The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Artists at Banjaara: Taru Dalmia and the Return of Anti-establishment music

Kartik Sundar, Class of 2020

Taru Dalmia, the Delhi-based artist popularly known as Delhi Sultanate, is one of the most outspoken musicians in the country today. Unapologetically opinionated, Taru uses his art to fight against injustice, often saying things that, if heard by certain individuals, might result in dire consequences for him. A poet, academic historian, and social activist, his talents and interests extend above and beyond the musical realm. His performance at this year’s Banjaara’s festival was shocking — both for the statements he made as well as the way he seamlessly fused elements of reggae and dancehall with music from indigenous artists.

Taru Dalmia AKA Delhi Sultanate and Samara Chopra AKA Begum X at Banjaara 2.0 | Photography by Shrishti Agarwal, Class of 2020

Although his music incorporates a plethora of styles, reggae forms the primary foundation. The genre has been historically associated with revolution and emancipation from repression. From Bob Marley’s “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” to Taru’s “VHP/ RSS/ BJP is here, sound the alarm!” it’s always put the fight to power. By building his brand and sound around reggae culture, Taru embodies what it means to be anti-establishment. A large portion of his music is political in nature, often critiquing those in power. Even the idea behind his music system came from these sentiments. The Bass Foundation Roots (BFR) Sound System allows him to perform shows with organisers who might not have been able to afford expensive sound equipment, since the system is entirely independent of outside requirements.

Taru has attacked everyone from PM Modi to Arnab Goswami, criticising them for curbing free speech and spreading lies. His other project, The Ska Vengers, released a video called “Modi, A Message To You”, which had lyrics like “Stop your fooling around / Messing up our future / Time to straighten right out / You should have wound up in jail”. In another interview with Luis Eslava and Sundhya Pahuja for Critical Legal Thinking, Taru expressed his distrust for and discontent with the present state of Indian media. He criticised Arnab Goswami’s role in shaping discourse that legitimised police and mob violence directed at Jawaharlal Nehru University students in 2016 for supposed ‘anti-national’ activity. Fearless and articulate, few musicians in the country today represent as much as Taru Dalmia.

Post his performance at Banjaara, Taru answered a questionnaire we sent to him about his music and its interaction with his politics.

Your sound derives influences from reggae, ska, punk, and a diverse collection of native Indian sounds. What are the influences that got you to the unique sound you have right now?

Taru: You already mentioned most of my musical influences. I came of age in the 90’s and was heavily influenced by both 90’s Hip Hop and 90’s Dancehall Reggae. Lucky for me, that was the golden era of both genres.

When I was very young I started listening to Ice T, Public Enemy, and NWA. Later, I discovered reggae and started listening to artists like Buju Banton, Sizzla and Capleton among others, and singers like Dennis Brown, Cocoa Tea, Garnett Silk and Luciano. I actually discovered some of the older genres that I now like to play (roots reggae and ska) much later in life. I have three musical outfits, and the inspiration for these — while broadly speaking all of them are influenced by reggae — and their orientation is a bit different. As an act, The Ska Vengers is more stage show and album-oriented; we play music festivals and venues and tour abroad regularly. It’s a band. For BFR Sound System, the inspiration comes directly from Jamaican sound system culture. Word Sound Power is an attempt to build a connection to revolutionary singers and protest movements in India. Whereas BFR Sound System is more performance-oriented, with Word Sound Power the focus at present is more on collaborative production and film.

Is reggae important to you because of its traditional political roots?

I love reggae because it’s amazing music, but you cannot separate the politics and philosophy of the music from the sound. In many ways, reggae music is the conscience-keeper of the colonised world. It reminds us of a history that is often whitewashed, suppressed, or mentioned only in passing. But this history lies at the heart of understanding the world in which we live in today. Emancipation from mental slavery is an important concept. This involves understanding how society is organised and what your position is within this system. I love that reggae music deals with these concerns while at the same time being uplifting.

Through reggae music ideas of negritude by the philosopher Aime Cesaire or the thought of Marcus Garvey were made popular and accessible to the masses. Reggae music also has had a sort of reverse colonising power. It’s the only music from one of the former colonies that has this sort of subject matter while at the same time being immensely popular and influential. While a lot of popular culture and entertainment is based on whiteness, reggae made the world recognise and orient itself towards blackness. You have people from Japan to Sweden studying reggae music and learning to speak Patois. While there are constant risks of appropriation, there is also a lot to celebrate; and there is no denying that the small, former slave plantation of Jamaica is a cultural superpower in the world today, and I am proud to be an ambassador of this music in India.

