truth will absolutely be written down) “The piece, like most protest poetry, is born out of the current movement. The need of the hour is to highlight the consciousness of the times,” says Aziz, who also wrote an ode to the girls of Jamia Milia Islamia, titled Jamia ki Ladkiyaan (The girls of Jamia).

From writer-lyricist Varun Grover’s indignant Hum kaagaz nahi dikhayenge (The NRC papers, we won't show), to an assertion of a personal relationship with the country in writer Puneet Sharma’s ‘Hindustan se mera seedha rishta hai, tum kaun ho bey?’(I have a straight relationship with India; who are you), to lyricist Swanand Kirkire’s ‘Maar lo dande’(You may hit us), writers are using a wide range of styles. There is also Mumbai-based Sheetal Sathe, lead singer of Kabir Kala Manch, singing Aye Musalman bhai saath hai Ambedkar (the Constitution is with India’s Muslims), declaring that the Constitution is with India’s Muslims, and Rahul Negi, who uses hip-hop’s inherent political consciousness to good effect in the satirical rap, Tukde tukde gang.

Vajpeyi, who returned his Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015 to protest against the communal violence in the country, believes that the phenomenon where popular spaces are being filled with political content lends poems a binary quality threatening to obliterate its nuance. “Protest movements are created and invariably demand either/or situation and literature by its very nature is posited in undoing the binaries. The best of it demolishes the dichotomy of we and they, its moral stand is that we are them, they are us. It tries to speak the truth but also doubts it.”