When Mumbai's theatre and visual artists walked with Maharashtra's protesting farmers

Mar 18, 2018, 10:45 IST | Benita Fernando

How Mumbai's theatre community and visual artists came together to show solidarity with the mighty and historic Kisan Long March last week

The protesting farmers on a pit stop at Vikhroli, before they headed to Somaiya Ground on March 11. Pic/Suhel Banerjee
The protesting farmers on a pit stop at Vikhroli, before they headed to Somaiya Ground on March 11. Pic/Suhel Banerjee

On the night of March 11, when 35,000 intrepid farmers from Nashik, mobilised by CPI (M)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), prepared to march from KJ Somaiya Ground in Ghatkopar to Azad Maidan, the city of Mumbai attempted to make the last leg of their 180 km-long journey as bearable as it could. Among these concerned Mumbaikars was a group of writers and poets, who go by the name Banned. In the days leading up to the Kisan Long March, Banned had been in the know of the procession that would terminate at Vidhan Bhavan in Nariman Point.

Artist Syed Amir Abbas Rizvi teamed up with filmmaker Suhel Banerjee to post on the social media accounts of Citizens for Justice and Peace through the night of March 11. Pic/Akhil Vasudevan
Artist Syed Amir Abbas Rizvi teamed up with filmmaker Suhel Banerjee to post on the social media accounts of Citizens for Justice and Peace through the night of March 11. Pic/Akhil Vasudevan

"While we wanted to show our solidarity, we wondered how we could make a difference," says Mayank Saxena, 33, a writer, former broadcast journalist, and one of the founding members of Banned. Members Puneet Sharma, a lyricist (Revolver Rani and Indu Sarkar), Rossi D'Souza, an activist musician, and spoken word poet Ramneek Singh kept the farmers company at Somaiya Ground before they decided to march south that very night, instead of the next day, so that the ongoing SSC exams wouldn't be affected.

Lyricist Hussain Haidary with members of Banned, Puneet Sharma and Mayank Saxena, who joined the farmers’ march. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Lyricist Hussain Haidary with members of Banned, Puneet Sharma and Mayank Saxena, who joined the farmers’ march. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

Banned was joined by Yalgaar - a collective of street theatre artistes - that sang verses by poet Yash Malviya, which begins on a determined note: "Dabhe pairon se ujaala aa raha hai/Phir kathaon ko khangala ja raha hai" (Walking quietly, the light is crawling in/ We are rethinking stories).

Members of protest street theatre group Yalgaar, who joined the Kisan Long March
Members of protest street theatre group Yalgaar, who joined the Kisan Long March. Pravin Mukta, Swati Uthale, Siddharth Baviskar and Dhammrakshit Randive. Pic/Nimesh Dave

With its emphasis on optimism, the poem was apt for the occasion. "The farmers' future seems uncertain. The government seems to be listening to them, but will it implement its assurances soon? Hence, we needed to boost their morale. We told them ki sheher ke log aapse pyaar karte hain aur aapke saath hain," says Saxena.

Saxena's views are echoed by others who came forward to give a voice to the protesting farmers, who were seeking the implementation of a slew of measures, including a complete waiver of loans, pensions, and recommendations by the MS Swaminathan Commission on minimum support price. Mumbai's artistes composed poems, created social media posters, made short videos, posted cartoons and memes on the farmers' distress.

The creative protest
Banned, which infuses Hindi verse with Western forms of music, was formed in October last year, with the support of Dhammrakshit Randive, 29, an Ambedkarite, who goes by the name Dhamma. Randive also co-founded Yalgaar in 2015. In the last few years, he has been part of protest rallies in the city, through street plays and songs in support of the late Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula (2016), and against the gang rape and murder of two girls in Badaun (2014).

View gallery - Mumbai: All you need to know about the Maharashtra farmers' protest

Randive, along with Yalgaar founder members Pravin Mukta, Siddharth Baviskar and Swati Uthale, treaded in the footsteps of the farmers. Yalgaar, which primarily performs in Marathi, evoked a composition by Pune-based Dalit activist and folksinger Sheetal Sathe on the issue of farmers' suicide in Maharashtra, titled Yeo Balich Raj. "There is something to be said about people singing, about hosla badhana, and keeping the protesters entertained," says Randive. "When kalakaars participate in a movement, they are not just motivating the protesters, but also themselves. We are able to find inspiration through the farmers' stories," he says.

