Images Shift the Discussion!

This is how it all started. As Tunisia and Egypt were followed by Yemen and Bahrain  and as  I remained glued to  Al Jazeera, Facebook,Twitter (notice I do not state the CBC, BBC or CNN or mainstream TV) and as Hillary Clinton floundered along, flipping and flopping unsure of what she was saying, I received this Youtube link from a friend in Mumbai, India.  Not exactly connected with what was happening in the Middle East. Here is the file.

Sent: Thursday, February 17, 2011 2:03 PM

Subject: taru dalmia…delhi sultanate

I watched and heard it over and over, while switching back to Al Jazeera.

So it transported me somewhere else. From Tahrir Square to the fields of Punjab and a rapper in New Delhi.

This is about a young rapper in New Delhi, with a proto-Jamaican lilt to his accent. He is influenced by dancehall and socially conscious hip hop. His name is Taru Dalmia.  Also known as Delhi Sultanate.   So I looked up and found a neat interview on him, as well, from a Delhi TV station. And here it is

Now that you and I have heard it through and seen the lyrics as well, what did I do next?  I followed through naturally and looked up Bant Singh, who I knew was a Dalit, low caste, labourer whose daughter had been raped by upper caste landlords. But Bant Singh who has been singing songs of revolution for the past thirty years, decided to take the landlords to court and he succeeded. The rapists were sent to jail. I looked him up on Wikipedia and found out that the goons from the landlords waylaid Bant Singh, beat him up with rods and sticks and left him for dead. By the time Bant was retrieved, he had lost both his legs and a hand to gangrene and NEGLECT.  So this is what I found in Wikipedia.

Bant Singh

On the evening of January 7, 2006 Bant Singh was returning home through some wheat fields. He had just been campaigning for a national agricultural labour rally to be held in Andhra Pradesh in January. He was suddenly waylaid by a gang of seven men, suspected to be sent by Jaswant and Niranjan Singh, the current and former headmen of his village who have links with the Indian National Congress party. One of them brandished a revolver to prevent any resistance while the other six set upon him with iron rods and axes beating him to pulp.

He was left for dead, and a phone call was made to Beant Singh, a leading man in Jhabhar, to pick up the dead body. However, Bant Singh was alive, though barely.

He was first taken to civil hospital in Mansa but was not given proper treatment there. Then he was taken to the PGI at Chandigarh, where both lower arms and one leg had to be amputated since gangrene had set in by then, and his kidneys had collapsed due to blood loss. The doctor was eventually suspended for his conduct.

So I sent this piece and the Delhi Sultanate video to my Facebook friends and as well by email and Tweeted it around.  A friend, who now lives in Seattle and an avid hip hopper once, and a great actor as well in the original Serai theatre troupe, responded and an exchange followed. It made me look up more on Taru Dalmia and the Delhi Sultanate and research more on Bant Singh.

He was not exactly excited about Delhi Sultanate.  He wrote back instantaneously.

From Seattle:

“Wasn’t going to write it – Rant coming.

Fact check:  Ice T & PE were on MTV fairly early on (despite the tales.)  Yo MTV Raps was playing as early as 1991 – not sure how old Taru is, but 90/91 is definitely in the realm of his ‘back in the day’ memories. I can agree with the fact that the genuine feeling isn’t there.

…  I’ll throw stones, as I haven’t an activist bone.. note he’s  privileged,  he has the power of purchase per his quotes…  (yes my equivalent of a Delhi Vanilla Ice). Finding a niche in a nation of a billion, reading the newspapers and making a rhyme that is ‘activist’. it’s an easy way to get a piece, or an audience, or a listing in TimeOut Delhi.  Easily bought targets..  Good rhymes and music I’ll give it that.. but other than that a legend in his own mind.  Let him rock this in London and make a name for himself… oh wait then he’d just be another Asian drum/bass guy with rhymes… hmmm…. He’s having a good time and more power to him, and if his goal is to educate the rich great, but Bant Singh publicity aside don’t see him hanging out in Tahrir Square anytime soon. “

So I wrote back to my buddy in Seattle. I was not disheartened.

From Montreal:

india has reached a level of meanness to its poor (only.02% of population have felt the effects of the 8% growth)…so when a rapper in India gets involved, as he did…(as opposed to doing totally crude, mindless, misogynist bhangra rap) and went all the way to listen to Bant Singh and spread the word about how these upper caste jats and brahmins treated a dalit…i think it is a good break. Don’t diss him because he is privileged..he grew up in germany and came back to live in delhi….so what if he is nostalgic…so? i still feel gil scott-heron and run dmc were the greatest.. so? i still think miles was way ahead of winton does that make my nostalgia invalid? he is not another asian drum/bass guy…he is connected…with the movement … lets put it this way… you are not and choose not to…which is fine….but basically i hear dismissiveness as a politique….guys like you must look back as well….why should he go to tahrir square? he ought to be in connaught place…i am down on him…we need folks like him to burn up the mall rats of india… here is something i did recenty for yu…

Seattle writes back again:

Yeah I’m getting curmudgeonly and egotistic in my old age… can throw digital stones where you can just duck and hide.

