(Foreword to Dr. P. Kesava Kumar's forthcoming book Gaddar: Mahakavi of Our Times, written by Kalekuri Prasad)
Gaddar with the author Kalekuri Prasad ( poet, writer, critic and activist who passed away recently)
At last an effort to assess the great poet-singer of our times, Gaddar, is being made. It is not that easy a task to locate him at one single point. He is a singer, poet, composer, choreographer, critic, political commentator, orator, and above all a political activist, and a great communicator.
As the writer of this monograph, Dr. Kesava Kumar, rightly puts, 'There are many reasons for the celebration of Gaddar as an icon, a legendary figure or an institution in revolutionary cultural politics of Indian society.'
I think here Kesava Kumar intends to mean the revolution that is being led by the Maoist party. However, in each and every revolutionary movement, whether led by Dalits, Women, Madigas (and everyone else) - his song echoed on every dais of people's movements.
When he, due to heavy repression during the Telugu Desam party regime, was forced to go underground, the people living in the lowest layers of society along with some other lovers of his song pined for him, i.e., his song.
Song! My song, where are you? How did you disappear from our eyes and melt in the crescent moon? For the sweetness of the breast milk that is disseminated by the song, for the affection of mother's lap that is ingrained in the song, for the anger and anguish of a people's warrior that is reflected in the song, for the confidence that the song gives.
They pined for the song that helped them cope with anything in times of crisis, the song that stood for lamentation, for provocation, for encouragement. For the sense of security in hard times that his song invokes in the hearts of the masses, the whole world wailed, shed tears, wandered in search of him in every nook and corner of the earth.. He is not seen, but his song is heard everywhere, in the forests, in the dalit colonies, in the tribal habitations - everywhere his song reverberated.
On April 6, 1997, there was an as assassination bid on Gaddar. While two of the three bullets the attackers fired into him were removed, one was untouched because of medical complications. The near fatal attack, which the balladeer believes was engineered by the police, did not deter Gaddar from being a champion of the downtrodden. The growing importance and popularity of Gaddar can be gauged from the (alleged) state attack on him. He miraculously escaped from death and still survives with a bullet in his body. Another poet, and an associate of Gaddar from the beginning, wrote a song for the grieving people after Gaddar's situation was declared stable.
Jamedari koyilo Jamedari koyilo
Gaddaranna Patavinaka Niddara polevate
Anna agamavvaledu, kannula niddura polevate
Tadi pettaka jamedari koyilo
[rough translation: 'Jamedari koel/ You can't sleep without listening to brother Gaddar's song?/ He is not lost, your eyes can't rest?/ Don't shed tears, Jamedari koel'; the refrain 'Jamedari koyila' is borrowed from an older tradition in folk songs]
Hundreds of poets wrote songs, poems and essays condemning the assassination bid on Gaddar. Even after the assassination bid, he still holds on to his aims and objectives.
In fact there are several singers and poets in the state who can sing more melodiously than Gaddar. There are performers, composers. The uniqueness of Gaddar is that he does not sing only with his throat. He moves his hands, his hands sing. He throws back his gray hair that is falling on his face, his hair sings. His legs adorned with gajjelu (ghunghroos) jump rhythmically. Movements of his body, his body language, the whole of his body is a song. Moreover, each one of the millions of people who witness his performances feels that it is addressed to him/her personally and is moved by the great poet-singer-performer. That capability of Gaddar makes the difference and draws a line between him and other contemporary eminent poets.
Dr. P Kesava Kumar is bringing forward the concept of Mahakavi once again. There has been a lot of hue and cry over this controversial issue, though the notion of Mahakavi has not been rejected. Who is Mahakavi (great poet)? Nannayya? Viswanatha? Krishna Sastry? Sri Sri? Arudra? Srirangam Narayana Babu? Sheshendra? Narayana Reddy? Even poets who wrote pale verse tried to claim the status of Mahakavi. Sri Sri, who is recognized as a progressive writer, also jumped into the controversy and gave a statement: "Till now I followed Telugu literature, from now on I lead and take forward Telugu literature." This statement had generated much controversy. All the poets had turned the Telugu literary world into a fish market.
In spite of his greatness Gaddar maintained silence and never tried to claim he is a Mahakavi. That is his modesty and greatness.
Now Kesava is bringing forward the notion of Mahakavi. He calls Gaddar a Mahakavi of our times. After reading this statement I was embarrassed a bit. However, after discussing with Souda and Aruna, so many of my doubts were cleared. Yes, yes, Gaddar is Mahakavi of our times.
'To say Gaddar is the Mahakavi of our times is a new proposition. First of all, many people identify him as a singer, cultural performer and balladeer, but not as a poet. Poets have an edge over the singers by claiming to practise the highest expression of creativity and making people think. In the literary world, poetry is treated as the most privileged act over others. The singers are treated as entertainers, who invoke the element of experience rather than thought. In this sense, it is easy to dismiss Gaddar as a poet. But I am using the phrase Kavi for Gaddar in a much broader sense.
Secondly, critics may argue that to rank the people's artist with titles reflects a feudal attitude rather than reflect the revolutionary spirit. I do agree with this point, partially. My intention in designating him as Mahakavi is only to highlight the unique phenomenon and personality of Gaddar in world literature in general and Telugu literature in particular. One should not forget that in Telugu literature, even in the progressive camp the tradition of naming writers as Mahakavis already exists.
Thirdly, is it possible to see Gaddar in isolation from Jana Natya Mandali and the revolutionary movement? In fact, he does not want to see himself in isolation from JNM and the ongoing revolutionary struggles. At the same time, at present nobody matches him in creative potential, in enlivening the people's culture and directing it towards democratic change. To establish Gaddar as Mahakavi, historical developments of Telugu literature may provide clues. What is literature? What is the role of the writer? What is the purpose of literature? The answers to these questions may help in assessing the strength of Gaddar.'
