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From Insurrections to Transgressions: Making Sense of Word and Sound across the Indian Ocean

This webinar was organized by "Solidarity across distances", an initiative by the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.

The recording of the webinar can be heard here:

SR:  Welcome to the ‘Solidarity Across Distances’ event. Thank you for joining us today. For those of you who are joining us for the first time ‘Solidarity Across Distances’ is a forum in which we bring people together in solidarity and resistance. Before I hand it over to Professor Ashok Prasad who will introduce our guests, I’d like to bring up something that is weighing heavy on our mind. The issue of ‘Black Lives Matter’ continues to stir our society in the U.S. We stand with unwavering support for the Black community. We stand with everyone fighting for justice and change. When songs are played or poetry is recited especially during dark times, their messages come across clearly and our rapport is immediately established. It is the music of the people, the oppressed and the sounds of change that animate us.

Ramy Essam, the Egyptian musician, best known for his appearances in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution of 2011; said- “Songs can travel the planet in no time. We will not find people repeating speeches but we can guarantee that there might be millions of people at the same time singing the same song. Music is a language we all can understand. We look forward to today’s music and poetry collaboration between India and South Africa. With that once again, I welcome you all. Ashok, over to you.

AP:  Thank you, Shailaja. It’s a real honour to be introducing our three guests today. So, my name is Ashok Prasad. I am associated with ‘Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia’. The three people I’m talking to today who I’m going to introduce, we could spend a lot of time talking about their accomplishments and what they’ve done. So I'm just going to keep it brief because I know everyone is waiting to hear from them.

Sumangala Damodaran is a professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, so she’s a real polymath. She is an amazing singer and composer. Some of you may know her archiving and documentation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) has resulted in a book titled ‘The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of IPTA’. She’s been a part of, and she is one of the people along with Ari who started this ‘Insurrections’ Ensemble, which we will hear about today.

Sazi Dlamini teaches music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is a musicologist, bandleader and guitarist in jazz traditions steeped in South African styles. He has composed music for documentary television, theatre and film, big –band jazz and numerous original pieces employing self-made indigenous musical instruments steeped in African traditions.

Ari Sitas is a South African sociologist, poet, dramatist and activist. He is currently a professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He was a major figure in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and has been described as a vital force in South Africa’s cultural life.

So without further ado, Sumangala please take it away.

SD: Thank you Ashok, and thank you to this group for asking us to talk about the collaboration between Indian and South African musicians and poets which we called the “Insurrections Ensemble”. For us, it is also an opportunity to not just talk about the ensemble and what we have done, but also to perhaps have a way to reflect on a lot of the issues that we have been trying to respond to through music and poetry for almost a decade now.

So I think we’ll just briefly spend a couple of minutes each saying where we came from and what brought this collaboration together. As Ashok said, I am basically an academic but I’ve also been a cultural activist for more than thirty years in Delhi. I was part of the protest-song movement, I have also worked with Safdar Hashmi and Habib Tanvir and various other people in the Theatre Movement. But from about 2007 onwards, I started archiving the music of the Indian People’s Theatre Association of the 1940s and 50s. Since then, I have also been trying to make sense of a historical archive which was created in the context of a worldwide movement to produce ‘People’s Music’. As a part of that, I have interpreted the music, and performed the music of the 40s and 50s quite a lot.

It was in that period that I happened to come in contact with Ari Sitas when he was visiting JNU in 2008 and we started having a conversation about words and sound. It was also a time when a lot of things had already happened in India particularly in the post-emergency phase where artists, musicians and poets were actually beginning to make sense of what was happening in the country, and also raising questions of nationalism, internationalism and whether the nationalism and internationalism could go together, were they were at loggerheads with each other and so on. There were big communal conflagrations that had happened in different parts of India. Neo-liberalism had really laid out its challenges and seriously affecting the lives of people… and the Dalit movement was seeing a major resurgence. So, in this context, when I met Ari in 2008, we got talking about the issues that were animating artists in the two countries. And also about the music itself…music and poetry. One question we were asking each other was whether it was possible for us to think of the relationship between word and sound across the Indian Ocean which doesn’t need to be negotiated through the West. So. I’ll hand over to Ari now to take over from there.



AS: Those couple of months in Delhi were fundamental.  I have always struggled in my poetry and the performance genres I was involved in… with two Arcs of the Blues or Arcs of emotive discontent. One was very much in evidence in a lot of musical traditions in India like the Bhairav, or the Heer. The other was coming from African American creativity- John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman,from the audacious jazz of the early sixties; and those arcs were meeting in Africa, in Mali, in South Africa. And when I listened carefully to what was being sung, what was being played in and around Delhi during that time, I thought, it must be possible to pull something off. Perhaps I’m not the best pair of ears to understand whether co-composing might be possible, but co-writing was. But not just co-writing, but co-writing about issues that really affect people. I thought- why not try it? Why not create the context through which this might become possible? Not just words, not just discussions, not just seminar rooms, not just wouldn’t it be a nice idea spending weeks and weeks chatting about it. Let’s do it. And I thought, oh ah, I think I know of somebody who can help here. Somebody like Sazi Dlamini, who has worked extensively with the Jazz avant-garde and with the deepest historical traditions in KwaZulu-Natal. He was negotiating those spaces and has just written a thesis on the “triple consciousness”, and not the “double consciousness” that has been articulated beautifully by African- American scholars. The fact that traditions still survived colonialism in Southern Africa and that their bows and the musical instruments were still alive, the fact that indigenous languages were flourishing once again- so I thought, okay- Hi, Sazi is it possible? So then after speaking to Sumangala, I contacted Sazi and said we’ve been listening to all these sounds in India; is it possible to move a step further and do something about it. That is where Sazi and I started talking. We had met before in the days of my deep  involvement with the labour movement, he was teaching grassroots activists about musical traditions and instruments and I thought- well let’s risk everything, let’s do it. And that’s where I said Sazi – “Hi, Welcome!” Sazi. (chuckles)



