Speak In Metaphors, Hide Behind Allegory

 by Somi Das, Rayhan

Rahul Ram invokes Orwellian storytelling as space for freedom of expression shrinks

Even as a section of the artistic community in India increasingly feels under attack, musician, satirist and environmental activist Rahul Ram makes a compelling case for inventing a new kind of language “divorced from electoral politics” to communicate with audiences. “In the current climate, the artist can only fulfil his duty by inspiring his audience to look within, scrutinise their prejudices, and in the process empower them to make mature socio-political choices in a democracy. This allows artists to have their say without having to face vicious attacks from lumpen elements or come in direct confrontation with the government,” said Ram in a conversation with SIGMA.

Providing instances of what he means by taking the conversation away from electoral politics and towards the family and the individual, he says working at the intersection of gender and environment allows him to push his audience to examine their stereotypical notions about power dynamics in social relationships—thus helping build the foundation for critical thinking in them. “Satire doesn’t always have to be about corrupt politicians or elections. That’s an old lexicon and most people have been desensitised. There is no shock factor in a piece about corrupt politicians anymore. They are supposed to be corrupt and that’s an accepted reality today.”

So how does the artist effect change and trigger introspection in his audience? “Begin with the most egregious assumptions of your own upbringing. That is part of your own culture. Say, for example, what are the socio-political practices in your own house that you inherited from your parents? Can we deny that our social interactions, despite being located in a democracy, are largely governed by caste and class? Do you let your house help use the bathroom in your house? Is she allowed to open the refrigerator and drink water? Is the nanny allowed to sit at the dining table and eat with the kids? There is a great degree of double standard prevalent in the middle class. And by throwing light on the dark recesses of their minds where such orthodox ideas reside, you make them question their own conditioning vis-a-vis caste and class. In essence, you are giving them the tools for self-examination and critical thinking that form the edifice of a strong democracy.”

Ram, who has a PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University, started his activism with the 1980s’ Narmada Bachao Andolan, a social movement led by tribals, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against the construction of a number of large dams on the Narmada river. He says environmental preservation continues to be his first love, of the many things he does. “A song that our comedy-satire collective Aisi Taisi Democracy made, ‘Pal Pal Pollution Mein Rehta Hoon’, popularly known as the Pollution song, went viral not because it was targeting a particular political party but because pollution impacts everyone across the ideological spectrum, thus making it a highly political matter. You can’t go wrong with such messaging and there is no way anyone can hate you, or arrest you for raising such an issue,” he points out.

The goal of his activism and art is to make what is important, political. “It is a myth that what is important automatically becomes political. The State needs control of the media simply to divert attention from what really matters. If we can make the important emotional and thus political through innovative storytelling, we can build a potent counter-narrative against the current hate and divisiveness that crowds the media space today.”

He hopes that a more self-aware citizen would be open to critical thinking and making mature political decisions that are based on sound reasoning and not on emotional issues of religion and caste, exploited by politicians to stay in power. “Currently, the electorate can be easily swayed by emotions. ‘Mandir wohin banega’ is a matter of emotion, not reasoning. Even the courts had to yield before the faith of the people. So, as artists we are up against forces that exploit emotive issues and appeal to the basest impulses of human beings. And they have abundant resources at their disposal—IT cells and dog whistlers who spread their vitriol on national television every night.”

Ram has lately been less active on his comedy collective, Aisi Taisi Democracy, that he set up with two other extremely outspoken artists— comedian Sanjay Rajoura and writer Varun Grover. He says they regularly self-censor their content and have also reduced the frequency with which they put out new material. A day after SIGMA met Ram, Rajoura’s residence was raided by the authorities. The consternation is palpable in Ram’s voice. “Can you believe comedian Munawar Faruqui was put behind bars merely on the apprehension that he might crack a joke against a Hindu god? That’s where we are today,” he says agitatedly.

