This article was written in 1997 by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on the work and contribution of Gaddar, who died on 6 August 2023 in Hyderabad. Gaddar was shot by the state agencies at his home on 6 April, 1997 when Chandrababu Naidu (TDP) was ruling the united Andhra Pradesh. He survived 6 bullets shot from point blank, after five of them were removed by doctors and one still remained in his spine. That bullet also died on 6th and was buried as a Buddhist bullet along with his body. The article was published in Deccan Chronicle on 20, August, 1997 with a title “The Bard Whose Song is His Weapon” and later was re-published in Shepherd’s book Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism. Countercurrents reproduces it for reader’s benefit, as this was the only article that captured his unmatched contribution to caste-class struggles in India.
Gaddar, the famous poet, singer and performer, is a good example of a man who has embodied many ‘institutions’ in his struggle to reshape the very structure of the Indian caste/class hierarchies. On 6 April 1997, he was shot at his residence by suspected police agents. He had a miraculous escape.
Why did a democratic state- through its armed agency, the police –attempt to assassinate him? It would not be an exaggeration to argue that if Russia has produced a Gorky, China a Lu Hsun, India has produced a Gaddar. Of course, there is one significant difference among Gorky, Lu Hsun and Gaddar. Both Gorky and Lu Hsun wrote novels and short stories and became universally known writers. Gaddar became a greater literary and cultural figure by writing songs, and by singing and performing among people. The illiterate, semi-literate masses and intellectuals of all hues thronged to listen to him. The popular press in Andhra has acknowledged him not only as a great creative mind, or a ‘steel body’ that has withstood bullets, but as a man of melodious voice and creativity.
Gaddar began to compose songs, sing and perform when he was barely fifteen years old. He went through many twists and turns ideologically. As a child born in a Dalit (Mala) family, he worked as a child labourer and became an Ambedkarite. While a student of engineering at Osmania University, he was attracted to Marxism and Maoism. He wrote hundreds of songs that gave a literary expression to the lives of Dalit- Bahujans, the working classes and women. The song, for Gaddar, became a literary weapon.
Under the influence of a caste blind Indian Marxism it once appeared that he had moved away from Ambedkarism. However, his songs retained the connecting thread between caste and class exploitation. An early song that won the hearts of the Telugu people was written around the life-experience of his mother.
‘O Mother Lachumamma, your blouse is torn,
Your hair is soiled, your sari is in rags,
You have no money to buy new ones.
Even in that condition what have you done?
You planted saplings, walking backwards like a bull,
In order to produce food from the mud.’
He educated the rural masses about their innate self, their creativity and the inhuman exploitation to which they were subjected, through his singing and performing. It was no accident that Gorky’s most popular novel is about the mother’s role in the revolution. Gaddar’s most popular song is also about a Dalit mother’s role in the production of wealth and in sustaining the socio-political institutions of India.
Gaddar used a powerful song written by another Dalit poet, Guda Anjaiah, to educate the masses of the village poor about their class/caste identity. When Gaddar sang ‘Ee vuru Manadira’ (this village is ours), hundreds and thousands of people joined in the chorus. In the popular psyche this song is most associated with Gaddar as it delineates his ideology. He constructed the working class/caste self in terms of ‘we’ not ‘I’ – the village is ours, the wada is ours, the cart is ours, and the bulls that draw the cart are ours. It goes on to challenge the institution of landlordism- who is this dora? Why should he exploit and humiliate us?
Typically, Gaddar’s performances started with a ‘red salute to martyrs’. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Gaddar wrote many songs about martyrs who laid down their lives in the cause of social change. He used the basic Dalit-Bahujan language, idiom and symbolism by completely transforming the linguistic structure of literary Telugu. Before Gaddar emerged on the Telugu revolutionary literature scene, most writers belonged to the upper caste/middle class and landlord background. Their Telugu was rooted in Sanskrit while Gaddar’s writing drew upon linguistic structures, idioms, proverbs and euphemisms of the illiterate, productive masses-what is more, of a Telangana dialect which finds no place in written texts. Gaddar, thus, was the first organic Telangana intellectual who established a link between producing masses and the literary text and, of course, that text established a link between the masses and higher educational institutions. Even before Gaddar, powerful poets like Gurram Joshua had established a reputation in the Telugu literary field. But Gaddar used the song form to communicate to the masses a vision of restructuring the institutions of family, private property, civil society and the state. Symbols that are normally considered negative in the Hindu-brahminical tradition, figure as the most positive ones in his poetry. Post-Mandal, Gaddar began to rework his literary frame from a class-centred discourse to a caste-centred one, and with this a shift began to acquire a mass base beyond the ambit of Marxist-Leninist organizations. With every passing year he made an increasing impact on the festive Ambedkar jayanti celebrations. While the state resisted his presence at state-organized functions, the Dalit masses, including those who disagreed with his Marxism, welcomed him. He was seen as an icon of the Dalit-Bahujans. Gradually his influence spread to cinema and through it, his imagery, language and songs became part of the middle class.
