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Home > News> Big Story > Songs for the earth: Music and environmental protests in India

Songs for the earth: Music and environmental protests in India

From the Chipko movement to Save Aarey, music—whether by local bands or famous artists—has been a vital part of environmental protests

The evocation and eulogy of nature through song and dance has been a continuing tradition
The evocation and eulogy of nature through song and dance has been a continuing tradition

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Over the past four weeks, since plans to build a Metro rail car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey forest were revived, videos of musicians leading protesters in song on streets have been shared and re-shared online. About three weeks ago, a group of young musicians played their songs of protest to the accompaniment of a harmonium and rhythmic clapping on the Mumbai Metro, both entertaining and rousing commuters to their cause.

While the style was vastly different, to singer-songwriter Arjun Kar, 28, the scene was oddly reminiscent of the time in 2017 when thousands marched on the streets, hugged trees and sang protest songs to save 4,000 giant trees along West Bengal’s Jessore Road, linking Kolkata with Bangladesh.

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Kar, then in his mid-20s, had done an interpretative translation of Union Maid, popularised by American folk musician Pete Seeger. The Bengali lyrics, translated here, resonated with the protesters: They can’t snatch away our homes, our land and our jungles, they can’t till the sun shines and green shoots are born, we’ll defend our treasure with all our brawn.

A resident of Habra, 40km north of Kolkata, Kar had woken up one morning to the noise of chainsaws slicing through the adult mahogany tree opposite his house. He rushed to intervene but the contractor had the government’s stamp of approval—it was part of a plan to widen the historic Jessore Road. The matter is now in the Supreme Court and felling has been stalled for the time being. Recently, Kar saw new branches and leaves emerging from the trunk of the amputated tree.

The Aarey musicians and Kar are part of a small but determined consciousness that protests wanton ecological destruction while projecting a greener, cleaner and more equitable future—their struggle shines a light on a long tradition of musical environmentalism in India. Music is their hook to communicate their message. Over the last few years, these green songs of protest have entered popular consciousness and mainstream music apps, and musicians and artists are working to keep them alive and relevant to a younger generation grappling with similar concerns about the world and their immediate surroundings.

It’s getting more difficult, though. In the past, these protest songs have helped popularise movements, pushing governments to enact logging bans, pass environment-friendly laws, and forcing big companies to take action. But in a scenario of increasing corporatisation of natural resources and supportive government policies, it’s harder to find a sympathetic, or receptive, ear. They are used to ploughing a lonely furrow.

Rahul Ram performing, Image courtesy Getty
Rahul Ram performing, Image courtesy Getty

“Most protest movements have their songs,” says Rahul Ram, 58, environmentalist and member of the pioneering folk-rock band Indian Ocean. “These songs create tremendous on-ground impact and spread the word but live in the moment and often die undocumented with the movement.” In the 1990s, he played a prominent role in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to raise awareness about the ecological and human costs of big dams. Ram has included music created or performed during the NBA in the band’s albums Kandisa (2020; the song Ma Rewa) and Tandanu (2015; Cheetu). In a situation where many such songs remain unrecorded, Indian Ocean’s inclusion of some of them in later albums lends an element of continuity.

Prakash Bhoir, a Malhar Koli tribal leader and resident of the Aarey forest, says that while it is difficult to measure the exact impact of cultural interventions like environmental protest music, there is little doubt about their value. Bhoir, an activist-musician in his early 50s, teamed up with Mumbai hip hop crew Swadesi to release the folk-rap battle cry Warli Revolt in early 2019, during the first round of protests to save the forest from the Maharashtra government’s plans for a Metro car shed there. “The music video made the issue both personal and political for busy Mumbaikars who are mostly blasé about environment issues. The five-minute song encapsulated the issue better than an hour-long speech,” Bhoir says.

