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Popular Culture and Ideology: The Phenomenon of Gaddar


P Kesava Kumar

(First published in February 2010)

The cultural sphere has its own advantage over politics in terms of pulling people into its fold. Through his songs and cultural performances, Gummadi Vittal Rao, popularly known as “Gaddar”, the Telugu poet singer, maintains the historical continuity of people’s lives and their struggles. He brings politics into everyday life situations and translates terms like “working class”, “new democracy”, “revolution”, “classless society”, “bourgeoisies state”, “capitalist class”, etc, into concrete life experiences of people. He explains the political economy of Marx or Mao’s philosophy in simple songs or words without borrowing any textual language of Marxism. This paper is an attempt to explore the emergence of the Gaddar phenomenon and its significance by focusing on the performance of people’s culture.


No death for the song of people’s war – A slogan condemning the attack on Gaddar.

Gummadi Vittal Rao, popularly known as “Gaddar” is a revolutionary poet singer and has emerged as a powerful and popular cultural icon in India. He has established himself as an institution and a household name in Telugu society and other parts of India. Gaddar has captured the public sphere by bringing out the activities of the masses that were considered to be the domain of the private sphere. Through his cultural performances lakhs of people have got influenced and attracted towards the radical democratic struggles of India.

Gaddar and his Jana Natya Mandali (JNM) are a unique cultural phenomenon representing the revolutionary cultural struggles of the contemporary world. His work seems to be a culminating point of people’s culture and revolutionary politics. This paper is an attempt to explore the emergence of the Gaddar phenomenon and its significance by focusing on the use of people’s culture for inculcating revolutionary consciousness among the masses.

Gaddar as a cultural phenomenon has established an organic link between oral and written culture. While the literary world confined itself mostly to genres like poetry and the short story/ novel, the illiterate masses – totally marginalised by the print world – expressed their social aspirations and anxieties in oral form, mostly through songs and folk dance. Gaddar and the JNM, the cultural organisation that he represents, work with a mission to politically sensitise the masses. In Gaddar’s cultural performances, one can see the continuity of people’s culture and their folk art forms in modern times. He is instrumental in enlivening people’s culture by competing with the contemporary digital and electronic media. He invokes the social memory of the masses through his songs. He performs songs for a political purpose. For him, song is a weapon to resist dominance and to liberate the masses from oppressive social relationships. His songs work in nexus with the people’s political struggles. While mainstream art forms create subjective conditions and tend to relax the audience, Gaddar’s art form creates objective conditions and tends to make the audience think.

A study of Gaddar and his performance of songs would not only explain the strong relationship between culture and ideology, but also reveal the social and political purpose of any culture. Gaddar’s art form is also crucial in the sense that a subaltern himself will be voicing the concerns of subalterns. This is the kind of knowledge or art form which has been neglected for long by mainstream art and knowledge forms, on the ground that a subaltern speaking for subalterns has subjective content in it.

Popular Culture and Ideology

Culture-making is a social process: all meanings of self, of social relations, all the discourses and texts that play such important cultural roles can circulate only in a relationship to the social system. It is a constant succession of social practices. Culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience; and such meanings necessarily produce a social identity for the people involved. Culture is mediated through various forms. It undergoes changes with changing socio-economic and political conditions. As Marx argued, women/men make their own history. Culture has to be understood and analysed from the ideological point of view. In making culture and finding meanings of culture, the social groups that are involved and their ideological positions are crucial. In that sense, culture has to be understood in relation to the struggles of society. Culture is an arena that represents the ideological/ conceptual/theoretical space for the struggles/conflicts of society. It means the struggles of the people determine culture. There is another version of popular culture that emerges out of political struggles, that differs from folk and commodity culture.

To understand culture, one has to take into consideration the specific character of Indian society. The political struggles of nationalist movements and democratic struggles of post-independent India produced a culture used extensively for propagation of political ideals at the popular level. The Naxalite movement is one such democratic movement that has given a new meaning to the culture of the people (masses) and made a serious attempt to reach out to the people through their own cultural forms. The JNM which produced the singer-performer Gaddar is the cultural organisation supporting the political ideology of the Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh. The cultural phenomenon of Gaddar is linked with the struggles of the people. The struggle creates consciousness among people to construct/reproduce their own culture to fight oppressive social relationships. The terrain of the common sense, which Gaddar identifies, goes against the dominant hegemonic common sense. In other words, there is a conscious effort to produce/create counterhegemony to the dominant through popular cultural forms that are rooted in the lived social experiences of people. Gaddar picks up the folk cultural forms with which people at large identify. Most of the folk forms may have conservative connotations in the present. So Gaddar makes it more political and effectively uses them for the political mobilisation. The genre, the form, the content, the tune and the musical instruments, all have got totally revolutionised under the cultural performance of Gaddar and have been used for a revolutionary cause. Further, this politicised folk form also stands against the so-called popular culture produced by the dominant class through cinema and mass media. The Gaddar phenomenon reveals that the ideological representation of popular culture matters a lot since it plays a significant role in creating meaning or understanding by the people.

