SCENE REPORT Indian Artists are Fighting Theocracy With Music By Dhruva Balram · Illustration by Noopor Choksi · April 29, 2020

“I was shocked. I couldn’t reach out to my family, phones weren’t working. I had no idea what was happening in Kashmir, no one did,” says Ahmer, a Kashmiri rapper. Like the rest of India, Ahmer woke up to the news on August 5th, 2019 that his home state of Kashmir had been placed under a communications blackout imposed by the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]. Along with no TV, internet, or phone service, the Indian government had also revoked Article 370, which guaranteed certain conditions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir: the ability to govern autonomously in all areas except defense, communication, and foreign policy.

Ahmer, who, at the time was living in New Delhi, had recently released his lauded debut studio album on Azadi Records. Little Kid, Big Dreams is a searing critique of the Indian government and an exploration of his Kashmiri identity. Over screwball hi-hats and dense, fast-paced beats, the album is both anthemic and engaging. “[Little Kid, Big Dreams] was years of struggle and sacrifices, [mainly] not being able to go back home,” Ahmer says. “All of it paid off when that project came out.” The album’s release, a direct result of Ahmer’s experiences growing up under a military rule, continues a long tradition of Indian artists taking to music to voice their frustrations.

On December 11th, 2019, nearly seven months since the BJP was re-elected in a sweeping majority for a second term, they introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act [CAA]. An attempt to tie citizenship to religion, arguably changing the nature of the Indian constitution from secular to theocratic, the adoption of the CAA prompted protests which spread across the country.

“It finally got to a point where people were just not happy to lay back anymore,” jazz percussionist and composer Sarathy Korwar says from his London-based studio. “Everyone saw it coming in terms of this anti-Muslim agenda. A lot of the liberal elite seemed to be pissed off as well. People’s reaction to it has been [something] I haven’t seen before.”

In response to CAA, a group of mostly Muslim women staged a continuous 24/7 sit-in in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood. (Due to the ongoing Covid pandemic, the country has imposed a complete lockdown, which means that Shaheen Bagh is temporarily closed.) In places like Manipur, Kashmir, and Assam, people were taking to the streets to protest for months before CAA became official. Once it did, the protests surged in numbers. Soon after, protests swept across the country from the deep south of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to Kashmir to major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru. In a country of over a billion people, a small sliver has found themselves voicing their discontent with a government gaining sweeping powers.

“Protests in Kashmir have always been significant,” Ahmer explains. “When 370 was revoked back in August, protests took place, just like always, but it was really hard, and has always been hard, for the people to carry them out, keeping the restrictions in mind, and the orders imposed. It doesn’t matter if you protest peacefully because you cannot protest at all, that’s how it is in Kashmir, they’re gonna kill you for it and label you a terrorist.”

Music, throughout all of this, has become a source of much joy for artists to release pent-up frustrations and tensions as it has gathered people together to unite for a single cause. Festivals like Artists Against Communalism, which took place over five days at Shaheen Bagh, have been founded while musicians, some of whom had never voiced anything politically before, started releasing songs in objection to the Indian government’s powers. Others, like Ahmer and Sarathy Korwar, continue to release music which investigates the decisions being made by the Indian government. And, for these leaderless movements gaining traction, especially in the wake of New Delhi’s recent horrific pogrom, they look towards a certain contingent of women for inspiration.

“It’s the women of Shaheen Bagh, they are the heroes,” Ahmer says. “Shaheen Bagh has given the whole country this strength that can’t be matched [by the government], even if they flaunt their guns, their misuse of power, their authority. It’s because of Shaheen Bagh, people have been coming out, from all across the country. It has united the people, like never before.”


Ahmer

Though Little Kid, Big Dreams is a good introduction to Ahmer’s capacity as an artist, the visceral rage with which he carries his eyewitness accounts of occupied Kashmir is best heard through his mixtape Inqalab.

“I wanted to let the people know what it has been like, ever since 370 was revoked,” Ahmer says. “Talking about the realities, stories of human sufferings. Everything that I had experienced in and after August, and what every Kashmiri was going through.” Inqalab’s first track, “Nazara,” is raw and minimal, prioritizing lyricism and purpose over spectacle. A simple boom-bap hi-hat, snare, and kick drum form the framework for Ahmer’s gritty voice.

Though there have been rumors of undercover police at his gigs, emails and phones being tracked by the government, Ahmer isn’t looking to stop anytime soon. He says, “Music is an escape, but at the same time, it’s a weapon too. They say knowledge is power, so is art. I’m not out here picking up a gun and trying to do what a lot of people did, I’m picking up a pen instead. We were never made to feel like we were a part of something. Music saves me from all of this, from this chaos. It’s really important for me to fight all this, and do my bit at least.”

Sarathy Korwar

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP

The London-based Indian percussionist and composer’s latest project More Arriving is his most urgent work to date. It’s confrontational, doubling as both a pushback against the anti-immigrant rhetoric being peddled in the UK and a critique of the Indian government. The Indian MCs who hop on the mic add to the sense of urgency, detailing the inequality present in the country. The album is a call to action while also being a soothing balm with its moments of hazy reggae-infused free jazz. On the opening track, “Mumbay,” MC Mawali’s razor-sharp drawl wraps itself around ceiling-threatening drums, simple bass lines, and swirling horns as tension builds until breaking, setting the stage for the rest of the album.

