Gummadi Vittal Rao aka Gaddar, a Telugu folk singer legendary for his grassroots activist minstrelsy and a pain in the side of many governments for over a half-century, died on August 6, 2023. He was 77. He died with barely a threnody.
When veteran lyricist Abhilash died aged 74 in September 2020, it was to an eerie hush, with people having forgotten that he had written the lyrics of the unforgettable Itni shakti hamein dena data (Give us this strength, o God) for the film Ankush (1986)—a song translated into eight languages and sung in school assemblies across the vast Hindi heartland.
I can name a rack of other artists who died barely noticed in and by the media, and its common-citizens extension, social media: thespian Vishwa Mohan Badola; Neo-Expressionist Anjum Singh; Shanti Hiranand, the torchbearer of the Begum Akhtar gayaki; ceramicist Jyotsna Bhatt; Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan of the Dilli gharana; abstractionist K Damodaran; poet Malikzada Manzoor Ahmed; watercolorist of melancholia Lalitha Lajmi, filmmaker Guru Dutt’s sister; Mohiniyattam exponent Kanak Rele; and installation artist Hema Upadhyay.
These were national figures, some top-echelon awardees, with music and artworks that infiltrated the global art world’s critically brusque, nez haut salons.
And, yet, here in India, art and artistry have been relegated off-radar for the past decade—our screens filled with screaming politics, religio-politics, and the Machiavellianism of ‘development’.
There is, literally, zero coverage of the arts. The only artists who supposedly animate this country belong to the cinema—and their lives (and deaths) are held up as instructive, exemplary and inspirational. Radicality in aesthetics—the essence and hallmark of creativity anywhere in the world at any time—is happening here off-camera. If it is happening at all: I wouldn’t know, given the lack of information, and nor, I’d wager, would you.
Radicality in politico-aesthetics? What’s that, you might ask. And I would circle back to the beginning of this write-up—to Gaddar. He was a political artist, an inseparable amalgam of both adjectives. He represented lateral politics as it moved from subversive to moderation, from Manichaean to cooperative, from partisan to intersectional. Known as the ‘praja yuddha nouka’ (an appellation recognisable as ‘people’s warship’ in languages from Telugu to Bangla), Gaddar—pronounced expiratorily as ‘Ghadar’ after its inspiration, the early 20th-century anticolonial Ghadar Party—was a Naxalite who segued from Left extremism to an anti-casteist Left-Centrism over a turbulent four decades.
An outstanding balladeer, he was as much a part of village-hopping, police-dodging agitprop as he was of mainstream cinema. At least two of his songs won Telugu film awards sponsored by the Andhra Pradesh government. His choice of the ballad as his vehicle of protest was telling. The ballad goes back to the Middle Ages but was polished into its modern form in the late 15th century. Throughout its history, it has been utterly subaltern, disdained by sophisticated sonneteers and sung by so-called “pot-poets”—socially rough and aesthetically questionable.
In 1985, stalked by the authorities after he resigned from his job as a minor official in a chemical factory, Gaddar went underground for five years. A wild-haired jongleur, he roamed the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha—the infamous Red Corridor feared, and eventually antisepticised, by the State—spreading a revolutionary ideology that trickled its way to the higher educational institutions of the north and northwest. This is as I remember him from my student days. But, moving in stride with Left confrontationism becoming less implacable, he mediated—along with revolutionary writers-poets Varavara Rao and Kalyan Rao—between the Extreme Left People’s War group and the Andhra Pradesh government in 2004.
In 2017, he severed links with the Maoists altogether and declared himself an Ambedkarite. A committed anti-parliamentarian until then, he voted for the first time in 2018. A month after floating his Gaddar Praja Party in June 2023, he met Rahul Gandhi at a massive Congress rally, hugging him and kissing his cheeks. There was some talk about his joining the Congress, but it was cut short by his demise.
Through all this ideological reordering, not once did his lyrically radical and simple balladeering falter. A man of long-term idealism but shorter-term ideologies, he was, turn by turn, a Maoist, a Mandalite, an Ambedkarite, a Dalit, a Buddhist and, possibly, a liberal-centrist.
It is perhaps this complexity that so unnerves the present dispensation, the media, and the populace. To mention Gaddar, or to write a long obit of him, would mean having to deal with his entire anti-establishmentarian life. The establishment—just like every previous one—is traumatised by the faintest foreboding of criticism. This was what led, in 2015, to the arrests of three members of the Pune-based Kabir Kala Manch, a 21-year-old anti-establishment collective whose members refer to themselves as “cultural politicians”.
A song critical of PM Narendra Modi and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Rajya Rath Yatra led to the arrest in 2018 of Kovan (S Sivadas), a Leftist folk singer from Tamil Nadu and a functionary of the People’s Art and Literary Association. It was what had provoked police action on the studios that the Kashmiri street rapper MC Kash (Roushan Illahi) frequented after the release of his “anthem of dissent”, I Protest. According to him, in August 2016, the Bengaluru Police shut down his show, on the daily tribulations of Kashmiris, by cutting off the mic.
The effect of this unmollifiable statal animus towards art has been the creation of a wasteland—a desolation in which lies buried India’s creative soul.