Are we surprised that in a democracy like India, the Internet is suddenly being treated as an irresponsible medium of communication by the powers that rule us? Politics for the most part has been protected from stirrings of public dissent in India. But suddenly, you can see dissent, hear it and share it. Any tool of communication that changes minds, alters perceptions, provokes reactions, internal as well as external, is dangerous to those who do not want any dissent. Art, cinema, literature and music are potentially dangerous too because they carry within them many mini revolutions of ideas and thoughts.
Recently a 24-year-old cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, was jailed and charged with sedition. This is not the first time a creative opinion has been considered dangerous in India. Painter MF Husain was banished over a few paintings that supposedly hurt religious sentiments. Salman Rushdie could not attend this year’s Jaipur literary festival beacuse of protests from Muslim groups who called for him to be banned from the country. This in a country where it is safe to commit crimes against women and justify them in the name of culture and where corruption is accepted as an everyday reality.
Artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers are treated as oddballs and rabble-rousers by insecure regimes. Music has been for a long time widely used as a tool of protest. In India, progressive poets like Sahir Ludhiyanvi wrote searing protest anthems that critiqued the masters of our country for corruption, poverty and many social disparities. In pre-independence India, music and poetry were an intrinsic part of mass protest and today many young bands in North-Eastern states and elsewhere are using music to articulate personal and political angst.
Pakistani band Junoon often sang of rebellion and the pain of being young and fearless in an intolerant regime in the ’90s. It struck a chord with the youth and the band grew extremely popular in India but for many reasons, like lack of creative freedom, the band broke up. Recently a punk band, Pussy Riot, with strong anti-Putin views was jailed in Russia for two years.
One of the most powerful voices of protest in the world however belongs to one Bob Dylan who has inspired musicians across generations and nationalities to be politically aware and express their opinions fearlessly against the powers-that-be. In a country that is supposedly the only superpower in the world, he sang, “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
We will never really know if the time Bob Dylan was becoming a musician in, defined him or whether he defined it through his songs. Fact is, he became the TS Eliot of our cultural, social and political wastelands. He was someone who could ask questions few musicians before or since have bothered to ask. Questions like, “how many years can a mountain exist, before it is forced to the sea... How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?”
What Dylan really showed us with his most thought provoking work is that it is possible to strum collective consciousness and not just a guitar. He was not a blatant cause hugger, an opportunistic counter culture icon but someone caught in the cusp of a momentous time in history and what he did was not sit on a fence but speak eloquently, powerfully and sometimes bitterly about the stupidity of war, nuclear stockpiles and the arms race. Most culture critics have traced the musical influences that shaped Dylan but it is hard to really measure the way Dylan has influenced not just music but the way we think about politics, musicians and the limits of popular music and if there are any. Limits, that is. We need many more like him to fight oppression with guitars, with poetry and an opinion that cannot be ignored.
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)