Historical Background of JNM and Gaddar

One cannot understand Gaddar in isolation to the cultural organisation JNM of Telugu society. The JNM came into existence with Naxalite struggles. Further, the JNM maintains the historical continuity of progressive literary culture produced by communist ideology and its struggles. The struggles inspired by the communist ideology paved the way for progressive literature and culture as against the classical conservative literary culture. The Progressive Writers Association (known as Abhyudaya Rachayitala Sangham, in short, Arasam in Telugu) was formed in 1943, and gave a new direction to literature and people’s arts. This literary space emerged out of the anti-feudal, anti-colonial and anti-fascist struggles. The Telangana peasant struggle of 1946-51 came with new aspirations; the literature and cultural forms become inseparable from the struggles of peasants. With the intensification of peasant struggles, Praja Natya Mandali as a cultural platform came into existence to reach out to the people and for effective propaganda of the communist ideology. Through this, many writers, artists and poets from the lower strata of society were introduced. They gave a literary and artistic expression to the living culture and social experiences of people. The Naxalbari movement of 1967 came as a radical alternative to parliamentary politics and differed from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) by supporting armed struggle. In the light of the Naxalite struggles, the Revolutionary Writers Association (in Telugu known as Viplava Rachayatala Sangham, in short, Virasamwas formed in 1970 further radicalising progressive politics and literature.

The political movements changed the literature and literary forms qualitatively and were also responsible for creation of new art forms of people. The new cultural form named Burrakatha1 came into prominence in the midst of anti-fascist struggles to propagate the political conditions of the nation and to explain the communist ideology. Nazar is the prominent artist of this form and is dedicated to Praja Natya Mandali. The cultural forms, like Burrakatha of Nazar and Jamukula Katha of Subbarao Panigrahi of the Srikakulam struggle had their roots in folklore. They politicised the folklore to meet their contemporary political interests. Oggukatha is a similar kind of cultural form used by a community called the Yadavas in the Telangana region. In the post-Srikakulam struggle era, Gaddar of JNM further radicalised the form and content on the same line of Nazar and Subbarao Panigrahi. It had a popular appeal.

Gummadi Vittal Rao was born in a poor dalit family of Telangana region. He was bright in school and active in cultural performances. He dropped out of engineering course due to financial problems. In the early days he organised a Burrakatha troupe and named it “Bapuji Burrakatha Party” and gave performances for the department of field publicity, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Initially, he gave performances on family planning and later on Allure Seetharamaraju, a hero of Rampa rebellion of 1922-24 against British imperialism. For some time, he worked as a manual labourer in a chemical factory. In 1971, the contact with “art lovers”, led by B Narsinga Rao totally changed his world view and he became politically committed. The Art Lovers Association on the initiative of Gaddar became JNM. Vittal Rao changed his name to Gaddar as a tribute to the Gadar Party of Punjab under the leadership of Hardayal, who stubbornly resisted British colonial exploiters between 1913 and 1930. Prior to the JNM, there was only a literary organisation to propagate the ideology of the Srikakulam armed struggle, the Revolutionary Writers Association. It could not reach out to the masses and was confined to writers and intellectuals. The JNM was born out of historical necessity and Gaddar filled this gap as no other artist ever could.2 Initially, he experimented with the art form Burrakatha, later he adopted several other folk art forms to express his ideology. The undercurrent of all the art forms are songs. The popularity of Gaddar’s songs cuts across the barriers of region, dialect and social status. The JNM under the guidance of Gaddar discovered several poets, artists and performers and trained them to spread the message of the revolution. Gaddar’s discovery of folk art forms has to be understood in tune with the demonstrative effectiveness of the principle of “from the masses to masses” to propagate revolutionary ideology.3

The JNM has produced more than 2,000 songs and has performed thousands of times all over the nation with varied audiences. Most of the songs are still alive and people own them passionately. More than three lakh copies of the books of songs of the JNM are reported to have been sold and its audio cassettes are popular in almost all the villages of Andhra Pradesh.4 His songs are popular through the audio cassettes. So far, he has written 3,000 songs and 35 audio cassettes have been released on different themes.

