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More On G V Rao (1949-2023)

‘Gaddar–the Communist Guerrilla’

K Y Ratnam

Gummadi Vittal Rao (1949–2023) is known as Gaddar, one of the finest creative artists and a caste-class avant-garde poet, singer, and performer par excellence. Gaddar won titanic mass support for his exceptional contribution to the interface between cultural politics and revolutionary political cause in people’s new democratic struggles in India. Coming from among the most oppressed layers of Indian caste class hierarchical society, Gaddar's creativity was drawn fervently to the folk songs of the Telangana region, specifically, Burra Katha, Oggu Katha and VeedhiBhagotham- vernacular ballets that combined song, dialogue and performance with compelling story narration.

The turning point in Gaddar’s life was in the 1970s when he interacted with the Art Lovers Association. In this progressive theatre arts group, sensitive and socially oppressed singers and artist performers were sympathetically received and encouraged. Although he initially continued to work with Art Lovers, his innate working-class aesthetic values inevitably led him to recognise that artists have the power and the responsibility to change society that art and culture are weapons in a people’s struggle, and that culture and politics are inseparable. Thus, under the leadership of Gaddar, the Art Lovers Association metamorphosed into Jana NatyaMandali (JNM), which was subsequently drawn into the Left-wing CPI (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War Group. JNM developed a new aesthetic thought under Gaddar’s leadership that gave a creative reinterpretation imbued with a new spirit in addressing the question of oppressed art and culture and acquired new meaning. Its epitome was Prajalanundi Prajalaku (From the Masses to the Masses), which captured people’s imagination with its down-to-earth message.

The JNM has maintained particular contact with Tribes and Dalits and brought their art forms towards the radical politico-cultural sphere, raising the human self-dignity and land question conspicuously. Remarkably, the critical top leaders of JNM came from the radical Dalit artists like Gaddar and Vangapandu Prasad. Both combined trained many downtrodden revolutionary cultural artists as poets, singers, writers and artists. Sanjeev, Divakar, and Dappu Ramesh were top-grade singers and performers.

The JNM has given performances across the country. Its songs have been translated into Hindi, Marathi, Oriya, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, and several tribal languages. Gaddar was a multilingual cultural artist. For him, the song is the metaphor of a bullet, and he expressly stated that ‘the revolutionary song is the art form which is the bullet fired on the exploiter.’ However, the state has unleashed unprecedented repression on the JNM activists at the behest of oppressors against whom the radical songs were composed and exposed their vulgarity of exploitation. During the peak of the CPI (M-L) Peoples’ War movement, the State intelligence maintained that among the surest criteria for identifying someone as a ‘Naxalite’ were applauding Gaddar’s songs or owning his songs cassettes. The JNM artists were harassed and arrested, and false cases were filed by the State, almost eliminating the first-generation writers and singers. Gaddar was also falsely implicated in the Ramnagar conspiracy case.

Gaddar has developed an unshakable conviction and belief that the ‘Peoples War’ led by the CPI (M-L) movement would bring liberation to the oppressed masses because that raised human dignity and self-respect among the underprivileged in one generation than the many generations of reformist struggles led by those traditional Ambedkarite movements, and the old-style Left, in Telugu speaking society. However, the Karamchedu-Tsundur massacres shook Gaddar without losing his conviction in the CPI (M-L) Peoples’ War for the new democracy. Karamchedu-Tsundur massacres took an all-out struggle against caste-class oppression. It echoed the question of where you stand about caste. This central question sought to rethink the Left, especially the CPI (M-L), which seeks to radicalise the Dalit question by addressing the new democratic revolution in India. The Karamchedu-Tsundur massacres were seen as a fight between the dominant caste feudal and Dalits in which Dalits shed their blood and became martyrs for their self-respect and dignity. In this context, Gaddar composed a song on Dalit martyrdom, ‘DalitaPululu.’ He symbolised them as the ‘political martyrs.’ The song pays a ‘red salute’ to the Dalit martyrs, who fought valiantly against the ruling dominant caste feudal system. Politically, this has created a ripple, raising complex questions about caste class as the category of the radical canon of CPI (M-L) and JNM’s cultural critique.

