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.
These sparse and judiciously used samples act as a focusing lens for the album’s dark, unforgiving and unequivocally militant sonic palette. Distorted percussion drives the music forward like 21st century war drums, sometimes accompanied by field recordings of Indian folk rhythms. Warped basslines pulse with tension and purpose, an emotional counterpoint to the album’s politically-charged lyrics. This is dub music reimagined as a political weapon, the subaltern rhythm and texture of its bass, percussion and noise elements conveying a distinct political sentiment and metaphor – that of anger, militancy and a grim determination.
“I believe that peace can only come from war,” says Chellappa, explaining the album’s central theme that argues you have to fight for peace and freedom. “Why do we talk about peace if there is no war, no conflict? If you want peace, you have war. And if you want war, then you talk about peace.”
Conflict is a central theme in Chellappa’s recent music. While War for Peace focuses on the erosion of India’s public institutions and civil liberties and the increasing religious and political polarisation – with tracks like Ethnic Cleansing, Role of the Media and Religious Violence – his previous album Old Delhi tackles the battle raging over India’s cultural history and heritage.
The Hindutva lobby, which believes that the left and the Indian National Congress have long dominated India’s academic institutions, sees the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise to power as an opportunity to recast India’s complex history in simplistic terms. Their narrative, which has Muslim invaders on one side and peaceful Hindu natives on the other, has little place for a syncretic Indian culture that integrates many ideas and customs from Arabic and Persian traditions.
Urdu – the language of poets such as Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbal – is now being denounced as a foreign imposition. The Ministry of Human Resources Development is making a nationwide push for the adoption of Sanskrit across the academic spectrum, a move resented by India’s many other linguistic and cultural communities. Last week, BJP legislator Shaina NC compared the Mughal emperor Akbar to Adolf Hitler, and many state governments are changing history textbooks to portray the Mughals, other Muslim leaders and even the secular leaders of post-independence India in a negative light. In such an atmosphere, Old Delhi – a musical love letter to the history-filled alleys and bylanes of the Mughals’ walled capital – is a quiet and effective act of cultural resistance.
“These are the sounds of Old Delhi,” explains Chellappa. “I tried to reimagine the serenity and sounds of the city 300 to 400 years ago in the times of the Mughals and juxtapose that with where Old Delhi is now.”
The eight tracks on the February release trace a route through Old Delhi, as Chellappa starts from the Red Fort and pays homage to some of its historic landmarks.
For this record Chellappa took heavy inspiration from the late Bryn Jones, a British producer who released dozens of Middle East-influenced electronica albums as Muslimgauze. Much like Jones, Chellappa mixes traditional Indian percussion, drones and raw jagged synths to create a soundscape that occupies the liminal space between two worlds – the majestic Shahjahanabad of the Mughals and its noisy, overcrowded modern day iteration.
Most producers would be more than content to release two albums in a year, let alone four months. But Chellappa is already putting the finishing touches on his next release, Anti-Nationals. Inspired by the police crackdown on students at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on February 11, and the ensuing public debate on freedom of speech, sedition and nationalism, the record will come out on July 1.
“As an artist, you have a responsibility to speak up for what is right, for the truth,” he says about the album’s inspiration.
“Without being afraid of the consequences. If you know what’s going on ... and you still keep quiet – and say that I’m only interested in making music and playing gigs and I have nothing to do with the things going around me – then I think that’s a problem.”
Chellappa is already thinking about the album he will make after Anti-Nationals, and he has continued to release regular non-album cuts on his plethora of SoundCloud pages. What drives him to be so prolific? It can’t be the money – there isn’t any. Indian independent musicians are lucky to even recover costs through album sales and his heavy political messages mean that opportunities to play his music live are rare and irregular.
“If I start thinking about whether I have money or not, I’ll get nothing done,” he explains. “If I’m good enough, I’ll eventually make money. If I’m not good enough I’ll still die peacefully because I did what I wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t make music, I’ll probably end up in an asylum. I’d go mental.”
Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.