Gaddar not only sings a song, but also performs it. His rustic voice and vibrant body, which sways to the rhythm of a song, and especially, the social connections he makes, bring to life the spirit of the lyric. It is difficult to evaluate his performance according to the conventional principles of aesthetics. He has evolved his own aesthetics. The aesthetics of his art is located in his commitment to the cause he believes in. The people’s movement in Andhra Pradesh has produced Gaddar. The significance of Gaddar cannot be understood unless we put him in that context. He is not an isolated “great artist”. Gaddar is both a phenomenon and also a product of a phenomenon. But a phenomenon like Gaddar is extremely rare in any language. It is not for nothing that literary artists call the present age in Telugu poetry as “the age of Gaddar”.5

The growing importance and popularity of Gaddar can be understood from the attack on him, allegedly by state functionaries, on 6 April 1997. He miraculously escaped from death and still survives having a bullet in his body. The song “Jamedari Koyalo” by Bhoopal explains the context in which the attack on Gaddar took place.6 This song reflects on the emergence of Gaddar as a human rights activist, a leader of dalits (both for Mala and Madiga subcastes), and a symbol of the Telangana agitation. In simple words, he becomes a culmination point of all alternative struggles of Telugu society. His voice is felt in the meetings of all alternative movements such as of dalits, women, and Telangana. Though he has performed on all these platforms, he has maintained the stand of the Maoist party. In his capacity as secretary of the All India League for Literature and Revolutionary Culture (AILRC), he has toured all over India by performing and organising cultural programmes in support of the “new democratic revolution”. In 2004, he was one of the emissaries of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) to hold peace talks with the government of Andhra Pradesh.

Politicisation of Folklore

Folklore is a rich source for any cultural movement of contemporary times. Folklore is effectively used by religious groups, feudal lords, nationalists, capitalists and communists to meet their political ends. It is the collective wisdom of the people and has historical continuity. Mostly, it is carried through an oral tradition by invoking the social memory of the people. In the Indian context, the social groups involved in labour belong mostly to the lower castes. In this sense, folklore is marked by an identity of the lower castes. Folklore had undergone significant changes with changing contexts. The social groups involved in this process played a decisive role in giving it an ideological direction. The popular modern art form like cinema emerged out of modern drama. It is argued that the roots of modern drama are in folklore, Veedhinatakalu (street play).7 In all the living folk art forms of today, the song lives in the undercurrent. The “song” is a powerful popular medium not only for revolutionary politics, but also for feudal lords and capitalists.

The folk song was born out of labour, whereas the popular revolutionary song was born out of social movements. It lived along with the movements/struggles of society. It brings the change in tunes along with changes in its content. It is progressive and has a clear vision of the future. It makes the people aware of the exploitative system and makes them politically conscious. The revolutionary song makes a conscious effort to enliven people’s culture by destroying its anti-democratic elements. The revolutionary song is not only entertaining, but it also makes songs more meaningful for the people. The JNM has identified that it should carry its cultural performance or songs through groups. For the JNM, the song is the medium to propagate revolutionary ideas. It changes the song in many ways – in tune, dialect, content and conclusion. The JNM has a powerful imprint on the minds of people with the growing importance of Gaddar as its cultural leader. The source for Gaddar’s songs is folklore and Gaddar has revolutionised this folklore.

Revolutionary Songs of Gaddar

The songs of Gaddar go along with the struggles of Indian society, especially of Telugu society. The revolutionary struggles have influenced his ideological position too. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he wrote and performed many songs on martyrs of revolutionary struggles. The song centred on masses in the name of peasant and agricultural coolies (Rytu-cooleelu). The crux of his songs is the struggle, and comes out from oppression. As a Marxist, he identifies the unequal relations in the society due to appropriation of property by a few people. The song titled “Bharatadem Bhaghyaseemara” reveals unequal relationships in Indian society and exposes the primary contradiction of the Indian society. Though we have rich resources, why does there exist poverty? In this, he sings that “the country of India is prosperous with no dearth of resources, fertile lands that give gold, perennial rivers and such prosperous country, yet poverty is ruling”.8 In a similar tone he explains the fate of the productive classes/castes in a song, “Kammaroni Intlabutti/Kattipeeta Suttileka”. In this he highlights the plight of traditional jobs taken by particular caste groups and how they are alienated from their own produce. For instance, he says that “in spite of being born into a blacksmith’s family I don’t have a sickle and hammer…”9

Gaddar not only narrates the oppression and exploitation of the masses, but also develops confidence among the masses. His songs essentially engage in making the masses revolt against the system. The song “Ooru Manadira” develops confidence among the villagers by asserting that this village is ours and every work is done by us.10 This song was written by Guda Anjaiah in a revolt against feudal oppression in Telangana. This has been made popular through the voice of Gaddar.

