We see you, Faiz

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 06, 2020

Unchained melody: MD Pallavi (left) and Bindumalini perform the Kannada version of Hum dekhenge outside Bengaluru’s Town Hall   -  AMSHU CHUKKI

Meet the women across India who are building bridges of resistance by translating and reimagining the protest song Hum dekhenge into powerful regional anthems

It was one of vocalist Bindumalini’s most exciting performances ever. On January 30, as part of the Chennai Kalai Theruvizha, an art festival that takes cultural performances to unfamiliar venues, she boarded a train at the Alandur metro station. She had an unusual assignment — she was to sing her way through a moving metro. Bindumalini began with Tamil Nadu’s favourite revolutionary poet Bharatiyar’s Aaduvome, pallu paduvome. And, then, in the same breath, she began Nam parpome, the Tamil translation of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum dekhenge (We shall see).

Composed in 1979 in protest against General Zia-ul-Haq’s oppressive regime, Faiz’s poem — sung memorably by Pakistan’s Iqbal Bano — went on to become an anti-establishment anthem in South Asia. Today, the poem — with powerful lines such as “When the mountains of tyranny/ blow away like cotton” — is once again a war cry, this time against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In January this year, when a scholar at IIT Kanpur said a “probe” would determine whether the poem was “anti-Hindu”, something unforeseen happened. Hum dekhenge began making itself available in several regional translations — Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Bhojpuri and more. And behind each of those translations and performances were women determined to script a new language of political resistance.

Tamizh rebels

Through the metro announcements, the gentle wobble of the coaches, the constant boarding and deboarding, Bindumalini sang as she made her way down the train.

Ullurai irayai unnarduvittal

Ini privum veruppum karaindidume

Ondrai nirka anumadiyatara naam

Anbin mutram servome

(If we realise the divine that dwells within us, then hatred and differences will melt away. We who are not allowed to stand together, will meet in the courtyard of love.)

The Tamil translation credits go to the mother-daughter duo of Mangai Arasu, the Chennai-based theatre director and retired professor, and Ponni, a feminist historian based in Sri Lanka. “The image we had in our head was that of the women of Shaheen Bagh, who are really showing us the way for an alternative protest, which requires resilience, resistance and refusal. We were translating Hum dekhenge for ourselves, to understand what they were saying,” Mangai says.

The duo dipped into the region’s ancient Siddha tradition, a branch of Shaivism that defies caste, to interpret the poem faithfully for the Tamil audience. “The name of god is what will stay,” they wrote for a line in the original version — Bas naam rahega Allah ka (Only Allah’s name will remain in the end) — which had stirred much debate.

Tamil rapper Arivu recently performed his protest song Sanda saivom (We will fight) back-to-back with Nam parpome. Bharatanatyam dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh used it in a show celebrating the country’s spirit of tolerance. In a largely Hindi-resistance hotbed, the wholehearted embracing of Faiz remains a standout moment. “The song has since taken a life of its own,” says Ponni over the phone from Sri Lanka.

God of kindness

Mamta Sagar, the Bengaluru-based performance poet who had penned the Kannada translation, Naavu nodona, says it took her three months of research to find a regional metaphor that upheld the spirit of the song. The rich history of Karnataka’s Vachana movement (12th century) came to her rescue. Her Naavu nodona resonates with these lines:

Karuneye devaru aadaga

Aa devaru gudi aache nadedaga

Thallisi konda namagella

Aa devaru saniha sikkaga

(When kindness becomes a God that walks out of a temple on to the streets, people like us who have been pushed to the margins will get the closeness of God. When that happens, the stage will crumble and power structures will collapse.)

A YouTube video shows Bindumalini and MD Pallavi performing the Kannada song outside Bengaluru’s Town Hall. “There were tears in people’s eyes. They were forced to sing it again. The kind of love we got was immense,” says Sagar.

Holding hands

When Shameena Begum, a medical lab technologist in the UAE, returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 2016, she decided to renew her love for writing Malayalam poetry and translating English poetry into Urdu.

“I wanted to bring out the essence of Faiz’s poem — a day will come when oppressors will fall and justice will be served. A day will come when we are all equal. The song is for all. Not any one religion,” she says.

Having lived in West Asia, she was aware that Allah wasn’t just a word for a Muslim god. “In the Arab version, Allah is used to refer to a Jewish or Christian god too. In Kerala, too, people aren’t threatened by it. We have more tolerance for minorities,” she says.

Her version, Kaanum naam, is sung by Pushpavathy Paryadath. Among a few other Malayalam translations available on YouTube, the one accompanying the visuals of a 620-km human chain organised in Kerala against the CAA in January 2020 is hugely popular.

The Bengali translation by Dr Abantika Pal, a government medical officer in West Bengal, has been published in a book — Kono manush adoidho noy ei prithibite(Nobody is illegitimate in this world) — written by human rights activist Sujato Bhadra. Referring to the anti-CAA protests and the crackdown on them, and the recent violence and deaths in Delhi, Pal says over email, “I feel Faiz’s words are my own words, his language of protest is my own language of anger and refusal.”

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, who performed the song in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi at Shaheen Bagh earlier this year, stresses that translations lead to “uncaging” of thought. “Faiz allows us to interpret Allah as love and kindness, which is why the song is alive right now. In Gandhi Ashram, the song Vaishnava janatowas sung as Christu janato, Islam janato and Parsi janato. This flexibility is the essence of truly great art,” he tells BLink.

Sagar sees the poem as a great unifier. “Because of it lots of women are out on the streets. We are getting introduced to each other,” she says.

Shriya Mohan

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Published on March 06, 2020
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