Can sound be a political weapon? We meet Ravana, a daring artist whose two recent albums, War for Peace and Old Delhi, reject simplistic portrayals of Indian history to challenge the erosion of civil liberties and a growing Islamophobia.
Meet Ravana, the Indian musician using electronica as a political weapon
The centrepiece of Delhi-based dub producer Ravana’s latest album War for Peace is its title track. Three-and-a-half minutes of brooding, ominous percussion and jagged, distorted synths evoke all the fear, anger and violence of the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency – the longest running in India. A minute into the song, the music suddenly fades away, replaced by a vocal sample of the late Comrade Azad (Cherukuri Rajkumar) – former spokesman and Central Politburo member of the banned Maoist group Communist Party of India – taken from Sanjay Kak’s documentary Red Ant Dream.
“Violence,” Azad says, “is a structural feature of our society: it is an inbuilt, inherent characteristic of the existing unjust, authoritarian, hierarchical, oppressive and rotten society.” Then the synths and the heavy bass crash back in, now accompanied by the terrifying sounds of doors being broken down, shouting and gunfire. It’s heavy stuff for an electronica album, especially in a country where electronic music is largely the domain of rich globetrotting hedonists and navel-gazing hipsters. But then Ravana – whose real name is Shravan Chellappa – isn’t your regular electronica producer.
Chellappa first came to my attention in 2014, when I stumbled across his brilliant dub/ambient album Ghalib on Bandcamp. Fascinated by this marriage of grimy dub music and vocal samples from an iconic 1988 TV series about the Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, I dug further to find that Chellappa had produced an astonishing array of music. Spread across 10 SoundCloud accounts (inspired by the 10-headed antagonist Ravana in the epic poem Ramayana), it ranged from breakbeat, techno and dub music to jungle remixes of Odia (a language spoken in Orissa, aka Odisha, a state in Eastern India) revolutionary songs.
Having quit his corporate job with Indiatimes a few years ago, he spends his time at home making music and occasionally doing data entry jobs. When I first spoke to Chellappa two years ago, he was heavily invested in radical politics, drawing as much influence from India’s long tradition of revolutionary poetry as from Jamaican dub music.
In the intervening time, the coming to power of Narendra Modi’s Hindu government and the rising tide of Islamophobia and nationalist violence accelerated this process of political self-education. The result is War for Peace, eight tracks of dark, politically-tinged dub sounds overlaid with vocal samples from audiobooks and speeches by political heavyweights such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Arundhati Roy.