The Face Of Many Struggles

Gaddar–a Legend in his Own Lifetime

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Folk singer Gaddar, born Gummadi Vittal Rao, also popularly known as ‘people’s singer’ and ‘Praja Yuddha Nauka’, died on 6 August in Hyderabad. The poet was an organic legend as a lyricist and singer belonging to the productive masses who reflected the power and pain of labour and humanity.

A Maoist, pro-Telangana movement and pro-Mandal activist, politician, Dalit, and later an Ambedkarite and Buddhist–Gaddar was the face of many struggles.

The poet’s most famous song, which he wrote when he was still maturing as an organic lyricist and singer in the 1970s, goes as follows:

“Sirimalle Chettukinda Lachumammo, Lachumamma
Yuvvu Chinaboyi Kusunna Vendukammo
(O mother Lachumamma, Why are you sitting
Under jasmine tree with such a sad face and body)”

This song depicts Gaddar’s mother’s life of labour and all its torture when she worked on a paddy field yet wasn’t paid and starved for days. It moved readers.

Gaddar belonged to a Marathi (Mahar) Dalit family that migrated to Hyderabad. His father, Toopran, an Ambedkarite, educated him and admitted him into the prestigious University of Engineering, affiliated with Osmania University, in the early 1970s.

But Gaddar didn’t complete his course–he was soon drawn into radical student movements and dropped out of college, taking up a job as a clerk at a national bank only to leave it soon after. Then he became a full-time singer associated with the communist revolutionary struggle, popularly known as the Naxalite movement.

Gaddar gradually came to be recognised as the face of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML) through his songs, which he sang in the streets, at public gatherings, and before audiences numbering in lakhs–mobilising all. He took India’s cultural realm by storm with his new genre in which he wrote and sang about agrarian productive masses and exploitation in novel style. For a long time, his alternative to the existing corrupt system was only the armed revolution.

The poet adopted the name ‘Gaddar’ as a tribute to the pre-Independence Gadar party, which opposed British rule in Punjab. The moniker soon became the Indian symbol of Maoist struggles. The songs that Gaddar wrote on the red flag, guerilla strategies, and armed struggles shook the State apparatus.

In 1997, the folk singer was shot by five unknown assailants at his Venkatapuram residence in Secunderabad. While surgeons managed to take out four bullets from his body, one had gotten lodged into his spinal cord that they didn’t remove to avoid further complications–and the poet reportedly called it a “symbol of State repression”. The bullet sat within his body till he died.

A man of courage, conviction, wit, and humility, and yet was childlike, Gaddar felt strongly for the Dalit movement. In the 1985 Karamchedu massacre, when Kamma landlords, the dominant caste group in coastal Andhra Pradesh, brutally murdered six Dalits and raped three Dalit women, he wrote a mass mobilising song that went as follows:

“Karamchedu Bhoosamulatoti Kalebadi Nilabadi
Poruchesina Dalit Pululamma
(The Dalit tiger that fought against Karamachedu
Landlords like tiger)”

This song became a weapon to mobilise Dalits in the entire state. From then onwards, Gaddar started writing songs on untouchability, Ambedkarism, and constitutionalism.

The poet’s sympathies for the Dalit cause heightened in 1990 when Mandal Commission protests erupted all over the country and the VP Singh government received heavy criticism. Social justice versus merit had become the ideological anchors of pro- and anti-Mandal forces. Even the communist revolutionaries under the leadership of mostly upper castes wavered and avoided a clear stand.

Arun Shourie, who was then the editor of The Indian Express, was leading the anti-Mandal movement. Gaddar responded to Shourie through a song that became a weapon for pro-Mandal forces. It went as follows:

“Arun Shouriego Neeku Akaali Bademeruka
Neyyi Kada Nuvvunte Piyyikada Memuntam
(O Arun Shourie, what do you know about the pain of hunger
You live in the society that eats ghee
Whereas we live a life that lifts your community’s shit)”

The song was disliked by many ‘upper’ caste revolutionaries, but Gaddar went on singing it in public meetings to inspire the marginalised to fight and get reservation implemented.

Toward Telangana movement
Later in the decade, Maoists decided to rekindle the Telangana movement when the Telugu Desam Party was in power. Gaddar became the inspiration for the movement, writing several songs on the exploitation of the state’s resources. His most powerful song had the following lyrics:

Podustunna Poddu Meeda Nadustunna Kalama
Poru Telanganama….Bale… Bale…Bale 
(On the rising sun the time is walking
The Telangana struggle is a time walker on the sun)

Today, the song is remembered as the symbol of the Telangana movement. Although Gaddar was never an open supporter of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (now Bharat Rashtra Samithi), he led parallel radical pro-Telangana groups with Maoist support.

Despite his Maoist sympathies, Gaddar differed with the ideology on one aspect–class struggle was not enough, caste struggle should be taken up too. He saw the several strengths of the Constitution. The singer tried to convince Maoists to change their approach toward the Constitution and BR Ambedkar. Obviously, they refused to change their old line of class struggle.

Gaddar exited the CPI(ML), dissociated from the Maoists around 2010, and started working with other forces to defend the Constitution.

After the Telangana state was carved out in 2014, Gaddar moved closely with diverse political and ideological forces. Several cases against him–filed when he was a Maoist–still lay pending. His health was getting precarious. For some time, he worked with the Bahujan Left Front (BLF), supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) , along with this writer. But at the same time, he maintained good relations with the Congress, participating in public meetings that Rahul Gandhi conducted in the state. Gaddar met Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in Delhi too.

Gaddar’s life was a saga of restless wandering, singing his own songs except for two that he popularised. One was Bandenaka Bandikatti (Bullock cart after bullock cart), a famous one against the Nizam and written by Yadagari during the anti-Razakar and Nizam struggle in the 1940s.

The second one was Vuru Manadira, which had the following lyrics:
“Eevuru Mandira, Eevada Mandira
Dora Yendiro Vani Peekudendiro
(This village is ours, this locality is ours
Who is this landlord, What is his torture over us)”

This song was written by another famous Dalit singer and writer, Guda Anjaiah, during the revolutionary movement in the early 1970s. Gaddar took this song to almost every village in Andhra Pradesh. As he kept singing the chorus at processions, thousands would join him, charging up the feudal atmosphere in the villages and towns.

Gaddar was both a sophisticated and rustic thinker. When he turned toward Ambedkarism, he wrote several ballads against the caste system and untouchability. A feminist, he wrote philosophical songs on women’s life, labour, and humanity, speaking against kitchen drudgery and the pain of cleaning streets and homes. His song on the great service of the broom conveys deep meanings.

Gaddar adopted Buddhism, leaving his earlier communist affinities, to follow in the footsteps of Ambedkar.

The folk singer is buried in the school compound that he built for poor children. Gaddar’s love for equality and his songs that talk about the struggle for liberation will remain.


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Vol 56, No. 9, Aug 27 - Sep 2, 2023