SaDl: Thank you! Thank you for the invitation, and thank you, Ari, for clarifying that you’ve been planning all this before I knew anything about it. Anyway, Ari saved me a lot of background by exactly pointing to where I come in. Perhaps for me to say why I sensed I was ready for this really advanced kind of collaboration- I suppose being born in KwaZulu-Natal, steeped in South African cultures and traditions, and having the political burden to have to think through cultural relationships that permeate society, I thought...why not, let's do it. I’ve grown to seek ways to communicate a certain basic humanity through my art so I felt ready. By the way I started as a student of science going to medical school, really without any idea, then slipped into engineering; without having any idea how these relate in broad terms to being human. Without doubt, I failed in all of these and resorted to music- something that has been a part of my family and something that I felt was kind of deep in the way that was related to myself and I could communicate these sentiments. Maybe to say about the triple consciousness, as Ari says; I felt that there was some way that my place as an African and Black in modernity’s entanglement was not wrecked by colonialism or apartheid, my relationship to culture or land  was not separated from my roots that much, and possibly I had all those sounds and traditions as resources to face modernity in my/our own terms. I must say I am really proud to be part of this gathering. I’ve been rewarded in many ways being in Insurrections and hopefully I can share what I have gained in being part of this Ensemble.



SD: So one of the things we did discuss right from the beginning was that this is not about fusion. This is about co-composition. What would that mean in terms of our ability not just to perform because the people that we were putting together were amazing performers anyway, and two musicians together could adlib and improvise forever. Fusion is not such a difficult thing to do. But the question was could we ‘compose’ together? Could we co-compose across languages, across idioms, across different kinds of instrumentation traditions, against and across all the kinds of experiences that we ourselves had had as poets and as musicians? That was how it began, so it was a tough call to begin with. So Ari, can I ask you to just take us quickly through the five incarnations and what has been the basic objective of each of the productions that we had done.


AS: Oh my! What have I done wrong?! (chuckles) At first what we realized as poets and as lyricists; was that nature was in ‘insurrection’ all around us. People who were working closely in and with nature were beginning to register a disquiet in new ways. People on the land, in the mines were disgruntled, we witnessed a lot of resistance, a lot of new argument, a lot of responses to climate change and its crises. All this started us putting lines together about this general feeling of disquiet and about the murmurings of resistance in the early 2010s. Serious violence would erupt a few years later. So, the first work was produced in 2012. From there on we moved with the wonderful people we had started herding towards a second incarnation, THE GATHERING which was much more concerned with womanist themes, with gender politics and the politics of displacement, migration, refugeedom and flight.  That was performed for the first time in 2014 in Cape Town at the Homecoming Centre in District Six.  Then as the ‘Rhodes and Fees Must Fall’ movement was on the rise, as all these challenges to racial authority were beginning to reassert themselves since the collapse of the apartheid era we thought lets’ go for the jugular; let’s try and reinterpret in a loose way Aime Cesaire’s anti-colonial version of ‘The Tempest’ which we called ‘The Storming’ we worked  on a range of energies  with drama-tinged lyrics and by now through more extended musical movements of the Yaman, of  the Bhairavi, of Maskandi to try and weave this defiant story. Then in 2018 we stepped onto issues of possession, slavery, ownership. Our work became more historical.  Finally, we tackled our Transgressions project, or now Isisivane as we re-baptised it,  which dealt with breathing actually, before all this ferment around the poignant notion that we can’t breathe anymore arrived in everyday language. It was about death, about the price of  life and about a sense of let’s call it a “secular” take on the spiritual that has been confronting us all. So we went through these five stages in terms of the work.

Although Insurrections has involved more than two dozens of creative people there is a core that drives it. Sumangala’s voice, Pritam Ghosal on sarod and Ahsan Ali on sarangi; Sazi here with everything under the sun that can make a noise, Reza Khota on guitar, Brydon Bolton on a double-bass, Tina Schouw voice and the late new musc composer Jurgen Brauninger on electronica. We expect Tlale Makhene, on percussion and Lungiswa Platjies voice and the uhadi to remain with the Endemble. Each one is a leader in other Ensembles and bands.


SD: Yes, that’s a very quick summary. Sazi do you want to come in a little bit here or I thought maybe what I can do now is to play a little bit of music from each of these productions and then we could speak about it a little bit more. Is that okay?


SaDl: It’s fine, yes.



SD: So, I am going to play two tracks first. They are from our first album which is called ‘Insurrections’. The first track is very small, just to give you a sense. We have been working with classical musicians on both sides, as well as people who have been working with all kinds of indigenous traditions; not to make an artificial separation between the two. So the first track that I am going to play features Pritam Ghosal on the sarod, he is one of the upcoming maestros of the instrument in India. So that’s the first track and the second one is a track called ‘Mourning the Insurrection’ in which Sazi plays a very major role.

What Shall We Do Now (CD1)_01



SD: Just as a brief introduction to this piece, this was actually the introduction to a Faiz Ahmad Faiz poem, which says “What should we do now?”- Ab Tum Ki Kaho Kya Karna Hain. That was the introductory track to that album. And now we will be listening to “Mourning the Insurrection’.

Mourning The Insurrection (CD1)


SD:  So, the next one that I am going to play is called ‘Malibongwe’. This is from our second album ‘Mayihlome/Aahwaan - The Gathering’. This is a song that was a combination of two things- the first, Amrita Pritam wrote this Heer at the time of Partition asking Waris Shah to rise from the grave and to mourn the women who have been violated during the partition’s violence. That is a song composed as a Heer and slides into an African women’s song. I start the piece and Mbali Vilakazi takes it across the Ocean with Sazi leading its swing.




SD: All right. Ari, would you like to say a little bit about ‘Storming’ and about the characterization of race and slaves, the slave being women, and so on?