Seedhe Maut

Bona fide stars in the making, Seedhe Maut is the New Delhi-based duo of Encore ABJ and Calm. Their razor-sharp, incisive lyrics in both Hindi and English have slowly built them a fanbase. Never shying away from being political, the Azadi Records signees are known for being brash and unafraid to voice their opinions. A recent single, “Scalp Dem,” featuring New Delhi rapper Delhi Sultanate, made waves across South Asia almost instantly—and put a bulls-eye on their back from right-wing supporters. Their penchant for speaking their mind over fast-paced beats make for a compelling listen, every time. Their debut album, 2018’s Bayaan, packs a punch, and it’s encouraging to see how far they’ve come even since then.

Hoirong

A majority of the protest music that has emerged from India is hip-hop focused, but it also includes one of India’s most cherished underground rock bands: Hoirong, whose sound melds punk, post-punk, ‘90s garage rock, and noise. Known for their ceiling-threatening instruments and stinging lyrics, Hoirong’s recent singles “Kill or Be Killed” and “Public Property” are a continuation of their previous work: challenging the status quo and relentlessly calling out the government’s hypocrisy and lies over heavy guitar riffs. They’ve long been bastions for a better world—it seems that the rest of the Indian music industry is only just catching up to them.

Park Circus

Named after a park in Kolkata, where leader BC Azad lives, rappers Park Circus released their eponymous debut album last year. Their hard-hitting verses are backed by agile blends of ’90s boom-bap with triplet hi-hats. Park Circus, the physical location, has also become the main site of protest in Kolkata—it was occupied for more than 60 days before the pandemic shut it down temporarily—which allowed the hip-hop crew to perform their effortlessly leisurely flows to crowds who, much like the group, envision a better India. “It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to,” BC Azad says. “People coming from everywhere and connecting on this human level that I wouldn’t have in my life ever imagined. To see all these kids talking about creating art as well, it gives me hope.”

Prabh Deep

Arguably India’s biggest and best underground rapper of the moment, Prabh Deep is known for his political anthems. His debut studio album, Class-Sikh, was a commercial and critically-acclaimed project. Prabh, the son of survivors from the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that engulfed New Delhi, weaves political rhymes over club-ready production. His latest EP, K I N G, is more pared-back and soulful but like the rest of his work, it retains a sense of political activism. It’s hard to separate politics from the artist here as Prabh Deep has made it a vital part of his identity, protesting against a Hindutva-majority country where he is continually marginalized. He’s truly making some of the most engaging, cautionary, and vital music to come out of India in the last few years.

Swadesi

Whether it’s their latest album, single, or music video, everything Swadesi does is steeped in political activism and protest music. The sprawling, multilingual, socially-conscious hip-hop crew are led by the talented MC Mawali. They are vocal in their support of a number of issues, whether it’s deforestation in Mumbai’s Aarey Forest (“Warli Revolt”), gender equality, or the ongoing protests against the CAA. Swadesi’s full-length albums are infused with a sense of urgency; the group realistically depict what life is like growing up in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.Kranti Havi [‘We Need a Revolution’],” the last song on their latest album, is a call-to-action against the CAA that also condemns the role of key players in these protests. Featuring Delhi Sultanate, the song’s bass-heavy, anthemic production is a perfect accompaniment to the enraged lyrics.

Imphal Talkies and the Howlers

Ever since India implemented the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur in 1958—granting the Indian army the right to fire upon or arrest civilians at will—the state has seen almost weekly protests. Imphal Talkies and the Howlers, a five-piece folk rock band, sing mainly about politics, human rights issues, and insurgency on conceptual projects whose overarching themes deal with the militarization of their state. With laid-back yet assured drums and guitars, theirs is a wrenchingly intimate and sweetly playful sound which carries an important message. “It’s very clear how the rest of India sees the North-East,” bandleader Akhu Chingangbam says. “They don’t care what the people are into. They want the land, not the people. What they don’t realize is that what the government does here, now, they’ll do to the rest of the country soon. That’s why we make our music.”

Street Academics

Hip-hop group Street Academics are Indian rap legends. The Kerala-based outfit has been around for over a decade, defining the underground sound with their blend of lo-fi, folk, hip-hop, and R&B long before the explosion of hip-hop in India in the last few years. Tackling complex topics—caste, marginalization, class, gender disparity—throughout their career, their recent work has taken a slightly darker tone lyrically, reflecting on the dreary state of today’s social climate while saluting the protests around the country. “That was more of an intuitive reaction, rather thinking about so much,” Haris Saleem of Street Academics says, “it just came out of the heart.”

तानाशाही का समर्थक

Not much is known about this producer, whose name translates to “Fascist” and who lists their location as Ghazipur. It appears that they’ve been steadily releasing music since CAA came to exist. And each track is a direct nod to the ever-increasing authoritarian government. With song titles like “engineering_a_pogrom,” the abrasive nature of the production sounds like an attempt to capture a general population’s anxiety and frustrations with the current government. Brash and abrasive with a punk-rock approach, तानाशाही का समर्थक’s production manages to amalgamate hip-hop, lo-fi, and noise into a furious mix. Frustration is the underlying theme holding the music together.

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