Not long ago we featured a remarkable collaboration called the Bant Singh Project. Bant Singh is the Punjabi Dalit singer and political activist who lost several limbs after a vicious beating by upper-caste neighbors after he dared confront them for raping his daughter.
After Bant Singh refused to be silenced and continued singing and raising awareness of rural injustice, he came to the attention of Delhi Sultanate. That’s the stage name of Taru Dalmia, a Delhi-based poet and hip hop/dancehall MC who also happens to be an academic historian and social activist. Before long, Dalmia and his friends were visiting Bant Singh and making music with him—in a project they’ve also documented in a short film.
But that’s only one of the projects on Dalmia’s plate — whether through Word, Sound, and Power, the umbrella venture for this and future collaborations with traditional musicians in rural India, or through his drum & bass, dubstep, reggae and ska projects in Delhi. MTV Desi’s Siddhartha Mitter caught up with Dalmia for a wide-ranging conversation about two subjects that go well together: music and politics.
Is the Bant Singh Project the most important work you’ve done so far? How has it affected you?
The Bant Singh Project has been one of the most meaningful and rewarding projects I have done. It had been a personal ambition of mine to connect with local traditions that embody the dancehall/hip hop spirit in the sense of being assertive, unapologetic, and unafraid. My desire also came from a deep frustration with the insular and highly socially segregated urban music scene. I was keen to build musical connections and expose people to voices from the other side of the divide.
I had been looking for ways to do this for a long time before I came across Bant Singh and met the right set of people to pull the project off. Everyone who contributed to this — Chris McGuinness as a producer, Lakshman Anand with his videography, SamratB who directed the project — was absolutely vital.
It has energized me to do a lot more projects along these lines. The list of places
to visit and people to collaborate with is endless. We have so many wonderful musical traditions and subversive singers to work with who share a similar orientation to music. Each project is a great learning experience and feels both liberating and empowering.
What is the bigger agenda that drives your work?
I try to insert ideas into the discourse and into spaces that would otherwise be devoid of political or social consciousness. This does not mean just the upper classes anymore. A large section of urban India has benefited immensely from exploitation and destruction in the periphery of the country. In Orissa or Chattisgarh, the government is fighting an internal war to control land that is very rich in natural resources. What’s happening there is no different from what is happening in parts of South America and Africa. It’s a continuation of the colonial scramble for resources and labor, except that the stakes are a lot higher now in terms of human and environmental cost.
But if one is well fed, has access to the consumer paradise that modern Indian cities are fast becoming, and does not experience discrimination or brutality on one’s own body, why would one question the state of things? In my mind this can only happen if either your parents, the people who surround you, or the art and culture that is around you encourage you to have a critical attitude and not be a passive human being.
What did Bant and the people around him make of the tracks that you guys put together? How did they appreciate the electronica and dancehall aspects? Is something necessarily lost in translation?
Bant complimented me on my voice and I explained all my lyrics to him. He got what we were trying to do, to bring his voice to a new audience and to record bilingual tracks. Of course something gets lost in translation, but the whole idea in having bilingual tracks is that there is something for everyone.
Also, as our name implies, in music it is not just the words but also the sound that becomes a carrier of meaning and sentiment. Folks there were appreciative of our work and when we went back to show them the movie I got a lot of laughs. Bant Singh feels that his songs are like “drops of blood” — it’s war music. My orientation is similar and we both understood this. My dream is to get our music into bootleg circulation in villages and the music truck drivers listen to. We are working on this as well.
You’ve had an international upbringing. You went to secondary school in California. Tell me what was going on around you culturally, musically, and politically at that time and how it affected you.
This was actually a very difficult period of my life though in retrospect, it taught me a lot. Culturally, I got exposed to some of the darker sides of America and Cali in particular. I had a brother there who was living thug life to the fullest — and I’m not talking about your fashion thugs, but pimps and murderers business. I witnessed this violent thug character type up close, and the things I saw deeply marked me. It is such a strange environment. I just heard that one of the people we used to roll with got 30 years for murder because he started rolling with XIV.
I was a bit of a misfit; my mother is a professor at Berkeley but I was in between worlds. I did not fit into the hard ghetto-fabulous bubble, but also could not find space for myself amongst the well-heeled, protected college kids. I read a lot — about the Iran-contra affair, America’s cocaine economy, and the prison industrial complex — and I began to look for the way that culture, thug mentality, and the economy all feed into each other.
To me it seemed that the consumer paradise and regular life in America was integrally linked to this dark and violent underbelly, just as the legal economy is intricately linked with the illegal economy. Just as life in Britain in colonial times had a violent side that was fueling everything but was exported to the colonies. Once you acquire this sort of sensibility you begin to see it everywhere. India is essentially the same: the bubble that you see in Delhi, the high growth rates, the obscene amounts of money, and hedonistic consumption has something very violent to it. There is a direct human and environmental cost. It’s blood money. So in a sense, my time in America profoundly affected how I view things here and the kind of work I do.
The Bay Area in particular is renowned for its activist tradition. Were you tuned into that world — or its musical counterparts (like Dead Prez, the Coup, Paris, etc.) at that time?