Yalgaar comes in the rich tradition of resistance poetry and performance in Maharashtra, with notable names such as Namdeo Dhasal, Narayan Surve and Sambhaji Bhagat, who are part of this legacy. The genre is a vigorous voice for the Dalit communities, the downtrodden, and the marginalised rural poor, mainly adivasi communities, in Maharashtra. Ramu Ramanathan, playwright and director, from whom the city's stages received Cotton 56, Polyester 84, says that Mumbai has always been rooted in such a tradition of solidarity, especially through its student groups. "Be it [Lokmanya] Tilak's appropriation of Ganapati festivals to build up a cadre base for the Indian National Congress to plays about Home Rule or Ambedkari Jalsa when Dr [BR] Ambedkar worked here and spoke about untouchability, and the Kamgar Rangabhoomi outside factory gates, Mumbaikars have always been in the forefront," he says.

'Spur of the moment'
During the Kisan Long March, Ramanathan and his friends created snap video interviews and shot portraits of the farmers, along with details of the taluka and the crop they grew, in an attempt to put a face behind the numbers. "We used mobile phones, and it was all guerrilla. Nothing was planned," he says. He identifies three aspects to the spirit of the Kisan Long March. There was the farmers' own tradition of songs in their dialects; the second was the slogans and party chants called lalkaar; and, lastly, the ones by the urban artistes. "The average farmer at the march was elderly, and they were walking at a fairly brisk pace. This is like the Dandi March, not a morning walk in Juhu. The songs are meant to keep the march going, and going strong. It's about pumping in a bit of sugar," he says.

Theatre lighting designer Gurleen Judge and filmmaker Suhel Banerjee say that what was also worth noticing was the farmers' own musical traditions, on full display all through their journey. Judge says that the sound of their indigenous wind and percussion instruments was almost electronic, and just what was needed to keep up the rhythm. "People think that the farmers have been brainwashed and co-opted by the CPI (M). But, that is not the case. Why is the protest peaceful? Because the farmers know exactly what their demands are, and don't see any need to be violent," says Banerjee.

The filmmaker teamed up with his friend, Syed Amir Abbas Rizvi, a noted artist based out of Mumbai. Banerjee made sure a continuous stream of images reached Rizvi, who was at home, turning the images into social media posters and memes. Through the course of the night, Rizvi posted these on the social media pages of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a citizens group committed to defending constitutional rights.

A post that went viral, and that many of us will remember, showed two farmers holding hands under the yellow lights of Mumbai at 3.30 am, a photo clicked by Banerjee. Rizvi turned it into a poster that read, "Farmers walking silently so that Mumbai sleeps and our kids write their exams in the morning."

The photo, says Banerjee, was indicative of the solidarity among the farmers, who have patiently waited for years as both the monsoon and governments have failed them. "But, nothing was planned," says Rizvi. "It was all spur of the moment. We heard the farmers had arrived and we just quickly did what we could. Between Suhel's photos and my posts, there was only a 15-minute time gap, but we made sure there was enough for the social media masses when they woke up the next morning," he explains.

Red is a colour
Uttam Ghosh, 55, an artist-activist, who also contributed through posters, both on social media and on ground, says that the social media presence for the farmers was important, especially since mainstream media was relatively late in reporting on the subject. "The farmers marching down the bend at Kasara Ghat was a turning point," he says, referring to a video shot by Dr Ajit Navale, secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha.

Those who criticised the march as a Communist exercise have met with an argument through art. All the artistes we spoke to believe that it doesn't matter whether it's Communist red jhanda or Ambedkarite blue jhanda that we see, the farmers need all the support they can get. Their march is, at the end of the day, both exhausting and hopeful, and it is summed up in powerful human visual imagery – those of their feet.

Gautam Benegal, animation filmmaker and artist, says that the image of the farmers' blistered, sore feet, their wounds exposed to the elements is one that will become part of some of the most powerful documentarian images we have seen, be it from Bhopal during the gas tragedy or from Godhra's riots.

As Randive said, the kalakaar is moved. There are now poems, in Hindi, English and Marathi, that have been penned on the subject, such as filmmaker Soumitra Ranade's (on his Facebook account) piece that brings out details of the farmers he met on the march, and Ramanathan's Midnight Marching Song. "It is heart wrenching. You cannot, but feel moved as you see these farmers on their march. The movement has given a voice to those who are considered orphans," says Ramanathan.

Also read - Maharashtra farmers' protest in Mumbai: This is not the end, say 25,000 agitators

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