AS:  We started drafting the words : poets like Malika Ndlovu, Vivek Narayanan, and Sabitha Satchi and I were at it. Mbali Vilakazi joined the process too.  We started shaping it together reading  it as a story o Calibana and Ariela, reversing a lot of the imagery that was very much there both in Shakespeare and in Cesaire. There was a lot of  string work around the Sarangi, the Sarod, the Guitars, the Bows, the African Bows; and a lot of homemade wind instruments between the two continents. We tried to move through big stretches of compositional unity and expression. It was performed in Cape Town and it went on to win a National Award for composition and musical arrangement in South Africa. So that allowed us to exist thereafter for a couple of years. It was a more difficult work for us because it is not just a composer sitting down and us writing. It is communicating across vast seas and waves and breakers and trying to arrive at a common musical language. We did it in five poetic languages.  A lot of work happened in Delhi, and a lot of work then finally happened in Cape Town during three days of sheer madness. So I thought this one would kill us, but it didn’t. It made us in a sense stronger and more confident. I don’t know, what else can I say about it. I was very challenging. 

SaDl: It is to comment that the challenges that Ari is pointing out are felt very much on the musical, compositional side as well. It is the pressure to make coherent sounds that speak across musical idioms and still convey a certain unity in sensibility that they can be perceived as relating first to the themes and also musically to make sense. And that takes  a lot of courage from musicians who are very very special people. In this case, I am pleased to work with some of the most accomplished musicians ever; just the humility of being able to work across the idioms, poetry and different musical orientations to come out with a, what I think is a very coherent sounding work which conveys different stories.

SD: Yes. Shailaja, can I request you to play the track which says ‘Storm’. This is a piece from ‘The Storming’

Whilst You Were Sleeping (CD3)_01



SD: I think I’ll play just one more track and then we will move on. This is from our last production. This track is on breathing.  Ari, can I request you to say a little bit about this, also because it speaks to the times so much, about not being able to ‘breathe’


AS: Well, we were just listening to the voice of Tina Schouw and the guitar of Reza Khota on top of the Sarangi and the orchestration. There, we’ve been through a series of very devastating deaths, the passing away of the people we knew, but also people who were entrusted to communities to be looked after because they were mentally challenged and otherwise abled, and we found that more than hundred and forty of them were left to die in starvation. And mixed up with these feelings of despair about what is the meaning of life at the moment if we can’t trust our communities anymore, and we started working on a composition around ‘breathing’ and around the varieties of breathing that gives life and the beginnings of sound, the beginnings of music, the intervals between breaths, poetry itself, the gap between all kinds of vowels and consonants and brought together both new music type of techniques, together with ancient Nguni forms of singing, trying to communicate this. I hope it comes through. 


The next piece is called uMoya, dedicated to the memory of our friend, co-founder, Jurgen Brauninger. After that we have Esidimeni, which is a response to the horrifying deaths of the mentally challenged people in their place of supposed care.

Requiem uMoya (CD5)_01
Esidimeni (CD5)_01



SD: Maybe we can now move on from Insurrections and our productions to come to the stuff that we have been doing in more recent times. Again Ari, can I ask you to begin? 


AS:  I think what became obvious in our ability to communicate especially among musicians across the ocean was that there had to be a movement of people and sounds in the pre-colonial period that traversed the continents. The similarities between the Bhairav and the Flamenco have been noted, but also the Musics of Eastern Africa and central and southern Africa started becoming obvious, whether one was using the pentatonic or the heptatonic scales…something must have happened. And we started this exploration of trying to understand what happened during the period before European foraging. We started finding through historiography and archaeology, through medievalists, through musicologists, through organologists, the fact that most of the creativity was in the hands of women who were slaves, not slaves as we understand them in the transatlantic period, but slave women from all over the known world and especially from Africa. They constituted various musical schools in AfroAsia and in Andalusia. So, we basically started deep research underpinning what made the Insurrections music possible. And that became a big project that involved Sazi, and seven universities, and involves very creative people from music and historians, and a lot of students running around ad trying to make sense of this world. Isn’t that basically foundational, and hopefully by the end of this year, we'll be presenting some of that music to the public. That’s what I wanted to emphasize. 

SD: I’ll come in here. Well, I’ve also been one of the people who has been involved in this recreation of the pre-colonial Afro-Asian imaginary, if one may say so. But apart from that, for those in India and South Asia, in general, these have been some of the most terrible times that we have been through in recent history. So as far as music and poetry are concerned, these are very extreme and creative times. The past few years have been very productive in terms of the kinds of music and poetry that have come up all over India for example. But at the same time, we have been through some terribly depressing times and it is getting worse. In the COVID world, things have in some sense become much much worse, whether it’s repression, whether it’s starvation, whether it is curbing of all kinds of freedoms. So, there are all kinds of initiatives that have started, but with the fear that anything can be shut down at any point of time and people can be arrested. So what I’d like to call this is Music in the Dark Times. So that is something that I have been involved in, and as far as I am concerned, that does not stand separate from this attempt to think of an AfroAsia before colonialism. In my own mind, musically they are not separate projects. Sazi, would you like to talk about yourself and what you have been doing?

SaDl: Yes. Especially the ways that this kind of formation and its repercussions have played and extended my own instincts and hunches. And also through this, coming across the facts and histories that point to a lot more significance for music than the ways that are perhaps now being questioned by things like COVID, and how music in its normal practice so much is intertwined with power structures. I’m referring to ways that musical exchanges seem to have taken place between, for example, India and Africa, whereby it’s been much more emphasized as a spiritual fact and having much more significance- not in the ways of exchange, of material trade and the world of cash but to heal, music as healing and ritual; through this the basic concepts of pan-African spirituality such as Ngoma have found their way to the sub-continent of India. The practitioners there have had so much impact on the re-unified perception of religions. For example, I have come across the saints in India in my work who are Abyssinian, but who on finding themselves in India through the slave trade became venerated as healers, and today are still worshipped at shrines to their names. They are being recognized by various religions-  Hindu, Zoroastrians, Sikh, they congregate around this shrine of healing, and how this core African spirituality has circulated in a way coming back to Africa via slave routes during the Dutch East India Company. They found themselves in the South of the Cape where they have inspired some forms of growing consciousness among some of the most alienated diasporas in Africa. And for me, this is very inspirational, especially in a sense where indigenous religions in Africa have been displaced so much by colonialism and other religions that have kind of dominated the grounding “humanitude” that is inherent in the concepts of Ngoma. So, I'm really inspired in tracing these musically and spiritually. There is a potential to really grounding way of being human that stretch across these histories and exercises in creative power.