It is true that the Bay Area politicized me. I was very much tuned into Dead Prez and the Coup. I also read a lot, and it was a culture of asking questions. At the same time, my brother and a lot of people around me were listening to hard gangsta rap and this preoccupied me a lot. The sentiments that are expressed in the music, how people shape their understanding of how society is organized. The character types that people mold themselves too, there is always a deeper cultural and political reality behind this that I strive to understand.
Where and how did you catch the dancehall bug?
I got the dancehall bug as a youth in Germany. Dancehall is almost mainstream in Germany now, all the big sound systems and singers come there, but in my time it was still a subculture. I was fascinated by sound system culture and started my own sound system there when I was about 15. I started rapping around that time as well. It gave me a mode of expression and both dancehall and rap deal with history and offer an alternate view on the world, they deal with the colonial experience.
Delhi Sultanate is a great name, and you’re a historian, but is there anything particular about the Delhi Sultanate period in Indian history that you wanted to reference by taking this stage name?
Well, I wanted a name that reflects the region and represents Delhi. At the same time I am a historian so it seemed apt to me. I also feel that a lot of the syncretic cultural trends and interactions between Islamic and Hindu traditions that have made India so rich in terms of culture began at that time.
Do you find people already have a feel for the dancehall vibe — or maybe even that toasting Jamaica-style in India reveals some South-South solidarities that people didn’t even know they felt?
There is no scene for dancehall here whatsoever, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive, both in terms of the music and the content. I am keen to build a South-South link. We can learn a lot from what Black people did in Jamaica — to reverse colonization through music and culture. I am working at the moment to get Sizzla on the next Bant Singh track, so we got Sizzla, Bant Singh, and Delhi Sultanate on one track.
M.I.A. also has made music that connects the Caribbean and South Asia. There’s a way in which this remixes and reclaims colonial history.
We are very connected. Not just through Indian coolie labor to the Caribbean; our histories are intimately linked. Opium, cotton, slaves, sugar. It was cheap cotton from slave plantations that made British businessmen shift from cultivating cotton in India to large-scale opium cultivation for export to China. People who earlier invested in cotton were now investing in slave ships and human cargo. This in turn brought the cotton price down which stimulated further opium cultivation.
The links are very deep and have affected people’s lives. I want to bring dancehall culture to India and make meaningful connections with local traditions because it engages with this history.
How much room is there on the Indian scene for “conscious” hip hop, reggae, and spoken poetry in particular?
There is no room and no space. We are creating it while we are doing it — but I have found this very satisfying and encouraging. I also run a dubstep and drum & bass sound system called BASSFoundation. And I am involved with India’s first ska band, the Ska Vengers; we recently kicked off a fair amount of ruckus because we performed with Arundhati Roy as part of her new book launch, and managed to reach a whole new section of people.
People are hungry for music that deals with reality and puts forward an alternate vision of life. In a sense, the fact that there is no established scene for this kind of music is a strength. We do not get pigeonholed — the market is not saturated and what we do has a certain meaning and potency because of this.
You’ve said that that you’ve found things going on in folk music, in the countryside, that are much closer to the spirit of hip hop and reggae. But your experience as a performer tends to address an urban, globalized, middle/upper class, English-speaking crowd. How do you address this dichotomy?
I have thought about this a lot; it has been a big dilemma. The scene is very segregated. We try to be inclusive, but we can’t change society. I am constantly looking for ways to start grassroots movements, like Passa Passa in Jamaica: a street dance that brings uptown and downtown together.
My dream is to open a community center like Judgment Yard in Jamaica and run dances there. Uptown people can come down to those venues then if they want. In the meantime, I think what we do is very important. We are letting the urban youth know they don’t have to orient themselves towards brainwashed consumer culture, and that there is a war going on. Don’t be blind and don’t be a passive human being. Have compassion and educate yourself to what is going on.
Do you think of yourself as a child of privilege? And do you feel that applying your advantages and talents to social justice is a moral imperative, a responsibility?
I feel I have experienced both in my life, privilege, and struggle. As far as my status and position in India is concerned, I am undoubtedly a child of privilege. I am lucky to have a spot in ancestral property which is right in the center of Delhi. My immediate neighbors
are the Intelligence Bureau and the Vice President. My address protects me — I cannot have police suddenly bust in my door. I am not as vulnerable as others who do similar work are. This is enabling and I intend to make full use of this.
At the same time, I am glad I did not grow up like this because I would not be doing the work I am doing today. My parents were educated, so we had cultural capital, but there was a time when my father and I shared one attic room in Germany with a kitchen corner and no bathroom. We had an immersion rod and bucket in the basement for bathing. These things taught me a lot and I am grateful for all I have been through.
Privilege in my mind comes with responsibility. The new rich kids are ignorant, selfish, and crude and live only to feed themselves. They are imitative in their consumer behavior, and a certain kind of ignorance is fashionable. Educate yourself, learn about the world, and observe life. Acquire knowledge and cultural depth — otherwise you do not deserve your wealth.
What are the next initiatives we can expect from Word, Sound, and Power?
The immediate next project will be with Dongria Kond tribals in Niyamgiri and Adivasis in Kashipur, Orissa. They have been involved in a prolonged struggle to protect their land from hostile takeover. We are working on an India road map — Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, all these places are on the map.