Thinking Out Loud

On the development of ‘Singing with Practical Intent’ in the anthology Past the Tower, Under the Tree: Twelve Stories of Learning in Community published by GLORIA Books

Balamohan Shingade TOL 1

Photo Credit

Shingade, Balamohan, and Erena Shingade, eds. Past the Tower, Under the Tree: Twelve Stories of Learning in Community. Tāmaki Makaurau: GLORIA Books, 2023.

Balamohan Shingade
Jun 02 2023

Music is inseparable from the social world it’s borne out of, a world in which our tastes are entirely political. Think of hip hop and its roots in the 1970s block parties across Brooklyn and the Bronx, when the music was a contested site to hash out the meanings of multiculturalism amongst African Americans, Puerto Ricans and the children of immigrants from other Caribbean countries. At the same time, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, spiky-haired youngsters thumped out punk music from angsty garages to reject authoritarianism, commodity culture, and conformity. But to speak of classical music in the same breath as rock bands and rap artists might seem strange, because classical music seems tied to tradition and conservatism and a reticence for social change. For a politics of resistance, we might think of Pussy Riot or Riot Grrrl as better suited, or Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar, Rise Against and Rage Against the Machine.

In a forthcoming essay titled “Singing with Practical Intent”, I tell the story of how some Indian classical singers engage in a politics of resistance. I describe how the political ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) threatens to crumble the pluralist and syncretic tenets of India’s classical arts and cultural traditions. I draw lessons in activism from musicians like T. M. Krishna, who, despite facing aggressive campaigns from adherents of Hindutva to shut down his concerts, continues to sing “songs on Jesus in Malayalam and Allah in Tamil, verses by 12th-century philosopher Basava and 21st-century author Perumal Murugan, and bhajans by anti-colonialist Gandhi and poet-sant Tukaram.”

When the Hindutva movement seeks to construct a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation-state) by stripping India of its secular foundations, the demands placed upon India’s classical arts and cultural traditions is that they separate along ethno-religious communal lines. “Singing with Practical Intent” searches for a musician’s response to and rejection of such a political project. It is about classical musicians unburdening themselves from the demands of separatism and joining instead with projects for social justice.

The essay is part of an anthology I co-edited with the poet Erena Shingade. (A lecture version of the essay was recorded by The Physics Room, here, as Episode 43 of the podcast Art, Not Science.) The anthology is titled Past the Tower, Under the Tree: Twelve Stories of Learning in Community. It’s published by GLORIA Books and designed by Katie Kerr. It includes contributions by Edith Amituanai, Catherine Delahunty, Mohan Dutta, Dominic Hoey, Areez Katki, Emily Parr, Daniel Michael Satele, Kahurangiariki Smith, Mokonui-a-rangi Smith, Richard von Sturmer, and Terri Te Tau.

The anthology offers a portrait of twelve artists and activists crafting a life in community. From street theatre to rap, from the tattoo hut to the meditation hall, each contributor offers a window into unexpected contexts and rich forms of practice. In these contributions that span love letters to tributes to appeals, readers are invited to reimagine the meaning of teaching and learning, and to recover a promise in that process: the possibility of a fuller education, where craft and companionship go together. You can order a copy of the book here.

For this edition of THINKING OUT LOUD, I want to share two songs by doyens of India’s classical arts and cultural traditions. India has distinct streams of classical music, and the selections nod to two each. The first track is by a performer from the northern tradition of Hindustani music, and the second is by a singer of the southern Carnatic music. The soundtracks function as two examples of Indian classical music at the interface of political resistance.

Shubha Mudgal, singer, “Dastoor”, poem by Habib Jalib, Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, February 4, 2020

Shubha Mudgal’s performance at the Artists Against Communalism festival brings Hindustani music to the site of a political protest. The festival was organised spontaneously in solidarity with the women-led sit-in in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, and in direct response to Hindu Sena’s (“Army of Hindus”) threat of violence against the Muslim women protesters who had been occupying Shaheen Bagh since the BJP Government’s enactment of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA).

Although the Shaheen Bagh protest brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets across its 101 days, the regressive CAA bill is still in force today. It violates the secular foundations of the Indian constitution by providing a pathway to Indian citizenship for religious minorities from neighbouring countries claiming persecution—except for Muslims. (Religion was not previously an eligibility criterion to become an Indian citizen.)

But to think of these events as having no bearing on us in Aotearoa New Zealand, or to think of them as of interest to a minority of Indian New Zealanders, would be a mistake. Muslim New Zealanders witnessed a surge of Islamophobia when the CAA was introduced in India. They organised demonstrations against the bill in Tāmaki Makaurau, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Te Papaioea, and elsewhere. The protestors voiced public concern about the Hindutva agenda and the rising anti-Muslim exertions of residents in Aotearoa.

