If the advice meted out to contestants of Indian talent shows and reality shows were to be believed, a performance is effective only when the singer can shake a leg, dress like an overloaded Christmas tree bearing every trinket in the vicinity, and also jiggle, wiggle, shake, thrust, pout and moue like actors in Bollywood movies. The truth, fortunately, is far removed from this formula, and each singer must find his or her own mannerisms and performance styles, in addition to being convinced about the music they present. At times, it is this ring of conviction that communicates more effectively than anything else, touching and moving the hearts of listeners inexplicably, and consecrating a relatively simple song with the power to heal, inspire and lead. I heard one such performance on 25 April at the Sheth Mangaldas Town Hall in Ahmedabad.
The concluding item at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or Sewa (the trade union organization for self-employed women workers started in 1972 by Ela Bhatt), was an adaptation of We Shall Overcome, sung by approximately 100 members of the Sewa union, who had gathered from different parts of the country, as well as from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Members of Sewa Nepal at the celebration in April. Photo courtesy Samir Pathak.
At some point, we have all sung and heard the song. There was a time when no community-singing training programme was complete without Hum Honge Kaamyaab, the Hindi translation of the original protest song. Doordarshan would regularly broadcast remarkably lacklustre renderings of the song by choral groups consisting of singers with deadpan expressions dressed neatly in coordinated saris and kurtas. I have judged innumerable group-singing contests in schools where one group after the other would arrange itself neatly on stage and rock back and forth on their heels while rendering the song listlessly. There came a point when I had to stop myself from wincing noticeably when yet another group shuffled on to sing the same song. Yet, the other evening, the song came alive in a manner worthy of its history.
Arranged in an informal, crowded semicircle on the stage at the town hall, the Sewa singers, dressed in traditional attire from the regions they represented, sent the idea of colour coordination and neat rows flying out of the auditorium. They just gathered together in solidarity, cheered on at regular intervals by roars of “Hum sab ek hain” or “We are one” as they arranged themselves on stage. Then, starting with one end of the semicircle, each group sang the historic song in the language or dialect of their region. From Gujarati to Pashto to other languages, the song continued till each of the groups had sung. At times, the singing was tuneful and in unison, at other times it was raucous and even out of tune. But what remained constant was the resolve, and the unfailing conviction of being able to overcome exploitation, neglect, indifference and discrimination.
That fire, energy and charge is often missing in more sophisticated presentations by trained musicians, robbing the music of its ability to inspire and speak to listeners. One can only marvel at the power of music as invested in this song, so inextricably linked with the civil rights movement in the US. Journeying across continents and over time, it retains its anthem-like structure and is used time and again in protests across the world.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org