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Charul Bharwada and Vinay Mahajan compose songs on communal harmony and document the lives of marginalized communities. For this professionally competent couple from Ahmedabad, giving voice to the voiceless was more satisfying than joining the rat race.

Charul (right) and Vinay performing at an event. Picture courtesy: The Hindu

 

 

What hurts me most is the stony heart of an educated Indian.

Mahatma Gandhi

On a chilly early morning of December 1998 Charul Bharwada and Vinay Mahajan were travelling from Dabhoi to Vadodara. On a small road leading to the highway they saw a group of ten to twelve maldharis (pastoral people- men, women and small children). They were walking with a herd of four hundred to five hundred sheep. They were asking passers by for direction. Out of curiosity, Charul and Vinay (which is how the couple prefers to be addressed) spoke to them. In their journey the maldharis had to cross the highway, which the policemen were not permitting them to do. They had to find an alternative road. They were on their way to the Narmada Valley in their search of fodder and water. They had started in October from Surendranagar, 300 km away, and were exhausted. Eventually they managed to find the alternative road but the image of those harassed, tired wanderers kept troubling Charul and Vinay.

Yes, government is all out to construct highways, but what about people whose traditional lifestyle is endangered by this so-called development, they kept thinking. Their restlessness reduced only when they decided to devote exclusively to travel with maldharis, understand what they go thought and document their lives- a chance encounter occupying one full year of a couple’s life.

But for Charul and Vinay it has been a way of life. Ever since they got married in 1989, they have been searching for alternative roads- alternative to rat race, to so-called development, to addictive religious frenzy.

Under Marxist Influence

Vinay is an agricultural engineer from Gurdaspur in Pubjab. After engineering, he completed two years of marketing management from IIM, Ahmedabad.

Recalls Vinay, “The Economist of London once wrote that getting admission to IIM, Ahmedabad, was more difficult than getting in Harvard or MIT. After two years the students were certain to be picked up by multinationals on fat salaries. Success at any cost was what they believed in. The atmosphere was full of arrogance and self-centredness. After passing out I did a couple of short stints with large corporations but soon discovered that selling soap for the rest of my life was not my calling. I decided to follow a different route.”

“Were you always different from the rest?” I enquired. Said Vinay, “I was in a way. From the age of six I have been atheist. A loving God would not have allowed so much injustice in the world! While studying at the agriculture college I began to work for Pubjab Students’ Union, a Marxist body. My atheism acquired ideological framework. I realized that the root of the demand for Khalistan had nothing to do with the religion- that was merely a cloak for some to win elections. The real problem was the so-called green revolution. The new hybrid seed required large quantity of fertilizers and insecticides. It enabled the industry to consolidate its hold on agriculture. The farmer was being exploited, the land was getting impoverished. When I joined IIM in 1985, major communal riots had broken out in Gujarat. Anand Patwardhan from Mumbai was making a film on them. I was helping him, mainly in sound recording. That gave me a chance to see how communal riots are engineered by the vested interests.”

Out of that anger came out his first song:

Mandir Masjid Girija Ghar mein, Baant diya Bhagwaan ko,
Dharati baanti, saagar baanta, Mat baanton Insaan ko
(You have divided God into temple, mosque and church. You have divided land and ocean. Do not divide human beings.)

It became popular. Stickers were pasted in the suburban trains. Newspapers carried it. In numerous NGO meetings it was sung. Over the years, it almost became an anthem for the secular movement in India.  Recalls Vinay, “Around that time I read a book called How the Other Half Dies- Real  Reasons for World Hunger by Susan George, a French activist. She had written it after having attended a world conference on food in Rome. In a nutshell, the book argued that the real reason for starvation is not the shortage of food but the income inequality between the rich and the poor nations. I was so restless after reading it that for a week I could hardly have my meals.”

