The songbird who sings of revolution


With the Naxal issue back in the news and the peace process between the Maoist rebels and the Andhra Pradesh government having failed, here’s a look at one of the most enigmatic figures of the ultra-red bastion, the folk singer Gaddar. 

Gummadi Vittal Rao is 56 years old, has acted in two movies, and carries a bullet in his body. He is best known as a singer, and thousands of copies of his songs have been sold throughout India.

He is on the Andhra Pradesh police’s list of people marked for overt support to ultra-left wing rebels, the Naxalites. And yet successive state governments have used his services in the failed peace initiatives with the outlawed Maoists.

In Left wing circles, he is a living legend. He is Gaddar, the balladeer. And if that’s all you know about him, read on:

Gaddar who?

He was born into a poor Dalit family in Toopran village in Medak district on the outskirts of Hyderabad. His parents Seshaiah and Lachumamma worked as labourers. He passed his PUC (now 12th class) exams with 77 per cent marks from a government junior college in Hyderabad. He joined the Osmania University Engineering College to pursue a BE degree and dropped out after the first year to earn a living.

Gaddar how?

Gaddar joined the movement for separate a Telangana state in 1969 and formed a burrakatha (folk art) troupe named after Mahatma Gandhi to spread the message. He was soon disillusioned. For a while, he gave performances on family planning and other social themes for the Indian government’s information and broadcasting ministry.

After a stint as a manual worker in a chemical factory, he joined the Art Lovers Association founded by B Narsing Rao, producer of hit Telugu movies such as Maa Bhoomi, Rangula Kala and Dasi. Gaddar acted in the first two films. His political affiliation began when he heard about the Srikakulam armed struggle by tribals in north coastal Andhra under the leadership of the Communist Party of India. Gaddar chose folk art to fight against social inequalities.

Who are the Naxalites? A primer

The Art Lovers Association was renamed the Jana Natya Mandali in 1972 and Vittal Rao adopted the pseudonym Gadar — as a tribute to the Gadar Party, which resisted British colonial rule in Punjab during the early twentieth century. Due to a spelling error, Gadar became Gaddar. And it stuck.

Even while he was singing of revolution in the villages, Gaddar took a banking recruitment exam and got the post of a clerk at Canara Bank in 1975. He quit his bank job in 1984 and concentrated on the Mandali. After he voiced his protest against the killing of several Dalits by upper caste landlords in Karamchedu village in Prakasam district in July 1985, the police raided Gaddar’s house. He went underground.

In exile, Gaddar roamed through the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, spreading the revolutionary ideology through folk arts. Gaddar and his troupe adapted folk forms such as Oggu Katha, Veedhi Bhagotham (vernacular ballets using a combination of song, dialogue and dance) and Yellamma Katha (the story of the local deity) to revolutionary themes depicting the travails of peasants, labourers and other weaker sections. The Mandali was soon regarded as the cultural wing of the People’s War, the Maoist group active in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

With his revolutionary songs catching the imagination of the masses, Gaddar became a legend. Hundreds of thousands of printed copies and thousands of cassettes of his songs have been distributed and sold over the last two decades.

After four-and-a-half years of exile, Gaddar emerged from hiding when the then Congress government led by Dr Marri Chenna Reddy adopted a ‘liberal attitude’ towards the Naxalites. On February 18, 1990, Gaddar met the media. Two days later, the Mandali celebrated its 19th anniversary at the sprawling Nizam College Grounds in Hyderabad. A staggering 200,000 people came to watch Gaddar.

Gaddar why?

In the last 15 years since he surfaced from self-imposed exile, Gaddar has seen six chief ministers blow hot and cold on the Naxalite movement. During this period, he has launched campaigns to protest against State repression in the countryside and killings of scores of Naxalites by the police in what he calls ‘fake encounters.’

Gaddar believes those wielding political and administrative power will, one day, realise that the Naxalite issue can be tackled only by addressing the socio-economic issues in the countryside, and not through ‘State terror.’

On April 6, 1997 there was an assassination bid on Gaddar. While two of the three bullets the assailants fired into him, two were removed. One was left untouched because of medical complications. The near-fatal attack, which the balladeer believes was engineered by the police, did not deter Gaddar from being a champion of the downtrodden.

Gaddar now?

The police have, so far, not arrested Gaddar though they say they have evidence against him. Since the re-imposition of the ban on the Maoists, particularly on Virasam, (the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham, or Revolutionary Writers Association) Gaddar has been highly critical of the Congress government in general and Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhar Reddy in particular for following in the footsteps of the earlier Telugu Desam Party regime led by Nara Chandrababu Naidu, who had re-imposed the ban on the People’s War in July 1996.

The police accuse Gaddar of inciting violence and propagating the Naxalite ideology of ‘power through the barrel of the gun.’

Unlike other left-wing revolutionary writers and poets, Gaddar is equally well known in rural and urban Andhra Pradesh. He is a familiar face on television screens, participating in protest programmes or spirited debates. His songs cut across the barriers of region, religion, dialect, caste and social status.

In the words of prominent academic Dr Kancha Ilaiah, ‘Gaddar was the first Telangana intellectual who established a link between the productive masses and the literary text and, of course, that text established a link between the masses and educational institutions.’

Gaddar’s attire is as well known as his songs. In his own words, ‘in the beginning, we used to perform wearing lungis. But then, since women too formed a part of the audience, we thought that costume was not appropriate. Therefore, we preferred gochis (dhotis). In the same way, gongali (a thick blanket made of rough wool) worn across the chest had its own advantages. It is in the jungles that we first took to wearing anklets and a loaded rifle on the right shoulder. On the left one, we had a dolu (drum).’ He sticks to the same gochi and gongalianklets and dolu. The loaded rifle has given way to a lathi in the right hand

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