Like any Marxist, Gaddar believes that society is always in a dynamic state and that the working class will never be silent and will revolt against the system for a better life. So “change” is the underlying principle of his songs. He firmly believes that change will be brought about by organising the masses under a revolutionary party. In a song “Aagaduu Aagadu”, he sings that the ordinary people who are starving will definitely lead the armed struggle. He invokes the illustration saying that the army of ants started marching and the snakes’ hearts are pounding. The herd of cows started moving, seeing that the lions started running away. This, he draws parallel to the mass movements of working class fighting against the landlords. By invoking day to day life illustrations Gaddar was able to make an impact on the thinking process of people.11

Songs on All Social Categories

Gaddar has a clear vision of what comprises class in the Indian context. He has composed songs on all the social categories of Indian society. There are a good number of songs on “peasants”, “agricultural coolie” and “industrial workers”. He has translated the term “class” through his songs in the concrete terms of Indian social reality. The songs identify with dalit subcastes, railway workers, stone quarry workers, gardeners, rikshaw pullers, women agricultural labourers, beedi workers, coal mine workers, and road transport corporation (RTC) drivers. He tries to unite all these groups under the label of the “labour class”.12 Capitalism works on the extensive use of machines and produces goods in large scale. Its ultimate goal is the profit by expanding its market. It commodifies everything. Human relations are based on the value of utility. Life becomes mechanical. In the line of Marxism, he has many songs. In the song “Yentrametla Tirugutuvundante”, 13 Gaddar explains the process of production of goods by machines and how it sucks the blood of labourers. One may get the idea of capitalist exploitation of workers from this song. The song “Rikshawwala” not only bursts out his miseries, but also ridicules capitalism in a subtle form – I will run my rikshaw with by blood, my blood is petrol to my rikshaw.14

The movements of dalit and women in the Telugu society have started influencing Gaddar in a significant way from the decade of the 1980s. In fact, these movements are critical of Marxists movements in relation to their understanding of caste and gender. The Naxalite movement was not an exception for their criticism. Till then, the Naxalite party was not serious about issues of caste and gender. The dalit movement has forced all the alternative movements to understand Indian social reality from the point of caste, in addition to the class point of view. Women’s movements put forth the issue of patriarchy. These movements had different strategies for emancipation of dalits and women. In the literary-cultural realm of Telugu society, emerged the feminist and dalit literature. This kind of environment even pushed the Naxalite movement into a crisis. This kind of political atmosphere facilitated Gaddar to bring his songs in line with the more concrete social reality of Indian society. Being a dalit, he is an internal critic of the Maoists on the issue of caste. Being nurtured in Maoist political struggle, he is critical about the ongoing dalit movements and their strategies to reach out to the powers. Gaddar emerged as a link between the Naxalites and dalit movement, not only as a singer, but also as a theoretician with commitment. Against the backdrop of the dalit movement, he too changed his language from identifying people earlier with “coolie” and “labourer” to Malas and Madigas (dalit subcastes). The significant transformation can be seen from his earlier songs referring to “Coolanna” (coolie brotherhood) to his songs of the 1980s with “Dalita Pululamma” (dalit tigers). It is true that his early songs centred around coolies, peasants. He sings for “Coolie Rajyam”. But even prior to the dalit movement, he came out with a song “Yelaro ee Madiga Batukulu”. In the song “Rajyadhikaraniki Malanna”, he categorically explains there will be no change in the lives of dalits unless and until you get political power. Even if you change your caste or religion, there will be no change in your life. For this armed struggles is the only way.15

In Telugu society, the Karamchedu massacre is a landmark in dalit politics. Six dalits were killed by upper caste Kamma landlords in 1985. In response to this, dalits of Andhra mobilised in large scale in support of the victims of Karamchedu. Gaddar invoked the struggle led by dalits in Karamchedu in the form of a song in order to campaign and sensitise dalits. The song “Dalit Pululamma” praises the dalits of Karamchedu of having fought against the feudal lords like lions.16 The Karamchedu massacre was followed by Chunduru massacre in which eight dalits were killed by the upper caste Reddy landlord community in the year 1991. Gaddar sang a song this time to finish the hegemony of Chunduru landlords in “Chunduru Dalitanna”. Gaddar believes that the liberation of dalits is linked with a land struggle. He emphasises the need of united struggle of caste with the struggles of class. In the post-Mandal context, he focused exclusively on the issue of untouchability. The condemned lifestyles of the dalits transformed into a symbol of protest. He had songs on chappals (“Kirru Kirru Seppuloyamma”!), garbage bins (“Yenta Chakkagunnadee – Na Chettakundi”), Payakhana (lavatory) (“Sundarangi Paikana”).17 Through these songs, he has made an effort to bring dignity and respect to the untouchables.

