When the Rebel Met the Pause

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Why did a rock convention require folk singer Bant Singh to defend his politics, asks Isha Manchanda

For the record Bant Singh with his wife in Vishal-Shekhar’s studio in Mumbai
For the record Bant Singh with his wife in Vishal-Shekhar’s studio in Mumbai
Photo: Calvin Vaz

IMAGINE AN auditorium full of 20-something musicians with long hair and black T-shirts. Now imagine a man in a wheelchair – a handsome man of 50, dressed in a plain white kurta that hangs loosely off his shoulders and a bright red turban. It’s day two of Unconvention, a conference on independent music organised in Mumbai by Only Much Louder (OML), a record label and artist management firm, and the British Council. The man is Bant Singh, iconic Punjabi folk singer.

A CPI(ML) member, he mobilised small farmers for the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha. He successfully campaigned to get a corrupt ration depot owner’s license cancelled. Soon after, his 17-year-old daughter was raped. Singh, a Dalit farmer from Mansa, refused to stay quiet. He paid for it with his limbs: upper-caste men smashed him with a handpump handle, reducing his arms and legs to stumps. TEHELKA broke the story of the rebel’s indomitable spirit in 2006.

On November 22, 2009, Bant Singh was in Mumbai to deliver the keynote speech at Unconvention and to record two songs at composer duo Vishal-Shekhar’s studio.

It was a surprise to see him at a conference that addressed mostly Mumbai folk who sing about urban lives, unaware of the existence of protest music in India. It was a bigger surprise to witness their reaction to his powerful voice and lyrics. Speechlessness, goose bumps and three standing ovations.

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