Editor’s note: This story is best experienced by listening to the protests songs mentioned. To listen to the audio, please click the blue lyrics highlighted in grey.
She reaches for her chakki to grind grains, but there are barely any left. Securing her child firmly to her waist, she walks towards the construction site. She is a labourer, and these days, she is building a dam. The taasli on her head is waiting to be filled with stones, and it reminds her of the long, hard, day ahead of her. Finally, the dam is ready. The gushing waters of the canals she has helped build give rise to sugarcane fields. But, at her own home, she would walk miles through the forest to avail even a drop of drinking water, while her own sweat watered her field.
This is Daya Pawar’s story of a woman in the renowned Marathi Dalit poet’s poem “Dharan” (Dam), which touches upon the labour conditions of those who construct dams, and highlights the winners and losers of dam construction. Lata P. Madhokar, one of the founding members of the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), patiently sings and translates this poem for me over the phone. By the 1980s, Pawar’s verses had lifted off the pages of books in India, found a melody, and transformed into a song. They found company in the hundreds of Adivasi women participating in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh, who resonated with the economic trade-offs and loss of land to dam construction. “We sang this song a lot during the movement,” says Lata P.M. “Like this song, a lot of songs that gained pace during environmental protests in post-independence India already existed in the form of poems. With movements, they adopted tunes and were popularly sung,” she adds, humming the parts of a few more iconic poems popularly sung in protests. One of them is Balli Singh Cheema’s verse:
“Le mashale chal padhe hai,
log mere gaav ke,
ab andhera jeet lenge,
log mere gaav ke.”
“With flaming torches,
people of my village are now on the road,
they will win over this darkness, the people of my village.”
Many of these poets lived through the eve of India’s independence in 1947, the influence of which is evident in their lyrics elaborating on patriotism, standing against oppression, and keeping revolution alive. As protests and movements in India continue in post-independence India, these songs are still sung with gusto across parts of the country.
With India celebrating its 75th year of independence, I take a journey down the memory lanes of India’s activists, singers, and songwriters, who brought many such songs and poems to life, especially in the context of environmental movements. They take me to the interiors of the Narmada valley, now submerged by the waters of Sardar Sarovar Dam, to the forests of Madhya Pradesh, and to the peaks of the Himalayas. We deep-dive into songs of jal-jangal-jameen—of water, forests, and land—to trace what made them unique and remarkable, so much so that they are still in use, decades after they were first sung.
Borrowed, Adapted, and Created: What Made the Environmental Protest Songs Unique
“Where literacy rates are not as high, songs become a very crucial way of communicating people’s lived experiences,” says Dr Vibhuti Patel, a retired professor of Women’s Studies from TISS, and Vice President of Indian Association of Women’s Studies. “They even get transferred to the next generation.” A primary reason for remembering songs easily, Patel adds, is the use of local folk music’s dhun, or tune, for poems that fit the context of the movements unfolding before communities.
In Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua, Amit, formerly with the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan, found a unique way to do so. “Bhil, Barela, Naik Mankar, and Bhilala Adivasis have a musical tradition of Gayena. These are songs that tell the story of Earth’s formation, and are sung for two to three days at a time. While the movement for forest rights was going on in the 1990s in Madhya Pradesh, we created a gayena with different lyrics, but the same dhun.” Familiar to the ears of these Adivasi communities, this new gayena described what happened when a forest guard came to their village or forest, how he threatened the communities here, what they said in return, and the action they took. “The lyrics were very descriptive—it would describe things like “forest guard ne aankhe badi kari, toh humne bhi kari [The forest guard showed his anger, as did we]. People loved the song not only because they resonated with it, but also because it told them what to do when forest guards came; it questioned the power-dynamics between the two groups,” Amit adds.
Amit also wrote a song which would later become immensely popular in the movement: “Jadh Jangal Phodene”. It described how the Bhils, Bhilala, and Barela Adivasis, amongst other groups in the area, made land habitable “after overpowering the bears and tigers, [and] after performing forced labour for kings.” The chorus of the song would garner an excited crowd, as it asked a poignant question—“but after all this, who became the ruler, and who became the slaves? Who got the rights, and who became the slaves?”
“This song, like many others that became popular here, used imagery and scenes from the people’s lives extensively, besides the fact that they were written in Bhilali and Pawari languages,” Amit says. “These were inspired by the local folk music, which usually would have two lines, and would describe a situation or a story right in front of them (…) and even from African protest music, which again used imagery.”
Some songs and poems—like Pawar’s “Dharan”—were incorporated into the NBA outside of the Narmada Valley. Bhadra Ben Gamit, a Gamit Adivasi leader from Gujarat herself, also contributed to the music of the Narmada Bachao Andolan along similar lines. She adapted popular Gujarati film songs, bhajans, garbas, and prayers into the movement’s context , says Nandini K. Oza, President of the Oral History Association of India, and formerly an activist of the NBA. Oza narrates a few popular lines sung by Gamit in the Narmada Movement over a Zoom call.