Your music is reggae at heart, but incorporates a great deal of other genres. What kind of artists do you like sampling/working with the most?

This question is more relevant to the other musical projects I’m involved in, The Ska Vengers or Word Sound Power, since they are more geared towards producing original music. And, specially in the case of Word Sound Power, the project is centred around collaboration with Indian musicians. The artists we have worked with so far have been deeply rooted in socio-cultural resistance movements. Whether it be the fight against mining companies and state security forces in Odisha, or Gaddar in Telangana. In both cases we learnt a lot. Gaddar or Bhagwan Majhi are leaders and spokespeople in a way that we could never be; observing and learning from their relationship to music and performance has been humbling and instructive. We are otherwise surrounded by a music industry that is constantly preoccupied with marketing and publicity, playing yet bigger stages, etc.

Team Banjaara with Delhi Sultanate and Begum X

You spoke about having five-hour-long events that are often held in secrecy; what’s the idea behind the length and secrecy of these shows?

When you do a long sound system session, you have enough time for people to connect with each other and to the music without rush. You have time to form what in reggae we call the ‘massive’ meaning — the crowd or collective audience. You can come to the session with your friends, have a dance, go outside and have a conversation, come back into the session; it becomes more of a community event. Don’t forget, outside of this we are used to playing club nights in the gig circuit where there is very little time. Venues in most Indian cities have to shut at 12:30, sometimes earlier. Often, this leaves you with a situation where there is basically one hour for the DJ to kill it, for the venue owner to maximise alcohol sales and for people who have stressful lives during the week to get hammered and lose themselves to the music. I found that often this forced and rushed euphoria of club nights can be frustrating, and I feel it leaves a lot to be desired. In an ideal world, I’d like to do all night dances every now and then, start in the afternoon and stop when dawn breaks.

There is another factor that has to do with the physics of how sound affects the body. Why do we play vinyl records and put so much emphasis on playing on our own custom, hand-built system? When you listen to mp3s on your average club systems, sonic fatigue sets in after perhaps an hour or two. The effect on the body when listening to vinyl or uncompressed wav files is very different. The scholar Julien Henriques often uses this analogy: when you listen to music over headphones, you put sound into bodies; with a powerful sound system, it’s the opposite. You’re placing bodies into sound. The bass vibrates your whole body, not just your ear drums. When listening to vinyl records over a couple of hours, it can create a feeling of physical well-being in the body. This has nothing to do with our performance but more with the technology that we use. For this to take place, you also need time.

As far as secrecy is concerned, this is just a question of convenience. I prefer to hold public sessions that are accessible and inclusive. However, at times it can be very difficult to organise these shows. We live in a very corrupt country and, in many respects, there is little freedom. We always have to pay off police and our last venue ended up getting too much unwanted attention. We might hold the March session at a public place in which case it won’t be secret, but there are times when we have to organise shows in a hidden place and be a bit discreet.

As a social activist and an academic historian, what drives you to use music as your platform to get your messages across?

Nowadays, I’m much less of a social activist than I would like to be, and there is no great design behind using music as a means to express a message. I’m troubled by what I see happening around me and feel the need to connect with people who feel the same and build networks of solidarity. I happen to know how to play reggae music. If I don’t express myself at least to some extent through the music, then I get depressed.

Saying something like Arnab Goswami is “Judas” might be dangerous thing. Do you feel that we should all be as outspoken as you are? Do you feel the need to do so?

I do feel that this culture of fear has to be resisted because it affects everyone — from writers and academics, professors and students to journalists and ordinary citizens. Most of our media is so corrupt and compromised that information is actually being kept from people and the relevant debates are just not taking place. Students and thinkers are being persecuted and institutions are going through what I would compare to a process of Gleichschaltung — across the board, the prime cultural and educational institutions of our country are being staffed with people who are ideologically aligned to the regime, if they are not outright RSS members. Perhaps you can broadly divide people into three categories. Those whose livelihoods are being crushed, and who experience the brutality of the system on their own bodies. They have no choice but to be politicised and to fight. Those who benefit from the system have the choice to acknowledge and engage with what is happening, or to ignore and concern themselves primarily with their own comforts.

To what extent people should speak or not speak out is not for me to prescribe but I do feel there is a time where silence makes you complicit. It’s like living in Apartheid South Africa as a white person and benefiting from the system while ignoring the brutal nature of it. Too much moral compromise will dull your soul.

What do you see as the major problems this country face? Where do you see your activism at its strongest?