This was the time Charul entered his life. As a student of architecture from Mumbai, she was visiting the IIM. This 63 acre campus was designed by a well-known American architect, Louis Kahn. Students of architecture of visit it as a model. She met Vinay almost by accident but their chemistry matched. Vinay seemed to have answers for many questions that were troubling her for a long time.

For instance, while doing a project in Udaipur, Rajasthan on a palace which was being converted in a luxury h hotel, she was shocked to learn that the cost of one night in that hotel room was Rs. 25,000- enough to feed an entire family for the year. Why this discrepancy? As they talked, they realized that both had one thing in common- both were different from the mainstream. They married in 1989. Interestingly, she had first met Vijay when she had run into him trying to find the way to a particular site.

Start of  Loknaad

After marriage, Charul did her post-graduation in architectural planning. She also had a scholarship to the UK to study excavations but refused it. Rather than dig up the past, I would build the future,” she thought. Instead, they produced a 90-minute programme of about 15 soul-stirring songs called Loknaad giving a social message. That was in 1992.

Though neither of them is trained in music they decided to make it the vehicle for speaking to the society. “A song goes straight to the heart and even uneducated can enjoy it. The oral tradition of social awakening in India is very old,” they said. They began to write songs about various issues and with just a traditional dafli in hand as an accompaniment, the duo would sing.

When a political party exhorted people to say, Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai (Say with pride that we are Hindus), they wrote a song that proclaimed, Insaan hai hum (We are human beings).

After a cyclone hit Kutch on 9 June, 1998  killing 10,000 people, they wrote a song, Lashonka bazaar. It was inspired by a news report that dead bodies were being bought in order to claim the government compensation of   Rupees hundred thousand which was being offered for the relatives of each victim. The song imagines a dead body asking a question: While I was alive I never earned more than Rs. 20 a day; how come when I am dead I can be worth so much?

When a news item of a child labourer dying in a mishap at his work place appeared in quick succession, they wrote a song Ab meri baari hain. The song is sung by a child having to work for livelihood and at the end of each stanza he claims that now it is his turn to play. The song is dedicated to the children who had lost their lives while working. It became an instant hit when sung at a national conference on child labour. All 400 children began to dance to the song! For Charul and Vinay it was a moving moment.

Their songs also challenge the so-called silent majority to act. One song goes like this: chup rehana hi hinsa ki shuruwat hai, katilon me gine jane ki baat hai, Gour se apane hathon ko dekho jara, Khun in mein kisi ka nahi to laga!. (To remain silence is the beginning of violence, it makes you a criminal., look at your hands carefully, to make sure someone’s blood is not on them).

“We have had many inspiring experiences,” they say. “Recently, we  did a programme in a Rajasthan village, Maandal. Our songs inspired two local communities to come closer after the recent background of serious conflict, burning of property, forced migration of minority families and killing of some innocent persons. Moments like these are like the charging stations where our batteries get charged.”

Says Charul, “In recent times we have also explored newer platforms and audiences for our programmes. We have done programmes for the Police, music professionals, doctors, senior executives at IIM, etc. We also did four programmes in Muscat organized by one of the largest business house of Oman having Kutchi origin.”

Sandarbh for Social Studies

Loknaad is only half of their work. The other half is work done through their other banner Sandarbh which was established  in 1998. Sandarbh accepts offers to document the issues and lifestyle of the marginalized communities who otherwise are  hardly ever heard. While focus of Loknaad is on music, the focus of Sandarbh is on study.

What has been the impact of the development process on the displaced people? What possible interventions can help improve their situation? These are the questions that Sandarbh generally wrestles with. However, to provide focus to their study, Charul and Vinay have identified primarily the maldhari community which was referred to at the beginning.

Maldhari men and women are perpetually on the move. Setting up makeshift home and dismantling it every other day, searching for water, fuel and fodder in an unknown place, guarding the livestock from theft, taking care of the young children, managing the conflicts with the local population; these are daily issues.