Gaddar has written many songs under the influence of the women’s movement in Telugu society since the 1980s. Till the 1980s, there was no focus on the specific issues of women. Women’s oppression was considered a part of the class struggle. The songs Gaddar sang until then had seen women only from the revolutionary perspective – “Sirimalli Chettu Kinda Luchumammo… Luchumammo”,18 “Bavayyo Vokkasari Chusipova”19 and “Laskar Bonalanta”, “Kongu Nadumuki Chuttave Chellamma”. Under the influence of the women’s movement, Gaddar composed many songs exclusively on the problems of women.20

From 1990s onwards, India had undergone a significant transformation. It liberalised its economy and forced privatisation of the public sector. Globalisation is now taking place in full swing. It has had an impact on the lives, culture and value system of people of third world nations like India. Gaddar’s song “Ameikodostunnadu” resists the warmongering imperialism.21 In the name of globalisation, imperialist dominance is mediating through mass media and information technology. Analysing the impact of satellite channels on the culture of Telugu society, Gaddar sang a song saying the channels culture has given rise to conflict in the family with invading channels.22 The immediate effect of globalisation could be seen in the suicides of a number of farmers and handloom workers. The song on the suicides of farmers is “Oriselu Aadginayi?”23

As a supporter of separate Telangana, Gaddar has written songs on Telangana, based on sub-nationalism of Telugu nationalism. In “Dagabadda Telangana”, he narrates how Telangana as a region is deprived by the ruling communities and he praises the glory of Telangana.24

The songs of Gaddar have to be understood in relation to the nature of state and struggles of the people. In contemporary times, there are ongoing struggles of the people in the name of class, caste, gender and region. Gaddar songs were born out of the Naxalite movement that entered Telugu society in the late 1960s. The movement has undergone different phases.25

It is evident that Gaddar’s songs got sharpened further with the contemporary struggles of Telugu society. His songs have more performative meaning than the textual meaning. He says that he had taken songs from the life and cultural traditions of people and is taking back to the people by playing the role of an effective communicator. His songs provide a rich resource material of the struggles and culture of the people, which are not entered in the official historical documents.

Analytical Study of the Cultural Performance

As it is observed, Gaddar cannot finish a single sentence without a song. He does not differentiate between the song and the life of people. He humbly portrays himself as a communicator of the life and struggles of the masses. The song gets its meaningfulness through the performances of Gaddar. He is the voice of the voiceless people. His songs not only represent the social aspirations of the marginalised suffering masses, but also inform the direction to lead a meaningful life by joining hands with ongoing struggles. In making revolutionary culture, Gaddar’s songs reflect the perfect blend of life, literature and politics. Apart from setting the ideological tone, the songs of Gaddar powerfully capture the folk tunes of the people for a political purpose. The songs with tunes of the people are accompanied by the musical instruments of the people. The song gets its perfection in the performance. Over the years Gaddar and his JNM found that the principles of success of their songs are: Prajala Baani (folk tune), Prajala Palukubadi (people’s vocabulary) and Prajala Jeevitam (people’s life).26 When the song fulfils all these, automatically people will own it.

The language used by the Gaddar and JNM is the language of the masses. The language and life of the ordinary people have got respect only through the songs of Gaddar. This phenomenon countered the hegemony of the print culture. He uses the basic dalit-bahujan language, idiom and symbolism by completely transforming the linguistic structure of Telugu society. Before Gaddar emerged on the Telugu revolutionary literature scene, most writers belonged to the upper caste/middle class and with a landlord background. Their Telugu was rooted in Sanskrit, while Gaddar’s writings draw upon linguistic structures, idioms, proverbs and euphemisms of illiterate, productive masses – what is more, of a Telangana dialect which finds no place in written texts. Gaddar, thus, established a link between the producing masses and literary text, and, of course, that text established a link between the masses and higher educational institutions…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.27

The music is inseparable from the song. What kind of instruments to be used in their performances is debated in the JNM. The JNM is aware that its cultural form is not in a position to compete with the dominant forms unless and until it is artistic and skilful in presentation. The instruments to be used in programmes are in tune with the targeted audience. The targeted audiences for the JNM programmes are the peasants and agricultural coolies (dalits), artisan communities in the villages, workers and petty bourgeoisie in cities. It is obvious that dappu and dholak remain as main instruments in the JNM programmes. The JNM has experimented with many instruments going along with the interests of the people who join the organisation. The JNM experience reveals that dappu and dholak would be with them till the end. Musical instruments are needed to be revolutionised. As Gaddar reminds us, when people are appreciating our music and are not bothered about the content, it means we have failed to revolutionise the music.28