The Save Aarey movement was considered a successful intervention when the previous Uddhav Thackeray-led government decided to shift locations to save around 2,700 trees. The new Maharashtra chief minister, Eknath Shinde, reversed the decision almost as soon as he took office. “If the government is hell-bent on destroying the forest, it is imperative that our resistance should begin,” Bhoir told me, two days ahead of the first public protest in the second round of protests to save the forest. “There will be more songs to sing.”

A LONG TRADITION

The evocation and eulogy of nature through song and dance has been a continuing tradition among tribal, forest-dwelling, animist and nature-dependent communities in India. It can be seen in the rich metaphor in the songs of Bhakti and Sufi singers, or the 283 Prakriti Parjaay (Nature Phase) songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

“These days singing about nature is seen as a political act, or an act of resistance,” says Kaladas Deheriya of the Chhattisgarh-based music performance platform Relaa. “In the name of development, industries take away our land, forests and rivers. Yet, when we sing about our loss or impending loss, we are seen as anti-development and even anti-national.”

On paper, India’s total forest cover registered a minor increase of 0.09%, or 1,540 sq. km, between 2019 and 2021, according to the Union government’s State Of India’s Forest Report 2021, but many independent experts question these figures. For the definition of “forest cover” includes not just natural forests but also farmlands, tea estates, commercial plantations, even tree-lined avenues in cities.

On 28 June, the Union government notified the new Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022. Researchers and activists maintain these will dilute the rights of forest dwellers under the 2006 Forest Rights Act. These new rules would allow forests to be cleared without the consent of the forest-dwellers’ gram sabhas. It’s in such situations that environmental music and protest songs can help communicate the problem speedily and effectively.

“This will have huge implications. Despite population pressure, the reason why India has managed to have its forests and wildlife is because of forest-dwellers, whose sustenance depends on forests and they ensure its sustainability. It will make previous laws and checks and balances redundant,” says Debadityo Sinha, lead, climate and ecosystems, at the Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

NEVER LETTING GO

They built dams/ Drowned villages and built factories/ They cut down forests, dug out mines and built sanctuaries/ Without water, land and forest, where do we go?

These are the lyrics of Gaon Chodab Nahi, easily the biggest hit in contemporary music environmentalism. Originally penned sometime in early 2000 in Odia by the Adivasi leader Bhagwan Majhi to protest bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha, the earthy tune has travelled far, inspiring the music protest videos of the Word Sound Power project led by reggae/dancehall artist Delhi Sultanate and electronic music producer Chris McGuinness.

The song’s easily understood sentiments and rousing chorus have seen it being used even in non-environmental campaigns. In 2009, documentary film-maker K.P. Sasi turned it into an evocative music video. The conflict between development and nature-dependent societies is reiterated in the line, Oh god of development, pray tell us, how to save our lives?

CHIPKO: WHERE IT BEGAN

Among the first successful nature and forest conservation movements in independent India, the Chipko Movement of the 1970s in present-day Uttarakhand not only introduced the now popular, non-violent protest form of tree-hugging, it also brought with it a bouquet of protest songs.

A still from ‘The Warli Revolt’ video, by Swadesi and Prakash Bhoir
A still from ‘The Warli Revolt’ video, by Swadesi and Prakash Bhoir

Though there is much debate about how the word “Chipko” came to be associated with the grass-roots movement, for many it rewinds to a song penned by the Gandhian activist, writer and poet-singer Ghanashyam Raturi Sailani. In an interview in the January 1994 edition of the magazine Himal Southasian, Sailani said he wrote the line, “Chipko pedo pe jungalo bachounda (Stick to the trees to save the forests),” a year before the first Chipko action in 1973; resentment against large-scale logging had been brewing in the region since the late 1960s.

“Sailani’s songs urge citizens to take their future in their own hands by joining movements to save the forests…. His songs always celebrate the beauty of the Himalaya, on the one hand, while expressing deep anguish at the present conditions of disadvantaged people, especially women, in this harsh beauty,” observed another report in Himal Southasian. It’s the kind of message that resonates even more urgently today, inspiring both musicians and music lovers.