Gaddar was the convener of the Jana Natya Mandali, a cultural organization. Slowly, he himself became an institution, a cultural symbol of social change. This provided a new impetus to his song-writing and he began to reach out to various social sections through new platforms. This shift became clear in his famous song ‘Arun Shourigo neeku aakalibademeruka’ (O Arun Shourie, what do you know about the pangs of hunger?). Though a reply to Arun Shourie’s attack on Ambedkar, it covers the entire gamut of antagonistic relations between unproductive Brahmins and productive Dalit-Bahujans. He wrote,’Nallani regallalo nethurithanameste’(we fertilize the black soil with our blood) and our blood is reborn as nethuru gulabi (blood rose). He showed how this red rose was taken away for a brahminical puja, pushing away the Dalits who grew it. He then says ‘pujakada nuvvunte bajakada memuntam’ (while you will be at the puja, we will be playing drums outside the temple). He informed the people that Brahminism is invariably Kautilyan in character.
In another song he wrote,’Bapanoni netthi tene busina katthi’ (the head of a Brahmin is a honey-coated knife). The shift to Ambedkarism is clear. The state, the ruling castes (Kamma, Reddy and Velama) and the Brahmins in the bureaucracy increasingly began to feel insecure with this shift. Their insecurity deepened after NTR’s death, for should Gaddar enter electoral politics, given his popularity, a totally new alignment could take place. This was because, given the revolutionary traditions in Andhra Pradesh, the Dalit-Bahujans here, unlike their compatriots in North India, were far more politicized. Further, there exists a new social base of organic intellectuals to rework institutional relationships.
Going beyond his role as poet, singer and performer, Gaddar tried to forge a unity between the Madigas and Malas (two major Dalit communities of AP). They were on the verge of a split, breaking the bloc formation of Dalit communities. He not only wrote a song, ‘yeyyiria dandorei…’ (beat the drum beat…) but also became the convener of a forum which reflected the spirit of ‘divide the booty (of reservation) and unite at the socio-political plane’. This was a turning point in his life. He became a steel bridge, a new rallying point between the divided communities.
The Dalit movement had produced a number of organic intellectuals by the time the Mandal struggle began in the 1990s. These intellectuals re-examined the negative/positive cultural ethos and the associated economic structures. They realized that in the new struggle of identities, the Dalit-Bahujan family, wada and caste associations could provide cultural resources to run the institutions of state and civil society. Gaddar’s songs began to influence this process. For all organic Dalit thinkers, administrators, writers and artists, the space that Gaddar came to occupy in the institutions of mass communication-was itself a source of encouragement. No poet, singer, performer or actor from a Dalit background had so far managed an effective entry into the institutions of communication. He thus broke through many historical barriers. On several occasions he occupied the front pages of newspapers. This does not reflect the generosity of the press, but Gaddar’s saleable image; he was a darling of the masses. He created an emotional wave in the audience when he appeared in a shepherd’s costume with rows of small bells attached to his ankles. Gaddar’s appearance in the media has increased their sales.
Gaddar saw the close relationship between backwardness and encounter killings, as also the killings of police personnel in the violence and counter-violence. Unlike the average member of the People’s War Group, Gaddar felt deeply hurt by any killing. It was in such an environment that he campaigned against encounter killings. He went around and ‘seized’ the dead bodies of persons killed in encounters. The police agencies, of course, were incensed, as they felt that he was not sufficiently against the ‘blast killings’ of police personnel. Gaddar’s efforts in the field of human rights created major problems for the state. His emotional involvement with the issue of encounter deaths began with the killing in the city of a PWG leader, a person whom he had introduced to the party. On this occasion, he ran into the Assembly building and into the High Court wearing his costume, creating a sensation. He was arrested in the first week of February 1997. The Dalit-Ambedkarite organizations, the Bahujan Republican Party and Dalit welfare associations took on the responsibility of securing his unconditional release. Within a week of his arrest he was freed. On his release from jail, he became the convener of a committee against encounter killings. For him 1997 thus became a year of mass activity culminating in his facing bullets.