Mostly, Gaddar has a grip over his audience through his powerful tunes. The political message is carried effectively through the tunes he selects from the lives of the people. He has a thorough knowledge of the folk tunes. In Indian society, the folk tunes are born out of the involvement of people in production process of agriculture. People come out with their own tunes from the struggles of everyday life. The folk tune has the element of transforming and developing further. Gaddar believes that the usage of the folk tune gives the identification of the artist with people. Moreover, the folk tune is appropriate to describe the contemporary social conditions of Indian society since they are produced from the same agrarian set-up.29 Gaddar reaches his audience of different languages of the nation with the help of folk tunes.30

The song is an inseparable mix of the raga, tala and content. To get the attention of the audience all these are important and the singer should maintain the overall balance of these elements. A singer like Gaddar never allows the raga and tala to overtake the content. But at the same time, he will carry his audience by humming. Many a time he involves his audience in providing a chorus for his songs. In the first instance itself, he will evolve an effective communication with his audience and will maintain direct interaction till the end. He creates an environment of the song on the stage. For instance, for the audience to switch over from one situation to the environment of the jungle,31 he will start with the sound of “Rela Rela”.32 He repeats this with a different twist of Rela Rela till he psychologically involves them in the song that he is going to perform. The song will be followed with Rela Rela. He dances rhythmically along with the song. In response to humming (aalapana), the raga will be added and followed by the song. The song is performed through a dance. Gaddar plays all these processes spontaneously. This kind of dance form is very much present in all the folk art forms. Ata (dance), pata (song) and mata (speech) are proportionately internalised in his cultural activity. It is difficult to differentiate him as a singer, performer or a political ideologue.

While singing the song, Gaddar moves his hands and legs rhythmically. Through the body movements, he activates the eyes of the audience and their ears instantaneously. It is difficult for any artist to perform continuously for a long time on stage. Gaddar manages well on stage involving the audience for hours together. In the JNM programmes, usually he takes the lead and the other members of the cultural team continue with the songs. In this way, he maintains the collective folk spirit of the song. It is not easy to stay on stage without being exhausted, for an artist involving in singing, dancing and keeping an eye on audience consciously. Gaddar is very economical in using his energies, both in singing and dancing. He jumps, shouts, sings, dances, and talks with audience. In taking his audience to the peak along with his song, he suddenly appears as a still photograph by freezing the song and movement of the body, by ending with a focused expression “Haa”.33 This simple word “Haa” is loaded with many feelings and expressions depending on the context. This “Haa” not only gives breathing time for the artist, but also breaks the continuity. This kind of discontinuity may provide his audience to think rather than carry on emotionally with his song.

Apart from his songs, language and politics, Gaddar has made a distinctive mark on the people as a visual image and as an individual. People remember the image of Gaddar with a black blanket on his shoulder and wearing a ghochi (loin cloth). He remains half naked. He ties gajjelu (ankle bells) to his legs and holds a red kerchief in one hand. This attire is an effort to identify with the masses. This is the regular dress of a poor shepherd in a Telangana village. (Of course, this visual image is most demanded on media at present.) As a person, he has erased all the distinctions in everyday human relationships. At the most, people call him as Gaddaranna. For the people from middle class and ruling class, it is an embarrassing situation as to how to call him.

The red kerchief in his hand plays many roles in his performances. As he dramatises every song/situation, he creates many scenarios with his handkerchief. He symbolically uses it as a mother, revolution, martyr, and a weapon. He plays with holding the kerchief meaningfully to provoke the feelings of both veera and karuna rasa. As has been observed, “Gaddar is the top most in performance. He will play diverse roles on stage. He will be a mother who has lost her son. He will be a rytu coolie who does not get anything for his labour. He will be an activist who is motivating people for revolution. He will be a government official who shows his power and arrogance. He will be a courageous fighter who has sacrificed his life. The kercheif he ties to the hand and the blanket on his shoulder becomes a vodi (lap), cheera chengu (saree fall), a red flag. He will mesmerise his audiences by performing all these diverse roles with distinctiveness.”34 It seems this is appropriated from the cultural form of Burrakatha in which one could see all these elements. As Gaddar in an interview explains, “Earlier Nazar brought the cultural form Burrakatha close to the people by politicising it. I have changed this form significantly. This happens because of my close association with people living in villages.”35

