When students from Jadavpur University and their allies in other colleges and universities in West Bengal protested in large numbers last year, against what they correctly interpreted as the University administration’s callous mishandling of a sexual harassment incident, they were honoring a rich tradition of students in Indian campuses utilizing their democratic rights to hold government-backed administrations accountable for abuses of power. However, there was one critical aspect of these protests that also imbued them with a very different meaning. This was encapsulated in the choice of the core slogan used by the protesters: “HokKolorob.” Exploring this peculiar choice gives us a glimpse into the changing nature of anti-establishment student politics in West Bengal, and perhaps in the rest of India.
Political protests have always been deeply embedded in everyday campus life in India. Part of the reason for this is, of course, something that was also peculiar to student politics in India: the integral links between students’ organizations and political parties. Those links, at least in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were extremely thick, and so, unsurprisingly, students could be easily mobilized, whether willingly or unwillingly, into anti-establishment politics especially by the left wing student groups. The hold of the organized Left on these groups, however, also implied that the vocabulary of political slogans and songs that were used in student protests were borrowed willy-nilly from people’s movements elsewhere in India. Looking back, anyone who had passed through Indian campuses during that time would recall Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) songs being played on election nights accompanied by a rhythmic, but monotonous, dafli, with students taking turns at the instrument. Pete Seeger’s songs were also perennial favorites and so was the early Dylan. It is instructive to note that around the same time, the likes of Suman Chattopadhyay and Pratul Mukhopadhyay, were shaking up campuses in West Bengal, providing a refreshing counterpoint to decades of hegemonic rule by the Left Front. Songs like “Haal cherona bondhu” or “Dinga Bhasao Saagore Saathire” were staples of the day.
In retrospect, there are two aspects of the protest music of that period that stand out. First, the lyrics, with varying degrees of nuance, carried a clear political message. The goal of this music was not to achieve aesthetic beauty, but to be an instrument for political change. Second, and in sync with the first point, the musical element in the compositions was pared down to the minimum. Nothing epitomized this more than the sight of Suman Chattopadhyay on stage. Shorn off any musical accompaniments, other than a classical guitar slung on his shoulder, a harmonica mounted over his face, and a keyboard in tow, Suman would engage in what is best described as a one-man political theater. It was clear to anyone watching carefully that the musical elements of the compositions he “enacted” were simply embellishments to propel the performance, not standouts on their own.
In an important piece, Sumangala Damodaran traces such performances to the “collective song” tradition within IPTA’s repertoire. This was the tradition, Damodaran argues, that was carried forward from the 1940s and 1960s, when a series of musical experiments were conducted under the fledgling IPTA banner, and gradually became hegemonic over time. What distinguished this tradition from the other traditions that fell by the wayside was its emphasis on the content of the music instead of the form and grammar that were considered to be superfluous to the political agenda.
None of this, propaganda or political theater, however, would have sufficed for Jadavpur. To understand why this is the case leads us to the realm of the sociological. There has been, to put it mildly, a sea change in the mode of political socialization of the generation that currently populates India’s colleges and university campuses compared to earlier generations. There are two main drivers of this new mode of socialization. First, the present generation has come of age, politically speaking, without a permanently mobilized Left to back them. They have witnessed, first hand, how the Left Front degenerated into a rump political force. They have also witnessed, first hand, how the political party that promised to bring “poriborton” is reproducing the moribund political institutions of the ancien regime in a new garb. Simply put, unlike previous generations, the current one cannot rely on a readily available party-political framework to frame its political subjectivity. Second, as clichéd as it may sound, the present generation is truly the first post-independence generation to be schooled by social media. What this effectively means is that their political selves have been forged, not within the ambit of ideological certitudes, but in that extraordinary mélange of, sometimes very contrary, ideas and influences, which is the global public sphere.
Lest it seem as if these observations are merely caricatures of a small segment of the youth of West Bengal, and unrepresentative of the youth of West Bengal as a whole, the reader would do well to refer to the pioneering surveys conducted by scholars at the Center for the Study of Social Sciences in Kolkata, which demonstrate clearly that a very similar impulse, albeit with important differences, is at work in shaping the political outlook of the rural youth of West Bengal. In interview after interview, young men and women, asserted their desire to move out of agriculture, to become something other than the “subjects” of anti-poverty programs, and to be embedded in the same global networks of citizenship that were so easily accessible to their urban counterparts.