The intervention of radical left intellectuals' concern and their critical reflection on the long-standing politico-culturally vexed problem of caste class got crucial attention. The fundamental question of whether caste constitutes the base or superstructure, whether the Dalit proletariats and the materiality of caste oppression have been seriously considered by the CPI (M-L). As part of this, the All India League of Revolutionary Culture (AILRC) organised a national seminar in 1987 under the leadership of the then-general secretary of AILRC, K V Reddy. Later, as the General Secretary of this all-India organisation from 2001-2004, Gaddar made a significant cultural contribution to disseminating alternative radical culture.

There were no inactive years, and Gaddar never laid siege to his new democratic revolutionary ideas. During the late ’90s, the state resorted to massive physical elimination of ‘Naxalites’ in the name of ‘Fake Encounters.’ In this state-sponsored alleged violence, many innocent ordinary people were killed as the sympathisers of Naxalites. Callously, their dead bodies were deposed as unidentified without handing over to their parents or nearer and dearer ones. Gaddar took up cudgels, against the combined might of the state at the local and central levels, initiated a stirring movement to recover those dead bodies, and handed them over to their parents or nearer and dearer ones. In this novel movement against the state, Gaddar’s slogan was ‘the dead bodies speak a truth’, and composed many songs exposing the state violence and fakeness of ‘Encounters.’

This unprecedented, courageous movement directly confronting the state and its apparatus posed a significant threat to the very existence of the then government. It prompted political considerations and culminated first by arresting and putting Gaddar behind bars and secondly by attempting to eliminate him by pumping six bullets into his body, one of which carried until his death. He defied physical and psychological harassment and abuse without retreating from the people's struggles, especially in the second phase of the separate Telangana movement. Gaddar’s artistic performances stirred emotions across the region, which ultimately got statehood. It is not to say that Gaddar is alone responsible for creating separate Telangana, which he never claimed.

Gaddar’s stage dress was the Gongadi and Gosi. The Gongadi (a coarse blanket/rug) is generally black with red stripes, and the Gosi (waist loin cloth to knee) is white with a red or blue border. Along with it, he holds a long, thick hand stick. He developed a peculiar ‘sense of rhythm’ and ‘rhythm-consciousness’ of the fusion point where the artists' experience transmutes into people’s real struggles, making the audience rapt and attentive.

Gaddar songs and lyrics provide a framework of reference for politico-cultural literary quality, which is too rich and impressive at a crucial moment in radical Left cultural history. His artistic strength was his love for the songs and folk culture of the people. Gaddar’s striking and invaluable legacy has manifold heights that link him to nativity but are definitively anti-tradition and anti-Western.

Gaddar was more than just an artist. He was an ardent, uncompromising, doughty warrior extending beyond the stage. Gaddar’s achievements in several people’s struggles were extraordinary.He developed a unique position because of the relationship between culture, political ideology, and social control under the caste feudal specificity of Indian society. He was very explicit in explaining his fight against every form of oppression through song and performance by using collective experience and his unique individual experience. Gaddar was certainly a trained guerilla if not in scientifically formulated Marxism-Leninism. Still, extraordinarily, he comprehended the significance of their world-changing philosophy in the form of revolutionary artistic performance. Gaddar also recognised the significance and welcomed the living construction of the caste-class annihilation philosophy of Ambedkar. While doing that, Gaddar never put back his radical proclivities to work for synthesising Marxism and Ambedkarism.

He strongly felt that the ruling classes had resorted to irrational efforts to nullify the Indian Constitution by eliminating citizens' civil and political rights. He lamented that these human rights are dreadfully in danger and felt that an all-out struggle must be waged to defeat these efforts by uniting the masses on a common programme explaining the power of the ballot. This purported political act of focusing on essentially constitutional issues was complicated and raised various questions about Gaddar’s political commitment to the people’s struggles, saying that he had abandoned his concern of a ‘proper revolutionary path’ for matters of immediate or transient interests.

He was undoubtedly political, but he never was, nor would he allow himself to become a politician. He was not hasty in running for office and being a movement's political leader, as he always believed in collective endeavour. One must not undercut his enduring and profound insights into politico-cultural radical ideology.

[The author is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. Mobile: 9440646091, Email: ratnam09@yahoo.co.uk ,kyrss@uohyd.ac.in]

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Vol 56, No. 29, Jan 14 - 20, 2024