The thing that rubbed me the wrong way to begin with – his hip hop nostalgia seems mis-represented (if not only by 5-7 years). I’m nostalgic to the extreme, and that’s what causes me to split hairs, but that’s what I do as a corp wonk.  And it colors my vision – I challenge his assertions that rap was not popular when he says it was.  Minutia perhaps, mainstream success started post 85/86 (which if I assume makes him about 5 when “it wasn’t on MTV”). Yeah I’m basically “old guy walking uphill in the snow both ways to school” here..  I think he represents himself truer when he says he listened to Sizzla & Buju..

I see there are two phases to influence – the movement as it’s happening,  which you prob experienced with Miles and Gil Scott Heron – if I’m doing my math right in terms of the years of influence and how you got to experience them – then there’s the after effect – i.e. it was good music and people appreciate/absorb it.   Same thing with Billie Holliday/Jimi/Janis/Velvet Underground – you were feeling it as it happened or not… Extreme example: there’s no way as much as I’d like to I can say “oh I remember when Lady Day was coming up singing in speakeasy’s etc.. ” .. I would have loved to have been around when it was happening or even Marley, I appreciate it as the music/impact historically and then cite it as an influence. I can’t be part of the movement, but I can feel the after effects.

That’s where I think the first comment of his ‘rap influences’ kind of rung untrue…  Noting things which I feel were shortly before his time…

As for Connaught vs Tahrir – basically my point – he won’t be in either…. Tahrir was meant to be symbolic.. I doubt he’ll be like, pop reference,  Zach Rocha (or even some lesser known folks who back up their music with their actions).  I do neither – speak or act. Please note his impact will come not from ‘burning’ the mall rats of india… but selling to them, which will  drive popularity/profits/message. So in that sense he’s using his pop appeal for good – it’s the mall rats who go to those drum ‘n bass nights in delhi that are his first audience.

As for the spoken word piece… pretty awesome.. yes we can.. as much they try to ‘pull out’.. They’re just f’ing it up some more (and continue the carnage). There’s a gyro place near my house (we live near U Washington), which has pretty much the same pics up of the children and it’s good to see folks absorb it. Mind you Seattle ain’t exactly Alabama – so they’re probably a bit more in tune, but it’s still the u.s.a…  To make it regional they also have a picture of Rachel Corrie (she grew up here) in the same montage.  When one of the locals get run over by a tank you pay attention..

Montreal replies:

This is a good exchange…it is not about music and roots and authenticity or selling out or keeping the faith, only…its about where you stand and music is just the atmosphere that gets you going sometimes. I would like to have been in Tahrir square. Forty years ago I was in the Maidan in Kolkata and the police started firing into a sea of flags…  but my bones ache now and I don’t know where to next…but here is what I wrote to my grown up kids, after seeing some pictures from Bahrain this morning.

“Everyday, as things happen in this world, which hurt people, which deny people, which destroy people.. I hope we all who sit in relative comfort and peace take an internal pledge not to avoid, to forget, to walk away, to drown ourselves in obscure irritations, in arguments over ridiculous discomforts and the absurdity of our relatively refined frustrations. What would our lives be, if we only had to deal with eating, sleeping, walking, working and occasional reading and writing and imagining …because only by engaging we can be of use…its for our own soul…not for public display…   Peace and Rage”.

A Final word from Seattle:

Wow I couldn’t agree more.. Unfortunately, I’m focusing constantly on the basics you mention.. Closest I get to engaging is sitting in relative comfort voicing opinions as a ‘guy from the city’ at dinner parties in the burbs (it is pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, I’m a legend in my own mind – that includes the Bengali folks (almost all of whom are here from outta Calcutta/US Grad Schools in the last 15 years). Mind (you) there’s something to be said with their passion around what they do believe in “teaching the kids Tagore poems” –as long as I get back to reading and writing with my daughter– more power to the whole process (oh forgot to mention they have a rather in depth Bengali Sunday school here…).

And the only thing I can say is that I engage using the easy way out… the checkbook to support those in need where I can… Not dissident, but trying to get a little something to those trodden on.

Rana Bose one of the Editors of Montreal Serai.