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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Singer and satirist Daniel Langthasa on pop, politics and Mr India

The singer doesn't mind naming and shaming India's political leaders and he's determined to not let fear get in his way of music and activism

My name is Mr. India, and my dream is to become the number one gau rakshak [cow vigilante] in the country.”
Daniel Langthasa
My name is Mr. India, and my dream is to become the number one gau rakshak [cow vigilante] in the country.” Daniel Langthasa

“My name is Mr India, and my dream is to become the number one gau rakshak [cow vigilante] in the country.”

Daniel Langthasa has been on stage for less than a minute, and he’s already giving me anxiety. It’s a warm Mumbai evening, and the 32-year-old musician is performing at the REProduce Listening Room, a series of experimental gigs I help to curate.

The day’s line-up features some of the country’s loudest and most abrasive artists, dabbling in noise, industrial and other sonic warfare. But it is Langthasa’s singalong ditties that have me worried about someone calling the police. And I’m not the only one.

The audience of 20-something hipsters responds with shocked laughter as he launches into his first song Gau Rakshak No 1, a scathing satirical critique of the violence unleashed by the Hindu right wing’s cow protection programme. Set to the tune of the ‘70s patriotic anthem Hum Honge Kamyaab (a translation of the gospel classic We Shall Overcome), it’s a masterclass in tongue-in-cheek provocation, taking fierce potshots at the vigilantes and their supporters in the ruling BJP party.

That sets the mood for the next 45 minutes as this cheerful young man – dressed in a buttoned-down shirt and wearing his signature novelty glasses of two hands covering his eyes – lampoons everything from the policies of prime minister Narendra Modi and the secessionist insurgents in his home state of Assam, to the hypocrisy of faux-feminist stand-up comedians who have no qualms with acting in sexist Bollywood films.

His tunes are bright and eminently hummable, but his lyrics are informed by dark humour, political anger and a keen sense of the outrageous. Watching him live, you can’t escape the feeling of “is-this-even-allowed” frisson – the illicit thrill of watching someone march right up to the line, and then gleefully leap over it. After he’s done, a friend – who’s also a gig promoter – says to me, “I can’t believe you got away with this.”

But then, Langthasa has been getting away with it for years. I first came across him at the turn of the decade, when he was the guitarist and frontman of Guwahati-based alt-rock/electro-punk/mutton rap outfit Digital Suicide. Even back then, Langthasa and his partner-in-crime Dpak Borah were agent provocateurs par excellence. Their lo-fi DIY songs mixed political critique, absurdist satire and crude humour, leaving audiences unsure whether to laugh or be offended. #NoStateNoRest, for example, uses sexual references to express frustration at the racism and ethnic strife that has left parts of the country in a state of undeclared civil war.

In an overwhelmingly apolitical indie scene with aspirations of bourgeois respectability, this made them perennial outsiders. It didn’t help that the band embraced notoriety with open arms. When a Shillong venue owner took issue with their lyrics and forced them off the stage, they released the video on YouTube, with the triumphant sounding title “Digital Suicide banned from Shillong!”

Then in 2014, sick of city life and with Digital Suicide on hiatus, Langthasa moved back to his hometown of Haflong in the hills of Assam.

Struggling with writer’s block, he went back to basics. He started writing songs on his acoustic guitar and recorded them on a video camera in his bedroom, with his wife Avantika and 10 dogs also making odd appearances. They were then uploaded to YouTube as Mr India.

Whereas most of Digital Suicide’s lyrics were in English, Mr India’s songs were in Haflong Hindi, the local pidgin language that blends Hindi, Assamese, Dimasa and Zeme Naga that he grew up speaking.

“I just wanted to express what was on my mind at the time,” he tells me over the phone. “Unedited and raw, so there’s no self-censorship involved.”

Langthasa didn’t set out to make political music. He insists that the aim has always been self-expression, not political critique. But perhaps he just can’t help himself. After all, this is a man whose first song with his first band Ahimsa was about a schoolteacher who administered corporal punishment to the son of a local political leader and ended up with a stint in the local jail as a result.

His first song as Mr India? It poked fun at the constant political horse-trading at his local council in gleefully colourful language. “I think it’s because I live in such a small town, and politics becomes much more personal at that scale,” he says. “In Guwahati, you’re still observing politics from afar. It doesn’t necessarily affect you. But coming to Haflong, you’re in the middle of it and it becomes impossible to keep quiet and not talk about it.”

In the year-and-a-half since that first track, he’s racked up more than 130 songs on his YouTube channel, both parodies and original compositions. The songs and videos are all steeped in his oddball aesthetic – kitschy, ironic, pointedly lo-fi. The topics range from right-wing fundamentalism, homophobia, corruption and the hypocrisy of India’s film industry and pop musicians.

Other songs tackle local issues, from the corruption of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council to money-hungry evangelists, to local militants inciting ethnic strife in the name of self-determination. He’s even crowd-sourced topics, writing songs about the complaints of local residents.

“At the end of the day, Indian politics doesn’t all come down to what happens in New Delhi,” he says, stressing on the importance of community engagement.

“We have to look at solving problems instead of just talking about them. And if you’re serious about solving issues, then you have to start with your own area.”

Recently, he organised a sing-in protest in support of 3,000 municipal workers in the town who hadn’t been paid their salaries since September 2016. Langthasa had already written songs on the issue and made a short film when the workers went on strike in July. But in November, disillusioned by the lack of action – and in support of the workers – he decided to get more actively involved. For three days he took his guitar to different parts of town where there was high foot traffic and performed songs in support of the workers. Then, on November 18, he travelled to New Delhi, where he performed in front of India Gate.

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That video brought the issue back into the spotlight, with local and national media finally covering the protests. More importantly for Langthasa, it’s also brought young people into the movement, sharing posts with the BetonDeu hashtag (“clear salary dues”), and even sending in their own songs, lyrics and poetry in support of the cause.

His popularity with the local youth – as well as the fact that his father Nindu Langthasa was a politician with the Congress party – has often led to people asking him if he’s going to join active politics.

When he started Mr India, he was called in by the local army chief (the Indian Army has a lot of power in Assam’s militancy hit areas) who wanted to groom him for a political career. More recently, it has been the people in Haflong making similar queries. Having made the step from music to activism (he’s been helping local villages set up eco-tourism committees, and he and his wife run ROOHI, a social enterprise that helps weavers), it seems like a logical progression.

But being a politician in Haflong comes with its costs, and nobody knows that more than Langthasa. In 2007, his father was assassinated by militants from the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD). The leaders of that organisation are now in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state – brought into the political mainstream after an amnesty deal in 2009.

Langthasa’s own penchant for naming and shaming those leaders – and others – in his songs and social media posts has led to online trolling as well as the occasional veiled threat. But while he’s undecided about joining active politics, Langthasa is determined not to let fear get into the way of his music and activism.

“I don’t feel afraid, even though I know what sort of stuff happens in real life,” he tells me. “I think it has a lot to do with what happened to my father and what I saw. At the time, my brother was very young and my mother is also a very simple person, so suddenly I had to grow up, console them, take care of them. I had to be strong, I couldn’t afford to break down. I don’t even remember crying after my father died. Maybe that’s why the fear doesn’t come.”