Track from Mapungubwe_01



SD: Okay, I think we’ve spoken a lot. Just perhaps as the last thing to say, I think we have been very lucky.  We’ve worked with some absolutely amazing artists and poets over these years. We’ve had fantastic musicians, great instruments- the Sarod, the Sarangi, different kinds of guitar, the double bass, many kinds of bows played by Sazi primarily and others as well; flutes, percussion, voices, many poets, several languages, both from India as well as South Africa. So, for us, it has been a great experience.

The next piece is a composition by the sarangi maestro Ahsan Ali, based on an Indian raga, Charukeshi

Charukeshi (CD5)_01



AS: One of the things we need emphasize- what we learnt is humility and the craft of listening- listening to each other, and not showing off, and also through our work trying to imagine whether a secular internationalism of the imagination can be possible, however much deeply spiritual many of us might be. And also trying to respond to the contemporary. So that basically for me would have been the lessons. Because everyone involved In Insurrections  has got her or his  own projects, their own music ensembles, so yeah, it has been rewarding.


The last two pieces that we will play are from our album Threads of Sorrow, which we performed in India in the end of 2018.

Who Are We (CD4)_02



SD: Sazi?

SaDl: I would echo the same lessons as Ari, especially those of humility and also in being able to identify with the struggles that are pretty much the same across vast spaces and histories, especially struggles of women and struggles of class and power that are pretty much  common, and can be addressed with resonant voices across vast spaces. For me this is inspirational. And in music as well; I have been inspired in finding in classicisms that inform Indian music over a long period elemental characteristics of canon, and intonations that are so much like common forms of African music. For me that has been the most fascinating, you know; the scales, the intervals, the dances, the rhythms, for me these are the most binding aspects that can be pursued with  pleasure and conviction.

The Journey (CD4)_01



SD: Sazi?


SD: Yes. That is it, thank you. I think we’ve said a lot. Maybe we can have a discussion now.

SR: We have our first questions which I will read out to you guys. And I believe anyone can answer this among you three.

“You’ve said nothing about the joyfulness and upbeat-ness of much of the music. Often at the end of a number, there is an incredible moment of upliftment that comes from the ensemble work. So, if you could speak about that.”

SD: (chuckles) Ari?

AS: No, no you. (chuckles)

SD: Well, I agree with the question in the sense that yes, through all of this, through listening to each other very carefully, to probably trying to think through issues which are difficult issues to contend with, at most times what has made it possible is that while listening to each other we’ve also been able to share joy. So, what makes us musicians or poets or whatever else we do in our own lives also gives us a great amount of joy. That I think does come across hopefully and audiences have very often told us that there is a great amount of jubilation and joy that comes through the ensemble’s work. But for that, you know people have to listen to the music and agree with that hopefully.



SaDl: Certainly, I would agree with Sumangala in saying that joy is certainly part of the strongest emotions, and maybe as musicians we take it for granted that music is done for celebration. And also maybe in sensing that it is very challenging to find a common reference for the heightened forms of feeling between people. But I am heartened to hear that audiences do pick up such celebratory moments. Of course, I’d say for myself that the most underlying thing about this is not just “celebration”. We are celebrating defiance, we are celebrating convergences, celebrating what is common about these challenges. 

Relah (CD1)_01



AP:  So I had a question, which is-

“What have been the responses in South Africa to Insurrections? I know you haven’t performed in India yet, but in South Africa, you’ve had several performances”


SD: Ari, would you…


AS: Hello.


SD: Yeah.


AS: I was knocked out. We’ve performed in India, so Sumangala please, it’s your question.


SD: Well, I think Ashok’s question was about the responses in South Africa. Well, we did two performances in India- in 2018 in Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi; and in Goa, for the Serendipity Arts Festival. The response was quite crazy actually, especially in Kochi, because the audience was very close to where we were (performing). In Goa, the audience was far away and we didn’t have a Q&A kind of relationship with the audience. But in Kochi we did. And it was fascinating to see how the audience was being able to respond to us irrespective of the fact that they were language issues. And the fact that a lot of the idioms that people were listening to, they were perhaps listening to them for the first time. But the message definitely got through. Our performance was from our production called ‘Threads of Sorrow’, and it seemed as if our message had gone through. So questions of race, questions of caste, violence, and this thing about the musical language that we were trying to explore somehow seemed to have gone across. So. it was a very pleasant surprise for us. But, about South Africa, Ari would you respond?


AS: Sazi?



SaDl: Well, maybe I wouldn’t have much to say except the insight I feel which is that the music that comes out of the collaboration is a complex message that is yet to have a real impact on the curatorial platforms that are normally associated with big South African events, It is just good times, big crowds, youth. But I find that the music of Insurrections really has an audience in South Africa, the venues have been filled with students, music and art specialists, activists and working-class leaders. Perhaps we need a curatorial space within much of the bigger prominent cultural festivals. Because whenever we have appeared, we really have made an impact, and people enthused in this music that engages not only the senses but also thought- about how they think about themselves, about the issues and how they relate culturally to one another.

AP: Thank you. This is probably the right time to ask another question by one of the participants Kuldeep Kothari-

“I want to understand the process how word of sound creates an image of feelings so effectively in rendition.”


AS: Sumangala.

SD: (chuckles)

AP: It’s a tough one. Probably impossible to explain to you.