Gujarat, in fact, witnessed a burst of local music during the Narmada Bachao Andolan. “Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh were all impacted by the Sardar Sarovar Dam and were an integral part of the NBA,” explains Oza. “In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh,support from the Left, Gandhians, and Civil Society flowed into the movement, which brought their protest songs into the movement too. But, in Gujarat, the fight against the dam was a tough one, since a narrative had been built about the dam being a jeeva dori or lifeline of the state. Many senior and respectable Gandhians, leftists, academicians were pro-dam in the state. So, not many Gandhian songs made their way in the state’s protest music. Instead, local Adivasi music thrived.”
“One Gujarati song by Swaroopben Dhruv, a very well known poet of Gujarat became particularly popular” Roko Roko Navagam na Bandh na Atyachar ne Roko [Stop, Stop the atrocity of the Dam in Navagam],”says Oza. “In just 15 lines or so, these local poems and songs summed up the complicated layers of the project—they covered the benefits of the dam, the adverse impacts, the problems of displacement, and even the involvement of the World Bank.”
Yet, just as songs were adapted into the movement, many traveled outside of the Narmada valley too. An example is the song “Maa Rewa”, which was also later produced by the popular Indian band, Indian Ocean.
“Maa rewa tharo paani nirmal,
khal khal behto jaaye re.”
“Mother Rewa, your water is pure,
it gushes as it flows freely.”
Rahul Ram, lead singer of Indian Ocean, has also previously spoken about the song’s unique ownership. “[Maa Rewa] is a hymn to the river [Rewa is another name for Narmada], which in the context of people living near the river and getting displaced becomes an environmental song,” he told Mongabay-India in a 2020 interview, reiterating how environmental protest music drawn from poems and hymns, were now songs attached to the living memories of various environmental movements across the country.
Why Sing at All?
On August 12th, a few kilometres from my home office in Delhi, a meeting on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) organised by the All India Union of Forest Working People was about to commence. As people were settling down, a group of women from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar took the stage. The walls of this meeting hall on Lodhi Road soon reverberated with a song inspired by Bhaagvan Majhi, a leader of the Adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Odisha.
“Gaav chodab nahi, jungle chodab nahi,
mai maati chodab nahi, ladai chodab nahi!”
“We will not leave our villages, nor our jungles,
nor our mother Earth, we will not give up our fight!”
The other participants of the meeting joined in, singing a song they were familiar with. While singing protest songs before meetings on environmental and other social issues is a common practice, the role of such music goes beyond just mobilising people for the movement; it binds people with a sense of a common loss, hope, and solidarity. Very simply, this music tells the story of a community.
Mohammad Shafi, a member of the Van Gujjar nomadic tribe from the Himalayas, explains how. “Many times, the Forest Department treats us like thieves on our own lands. They do not let us enter our forests, which we have been dependent on for years,” he says with a sigh, as we sip chai during a break in the FRA meeting. Shafi lives just next to Uttarakhand’s Jim Corbett National Park. “I’ve written a sher [a poem] about this treatment, shall I narrate it to you?” he asks, his eyes lighting up. It was too good an offer to reject.
“Har jagah ki zameene saar nahi,
har ek pedh bhi faldaar nahi,
Forest Department ka koi adhikari esa nahi,
jiska lakdi chor, leesa chor yaar nahi.”
“Not all land is of the same type,
Not all trees are fruit-bearing,
There is no such officer in the Forest Department,
who doesn’t have a friend in the gum-resin or timber mafia.”
Shafi, who calls himself an “angootha-chaap”, a colloquial term for illiterate, has been creating shers and memorising them by heart for a long time. But, since 2015, he has been active in the movement for implementing the FRA in Uttarakhand. Since then, no meeting held by the Van Gujjars on the Forest Rights Act goes without a sher or two from Shafi.
His colleague, Mohammad Hamja Meer, President of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, also talks about the traditional baith–or songs sung without any instruments in Gojari, the language of the Van Gujjars. “A lot of baiths are about the relationship of Van Gujjars with their cattle. We sing these usually while on our migration routes, or while lopping trees.” Ever since the Sangathan was registered as an organisation in 2020, all its meetings begin with a baith of which participants—that is, fellow Van Gujjars—recognise the tune and resonate with.
Shafi has also recited these shers to the officials of the Forest Department officially directly. “Sometimes they find it funny, mostly they do not take me seriously,” he says. Just like him, inhabitants of Madhya Pradesh have also used protest songs to get their message across to officials and policemen. “One popular Bhilali song was about policemen asking Adivasis for chickens as a bribe, and how Adivasis deny their request,” Amit reminisces. “Even young children used to sing it when officials came to their villages. In turn, the officials began finding it embarrassing and complained to the Sub-Divisional Officer at that time about it!”