In their 1986 research paper, The Evolution, Structure, And Impact of the Chipko Movement, authors Vandana Shiva and J. Bandyopadhyay say Sailani’s songs were central to mobilising support. “The songs reminded the hill people of their forest-based culture and created an environment within which the hill people became more aware of the need for forest protection,” they write. “It is this cultural and political climate and heritage which marks the birth of the now famous Chipko Movement.”

The Chipko Movement not only inspired similar environmental protests in other Indian states and Asian and European countries, its immediate impact was felt when the Indira Gandhi-led government imposed a 15-year moratorium on commercial logging in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. The Chipko Movement also proved to be a motivation for laws like the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, among early such legislation in independent India, according to the Down To Earth magazine and others.

Those were fascinating days, says Indian Ocean’s Ram. At his Delhi house, Ram remembers travelling to the Tehri-Garhwal site of the Chipko Movement in 1980 as a class XI student of St Xavier’s school and hearing a wide variety of songs that served both as a galvanising shield and a weapon in the movement. “I understood the notion of social justice. One learnt how the poor are unequally affected by environmental degradation. It opened my eyes as a city boy travelling to rural areas for the first time,” says Ram. This experience would inform his five-year stint as a “full-time activist” with the Narmada Bachao Andolan from 1990, after he completed his PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University, US.

From the days of the freedom struggle to more contemporary protests, traditional folk tunes have been reimagined and recontextualised for the cause of a mass movement. They return, too, as rousing songs chorusing an environmental cause. Musicians like Ram have worked to record them in studios and include them in albums.

He tells the story behind his 2015 song, Cheetu, part of the Indian Ocean album Tandanu. Cheetu’s origins lie in the Adivasis’ struggle against the British and their efforts to clear forests and appropriate the lands of the indigenous people. In 1993, in the thick of the NBA protests in Madhya Pradesh, one of the locals, Shankarbhai, taught Ram the song about Cheetu, a Bhil tribal who had resisted the British in 1857. A day later, police arrested Ram for attempted murder and took him to the local police station, which, he discovered, had once been Cheetu’s home. Elated, Ram started singing the song. The policeman in charge, without understanding the song’s Bhili lyrics, was delighted enough to order a special meal for the arrested musician. “That’s the power of music,” he says. A decade later, in a sign of “how the state operates”, he was acquitted of all charges.

Goan activist and musician Fr Jose Bismarque Dias. Image courtesy Shamik Bag
Goan activist and musician Fr Jose Bismarque Dias. Image courtesy Shamik Bag

In 2023, a year that will mark 50 years of the ingenious and radical Chipko Movement, not many may remember that it was a song that popularised the concept of tree-hugging—but the tradition of bringing together message, music and activism continues. Today, bands like the Bengaluru-based Swarathma and Manipur-based Imphal Talkies are known to raise environmental issues, like those surrounding the Cauvery river and the Loktak Lake, respectively, in their music.

CHIPKO’S ECHO

Released in 2017 by the folk-fusion band Maati Baani, with lyrics by Piyush Mishra, Chipko Re, an uptempo music video calling Mumbaikars to save the Aarey forest, is an example of the continuity in theme, of development versus sustainability, concrete versus trees, and state power against the resolve of forest-dwellers and environmentalists.

Against the backdrop of the first phase of the Save Aarey campaign, one evening in February 2019, just days after Bhoir and Swadesi released The Warli Revolt, a thumping humdinger of a rap-folk, Hindi-Marathi bilingual track that minces no words—backed by a gorgeous animated video using Warli paintings—I was sitting with Bhoir at his home in the Aarey forest.