The main problems facing not just India but the world at the moment is the unquestioned pursuit of unbridled growth that is fuelled by extractive and destructive industries, toxic nationalism, and bigotry. Someone called this “Necro-capitalism” and I find the term is quite apt.

I think from an activist’s point of view, what we do is pretty weak. At the moment, at most we can contribute the sound system performance to a protest space and thereby try to energise people and give the whole thing an atmosphere of celebration. This can be important I think because it’s important to celebrate each other, to celebrate solidarity and unified struggle. On the other hand, reggae music is very niche in India, and what we do is not at all the most effective way to spread a progressive message to a large number of people. Perhaps our activism was stronger with Word Sound Power. We would visit a conflict area and record and collaborate with singers that have revolutionary songs. This could enable conversation, perhaps raise awareness. We had just begun on this work when, due to personal reasons, we had to scale down. I hope in the future to be able to reactivate Word Sound Power, to work more aggressively on producing and performing music like the Blood Earth project. With the sound system we could be able to travel, to take music to schools for instance and establish our own touring circuit.

What event drove you to being the kind of social activist you are now?

No single event drove me. As a youth, I listened to reggae music and hip hop which politicised me to a degree. I also grew up in Europe, and, as kids, we faced some racism and police harassment, which tends to teach you at a young age to be a bit suspicious of authority and the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. When I was a bit older I started reading Frantz Fanon and the likes, and things began to make sense historically. When I moved back to India, it took me some time to discern what was happening here, but, after a while, the violence and destruction that the present system are based on became inescapable. We have a civil war in the country and the level of state terror and brutality of security forces in the mineral rich forests is unfathomable. There is a dangerous nexus between state and corporate forces, between paramilitary and police forces and powerful extractive industries…like Vedanta, Aditya Birla, your Adanis, and what have you. Their smooth PR campaigns are a smokescreens that mask violent and destructive campaigns against the indigenous population of those areas and the environment. All in the name of very thinly constructed arguments of ‘greater common good’ and ‘development’ that do not hold up to closer scrutiny.

What was the idea behind the BFR Sound System. What makes it special?

My inspiration comes directly from Jamaican sound system culture. The music we produce for BFR Sound System is not really for release but just to be played during sound system sessions. The system was built so that: a) I can play the music I love with the required power and sound quality, and b) to free us from dependence on conventional music venue spaces. With the sound system, we can travel to different parts of the country and organise our own shows. We usually don’t set up a stage; in sound system sessions it’s important for everyone to be level and to experience the music together. Rather than being oriented towards a stage, we want people to face each other and to dance with their friends, those who are interested to see what we’re doing can position themselves around the DJ table. Some people like to be right in front of the sound system, where the bass vibrations are the strongest. The performance is in classic sound system show format. Play tunes, talk to people in-between. Singing and MCing is more impromptu in a sound system session. Most of the 7” records (45 rpm singles) contain the instrumental on the B side, and it’s not uncommon to turn the record over and sing over the B side instrumental. A lot of time we also open the mic up to singers or rappers in the audience and have spontaneous cyphers. Apart from vinyl records, I also record a lot of “dubplates” or exclusives that we record with Jamaican artists. These will be customised versions of reggae songs that you cannot hear anywhere else. In addition to Jamaican artists, we’ve also started voicing rappers or folk singers from India on reggae or hip hop instrumentals. Again, the idea is that these are not songs that you can buy in a store or listen to on YouTube or Spotify. If you want to hear these tunes, you have to come to a sound system session and experience them together with everyone.

Taru Dalmia AKA Delhi Sultanate at Banjaara 2.0 | Photograph by Shrishti Agarwal, Class of 2020

Do you care about mainstream success in order to get your message across more? Or do you see these smaller gigs and sticking to your unique political reggae style as more important?

I’m not indifferent to mainstream success, and I think with The Ska Vengers especially, we operate within the music industry. We play festivals, release albums and music videos and tour abroad. However, over the years I found that mainstream success and the music industry in India come with their own caveats. Often times, corporate sponsored events are very impersonal. Being in the industry involves constant publicity, projecting an image, getting marketed, etc. For mainstream success there is inevitably a certain amount of you playing the game.

With The Ska Vengers, we’ve played to large audiences of maybe twenty thousand people. This can be exhilarating and has its own validity, but there is something I enjoy immensely about the intimacy of sound system sessions. It’s more personal, less constructed, and I feel has more potential to contribute something positive to community formation.

Delhi Sultunate will be holding a BFR Sound System session on 25th march (Sunday) at the Rotary Habitat Centre, Saket, New Delhi. You can find more information at the Facebook event page.

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