“Bahot se ese gaane raaste mei hi ban jaate the [a lot of these songs would get created while on the journeys],” Amit says, commenting upon the community activity that such protest music has come to become, which is possibly why precisely attributing authorship to many of these songs is difficult. Where sometimes, lyrics can be linked to an author, it is difficult to trace who gave the tune to the songs, or who adapted them to what context. Nevertheless, what does seem to emerge is that women and men involved in India’s environmental movements have experienced the process of writing songs and singing them differently.
Men and Women, They Sing Different Tunes
Given how quickly situations change during rallies and protests, many lyrics would get added onto protest songs spontaneously, as the movement’s context shifted. Dr Patel remembers one such song, when she visited a village impacted by one of the worst droughts that Maharashtra saw in 1972. “In a meeting there, to express the disasters that the drought had caused, women were adding a pankti (line) to another one—how the cattle died, how it impacted the children, how it affected the women. In many such environmental songs that were adapted and written by women, they would often write about ‘everydayness’, which I find missing from songs that men sing. Men seem to sing more about the abstract level of ideologies. So Marxist and Gandhian-influenced songs like “Naya Samaj Layenge” [We will bring in a new society] or songs on Ahimsa were more of [the men’s] domain.”
In Lata P.M.’s experience too, some elements of singing and songwriting seem unique to women. “I feel that for men, desh prem, or patriotism, is limited to the territories of their country. Women, on the other hand, especially those participating in women’s movements, have often actively written and sung songs about removing borders, and [about] women coming together from different parts of the world,” she says. “Empathy, winning together, not leaving anyone behind—these feature strongly in women’s songs, but are very limited in men’s,” Lata continues, giving an example with a song.
Like any other art, environmental protest music is also a product of its contexts. Transformation and change within it is inevitable and constantly visible.
Stepping into the Future of Environmental Protest Music
One genre that is quickly catching up with Indian environmental music is rap. My favourite example is Himachali rap artist Punky Pax’s 2020 release called Kabad ke Pahad. With a title that literally translates to ‘Mountains of Garbage’, its lyrics are a heated commentary on Himachal Pradesh’s increasing garbage problem, and the administration’s apathy towards it.
“Har taraf gandgi naam ke koodedaan hai,
daav pe lagi zindagi vaadiya ab pareshan hai,
Ab janta se poochna to banta ye,
Devbhoomi ki zara si tumhe chinta kya?”
“There is garbage everywhere, dustbins are for namesake.
Lives are at stake, and the valleys are troubled,
The public needs to be asked this now,
Do you even care about your Devbhoomi?”
“It’s not just now that we see fusion songs coming in. Protest music, environmental and otherwise, has always transformed with time,” says Dr. Patel. In fact, even songs of resistance that were sung in Chile, or Russia, post World War 2, we have translated and sung in our protests of NBA and Women Movements.
But, as these transformations happen, one worries about what will be left behind of the “originals”. In the NBA, “the songs that became the most popular were not the ones that were created outside the valley and were also sung extensively, but the bhilali, Nimadi, Gujarati and pawari songs [which were] local to the submergence areas,” says Oza. “But, when rehabilitation happened due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam, so many families and villages that once lived together were dispersed. With that, the entire culture—the language, attire, food habits, and even music—were threatened [by this flux]. I worry the most about the local songs, because the lyrics and translations have barely been documented, and perhaps the next generation might not even remember them.”
To ensure the continuity of such songs in protest music, it is important to recall the basics of what made these songs popular. “A lot of urban civil society today wants to write songs about issues concerning the poor, take them to the affected communities, and then teach them the songs. This is a problem,” shares Amit. “This makes these songs seem almost artificial. This type of music spontaneously comes out when communities are in a protest march or a rally, and hence cannot be sung independently of the symbols that communities associate with, using their local vocabulary and idioms, for them to catch on and be authentic.”
As I concluded my last interview for this story, I remembered the many protests and rallies that I have been fortunate to witness and partake in. It was the music, through it’s satire, imagery, or simple josh that quickly enhanced the sense of belonging in a crowd of unfamiliar faces.
My last interview also made me realise the lack of geographical representation in my sample, given that I spoke to mostly those engaged in movements in Central India and two mountain states. But, the working conditions of a woman labourer that Daya Pawar writes about do mirror in other regions as well, where environmental movements and protests have been active. For example, a recent popular song, part of the campaign to save Chennai’s Ennore Creek from the unscientific dumping of toxic fly ash, was the Poromboke Paadal (poromboke being the Tamil word for “commons”).
But, as per my research, older music characteristic to these movements that would have been used decades ago to mobilise (amongst other purposes) remain largely in memory and mostly undocumented, even in local languages. To our readers: maybe this research topic would interest someone?
*The famed Chilean poet has been facing critique for committing rape as per his memoirs. | Featured image: a dharna for the implementation of the FRA in Dharmashala, Himachal Pradesh, held in December of 2018; by Vaishnavi Rathore.