The walls of his house were painted with representations of animal life, Warli art adorned the room, and beside a little bamboo bridge leading to his house, a red light flashed intermittently to keep away leopards. The forest surrounding his house buzzed with insects and birds, fireflies flickered in the bushes—it was a scene far removed from the tony Mumbai nightclub where Swadesi+Bhoir had released The Warli Revolt to a raucous reception a few nights earlier. “Mumbai’s educated elite need not worry about tribal people getting displaced, they should worry about the air they breathe since the Aarey forest works as the city’s lungs. The music video addresses these concerns,” he said then. “It’s vinash (destruction) camouflaged as vikas (development).”

Bhoir’s newest track, Wagh Deva, released with the Mumbai band Sparsh in 2021, resonates with the desperation he feels as an activist-musician. “In a city of 20 million people, only a few thousand turn up to protest, though the city’s biggest green patches are being destroyed. The Marathi song addresses Wagh Deva, the leopard we worship, imploring him to join the protests since the leopard’s habitat too will be destroyed,” Bhoir told me over the phone a few weeks ago, while planning the next stage of the Save Aarey movement. “Aarey belongs to Mumbai and we have to involve and unite every affected group this time.”

It is with similar motivations to create greater understanding about the traditional commons—shared resources like lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, grazing lands and swamps which don’t have a “taxable” (according to Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna) market value but are invaluable for environmental health—that Krishna released the song Poromboke Paadal in 2017. In Tamil, the word poromboke denotes worthlessness; it is also, however, the term used in government documents to describe barren land, usually traditional commons. In poromboke, Krishna finds a natural bounty, in effect “making it the first Carnatic song to begin with an abuse”.

TM Krishna's 'Poromboke Paadal'
TM Krishna's 'Poromboke Paadal'

The word and the place, he told me during an interview at The Park hotel in Kolkata, needed reclaiming. His focus was the Ennore Creek region in north Chennai, “an unfrequented place of violence and drugs”, which, despite being “poromboke”, is also home to power plants, paint and fertiliser factories. To him, the development symbolises the breach of the commons, a warning.

“Chennai residents dread visiting the place. Everything about the place is ‘othered’—the nature, the people, the culture and the occupation of the nature-reliant folks living there. Yet, with the factories, everything that is ugly in the making and beautiful in the consumption is there. We question people’s apathy and the song ends by asking, ‘Am I a poromboke, are you a poromboke?,’” Krishna had explained. The connection to consumption patterns was clear.

Chennai-based environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman says environmentalists had been raising the issue of encroachment of commons repeatedly; 2015’s devastating Chennai floods clinched it.

POWER OF VIRALITY

In 2015, a three-minute rap track, Kodaikanal Won’t, by the then 27-year-old Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf,was viewed 3.5 million times within weeks of its release. It dovetailed into a sustained agitation against Hindustan Unilever that sought compensation for workers exposed to mercury poisoning and environmental pollution at its Kodaikanal plant in Tamil Nadu. The agitation included a call for a boycott of the company’s products; an online signature campaign; and endorsements for the rap track from Western celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, Ashton Kutcher and Nicki Minaj.

Sofia Ashraf performing. Image via Getty
Sofia Ashraf performing. Image via Getty

It wouldn’t be stretching the point to say that Kodaikanal Won’t forced the consumer goods firm to listen, something 15 years of on-ground struggle hadn’t been able to do. “When one is young, one often writes about personal issues like teenage angst and identity as a post-9/11 Muslim rapper. But here I was, writing songs about issues bigger than me. Music can have a more powerful voice when people’s voices are amplified,” says Ashraf.

Jayaraman, one of the driving forces behind the campaign, says: “The video’s popularity forced the company to offer compensation and agree to demands. This song exposed Unilever’s environmental abuses in Kodaikanal globally and put the power back in the hands of workers.”

Not every effort at musical environmentalism has had such an ending, though it may have created a stir. In November 2015, Goan activist and musician Fr Jose Bismarque Dias was found dead near a sluice gate of the Mandovi river. While the police maintained it was a case of accidental drowning, Bismarque’s family, members of the band he led and supporters alleged murder and consider him “Goa’s first martyr for the environment”.