The form of cultural performance of Gaddar and his programmes of the JNM have evolved from practice and have been standardised over a period. The performance of songs has been imbibed from many other literary and cultural forms.36 The JNM has succeeded in having a new form of cultural performance: Dialogue + satire + song + poetry + action + expression of ideas/ideology.37

Gaddar has established the organic link between oral and written cultures. The cultural traditions of the people are enlivened through him even in modern times. The folk culture has been dialectically transformed and has got revolutionised through him in contemporary times. This phenomenon imbibed many genres like song, dance, drama, music, prose and poetry in a unique revolutionary plane. Gaddar stands as a culmination point of culture, literature, politics, life and struggles of oppressed people. The way Gaddar and his image transcend the caste and class identities in the era of identity politics and reaches the upper caste and middle class is very significant. “…His (Gaddar) cassettes adorn the decks of rich, upper middle class, middle class families. Ideology, class or caste is no bar to listen to his songs. The sincerity in his voice makes his bitter critics guilty, moves and melts their hearts”.38 Gaddar symbolises the powerful cultural leader of the hegemonic subaltern culture in countering the hegemony of elite and capitalist ruling castes/classes. He represents a rare phenomenon that has evolved over a period in third world societies.


As it is observed, there are many reasons for celebration of Gaddar as an icon, a legendary figure or an institution in revolutionary cultural politics of Indian society. The issue to be debated is whether Gaddar is an extraordinary artist or his strength lies in the politics that he is representing. Gaddar himself never claims to project his importance isolated from the politics he represents. He humbly accepts that without Naxalbari politics, one could not imagine Gaddar. He is the product of the Maoist politics. But at the same time, it is puzzling to see why only Gaddar has had an appeal among the people than any top most Maoist political leader. The political leader, however articulate, with a grasp on Indian social reality and commitment to revolutionary politics, has had a limited reach. The political language, especially Marxist terminology, is full of rhetoric and it is not so easy to reach out to the people in convincing terms. Added to this, people may have genuine fears to identify with the revolutionary politics, in the context of heavy repression by the state. In the case of Gaddar, it is quite the opposite.

First of all, Gaddar brings down the politics into everyday life situations. He translates the terms like “working class”, “new democracy”, “revolution”, “classless society”, “bourgeoisies state”, “capitalist class”, etc, into concrete life experiences of people. He explains political economy of Marx or Mao’s philosophy in simple songs or words without borrowing any textual language of Marxism. Of course, cultural sphere has its own advantage over politics in terms of pulling the people into its fold.

Second, it is true that Gaddar is not a born artist, he was made out of conditions. To reach the celebrated heights, it is not so easy. It needs talent, insightful mind, capacity to grasp the social reality and effective communicative skill, apart from the social commitment of artist. The extraordinariness of Gaddar has to be understood for his grasp of dynamic social relations that are operating in the cultural terrain and in putting things in a proper perspective and in giving direction to the oppressed people. The way he creatively explored the rich cultural traditions of the people for a political cause is marvellous. No other artist will match Gaddar for tapping the folklore of the people. Through his songs and cultural performances, he maintains the historical continuity of people’s lives and their struggles. The essence of his songs could be seen as the continuity of pre-modern philosopher saints and yogis of artisan and sudra communities of Telugu society like Veerabrahmendra Swamy and Yogi Vemana. These people contested the brahminical dominance and exposed the hollowness of brahminical wisdom in practice of its own principles.

Third, Gaddar has explored all possible ways in invoking the social memory of the audience than any other artist. In fact, this helps him in broadening the audience base. The existing society might be divided into various groups and diverse interests may prevail. Gaddar’s songs capture the common sharing element of these diverse groups, the cultural past, the nostalgic life. The differences among the conflicting group of modern times are minimal at this point. This may be the secret of Gaddar reaching castes/classes other than working class and lower castes. He has the grip over these people at least as sympathetic rather than the activists of revolutionary politics. Through the loaded karuna rasa in his songs, he works on the minds of even apolitical people, and through veera rasa he invokes the feelings of revenge and protest among the suffering masses. However, he touches the human sensitivity and tries to conscientise them. As a result, the hegemonic culture created by him counters the ruling class/caste hegemony. The counter-hegemonic culture involves more and more social groups having an organic link to their life experiences.

The image of Gaddar circulated in mass media may also help in establishing his legitimacy in public sphere and civil society. Finally, the identification of Gaddar as an artist with the people and his commitment to revolutionary politics as an individual established his credentials as people’s artist. The attack on him reveals how powerful and popular with the Indian masses the singer performer, balladeer Gaddar is. He remains in history as a symbol of protest forever.

P Kesava Kumar ( is with the Department of Philosophy, Pondicherry University.