The nomadic maldharis of Gujarat. Photo courtesy: http://handeyemagazine.com

Gujarat has an estimated population of about 1.5 million maldharis, who are concentrated in Saurashtra and Kutch region, the former good grassland. In spite of such a sizeable population, very little effort has been made to study their problems. Continuous mobility has made them “invisible” for the mainstream sedentary society, academicians, policymakers and even NGOs. Access to traditional grasslands has increasingly become difficult for the community, first due to the Partition of India in 1947, stopping their access to the Sindh grasslands, followed by a large scale conversion of local grasslands into agricultural or industrial lands. The process of development has severely affected their livelihood  system, migration pattern, and social organization leading to what may be termed as “unrecognized displacement”.

Continuous migration forces them to remain out of the basic developmental processes like access to education and health. Literacy rate among the maldharis of Kutch is as low as 12% t0 13%. With globalization, they are getting further marginalized and voiceless as they are neither organized nor politically powerful.

Studying Salt makers

In 2008, Charul and Vinay also did a study of salt makers (Agariyas)  of Little Rann of Kutch. Recalls Vinay, “It was an eye opening experience to see the life of people in extreme hardships, in a barren land where the temperature reaches up to 50 degree. The livelihood of these Agariyas has been threatened because of the massive industries coming in the region on the land occupied for salt-making. Most of them have already received the eviction notices. With these Agariyas even the lives of the Wild Ass, that endangered species in the desert has come under a threat.”

In many ways, Loknaad and Sandarbh complement each other. Travels undertaken for the programmes give them exposure to social issues whereas the study of various issues gives authenticity to their songs. “Usually, the study of a marginalized community by scholars never reaches that community. In fact so removed these people are from academic circles that they are often even unaware of any such study. But through songs we are able to relate to people directly,” adds Charul.

Charul and Vinay have not accepted any government support for their work since they feel it would interfere with their independence. Nor have they received foreign funding for any of  their studies barring one exception. Their source of income is the contribution they get paid for their programmes, sale of the cassettes, and primarily the fees they charge when they conduct professional studies. They also bring out calendars, posters and stickers carrying couplets on communal harmony.

In a society where ‘enough’ is defined as ‘just a little more’  Charul and Vinay have decided what “enough” means to them. Says Charul, “We had a phone at home after seven years of marriage. We moved around on a bicycle. In fact, once we travelled 450 km along the Saurashtra coast on bicycle! It was a study-cum-vacation! In our rented home, we had just one table fan for two years. Today, we have some comforts and do draw a salary from our Trust- which is never more than a primary school teacher. We are not driven by this craze of consumerism.”

At the same time, they never make a capital out of their deprivations, do enjoy once in a while and there is nothing like ‘snobbery in reverse’ in their behaviour.

What are their future plans? They say, “Our  kind of work is individual-inspired. Many friends suggest that if we built an organization with proper management structure, for which funds can be raised and for which we both are professionally trained, our work will grow far more. But we have always resisted that temptation to grow into an organization. We feel let the idea grow instead. Nothing is fixed in our work. It is exploratory and situational. Only a small outfit can be like this. If we formed a large singing group, for instance, we fear that we may suppress the creativity of our collaborators. Moreover, in a large set-up, a lot of time may just go in managing. Today, if we have no project, we will just sit at home and read or visit friends. But if we have an organization, we would have to work just to keep the salaries going for others. Flexibility of Loknaad will be lost.

Charul and Vinay are often disturbed by what they see around. Says Charul, “Softness is slowly dying in our society. The other day an angry mob killed a labourer with stones. Burning has become common. I had never seen this cruelty earlier in this land of Gandhi. Even while walking on the street, the tension is palpable. Tempers can rise suddenly at the slightest provocation.”

In order to remain mobile and give all their energy to their cause, they decided not to have children. Says Charul, “Loknaad is our child.”

Charul and Vinay have shown the courage to follow a different drummer. May they meet more fellow travellers on this journey.

(Charul and Vinay may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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