Though Kesava proposes Gaddar as Mahakavi, he has some reservations about that. I too, influenced by some most renowned so-called Marxist intellectuals, thought that ranking any poet with the title 'Mahakavi' reflects a feudal attitude. A poet-singer can be ranked with the title Mahakavi if he/she influences his/her times with his/her poetry and literature. Gaddar is the only literary personality who has been influencing our times, consistently. So many poets enjoyed various titles and awards while Gaddar was beaten, arrested and even faced assassination bids. So many so-called progressive and revolutionary poets and writers have been enjoying the right opportunities and left image, while Gaddar has been receiving threats to his life everyday. This is only to remind the people about the political commitment of Gaddar.
Gaddar performs, as Gorati Venkanna (to Gaddar's right), another prominent poet-balladeer, and Kalekuri Prasad (extreme right, in the back of stage) watch
Kesava also hesitates to call him a poet because he is treated as just a singer, performer and an entertainer by a few so-called critics. Put all his songs together, cancel all the rhythm and tunes, look at only the written words. You can smell the birth pangs and the fragrance of the breast milk of the mother who gave birth to a new baby. He is a born poet and an instant poet. He erased the dividing live between the poem and the song. As Kesava says, 'In Telugu society Gaddar has not only democratized literature and used it as instrument for the liberating masses, but as a poet singer, he revolutionised literature for a social purpose. He created a social consciousness that one cannot separate life, literature and struggle. For this he creatively invested his energies and did not even bother about the consequences.' Kesava rightly intends to designate Gaddar as Mahakavi only to highlight the unique phenomenon and personality of Gaddar 'in world literature in general and Telugu literature in particular'.
Like so many so-called Marxist intellectuals, Kesava also opines that one cannot imagine Gaddar without JNM (Jana Natya Mandali, the cultural wing of the CPI (Maoist) party. It is a partial truth. It is true that JNM created platforms for him. It is true that the politics of the Naxalite movement sharpened his voice and his pen. However, there are so many talented singers and performers in JNM. But why has a second Gaddar or an equivalent to Gaddar not been produced? Gaddar is a self-made poet, singer and performer: with all these qualities he made himself a unique creative personality. This statement is not to undermine the other talented artists in JNM. His birth, his experience, his empirical knowledge, his relentless and untiring practice and his commitment to life itself made him a unique Mahakavi. Even Sri Sri who unnecessarily claimed the status of Mahakavi for himself had to praise the creative potentialities of Gaddar.
Kesava tried with good intentions, to fit Gaddar into the shoes of Gramsci and Althusser with due respect to their efforts at creative applications of Marxism to social and regional conditions. I would like to say that Gaddar is more closer to Indian revolutionaries and cultural commissars like the Buddha, Kabir, Jotiba Phule and Dr. Ambedkar. Gaddar loved Marx just like Ambedkar loved him. However, he drew inspiration from the Indian social revolutionaries. And there is no second thought that Gaddar is a Marxist.
Though the main activity of Gaddar is (singing, performing etc) as Kesava mentions in the biographical note in the first chapter (as quoted above), that is not his only activity. One would learn that if we go through Gaddar's correspondence with the party about caste and the role of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Indian social reconstruction, reformation of Indian society and the caste system. The correspondence has been recorded.
Some sympathetic but ignorant people thought that he is confused. Some people who claim to be intellectuals thought that he displays a sort of ambivalence. Basically, I feel, Gaddar is a pragmatist, who would always rise to the occasion, and evolve strategies and tactics. Some feel that this is his weak point. However, this is the strength that has made him the darling of millions.
Dr. Kesava Kumar is a well-read person and is currently working as Asst. Professor in Pondichery Central University. I knew him as a Marxist in a central university where dogmatic perceptions prevail as official theories. Then he seemed to change his opinions regarding caste/class relationships and gender/regional and other movements of assertion. Though he did not declare that he is a non-Marxist, he started studying Ambedkar deeply and tried to assimilate the two theories of liberation. Now he believes that, I feel, without Ambedkar and his propositions Indian social revolution cannot be completed. I think this is the case with Gaddar. He loves Marx. He loves the Buddha. He loves Phule. He adores Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Perhaps this made some people think Gaddar is confused or has diluted his opinions. History is in the making.
Dr. P. Kesav Kumar toiled a lot to locate Gaddar. He made relentless efforts to redefine the concept of Mahakavi (Great Poet) and designated Gaddar as Mahakavi of our times.
Kalekuri Prasad and revolutionary poet K. G. Satyamaurthy ('Siva Sagar')
He also discussed popular culture and ideology.
However, though he mentioned the names of some subaltern poet-singers and philosophers of Andhra Pradesh, Kesava has depended mostly on Western thinkers. It may be useful to some extent. However, Gaddar does not belong to their schools of thought. He himself has his own school of thought that encourages, educates, agitates and organises the marginalised sections of society.
Inspite of intruding into Kesava's private space, I tried my best to restrain myself and though I was tempted to put my hands on the language used, I could not do it. At first I thought that the language used is too elite. And the concepts borrowed were too Western. However, I thought that let a discussion be generated. Let Marx, Lenin, Mao, Gramsci, Althusser and Gaddar sit side by side and continue their discourse over the liberation of humankind as a whole.
Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is blessed for attempting this monograph. I am very much blessed for having made a little acquaintance with these illuminatories.
Please read more about Kalekuri Prasad here.
You can read an earlier essay, 'Popular Culture and Ideology: The Phenomenon of Gaddar', by Dr. P. Kesava Kumar here.
[Images courtesy: Karthik Navayan]