India: Dalit folk hero rises up through song

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NEW DELHI, India — Seated on a hospital bed and dressed in a simple white undershirt, singer Bant Singh gestures unconsciously with the stump of his right arm as he speaks. His powerful voice has a rough beauty that is, like that of Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams, well suited to his dark subject.

"If we're to starve," he says, "we may as well fight for our freedom. At least we'll be remembered. Move away from living on the streets, or our thatched hovels. Let's all become Bhagat Singh, become masters of this nation, stop this looting, stop the violation of our wives and sisters."

It's that kind of talk, and equally revolutionary songs, that cost Singh both of his arms and one of his legs. As a Dalit — a member of one of the castes once known as "untouchable" — Singh angered higher caste landlords, whom he criticized for exploiting workers, just by speaking out. But when he dared to bring the upper caste men who raped his daughter to court, eventually sending three of them to jail with a life sentence in 2002, his so-called "betters" decided to get even.

One night four years later, a gang of seven men caught Singh returning home through a wheat field, smashed and broke his body with axes and iron rods, and left him for dead. But he refused to die. And he refused to shut up. He shouted, and sang, until one day he saw justice done, and all seven attackers were convicted for the assault.

His heroism made him a bigger star in the rural Punjab than he ever was when he still had all four limbs, and he's an inspiration to oppressed people across India. Now, thanks to a bunch of deejays, musicians, filmmakers and photographers who call themselves The Bant Singh Project, his voice is about to be heard in India's urban nightspots, and maybe even across the globe.

"Each of us was independently moved by Bant Singh's history and desired to work with him," said American Chris McGuinness, a Bombay-based deejay who's performed at the International Indian Film Academy Awards and contributed score music to a film featured at Cannes. "His music and lyrics are interesting. He has a unique background and his presence injects something special into the music. Working with him allows us to make fresh music and build awareness of issues that affect many people in India."

Fusing the music of McGuinness, Taru Dalmia (aka Delhi Sultanate) and Samrat B (aka Audio Pervert), the project will lay Singh's protest songs over electronic grooves and the beats of dancehall, dubstep, ragga and hip hop, and on some tracks Dalmia's rap will serve as creative translation of Singh's Punjabi poetry. Photographer Lakshman Anand has also made a short film about Singh, examining the struggle of Dalits in the Punjab through the vehicle of his tragic story, which was shown in Delhi in September.

Earlier this year, the crew drove from the posh side of Delhi to Bant Singh's remote village in the Punjab with a car full of recording equipment and other gear. The mission was to jam with the man and record his songs for the project, of course. But for the city musicians, it was a transformational experience, sleeping on the roof and splashing in the local swimming hole with Singh's eight kids.

"There's a big language barrier, so him coming across as an iconic figure came to us first," said Samrat. But the content of Bant Singh's songs is inspiring, too. "His lyrics also involve taking the example of the legendary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, who was branded an extremist by the Congress Party but is considered an iconic figure by the lower class of Punjab. But what he's singing about is very contemporary."

The words of one mournful tune, for example, take on the exploitation of the women of the poor. The narrator of the song is a young girl who, because of her great beauty, is being given in marriage to a family that is wealthier and perhaps of higher caste than her own. There's a terrible echo to Bant Singh's personal experience when, fearing that she will be mistreated, she asks her father to include the means to protect the family's honor in her dowry:

In my dowry, my father give me a pistol, in my dower

The implication is that rather than live as a slave, she will shoot her husband and herself. But Singh's story is about living on. He says that for his people, the song's message is important, because nobody has ever told them that they can fight back.

"The little that I read about [Bant Singh] in the papers made it appear that he was destroyed," said Samrat. "But when we met him, he was incredibly strong. He's lost three of his limbs, but he has
immense strength of character."