SD: Yeah, well I don’t know. Maybe I should just give an example. So in our first production which was called ‘Insurrections’ which was when we had an idea what to do; there was this poem which was written by Ari called something like the ‘Insurrection of the Cow”.  Now the cow is a very major metaphor in Africa, and of course, has become the reason for so much politics in India. So maybe metaphors that work in opposite directions, at the moment at least. Now, it was in English and I had never sung in English, and I was determined never to sing in English.  I was always very self-conscious about singing in English. But then the ensemble insisted that it had to be performed because the tune that I had created was appealing. So, I recorded it and sent it across and Sazi immediately constructed a three-metre tall bow to go with it. Of course, the big problem was that it was very difficult for him to fly with it because airline authorities don’t understand why people need to carry such funny looking musical instruments. But, so for me, it was the first time that I was dealing with singing in English as an idiom that I was not comfortable with. And here was Sazi who constructed a bow which is from the Nguni traditions of Southern Africa, which was going to be responding to my voice. And we did it, we performed it and it was recorded as well. But this is just a tiny little example of countless things that we’ve actually done like this, where the challenge is that you just do not start off with any confidence at all.  You’re not even sure at the end of it whether it’s working or not till the audience responds. And that’s what I think Ari and Sazi have also meant by humility, that no matter how wonderful your craft, no matter how confident you might be as a musician or as a poet in your own context it all gets thrown up in the air when we are in the group of the kind of people that we have been. So, the relationship between word and sound and what image then eventually appears and what the audience hears is something that we just don’t know. But we’ve been trying to work through. 

The Insurrection Of The Cow (CD1)_01


AP: Moving on to another question

“Can you talk about your own relationship to activism, scholarship and music?” I guess this is to all of you.


SD: Sazi, would you like to go first?


SaDl: Personally I should say there’s been very little in my professional life, maybe as a lecturer of music; to practice one’s full-fledged political convictions as such within the institutional ambit is always hard. But I must say that such sentiments find no resonance if one looks at the broader role of music- its sociology, its history and how within music, especially as a currency of expression, of culture; how it animates people, how it can even manipulate. So very gradually it has become very central to me to be able to teach within the subject of music the very loci of power, maybe not so much in how studentship can absorb or readily turn what is being taught into a resistance and how you can turn the guitar into an instrument of resistance. But I suppose in history and also I must say, in uncovering resilient forms of expression in history becomes very politically charged. In exploring idioms that have perhaps been suppressed or just have been obscured through imposed curricula, one can certainly practice full-fledged activism every day.

SD: Ari?


AS: Well, scholarship is the easier part. Because in trying to understand what we were doing we were also trying to create some curriculum that would inspire students. We called it ‘Art in the sociology of popular culture’ as a shortcut towards reflecting on the relationship between the rise of social movements, sound, performance, poetry; down the years. So it was possible to launch such a course because of the experimentation that was happening but also because of the students in rebellion in South Africa, wanting something that is not polluted by the histories of colonialism, racial domination, in your case- caste, race, ethnicity, and all these class issues- to find the language to express something that has been repressed. In the Academy, we were given a bit of space but it’s a long, long, long struggle there. In terms of activism, since the 70s I was involved in popular theatre. I was one of the co-founders of the Workers’ Theatre Movement in the country during the resistance years. We dealt a lot with music, we dealt a lot with our bodies, how to deal with big crowds, what is the nature of the most appropriate form in order to say what you have to say. And then came the periods of confusion, and the transition period and the disparities, the inequalities- being in touch with the same poets and the same musicians, as of the previous period; all of a sudden the disquiet started finding forms of expression. And that we started reflecting on the fragmentation of the rainbow, it was very, very brittle. So basically, it is not what we say or what we display, it is how we do it. And that bothered me all my life. And I'm continuing and I don’t have the energy I used to have 20 years ago. But I’m still at it, and still trying to challenge people- to do something which is meaningful towards a kind of “as-not-yet” that we all may desire. And I find music a most incredible beast that refuses to obey borders, obey barricades, and obey closures. It moves and it moves people. So, there is an activism in that as well.  And I don’t want to confuse that kind of activism with belonging to a certain party or whatever. We’ve done all those things and we were the jukebox of movements for a while- that’s not what I mean. I mean that this cutting edge of creativity where it meets people and it gets transformed through this process- is something that I’m looking into all the time.

SD: Responding to this question, it is probably an easy thing to say that I’ve been an activist and I’m also an academic and I also sing and all of that, but what I’d like to say is that the Insurrections experience has really contributed significantly to what I’m going to say, but also has to do with the way in which times have unfolded. So, what I have felt especially in the last ten or fifteen years is that I have had to rethink my role as a cultural activist and what I was doing as a cultural activist in the context of a lot of the music and poetry that I have heard around me including in the collaboration with South Africans, which is the relationship with old traditions, the relationship with ancient and medieval philosophies; my relationship with all of these has changed drastically. And what I have come to realize is that the kinds of music that I was singing with groups in the streets of Delhi say in the 80s or in the 90s; did play a very major role. But then, I think we would really need to think seriously about all kinds of traditions that are there in this country and in the region in general and other parts of the world as well. Think about where these traditions come from. Think about the philosophy or the aesthetics of these traditions themselves, and ultimately cultural activism I think needs to be related to that. Of course, this is something that has been happening in India definitely in the post-1984 period- after the Anti-Sikh riots, in the context of a lot of the communal riots that took place in different parts of the country, the assassination of Safdar Hashmi, the assassination of countless activists has also led to a lot of rethinking by musicians. A lot of musicians have gone into the past, have gone into the ninth century, the tenth century; the time of the revival of the Sufi-Bhakti traditions. So, all of this has played a very major role in also me rethinking my own role as an activist. As Ari said, we’ve all played our role as jukeboxes for political movements; you say “here’s a gathering, we need a song, sing a song.” Yes, we’ve done that, many, many times for many years.  But today the role of activism goes significantly beyond that, and as I said in India it is a very, very invigorating period. I mean not this COVID period, but till just before that- it’s been an extremely invigorating period. And I think it’s also been a very, very invigorating period because artists have relaxed boundaries. In the past several months, there were concerts that took place in different parts of the country at a lot of protest venues where classical musicians were performing with rap artists. One couldn’t have imagined it before. And they are all listening to each other keenly. Those who considered themselves part of some ‘westernized traditions’ would not want to listen to classical music. And similarly, the classical musicians, of course, were not willing to listen to ‘less serious’ forms of music, to a large extent. All that has collapsed when musicians have taken upon themselves the task of reflecting on what is happening in society. I think that is a great moment. I feel lucky to be part of this moment in India, but also extremely despondent about what’s happening in the country.




