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Gaddar and the end of an era in Indian music

The death of Gaddar—poet, balladeer and Communist revolutionary—has left a hole in Indian culture and politics

Gaddar at a rally in Delhi in February 2008.
Gaddar at a rally in Delhi in February 2008. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

Late on Sunday evening, my phone started blowing up with texts from friends in Indian activism circles. “Dost,” the first one read, “Gaddar has died.” With the news came a dull, throbbing ache that has become increasingly familiar to me as a 30-something music fan, the diffuse sense of loss you feel when a musical icon—someone you never met but whose life and work has informed your sense of who you are—passes on. The next morning, I sat down for a little ritual of remembrance: watching those of his performances I could find on YouTube, digging out my copy of Vasanth Kannabiran’s excellent book of Gaddar songs (translated into English), allowing myself an hour or two of cathartic grief.

But the ache mutated into something sharper, more acute. It wasn’t just Gaddar—the revolutionary balladeer, the maverick anti-caste poet—whose loss I felt. Along with him, I was also mourning the passing of an era in Indian music history. Gaddar was one of the last symbols of a time when the radical political power of music was not just a matter of faith and theory but something that played out in the streets. A time when ideologically committed young men could shake the foundations of capital and state power with just their voice and a dappu.

Gaddar—pronounced “Ghadar”, the moniker was inspired by the revolutionary Ghadar party—was born Gummadi Vittal Rao, the son of Dalit labourers in Toopran village in present-day Telangana. As a child, he would spend hours hiding under his mother’s pallu, listening to her sing all day. These were among the first songs he learnt as he accompanied his mother to work, cathartic folk songs of sorrow and joy, inscribed with the many oppressions that come with being a Dalit woman. It’s these songs and traditions he would turn to for inspiration when he started writing his own songs of resistance.

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“Women are the source and foundation, the fountain of songs in this country,” he told Kannabiran in a 2019 interview. “They sing their feelings, their work, their grief. They vent all their oppression, sorrow and protest in song.”

The first Dalit from his village to finish high school, he enrolled as an engineering student at Osmania University, where he was introduced to left-wing politics by Lohiaite socialist Keshav Rao Jadhav. At the time, Andhra Pradesh was a terrible place for the poor and marginalised. The communist-led Telangana peasant rebellion of the late 1940s—later crushed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s military—had overthrown the nizam but the landlords and feudal caste elite retained their power even after elections in 1952. Atrocities were commonplace.

It was in this cauldron of dissent that Gaddar found his political voice. Inspired by the peasant uprisings in Srikakulam and the 1969 Telangana agitation for a separate state, Gaddar started writing songs of revolution. He joined the Art Lovers Association, started by film director B. Narsing Rao, and would travel with it to bastis and villages to perform consciousness-raising songs and poems. It’s here that he adopted his trademark uniform: the shepherd’s gongadi (woollen blanket), the wooden staff, the red handkerchief tied to his wrist. Gaddar added Burra Katha (an oral storytelling form) and folk song to the group’s repertoire.

His music drew from familiar well-springs of melody and harmony, just as his lyrics drew from the common man’s tales of pain, suffering and resistance. They invoked scenes and lived experiences that resonated with his audience—the starving rickshaw driver simmering with anger, the bonded labourer spending all day in the field, only to return to an empty kitchen, a farmer so dispirited by market prices that he set fire to his own crops in protest. His songs transmuted the anger and humiliation of these experiences into stirring calls to revolution, reminding the peasant and labourer of their latent power.

By 1972, like many other radical young artists and activists, he was drawn into the mass revolutionary struggle after the Naxalbari revolt. As part of the Jana Natya Mandali, a cultural front for the Maoist People’s War Group (PWG), he wrote songs like Ragal Janda (Red Flag) and Voli Volila, Rangula Voli (Holi, Shining Holi), infused with Marxist-Leninist theory and incandescent rage at atrocities—police encounters of left-wing youth, the Dalit massacre at Karamchedu.

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He became the Bard of the Revolution, thousands thronging to his performances, thousands more following his call to action. His songs were compiled and published as booklets, sold on thousands of cassettes, translated into different languages.

He wouldn’t escape unscathed. There were days spent in police lock-up, years spent underground. Even after his return to public life in the 1990s, after restrictions on the PWG were lifted in 1989 —his songs Bande Naka Bandi Katti and Podusthunna Poddumeeda became anthems for the movement for a separate Telangana state, and hits to boot—he was the target of an assassination attempt in 1997, allegedly by undercover cops. By 2010, disenchanted by the Maoists’ unwillingness to engage with caste, he disavowed armed revolution and took up the Ambedkarite cause.

It didn’t dent his popularity. Gaddar was bigger than the party.

He still towers over India’s anti-caste and anti-capitalist protest music scenes. The first time I met Maharashtra lok shahir (people’s poet) Sambhaji Bhagat in 2012, he spent 15 minutes talking about what he learnt from Gaddar in the years they spent travelling across India, performing to Dalits and workers (they even spent some time together in jail in the 1980s). When I found myself at a meeting in Delhi with activist cultural troupes from central, west and south India, Gaddar was their common lodestone. Everyone from Kabir Kala Manch to anti-caste rapper Sumeet Samos had stories about him: He was like the movement’s Elvis, Lennon and Reed, all rolled into one.

The deep impact he has left on Indian culture and politics is reflected in the thousands who mourn his passing, in public meetings and private homes. Even those, like me, who only encountered his magic through badly shot performance videos and the helpful translations of Telugu-speaking friends. His loss is all the more keenly felt because his revolution remains unfulfilled. The apparatuses of repressive caste and class power that he struggled against remain, the battles he fought in are still ongoing. So, let his passing be a final reminder of his most lasting legacy: proof that an individual with courage and a voice can challenge the most powerful forces of history. As long as the dream of an egalitarian society remains unfulfilled, let a thousand Gaddars bloom.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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