Culture, logos, identities and politics – close alliances

A Column: Created Assignment

Madhusree Chatterjee                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Hille le Hille Le ….. Hile zamana, hile duniya…. The call for political and social change resonated across the verdant hills of Jharkhand during the recent Assembly election in the terrain – straddling the ancient highlands of Chhotanagpur plateau – home to at least 350 tribes, sub-tribes and caste groups.

The snatches of the lyrics from a popular Bihari poem, “Hille Le”– by revolutionary poet Gorakh Pandey –set to melody by a popular Indian rock-pop ensemble Indian Ocean was the anthem for a political campaign by the Left parties in the state, rallying for transformation at the grassroots where the chasm between the “empowered and the marginalised” responds to the strains of popular folk culture.

The association is instant – and acknowledgement of the issues on the ground follows quickly in the wake. The Left Parties, which have not been able to grab toehold in a state, controlled by right wing politics in the cities and ultra-left Maoist insurgency in the villages, harked back to culture as a device to reach out to voters in the election to canvass for th determination of ethnic identity of large chunks of the tribal population to “distinguish between the original inhabitants of the land and the settlers”- the dilemma over the domicile status of the people in the state.

The CPI-M (Communist Party of India- Marxist) requisitioned a local theatre troupe- Birsa Kala Kendra- named after an ethnic hero Birsa Munda, who fought the colonial British masters in the region in the 19th century “Santhal Uprising” and fell to the British as a martyr – to stage “nukkad plays” (street plays) in the remote pockets of the state to spread the word of change.

The troupe led by a young actor Deepak Lohar, a graduate of the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi, presented to the voters – mostly young people- a medley of folk song-dance plays modelled on popular Hindi movies from Bollywood to speak of social ills that beset the tribal societies of Chhotanagpur. Alcoholism, gender atrocity, exploitation of farm labourers, lack of healthcare, denial of education, hunger, poor irrigation, resistance to insurgency, superstition, rural migration… – the actors teased every itch with songs and a skit. “This is the only way we can reach out to these people. They understand music, dance and commercial cinema,” Lohar pointed out at the end of a 10-minute performance in the middle of a dusty scrubland – outside the the state capital Ranchi.

Lohar, who ekes his meals as a culture activist in the region, believes in the power of performance as social consciousness. “I had to return to my native terrain to preach change and empower young people with the skills, I have acquired at the National School of Drama in New Delhi,” the actor said. He teaches theatre to tribal boys and girls in Hatia in the outskirts of Ranchi – and uses his vocation as a tool of meaningful social intervention.

In societies as primitive as those which flourish in the hills of Chhotanagpur, education relies on audio-visual aids. “The people, who have been born and bred to the laws of the jungles, associate with images and the spoken word. They would rather hear than read, see than write. Culture is an effective medium to establish intellectual intercourse with such societies,” a local poll analyst explained. Almost all political parties – including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the regional Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and its factions – leashed the power of Bollywood (Mumbai cinema) and traditional folk music to canvas for the election. The most popular medium was music – a strange mish-mash of songs in ethnic languages scored on Bollywood hits to carry election manifestos across the state.

Since the opening of the Hindi language as primary communication in the region, Bollywood cinema has become the lifeline of entertainment in the state – together with folk music and dance. Transposing the local parlance into the national matrix of popular perceptions to drive home vital messages of realpolitik to micro-groups in the country’s hinterland is the new communication dynamics of political parties in India, who cannot afford to risk their vote bases in the states. The democratic backbone of India’s electoral politics rests outside the nation’s political pulse in New Delhi – the nearly 99 per cent population of the country that live outside the portals of the capital city craft the democratic structure of the nation’s polity. This 99 per cent which is the bulk of the nation’s 200 plus million middle class – made up of professionals, businessmen, agrarian communities, manual craftspeople, bullock capitalists, marginalised groups – seek popular cultures as a resourse to ease their existential blues after a hard day’s work. The easiest means to forge bondings at various socio-political levels with this franchise is with culture.

If the recent election in Jharkhand is a case study of the umbilical links between culture and political consciousness – in the campaigns, graffiti, party logos – a visual imagery that ethnic communities associate with more than the personas representing the symbols, according to sociologists in the region- then neighbouring Bihar and Chhattisgarh pull in equal cultural-political synergy. The former is known for Bhojpuri election ditties – in fact in the last few years the parties led by Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav have respectively hired movie stars to talk politics to people. Chhattisgarh uses its rich folk musical and performance oeuvres like Pandavani and Nacha – to sing political manifestos in the tribal majority districts. In states like Assam, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Karnataka, mobile theatres, “nataks” and “jatras” as political mouthpieces are a big crowd-puller. A walk down the history lanes reveals the blood relationship between theatre, music and politics in West Bengal since the 1960s, when the anguish of the Vietnam War echoed in the theatre colonies of Calcutta followed by the rise of Naxalism. The stage turned the red with the fervour of the blood that flowed in the name of the radical Left wing revolution for a “new dispensation” at the Writer’s Building. The next three and a half decades witnessed a quasi-Left control over the greater Bengali popular culture – on the stage, music and even in movies. The current Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in Calcutta outs up a feeble attempt to cling on to the political stranglehold over culture.

A look at the larger canvas of the indelible political-cultural resonance offers interesting insights – a change of dispensation at the centre bears down on the country’s cultural manifestos. When the Congress was at the helm of the country’s political apparatus, culture was of a relaxed secular shade that made room for divergent sensibilities, faiths and allied forms to find a niche on the centrestage- showing a marked Socialist tilt in its progressive manifestation, a legacy of the Nehruvian model of cultural pluralism. But under a right wing government – as it is now and had been earlier – culture has been codified in stricter modes to project a pan-Hindu image.

The notions of popular culture in India had been fashioned by political movement in the last 150 years – beginning with the struggle for independence, the progressive India People’s Theatre Association’s movement for a more secular vernacular in the 1950s and the experimental mode it entered into with the arrival of television and computers – and paadoxically rigidity with polarised politics. Culture in this nation of politically aware citizens operates in synchronicity with political cycles.

The roots of the cultural movements and its visceral ties with politics can be traced back to the medieval history or even the Vedas, when performances, dance, music, arts and even cuisine – a key component of the cultural evolution- were patronised by the royalty and empowered classes to command Loyalty and supremacy. Religion, as it is now under a right wing government in the country, then flowed like a common crafting chisel across the cultural, social, political and economic mosaic.

The world over, culture shares similar histories with the Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians and the Indus Valley-the great civilisations of the early history flourishing on the strengths of their cultures, wars, struggle for power politics, acquisitions and subversions. The early faiths like Christinaity and Islam used culture to spread the gospel of their divinities – the first foundation of politics in the evolving community states. Disparate events were rolled into one – culture was seen as a way of life.

Changes in the interpretations of culture over the epochs have been cosmetic – the underlying theme remains the same. Where there is politics, there is culture.

Contact: Madhusree Chatterjee at


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