But, what do these momentous developments add up to, in a conceptual sense? In many ways, they amount to a wholesale repudiation of the party-political framework as the central mode of conducting politics in India’s campuses. They reflect a newfound confidence among university and college students to take up political agendas without the stewardship of the organized left. At another level, and perhaps more importantly, it also signals the rise of what can best be described as politics in the defense of global humanity. As rhetorical as it may sound, the idea of a basic irreducible core of humanness under threat has the ability, through social media, to draw hundreds and thousands into progressive movements and with astounding rapidity in ways that the programmatic slogans of the old left could not. However, this hyper-mobilizing collective can dissipate at the same speed at which it was conjured in the first place. Hence, the student activist who works with this material must appeal to an aesthetic that has the capacity to hold the attention of this shifting multitude long enough, just long enough, to forge a new political equilibrium.
This is where “HokKolorob” becomes relevant. The phrase is the title of a song composed by the Bangladeshi artist, Sayan Chowdhury Arnob (also popularly known as Arnob). The song is penned by another Bangladeshi, the poet, Rajib Haidar. Herein is the first remarkable aspect of the song. Indian cultural products arouse a great deal of anxiety in Bangladesh, and rightly so. But, this was a case of reverse diffusion. The youth of Bangladesh have been experiencing their own upheavals related to that great conflict, which besets that country, namely, the battle between secular and political Islam. The song was conceived in that environment and then made its way to India.
Moving on to the lyrics of the song, the first four lines go thus: “Hok kolorob phulgulo sob/Laal na hoye neel holo ken/Asombobhe kokhon kobe/ Megher saathe mil holo ken.” One would be hard pressed to find anything explicitly political here. Literally, the lines translate as follows: “Let there be noise/ Why were all the flowers blue and not red? / At what time and what day and so implausibly/ Did they catch the hue of the clouds?” Indeed, when Arnob was recently asked in an interview why the song appealed to the Jadavpur protesters, his response was of someone who was genuinely bewildered at this development. He said that he had initially been taken aback that the students had adopted the song to voice their dissent, but over time, he had concluded that it was the combined effect of the Sukumar Ray-esque innocence that came through in the writing and the playful manner in which the composition emphasized the word “ken” (why).
The preceding discussion has already slipped to the next, and, in my view, the most striking aspect of the song: its compositional brilliance. In Arnob’s own words, his compositions are marked by a sense of matrabodh(balance). He attributes this to his training as a visual arts student at Shantiniketan, where he lived for seventeen years. Nowhere is this sense of balance more evident than in “HokKolorob.”The song is all of three minutes long. The instrument that holds it together is the electric piano. What is remarkable is the trapeze act that the instrument performs in those three minutes. It begins by providing a signature pop introduction – readers who are familiar with REM’s “Nightswimming” would instantly recognize this– allowing the lyrics to settle in, then segues into a middle part where it holds the rhythm section together, conjuring amazing twists and turns along the way, before regaining its original shape, and then remarkably, signing off with a jazz-funk-laced coda. As if this were not enough, a panoply of instruments – the usual staple listeners have come to expect from Arnob, the electric guitar, the violin, the flute– keep flitting in and out of the composition, each adding its own layer of improvisational complexity. But in the midst of this all, Arnob’s voice stays firm and keeps dramatizing the simple contrasts at the heart of the lyrics, “Laal nahoye neel, Taal na hoye teel…
Can any two states of mind be more opposed than innocence and balance? Yet, that is precisely the mindscape in which the current generation of student activists operate.Is it any wonder then, that when push came to shove last September, they shouted “HokKolorob”?
In conclusion, it is worth returning to Damodaran and her discussion of the musical experiments under the banner of IPTA that faded away under the relentless march of the collective song aesthetic. Amidst these ruins, Damodaran notes compositions by the Kerala People’s Arts Club and the early Salil Chowdhury. Marking the disappearance of these compositions from the left cultural movement as an “unfortunate development,” she observes how “these songs were not directly mobilizational and had an evocative quality that played on the emotions of the audience.” This quality, in turn, emanated from the conscious experimentation that was done with the form and grammar of protest music. The KPAC, for example, introduced greater melodic content into Malayalam folks songs because“it was felt that the Malayalam folk tradition consisted of forms that were monotonous and repetitive and that a message to change the world needed to be packaged within a new, more appealing aesthetic.” In as much as it signifies the decline of the programmatic left in student politics in India, “HokKolorob” also represents the revival of a more vibrant and democratic cultural left.
Sumangala Damodaran, “Protest through music,” Seminar, 2008, 588. [http://www.india-seminar.com/2008/588/588_sumangala_damdaran.htm]