He is equally exasperated by the string of hyper nationalistic and jingoistic films that have captured the public imagination and are ruling the box-office. “Watching RRR was such a bad experience. Hyper masculinity combined with mindless, logic-defying action sequences. Is this the idea of a hero?” Ram, who has lent his music to critically acclaimed Bollywood films like Gulaal and Peepli Live, to mention just a couple, through his band Indian Ocean, is disappointed at the way Bollywood has responded to the current regime dictating the larger framework within which films are made—with some being outright propaganda. But he says one can’t really blame the makers because films face the threat of boycott if they don’t toe the line.

The search for the right form of storytelling to circumvent censorship continues for Ram. Mixing music and satire worked wonders for him. “Mixing music and satire has worked well for Aisi Taisi Democracy. We have given people national ditties and jingles to express complex thoughts in a joyous and simple way.” Yet he and his team have to be very careful about the words used. “We are constantly reworking. Many subjects are off-limits. You can’t joke about certain leaders, religion is certainly a no-go zone.” He cites George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a commentary on the growth of Russian communism under Stalin in allegorical form as an excellent style of storytelling in times of shrinking freedom of expression. “Speak in metaphors, hide behind allegory. The audience will get it,” he exclaims, exhibiting considerable confidence and faith in the intelligence of his audience.

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From the Narmada to Cornell
Rahul Ram’s journey as an environmental and social activist, and much more

Rahul Ram, a multifaceted artiste and a prominent member of Indian Ocean band, has created an indelible mark on the music scene in India. Uniquely talented as a vocalist, guitarist, and composer, Ram has not only entertained audiences but also used his platform to address critical environmental and social issues.

Indian Ocean, founded in the 1990s, revolutionised the Indian music industry by blending rock with traditional folk and classical elements. Their songs drew inspiration from Indian poetry, folk music, and themes of resistance. Ram, as a member of this pioneering group, played a significant role in shaping their unique sound.

What sets Indian Ocean apart is their commitment to addressing environmental and social issues through their music. Their lyrics often delve into topics such as environmental conservation, social justice, and resistance movements. One of their popular songs, “Kandisa”, features lyrics derived from an Aramaic prayer which is still recited in some Indian churches of Syrian lineage, showcasing their fusion of diverse influences.

However, Ram’s artistic journey didn’t stop with the band. He continued to evolve as an artist and activist by joining forces with political commentators and comedians to form Aisi Taisi Democracy. This satirical ensemble uses humour and music to highlight contemporary political, social, and environmental developments.

After he got a PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University,
Ram’s passion for environmental activism was ignited during his visit to the Narmada valley in 1991, when he was representing the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) at a meeting organised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), an anti-dam movement. The experience exposed him to grassroots environmentalism, and he later worked with organisations like Kalpavriksh.

Throughout his journey, Ram has seamlessly integrated his environmental consciousness into his music. Songs like “Ma Rewa” and “Cheetu” incorporate environmental themes and social commentary, highlighting the complex issues faced by the original inhabitants of the Narmada valley.

As environmental issues continue to evolve, Ram recognises the need for artists to adapt and find innovative ways to engage with these challenges. He sees rap as a powerful medium for the younger generation to express their concerns and make impactful statements about the environment and society.

In the coming season, Aisi Taisi Democracy plans to focus on urban decay, addressing issues such as water scarcity, pollution, and the stress of city life, all delivered with their signature blend of humour and satire.

Ram’s journey from a young musician in the Narmada valley to a prominent artiste and environmental activist reflects his unwavering commitment to using music as a vehicle for change. His ability to infuse environmental and social consciousness into his music has not only entertained but also educated and inspired countless individuals in India and beyond.

About the author: Rahul Ram, the versatile Indian bass guitarist, social activist, and music composer, embarked on an unexpected musical journey after a career in environmental toxicology. Joining Indian Ocean in 1991, he’s been a driving force for over 27 years, performing globally. Beyond music, Rahul, a Narmada Bachao Andolan activist, co-founded ‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’ and contributed to acclaimed projects like Masaan (2015) and A. R. Rahman’s 99 Songs. From chemistry to chords, Rahul’s story resonates as harmoniously eclectic.






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