AP: Thank you, this is I think a perfect time for my question to all three of you, which you’ve already begun to talk about, which is-

“How do you see the future of broadly defined progressive music in India and South Africa or the world in general? What are the tensions and the relations with popular music? Have you seen a change over the last few years?”


SD: Well, I can say a little bit about India. In India I think, we have seen, in some sense; the incorporation of a lot of things that came largely from the progressive traditions into popular music. This has always been true throughout the entire post-independence phase. For example- the Sufi-Bhakti revival that I was talking about found its way into popular cinema to a very large extent. So in that sense, looking at old traditions and interpreting it however problematic those incorporations might have been in popular cinema or in popular entertainment kind of genres; the very fact that young people today in India are very interested in the music from the past, and are willing to think about how that music from the past speaks to the present in terms of the social issues it addresses; I think is a positive development. While there has been a lot of jingoistic ultra-nationalist and very reductionist insular music which is very popular, a lot of the stuff that progressive musicians have been doing over the past twenty-five years has actually found its way into the hearts of people who one wouldn’t traditionally associate with either political movements or political gatherings. I myself have had this experience, performing music of the IPTA, which is music from the 40s and 50s. When I started performing from the repertoire that I had documented I initially thought the audience is going to be old people, you know- people from the freedom movement,   for whom it was in some sense their music coming alive again after 60 years or 70s years. But to my great surprise, to my great delight, University students have responded amazingly to that music. So I think in that sense, things have been pretty good in terms of how music that came largely out of progressive movements of various kinds has gone much beyond silos and smaller networks of people. In fact, that is something that the right-wing finds extremely threatening today. They are finding these articulations, these music renderings of different kinds of politics and the popularity it is gaining particularly with young people, they find it extremely threatening.  

AS: I think we are in a very difficult phase at the moment and we’ve had this mad period where the market was supposed to determine our lives, our being, and everything; called neoliberalism, or you know, the victory of neoclassical economics. The thing that everything, including our souls; could be broken up into pieces and sold bit by bit in a cultural kind of supermarket was daunting. And now we’re moving into the ecological disruptions, we’re moving through the viruses, we’re moving through this crisis of inequality and identity polarisation. So, we are in a situation of fluidity which should be prompting creative people to respond. And it is at the same time, there is something like our project which is something that is held together primarily in a non-commodified form. And it is very difficult to sustain across such distances because musicians have to work; we can only meet for certain small periods of time because most of us have to go and earn, we have to go and work and at the moment we are feeling it intensely: we are all stuck at home. And they don’t know where the next roti or piece of bread will be coming from. So, one has to start thinking of an alternative world. Another world, to use a cliché, has to be possible. Like our historical world of the 11th or 12th centuries tells us another world could have been possible, another world has to be possible now. But it is up to the younger generations. They are the ones now with the energy, and with the key dilemmas. I apologize to them, we messed the world for them, and they will have to come up with the answers. If we can say that there are ways of creating things across great distances in order to reflect seriously on the world, and that is taken up by lots of groups that refuse these essentialisms that are eating us out- these micro-fascisms and mega fascisms that are about to engulf us, then there is hope.  And there has to be hope. In Music in strumming something, you anticipate the other to be there to listen to it and to feel something. People have to really work hard to communicate creatively and help bring about an alternative, because this, what we are in; is untenable.



AP: That was beautifully said. I wanted to know, like in the U.S., one of the things which I think has given us both some despair but also a lot of hope; has been this tremendous upsurge on ‘BlackLivesMatter’ following the death of George Floyd in the hands of four policemen.

“Has there been a response to that in South Africa or in India which has been positive or heartening- a cultural response or a response coming from people?”

AS: Sazi?

SaDl: Yes, certainly. Certainly, there has been a response  in public as well as on the social media.  A lot of similar structural underbelly of society has come to the fore, where institutions have been laid bare that have otherwise until George Floyd’s passing, were understood to be the epitome of liberal, generous benevolence. But they have been seen and been interrogated to be the  epicentres or the bastions of inequality. So yes, there is a massive wave in South Africa. There is a very massive wave of ‘BlackLivesMatter’ attitude as a response to what has happened in the States. I think it’s all very positive, but it’s a struggle. Oppression is so complex; it is so ingrained that the vocabulary of articulating one’s position often gets lost in the words, in the translations. So I would certainly echo, that it’s a very positive thing, a very positive vibration for emancipation and for interrogation, for both victims and perpetrators, as to what values need to be set in place that can maybe make us progress as a  society.


SD: Ari?

AS: We watch at a distance because we are all locked up at the moment. We watch at a distance what is going on in this ferment that is beginning to crystallize around these issues, around these ‘BlackLivesMatter’ issues. Just to think that so little has changed since the late 60s when all people in the US were enfranchised, and Martin Luther King had to be killed for that. In various struggles, it seemed for a while that the façade that was being created that all these issues were just little marginal issues, and for a while, a lot of that generosity of vision was handed over to the anti-apartheid movement, because black lives mattered here in South Africa. And those energies seemed to be stumped by a lot of right-wing rhetoric and politics. And it’s unfortunate that lives had to be lost for this energy to be regenerated again. But we’re at awe of how communities and predominantly younger people are out in the streets demanding something that is beginning to articulate itself against their existing injustices of racism and structural racism in many systems. So if it’s spreading, let is spread faster than the virus.

