Wednesday, 8 July 2015

CANTARAM AS COMMENTARY ON GOAN POLITICS



Francis de Tuem has a peculiar voice – a mix of guttural and nasal tones that are not always associated with famous singers. Personally, I thought it was a bit strange that he could be a singer when I first heard some of his songs. But when one listens to his sharp political and social critique one instantly realizes why he is such a runaway hit. Known for his irreverently bold songs, Tuem also displays an acute sense of logical reasoning while singing about Goan politics. Hence, one simply had to find out why his latest tiatr Reporter, is a huge hit.

More than the plot, this tiatr derives most of its strength as a bold performance on stage from the songs sung by Tuem. While the main plot revolves around a journalist Anita, who acts as an ombudsman in a political setup that is riddled with corruption and dishonesty, most of the songs tackle the recent political controversies in Goa and the rest of India head-on such as the ‘ghar wapasi’ issue, or the attacks on Christian institutions, the ban on beef, and so on and so forth. The political cantaram in tiatrs are not simply forms of protests, but are also sincere pleas for a change in the way things function in society. In this context, Tuem’s tiatr and the songs he sings in it are no exception.

Though Tuem’s critique of Goan politics is significantly different, there are areas where this critique displays problems. I would like to discuss this with reference to some of his songs. First and foremost, there is a precise and logical manner in which Tuem crafts his songs. The first song that Tuem sang had a bit about the beef ban controversy. That Tuem is no ordinary composer and singer of political songs was proven by his bold reference to a seminal paper that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar wrote on the beef-eating food habits of brahmins in the Vedic times. Such a reference is reassuring as the intellectual stream from which Tuem relies on for mounting a critique of Goan politics is based on a solid premise – one that is firmly lodged within anti-caste struggles of South Asia.

Another important issue that was highlighted through the songs was the controversy of ‘ghar wapasi’. Through the ritual of ‘ghar wapasi’ Hindu-groups have sought to convert Christian, Muslim, and Dalit groups to Hinduism. In his songs, Tuem makes two crucial statements. The first is related to the manner in which the caste hierarchy operates within Hindu temples, which has continued to exclude the so-called ‘lower-caste’ from equal access to temples. Hence, Tuem counter argues, that assuming Christians (or other groups) convert back into Hinduism, what is the guarantee that such ‘re-converts’ will be allowed equal access to Hindu temples?

The second important point that he makes in relation to the ‘ghar wapasi’ episode is regarding the so-called ‘forced conversions’. For those who have been reading and listening about the ‘ghar wapasi’ controversy over the last few months, one of the reasons cited in favor of ‘ghar wapasi’ was that all conversions to Christianity and Islam were ‘forced’, thus justifying this so-called ‘homecoming’. But Tuem’s sensitive and critical understanding of Goan history allows him to make a crucial distinction between those who converted in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries and the Christians in Goa today. Tuem makes the argument that while one of his ancestors had converted, all the generations down the line cannot be termed as ‘converts’. This is true for a lot of Goan Christians today. Though this seems to be a simple and common-sensical point, it escapes so many of us in Goa and India – that today’s Catholics are born into the religion and therefore cannot be termed as converts.

But the cherry on the cake came in the form of Tuem’s bold assertion wherein he forcefully asserted that if he is a Christian today it is solely due to his own wish and devotion. This, we can suggest is a logical culmination for all those who recognize that all conversions were not ‘forced’ and that there is an element of caste that always plays a part in conversion movements whether in Goa or elsewhere. While the many Hindu groups were busy in trying to convince the nation that converts had no agency and mind of their own, Tuem’s assertion allows us to see that this is not the case. In fact, through this song Tuem can be said to create a language through which minoritized groups can respond to attempts at appropriating their histories.

The sense that one gets from the songs and the plot of Reporter is that individual honesty and sincerity is projected as the panacea for all ills. Emphasis is also placed on institutions like the media who act as whistleblowers and guardians of the truth in a similar context. However, one needs to be a bit circumspect about arguments and visions that place the onus and responsibility of smooth and efficient functioning of politics and governance on a few individuals and institutions. What this ultimately means is that power to decide the fates of others have to be concentrated in the hands of a few, and this indeed can be detrimental to democracy. But this is not how it is supposed to be. Power needs to be shared as equitably as possible with all constituent elements in a polity.

The faith and trust reposed in a few individuals and institutions is a problem in Reporter, and calls for careful re-thinking. That aside, while Tuem should rightly revel in the success of his tiatr and his cantaram, it is also time to recognize that the very structure and form of the Goan tiatr allows a certain empowerment of the Goan people. The structure and form of the tiatr not only allows space for political dissent, but in its core is highly politicized. Hence, if articulated properly, tiatr and its cantaram are effective forms of sharp political and social commentary.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 8 July, 2015)

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