1 It is evolved from Jangam Katha or Saradakalla Katha. It has one narrator of the story and two supportive players. They play a role of satire and politics. Burrakatha is a synthesised form of the Jangam/ Saradakalla Katha method with a visual portrayal of Yakshaganam. These two forms got united in Burrakatha.

2 Gaddar (ed.), J V Ramana Reddy (1990), Gaddar, The Voice of Liberation (Secunderabad: Janam Pata Publications), 2002, p 4.

3 Gaddar, The Voice of Liberation, p 17

4 Interview to Prastanam, special issue on literature, Neekochina Bashalo Rayi Neevimuktikosam Rayi (Hyderabad: Prajasakti Publications), 2002, p 127.

5 Ibid, p 5.

6 “Bhoopal Jamedarikoyalo, “Eeviplavagnulu….Sandhya swaralu”, JNM: AP, 2004.

7 See Kalyana Rao G “Telugu Natakam Mulalu Veedhinatakam lo Vunnayi”.

8 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 139. This song is popular even in the language of Hindi as, “Bharat Apanee Mahan Bhumi”.

9 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 104.

10 Popular in Hindi as “Ye Gao Harama… Guda Anjaiah”. Quoted in Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 129.

11 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 42.

12 See Gaddar (JNM), “Rikshaw Tokke Rahimanna”, Gaddar Gunde Chappullu, audio cassette.

13 Gaddar (JNM), “Yentramelta Tirugutuvundante”, Gaddar Gunde Chappullu, audio cassette.

14 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 81.

15 Gaddar (ed.), Rajyadhikaraniki Malanna, Jana Natya Mandali, Patalu JNM: Secunderabad, 2001, pp 71-72.

16 Ibid, pp 206-07.

17 Gaddar, Gaddar Songs, pp 15, 60, 63.

18 This is a song about his mother who is working in the fields. This symbolically represents any dalit woman.

19 This is the song composed by Gaddar in the underground, after receiving a letter from his wife, Vimala. This experience he generalises through this song.

20 “O Lachagummadi”, “Adolla Batuku”, “Amma Nenu Bone” (on anti-arrack movemt), “Mogolla Nollallo. Beedilai Kaletollam” (on beedi workers). See Gaddar Patalu, Janam Pata Publications, Secunderabad, 1999.

21 Amerikodostundu, ibid, p 49.

22 Gaddar Patalu, Janam Pata Publications, Secunderabad, 1999, p 26.

23 Gaddar Patalu, Janam Pata Publications, Secunderabad, 1999, p 12.

24 Ibid, p 23.

25 The Naxalite group, Gaddar sympathised with was CPI(ML) People’s War headed by Kondapalli Seetharamaih of the late 1970s and 1980s. It transformed into CPI (Maoist) in the early decades of this millennium by merging with other Naxalite parties like the MCC and Party Unity.

26 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, p 164.

27 Kancha Ilaiah, “The Bard Whose Song Is His Weapon”, Buffalo Nationalism – A Critique of Spiritual Fascism, Samya, Kolkata, 2004, p 46.

28 Ibid, p 232.

29 Ibid, p 175.

30 Gaddar explains that the particular folk tune will have particular talas all over India. Because of this the folk song of one place will be effortlessly sung in another part with the help of folk musical instruments (p 204).

31 Jungle is the symbolic representation of the struggles. It is the place where the Naxalite struggles are concentrated and the Naxalites take shelter.

32 “Rela Rela” is a powerful folk tune of adivasis. Gaddar and JNM had songs starts with humming of “Rela Rela” and had a great impact on adivasis in mobilising them in favour of Naxalite struggles.

33 The artists of all the alternative cultural politics imitate the gesture of “Haa” in their performances.

34 N Venugopal, Avisranta Janahrudaya Spandana- Jana Natya Mandali.Yavanika, January-March 2003, Hyderabad, (p 30).

35 Gaddar, Nee Kochina Bashalo Rai, Nee Vimukti Kosam Rayi, Prasthanam, p 127.

36 Initially, the JNM artists used to sing by standing at one place as a group. Later, they started to introduce the songs with a dialogue/word (mata). Later, it had focused on performance of the song effectively and strikingly. Play is added to the song and dialogue. Satire got added to this by ridiculing the bourgeoisie songs or ideology of the exploitative class.

37 Gaddar, Taragani Gani, Prajala Patal Puttupoorvotharalu Jana Natya Mandali Publications, Hyderabad, 1992, p 126.

38 APCLC, “Twin Cities: The Singer Who Charms the Oppressed”, Deccan Chronicle, 14 April 1997, Hyderabad.


[Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly, February 13, 2010] 


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