Such a situation is uncommon. Gaddar’s juggling of different roles has kept the state apparatus on tenterhooks. Chandrababu Naidu, who succeeded in driving out his father-in-law, senses a new danger in Gaddar’s growing popularity. But more importantly, the ruling caste-classes (Kamma, Reddy, Vellama landlords, industrialists, businessmen) saw a major threat in this Dalit icon of art literature, who may well become a political leader using votes, not bullets, to capture power.
Gaddar stands out as a unique example of a person from the literary and cultural field who influenced both civil society and state institutions. For him the family, caste wada, villages and cities are centers of production relations. His theoretical discourse, which posits matti chetulu (the hands that turn mud into food) as the source of all production and social existence, combines Marxism and Ambedkarism to show how the matti manushulu (the human beings who have constant interaction with soil and nature-SCs, STs, OBCs) have no self of their own; that they are alienated from their very being through institutions such as caste, class, patriarchy and the state.
His songs critique all existing institutions. For his family is a mogoni rajyam (man’s kingdom), caste is a Brahmin rajyam (kingdom of Brahmins) and the state is an agrakula dopidi rajyam (kingdom of upper caste exploitation). In all these structures, power relations are moulded so as to serve the interest of the strong. Mogollanollallo beedilai kaaletollam (we, women burn as cigars in the mouths of men), nindu amasanaadu O Lchagummadi, Aada pilla puttinaadi O Lchagummadi… (if a girl is born on a no-moon day, the mother is forced to throw her away); in all his songs about women institution of the family comes under attack. He then attacks the caste system arguing that Dalit lives are not only matti batukulu (the lives that live in soil) but they are yetti batukulu (bonded lives) as well. Through his rhythmic compositions he critiques the institutions of family, caste, bonded labour, child labour and unpaid female labour. For him these labour processes, instead of being creative, self-energizing and self-liberating are self-enslaving. Gaddar, however, perceived the state as the central institution which shapes and moulds other institutions. It is not surprising that many of his songs focussed on the state and capture of state power.
Gaddar’s theorization connects every form of exploitation in India to imperialism. Of his many songs about imperialism, the one on the emergence of America as the unipolar power has acquired the status of a classic. He sang, ‘Look at that side, the American is coming. Early in the morning he comes in the form of toothpaste, in the afternoon he comes in the form of Coca Cola and in the evening in the form of rum and whisky. To control our consciousness, he lives with us in the form of Star TV.’ In this narrative he posits that the struggle between the Indian nation and American imperialism is taking the form of a struggle between ‘Coca Cola and kobbari baondam’. The struggle between Coca Cola and coconut water, a great natural energy drink, is a struggle between Indian nationalism and imperialism.
By his fiftieth year, Gaddar has experienced the full circle of life: untouchability, child labour, discrimination in school and college, in employment (he worked as a clerk in a bank for nearly seven years), life in jail, being underground, and finally the taste of bullets. However, he was not allowed his engagement with the masses to turn sentimental, preferring a dialectical relationship of study, struggle and criticism rather than blind faith. Instead of bullets killing him, he has killed them. Though one bullet is still lodged in his ‘steel body’, it has not deterred him from writing better songs and singing with greater vigour for the liberation of the toiling and exploited Dalit-Bahujan masses of our country.
(The link to the famous song of Gaddar was picturized by TV5 much later. If one listens to the song one can understand the depth of his labour theory, though it is in Telugu. Ganddar wrote this song when he was about 17 years old and had no link to Maoist movement. His father was a migrant from Maharatra as a Mahar Ambedkarite labourer to Telangana)
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is political theorist, social Activist and writer. His recent book The Shudras–Vision for a New Path Co-edited with Karthik Raja Kuruppusamy has shown a possible way out from the communal OBC morass that the RSS/BJP has deployed.