AP: (chuckles) Absolutely. Yes, we hope so too. I wanted to end since you’re running short of time; maybe with one of the questions from the participants. And there are two questions which are kind of the same, so I’m just going to club them together. This is from Vandana Singh and ________, so both of them are essentially this collaboration between all of you-

“What has been the most challenging and surprising aspects of it, and how has it changed you?”


SD: I wish there was an easy answer to this. I think for me, as we’ve said a couple of times; the fact that what it means to listen to the other has been the most challenging, but then how does one continue to listen is probably the bigger challenge now. In general, when we worked together, fantastic dialogues happened. It’s between languages, between instruments, between instruments and voices, between a way in which a word is pronounced in a particular language and a tune is coming from another tradition and so on. I worry that we might become too comfortable in what we are able to create because we have done it a few times now. So how do we keep the dialogues up, how do we keep pushing each other, how do we keep asking the questions and how do we keep feeling uncomfortable about what we are creating; I think that really would be the challenge. I don’t know how all of this translates. I mean, it translates in terms of work actually, but for me, those would be the big challenges.

SaDl: Yeah, certainly. For me, as Sumi posited very well, the challenge is that of not losing focus of issues that are challenging commonly or are likely to be a common challenge for humanity as as such. Since with music we have more than, I suppose; highlighted these commonalities, however submerged they have been, we have highlighted the unity,  the need for humanity; as long as we keep that in mind and maybe just pointing to the direction where and how challenges today form to the one “commons” of being human, there thereby looms a certain way of emancipation: equity, social justice, negation of violence in all forms that suppress this expression of freedom. I think we won’t get much lost if we can translate the kind of equality and respect that we’ve pursued in the project, and to seek out even more contentious issues that touch a lot more people.




AS: Yeah. For me, it’s kind of managing three complexities. The one is for us how to sustain ourselves, we need to become like a band. But what makes us work is the fact that we are not a band. So, there are more and more requests, more and more requests for work and performance; but we can only meet for maximum three weeks a year. Maximum. So in other words, we have to rely on these new communication media to sustain that process.  Secondly, will we be able to avoid being swallowed up by our local issues that are escalating and making the others’ problem secondary is something that we have to face a lot of the time. We are responding to different rhythms of challenge- both over there in India and here in South Africa. So basically, we have to be aware, trust each other, listen to each other, no matter what the issues might be. The third thing is that it need not only be Indo- African, it could be all kinds of combinations that might attract many of us to move in all kinds of other directions. Is it possible to use the lessons here to work towards what we call this secular, creative international of the imagination? Is it possible? It’s not only about the Bhairavi and the Ngoma. I could be drawn to other musics, other people and so on. But can we communicate the building blocks? Can we use these building blocks for something else, I don’t know. That’s a serious and a complex struggle. But otherwise, I think, we fight with each other, we like each other, and we continue working because we have to and because we love to.

SaDl: No, it’s not a problem! (laughs)


AS: (laughs)


SR: …‘Learning to Love’ or ‘Bombing Iraq’ and you know if you could just talk about it if that’s easier for you, or just recite one- that would be amazing.


AS: Could you please ask Sumangala first? Let me see what I can do.


SR: Yes absolutely. Sumangala, you have written ‘Radical Impulse’, when did it come out? I believe you have composed Faiz’s poetry, could you please talk about ‘Radical Impulse’, your book?


SD: Yeah. ‘Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the IPTA’, that is the title of the book that I wrote based on my research into IPTA tradition’s musical repertoire of the 40s and 50s, and it came out in 2017. You know, the reason why I write the book was…well initially after I collected the music, documented it and put it together and started performing it; it was very obvious to me that the IPTA played a particular role in India in that period but it was also part of a larger radical imaginary which was sweeping different parts of the world. As part of it, artists were actually asking very fundamental questions about the relationship between art and politics, and specifically music and politics. So that’s what I termed as the ‘Radical Impulse’. So basically what I have tried to do in the book is through looking more carefully at the musical tradition of the IPTA, teasing out the various aspects of what I am calling ‘The Radical Impulse’, you know; looking at questions of nationalism, the whole idea of internationalism, who are the people, what does a radical imaginary mean, and for it to get translated in terms of different kinds of musical traditions- these are some of the questions, the larger theoretical questions that are taken up in the book based on an analysis of the IPTA tradition’s musical repertoire. I have over the past 11 years or so, also started composing music myself.  A large part of it has been done in the Insurrections Ensemble, but I’ve also composed two poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s, and also recorded; in fact, I am going to be releasing both those tracks quite soon. And I’ve also been working with Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s poetry. I recently, again- for Insurrections; but I’m also singing it otherwise; done a composition of Guru Nanak, which is an ‘aarti’ that he wrote. So yeah, I have been trying my hand at composition as well.



SR: We have another participant question after which I have my own questions. Padma Akkaraju says-

“Where can we find your music?” So if you could mention a YouTube channel and all that.


SD: Our website has all our music. And I think you can hear it from Spotify, you can download it; it’s available. All of it is available through our website.


SR: Alright. I have questions for all of you. But I’ll start with Sazi. Sumangala had mentioned that you had constructed a 3-metre bow. So I’m interested in knowing because I read about you constructing bows and flutes and drums. Are these reconstructions of something that existed and faded away, and you wanted to revive those instruments? What was your motivation?


SaDl: Thank you Shailaja. It’s both. Sometimes as a composer and responding to various contexts of performance and composition I make instrument just out of my imagination. And sometimes it is a reincarnation of traditional instruments- like the bow, which was just a matter of size; but it’s one of the bows that is very common in a large part of Southern Africa. A bow that is braced in the middle and is resonated by a calabash. The main reason it was so massive in size was because of the range that resonated to the fundamentals, the songs. That is the length of each of the strings to resonate at a certain pitch that would agree with the scale that Sumangala was singing in. That was the only reason it was dramatic in size as such.