As Mudgal performs, arms stretch out like fishing rods and reel in the scene on shaky camera phones. She is accompanied on tabla and harmonium and sits with the protestors under fabric canopies and bamboo scaffolds. The place is adorned with the Indian tricolour, and at least one is tied at half-mast. Behind the performers are photos of anti-colonialists who secured India its independence from the British Raj—revolutionaries like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sarojini Naidu, among others.

“Dastoor”, the title of the Urdu poem by Habib Jalib, means system or structure. Jalib had written it in response to ascendent authoritarianism in his home country of Pakistan. Here is a translation of the first verse:

diip jis kā mahallāt hī meñ jale chand logoñ kī ḳhushiyoñ ko le kar chale vo jo saa.e meñ har maslahat ke pale aise dastūr ko, sub.h-e-be-nūr ko maiñ nahīñ māntā, maiñ nahīñ jāntā

The light which shines only in palaces Burns up the joy of the people in the shadows Derives its strength from others’ weakness That kind of system, like dawn without light I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept

The poet was imprisoned several times for opposing martial law in Pakistan. It is said that when Jalib was in jail, the warden intimated that he would not be given a pen or paper, to which the poet retorted: “I recite my poem to your guard, he will recite it in the town square, and so it will reach Lahore.” In the second verse of “Dastoor”, Jalib writes of the threat of imprisonment:

maiñ bhī ḳhā.if nahīñ taḳhta-e-dār se maiñ bhī mansūr huuñ kah do aġhyār se kyuuñ Darāte ho zindāñ kī dīvār se zulm kī baat ko, jahl kī raat ko maiñ nahīñ māntā, maiñ nahīñ jāntā

I am not afraid of execution Tell the world that I am the martyr How can you frighten me with prison walls? This overhanging doom, this night of ignorance I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept

T. M. Krishna, singer, “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”, music by R. K. Shriramkumar, lyrics by Kaber Vasuki, produced by Justice Rocks and Vettiver Collective, 2017

The second track is T. M. Krishna’s rendition of Chennai Poromboke Paadal, which was originally a Tamil indie-rock song by Kaber Vasuki. The site of resistance here is not the protest stage but the song itself. Poromboke challenges the State’s rending of village life and livelihood by responding to the construction of thermal power stations and the pollution and havoc wreaked upon the neighbourhood of Ennore in the name of the development.

The music video is produced with the Vettiver Collective. Established in 2006, the Vettiver Collective creates openings for discussion and action on social and environmental issues. Amidst the coal ash spills and alongside the coastal surges live ten thousand fishing and farming families. Since 2015, the Collective has collaborated with the fisherfolk of Urur Kuppam and Olcott Kuppam to run an annual festival to call attention to the coastal degradation of Chennai caused by heavy industries.

The refrain in this Tamil song is the word poromboke. In its original meaning, poromboke are places reserved for communal use—wetlands, grazing lands; land that is not privately owned. Technically, it’s land exempt from assessment, either because it is set aside for communal purposes or because it is uncultivatable. So, poromboke is roughly translatable as the commons.

But in today’s use, the word is an insult. It’s a swear word to name anything as worthless—people, places. There’s another story about how the word travelled in its meaning from the commons to a curse, but the naming of a place and its people as worthless seeks to justify the State’s interventionist policies of economic exploitation. It erases the farmers’ and fisherfolks’ claims to land and sea, whose rights are customary and regulated as a matter internal to the communities. In the State’s cartographies, the places are blank, and the people are invisible. As the Vettiver Collective’s Nityanand Jayaram puts it: “If you’re invisible, bad things happen to you.”

In this context, T. M. Krishna’s performance narrates the story of Ennore and calls for environmental and social justice. Krishna is accompanied on violin, mrdangam and kanjira, and the three musicians are dressed as if for Carnartic concert halls. Krishna’s ochre kurta and white vēṭṭi (unstitched cotton wrap for the lower body) stands against the megaliths of the power station and the desecrated landscape. In the hazy air, Krishna sings through a surgical mask.

Reclaiming the word poromboke through the intricate melodies of Carnatic music, Krishna asks his listeners to reconsider its pejorative meaning and the devastating physical impact of such a perspective and to instead trace back to the older sense of something held in common. If we fail to offer resistance or take collective responsibility, Krishna warns:

Ennooriley senji mudicha unnooriley seyya varuvan

Once he gets done with Ennore (said yen-oor in Tamil, it also means “my village”) He will come for your village too

Balamohan Shingade TOL 2

Photo Credit

Balamohan Shingade, Raga Puriya Dhanashree (video still), Meola Reef dog park, Tāmaki Makaurau, 2022,

About the Author

Balamohan Shingade is a candidate for the PhD in Philosophy at the University of Auckland. Most recently, he’s been a researcher with the Center for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), Massey University, and curator at St Paul St Gallery, Auckland University of Technology. He is also a singer of Hindustani music.

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