Just months before his death, Bismarque had founded and fronted a ragtag team of Goan musicians calling themselves Musical Warriors. They performed for the first time at a protest in front of a Panaji church on 21 June 2015. He was already known for his activism, taking on the state’s real estate and mining lobby as well as alleged illegal land sales by the Church. In effect, Bismarque had become a voice for a “greener, environmentally conscious Goan future, and who, understandably, made many powerful enemies,” says Sudeep Dalvi, a member of Musical Warriors, which folded soon after Bismarque’s death, and a petitioner seeking a fair investigation into the case.

In its four-and-a-half-month existence, Musical Warriors, with Bismarque as vocalist and fist-pumping speaker between songs, performed eight street-corner protest gigs. They travelled across Goa, their music a mix of Konkani, Portuguese and English songs, interspersed with piercing messages against big-ticket projects likely to affect the environment.

As an ordained priest, Bismarque had delivered “his first severe critique of the Church’s illegal land-related activities” during sermons at a Vashi church on 7 November 2007. “Soon his monthly stipend as a priest was cut off and later, he was stripped of priesthood,” says Dalvi.

Veteran journalist and editor Sujay Gupta had known Bismarque for years. While the priest’s irreverence was always on view, he thinks Bismarque’s turn to environmental activist-musician was the game changer. “I wouldn’t call it a mass movement in terms of scale but Musical Warriors was a very effective movement in reach and impact. It got a lot of traction from non-resident Goans and became not just a social movement but a big social media movement. The music activism attracted the otherwise indifferent youth,” explains Gupta.

*****

In June this year, I found myself in a train with Kar, who had adapted the Pete Seeger song in 2017. We were accompanying members of the music collective Gaccher Jonnyo Gaan (Songs for Trees) to the town of Bagula in Nadia district, three hours from Kolkata. In its two-year existence, the collective of about 20 active members has performed across Bengal, donating its collections for the purchase of saplings—the group also distributes seeds among people, says founder-member Mintu “Saptak” Biswas.

Thousands of saplings have been planted, including experimental mangrove plantations in Jadavpur and Rabindra Bharati universities. Singing Baul, Fakiri and nature-invoking songs, the earthy force of their collective singing, backed by banners promoting tree plantation and ecological consciousness, has a magnetic effect on audiences.

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That warm June day, the dozen-odd musicians travelled ticketless in the train’s vendor compartment, reasoning that their “contribution is in planting trees”. The entire compartment was animated by their resounding singing, backed by folk instruments like the khamok, dotara and dubki. Potato vendors clapped along, a masala muri seller kept a sharp rhythm with a spoon on his aluminium mixing bowl, a flower seller gifted them a garland, and the ticket checker, when he came along, didn’t bother them.

In Bagula, a local club had organised a conservation-focused programme involving schoolchildren. Gaccher Jonnyo Gaan was at the fulcrum of the events—they performed passionately under a canopy of trees, displaying posters and giving short speeches. Schoolchildren planted scores of saplings to the accompaniment of joyous singing.

Close to evening, a parade of hundreds of students, holding posters on the environment, walked along the town’s main street. Gaacher Jonnyo Gaan members led the way with their full-throated singing. At a crowded three-way crossing, they stopped, holding up the parade as they continued their lively performance. “They have built walls in the name of development,” the musicians sang as human and vehicular traffic came to a standstill for a few minutes.

“Anything it takes,” Biswas says later, “to have a better life and future.” My mind goes back to 22-year-old Medha, a founder-member and key singer who, in a tragic incident rife with irony, died earlier this February when a tree fell on her moments after a performance. Each tree Gaccher Jonnyo Gaan plants will stand for what Medha stood for, I realise.

Shamik Bag is a Kolkata-based writer.

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