SR: That was wonderful to hear about. I was quite fascinated because I read it on, I believe it was your website or somewhere that I had read about you making these instruments. The next question I believe is for Ari. Your poetry is extremely powerful. I have heard a few of your pieces. Is there any way you could recite something for us right now?


AS: Oh my. Can you ask Sumangala the question first? So then I will have to go and grab something.


SR: Okay, yeah. If it’s too much of a problem, no it’s okay. Because I heard it and it was just so beautiful. Your ‘Mango-Tango’-

Ab tum hi kaho sequence_1_01



R: Great. You do also, I believe; you’ve mentioned that there are songs for a range of protests- some have subtle messages, some have very direct messages. Could you give us a couple of examples?


SD: Well, so when I was a part of the protest song movement, I sort of grew up as an activist in the 80s and the early 90s; the songs that were being sung mostly as protest songs sounded like protest songs. Either in terms of the lyric or in the way in which it would be sung. In India particularly, it was mostly in the form of collective singing. You know, there were not too many songs which would be sung as individual songs. I was not considered very appropriate for somebody’s voice to be showcased for example, because of the whole idea of the collective ethic and so on. But I found a whole range of songs which are formally part of the protest music tradition itself, from an older time like the 40s and 50s, which did not conform to that stereotype, which speaking metaphorically would be often drawing upon all kinds of traditions, often religious traditions- kirtans for example, a whole range of different kinds of devotional songs; bhajans would be used to sing about topical issues which were animating political movements at that time but without directly sounding political. So there are a lot of examples of those kinds of songs. There are also, of course, love songs; the well known political poets themselves wrote so many wonderful love songs. So, one of the songs that I have most recently composed, which I am in the process of working with musicians to convert it into a proper piece; is a love song by Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the Hyderabadi poet. But he also wrote a song like- ‘Ye Jung Hain Jung-E-Azaadi’ during the freedom struggle. He also wrote ‘Jaane Wale Sipahi Se Poocho Wo Kaha Ja Raha Hain’. So yeah, there is a very big range.

R: Great. You do also, I believe; you’ve mentioned that there are songs for a range of protests- some have subtle messages, some have very direct messages. Could you give us a couple of examples?


SD: Well, so when I was a part of the protest song movement, I sort of grew up as an activist in the 80s and the early 90s; the songs that were being sung mostly as protest songs sounded like protest songs. Either in terms of the lyric or in the way in which it would be sung. In India particularly, it was mostly in the form of collective singing. You know, there were not too many songs which would be sung as individual songs. I was not considered very appropriate for somebody’s voice to be showcased for example, because of the whole idea of the collective ethic and so on. But I found a whole range of songs which are formally part of the protest music tradition itself, from an older time like the 40s and 50s, which did not conform to that stereotype, which speaking metaphorically would be often drawing upon all kinds of traditions, often religious traditions- kirtans for example, a whole range of different kinds of devotional songs; bhajans would be used to sing about topical issues which were animating political movements at that time but without directly sounding political. So there are a lot of examples of those kinds of songs. There are also, of course, love songs; the well known political poets themselves wrote so many wonderful love songs. So, one of the songs that I have most recently composed, which I am in the process of working with musicians to convert it into a proper piece; is a love song by Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the Hyderabadi poet. But he also wrote a song like- ‘Ye Jung Hain Jung-E-Azaadi’ during the freedom struggle. He also wrote ‘Jaane Wale Sipahi Se Poocho Wo Kaha Ja Raha Hain’. So yeah, there is a very big range.

SR: That was I believe, you had sung it in JNU a few years ago, during the protests.

SD: Yes, that’s right, that’s right.

Jaane waale_01


SR: Yeah. So the floor is yours, Ari. The Stage is yours, please.


AS: Thank you. Apologies, I quickly grabbed something, and although it is supposed to be about a late 19th-century feeling, because it is part of my long, long, long poem ‘Slave Trades’, I think it somehow speaks to what we’ve been talking about.


SR: Really, I appreciate it, thank you.

AS: (recites)

“These evil times, autumn already

with the sun already bruised, ignored and hated by the new gods

unremembered by the old-

shining on our forgotten cities, fog-lashed, crowd-blinded

unsuspecting of these last, momentous hours

ridiculed by the tribes and bards, thinned out to bone

plagued, mosquitoed, virused,

as we sit waiting for the darker hours

so we can go

and follow the remaining random, muted stars


All is in flight: the paper birds we made, dabbed with paint

glued up with mulch from flour, flapped past and are gone

the monks stole past- clutched book, bent yellow gait and page

and we, cursed by each frostbite

damned by each psalm or poem, impure

gather the animals and search for the other pasture

the next spring, some promise of flint, of porridge


All is in flight- left is the sound of nature’s justice

the eternal jaws of the eternal chattering of ants


There was a cart, more of a boat inside a dream than cart,

that always prowed on, despite mist or cold, towards the

brilliant, fanciful city of our hope

the city which was unhaunted by the sights of all those cut

which was without the tear, the soaked bread, the shrill sound of

a shovel against a stone, metal on stone, knee on a neck

the city which has our household, its wooden rafters fragrant

still, from a memory of root, its plants and horse, its air and kin

interplaying alongside the thresher who insisted she loved her

harvest and where each stone

marked the pathway of a dream.


I am building that cart again- twine and sackcloth, rounded wheel,

inside my soul

I am waiting for autumns’ breeze, flap of a wing and song

and surge to my

untraded home and to my untraded lands.”

Thank you.


SR: Thank you so much for that. Thank you. With this, I am going to hand it to Ashok.

AP:  Thank you Shailaja. Thank you to all the panelists. That was a beautiful way, I think; to end the session today. It was a really illuminating discussion. It was fantastic hearing you, hearing snippets of your music. To everyone who’s still listening, please go to and listen to it in full. That’s what I’m going to be doing for the rest of the day. Thank you to the panelists and thank you so much to Sumangala, Sazi and Ari. We are really honoured that you came and spent some time here with us and shared some insights about the creative process.

with thanks to designer Andrea Rolfes

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