It is late-afternoon. There are sounds of marching from the white, single-storey building of Barefoot College in village Tilonia in Ajmer district of Rajasthan. In a dimly-lit room, a group of 10 men dressed casually in dhoti-kurtas and traditional local tie-and-dye turbans, march like a military squad, pause to ask a question, and then march on – “It is not my wages being cut, why should I bother? It is not my hut that is the house they set on fire, how does it matter?”
They go on till the one marching with triumphant indifference at the front looks back to realise that everything happening to those around him has become his fate as well, and the corollary, that nothing will change or get better until he works with everyone else to demand justice and rights.
The military-like formation dissolves, two men stoop to pick up a dholak from the floor, and the group breaks into a song:
Sona chaandi main nahin maanga,
Mahal maaliyan main nahin maanga…
Muster roll ki nakalaan, main maanga…
Panchayat ka kharcha, main maanga soochna ka adhikaar main maanga!
(I want no gold or silver, no palace, no gardens; I demand to see muster rolls, accounts of my village council, I demand the right to information)
The plays being rehearsed are Aman (Freedom) and Mazdoori (Labour), and the motley group rehearsing them are members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), Union for Empowerment of Farmers and Workers, a social movement that began 20 years ago in central Rajasthan. The demand for accountability these farmers and workers boldly voice in the song is one which they surprised officials with during their dharnas outside government offices in the 1990s; it is a demand with which they won the Right to Information in Rajasthan in 2000. MKSS members have gathered in this village in Ajmer to recount their stories and recreate and record the street plays and songs that became a powerful means to confront an apathetic administration and rouse the community in a struggle of 20 years.
“We were denied minimum wages for our labour at a famine relief worksite in Dhadhirapat. When we approached officials, they turned us out; we had to communicate what was going on to others in the village, so we picked up a dholak and a shankh and performed on village streets and panchayat squares,” says Shankar Singh (56), a founder-member of MKSS, describing the incident that led the group to first protest and mobilise others in their villages in 1989 (see box).
Most members of MKSS have not studied beyond class VIII; some have not seen even the insides of a classroom. The songs they have penned and the plays they have scripted are born out of their lives and struggles. For instance, in the play Mazdoori the group enacts how a drought forces several farmers of a village to migrate to a city for paltry earnings and a life in slums. It describes long hours at a stone quarry, in factories. It portrays workers’ helplessness in the absence of any support or security. Interspersed is a song, Pardesa su aayo bhayaa (‘My brother returned from a distant place’) that imagines an ideal turn of events that allows the workers to return home and find a means of livelihood in their own village.
“We pieced together what we had experienced working at a stone quarry in Bijoliya; those in the audience who had worked at similar quarries would watch and nod in agreement,” says Mohan Meghvanshi (75), or Mohanba as the others address the oldest member of the group, who wrote the play and composed this song with others in the group.
He describes how the group performed the first of these evocative street plays. “We carried a week’s supply of flour and moved to a forest near Tila ka kheda village to rehearse; Uma Shankar ji encouraged us to exchange our stories, to think of the plays as a conversation,” he says, referring to an impromptu workshop that Uma Shankar, a Kannada playwright, held for the group when he visited Devdungri village in 1989. Shankar had visited out of curiosity about the work being done by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, social activists supporting the demand for payment of minimum wages to workers at Dhadirapat work site. He stayed a month. Later, he and playwright Tripurari Sharma helped MKSS direct plays and give form to other ideas and protests.
Farmers in the group recall the oddities of attempting to act for the first time. “Uma ji would ask us to do exercises for our throats, what a sight it used to be to watch 15 of us barking and roaring every morning!” recalls Chunni Singh (52), a farmer from Palona village. Singh narrates how another obstacle at that time was caste – who belonged to which community and what were the implications of opening up to those who seemed separate. “I feared being judged by my community for what I was doing; when they would ask me who I was with, I would mention only Lal Singh, Shankar Singh, to draw attention away from those in the group who were from other castes,” he says.
Among the over 20 songs that the group created, songs such as ‘Pardesa hu’ are a lyrical narrative of many workers’ lives. There are others in their repertoire that are masterpieces of political satire. MKSS’ workers created them line by line during several weeks of sit-ins outside government offices. Poking fun at corruption and brimming over with irony and humour, ‘Choriwado ghano hogyo re’ laments that corrupt officials are eating even cement and gravel (pocketing funds for public works) and exhorts ‘koi to munde bolo’ (someone speak up); ‘Nyuntam mazdoor’ thumbs a nose at the administration and declares, not a paisa less than the minimum wage); others such as ‘Main nahin maanga’ asserts the right of citizens to see bills, vouchers, accounts for all public works.
“These songs and plays are powerful social critiques, they attract others in the community with their simplicity and humour without ever trivialising an issue,” says Nikhil Dey, a founder member of the movement.
The chai break is over, Mohan ba and Chunni Singh exchange turbans to prepare for new roles in the next play; the show, and the struggle for accountability, goes on.
By Anumeha Yadav is a journalist,reporting from Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat. She has volunteered with MKSS.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.