Back then, Gaddar's songs filled public spaces in Andhra Pradesh. Whenever I was travelling – whether it was from Karimnagar to Bellampalli or from Khammam to Yellandu – it was commonplace to hear Gaddar's songs playing in buses.
Whether it was at tea shops or at village festivals, his music, in the form of cassettes and CDs, reverberated through the state.
Popularly known as Gaddar, Gummadi Vittal Rao was a balladeer, poet, and cultural performer. He passed away at a private hospital in Hyderabad on 6 August while undergoing treatment for a heart-related ailment. He was 74.
As we remember him today, we are mourning the loss of a rare cultural leader and a political stalwart – the kind we fear we may never chance upon again.
Songs of Everyday Resistance
Gaddar's performance did not differentiate between speech and song – his songs were conversational, and his conversations were laced with songs of revolution.
In one of his songs, he narrated the struggles of coal mine workers of the Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL).
The coal mining regions of united Andhra Pradesh saw regular protests by SCCL workers who fought against unfair wages, mine accidents, and safety concerns. Incidentally, a large number of coal miners, who were involved in the labour of coal extraction, were from the lower castes.
Singareni Gani Kaarmika...”
(Dabbing your blood on coal
and giving wealth to Singareni Collieries.
Are your lives left in the dark,
oh my dear Singareni worker?)
This song, which was a part of numerous songs written by members of Jana Natya Mandali, was performed by Gaddar. It narrated the everyday struggles of the workers who risked their lives and entered the mines to bring out the 'black gold' – with no promise for their own futures.
Gaddar's longstanding association with Jana Natya Mandali, a revolutionary cultural organisation of the Maoists, resulted in thousands of songs that spoke loudly about the struggles of the marginalised and oppressed classes.
He was at the forefront of the fight against state oppression and feudal exploitation and stood as an icon of class struggle among the masses.
Association With Naxal Movement
Gaddar's songs were an important part of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh – and they narrated the stories of young martyrs.
“Donga yedurukalpulalla kanumoosina koonalaara
Yerrapoola dandaalethumo maa biddalaara
Yedala mimmu daasukundumo maa koonalara…”
(Oh my dear children, killed in false encounters,
we will garland you with red flowers and
hold you deep in our hearts…)
For a large part of his life, he continued his support for the Naxalite movement and identified himself as a Maoist leader. But in the latter part of his life, he recognised the 'unspeakability' of caste in Left politics and embraced Ambedkarite ideology and anti-caste struggles.
Since then, he has been vocal about the importance of the Indian Constitution and the significance of electoral politics for people from marginalised communities. Gaddar's song Dalita Pululamma, written after the Karamchedu Massacre, continues to ignite the spirit of contemporary anti-caste movements.
It was in the year 1985 – when the Kamma (dominant caste) landlords of Karamchedu village attacked and killed several Dalit men and raped Dalit women – that Gaddar wrote Dalita Pululamma. The song marked the fighting spirit of the Karamchedu martyrs who stood strong and fought valiantly to protect their life of dignity.
To this day, Dalita Pululamma continues to ignite the spirit of contemporary anti-caste movements and is sung widely to show the defiance of the oppressed castes against the repressive caste structure.
Gaddar's songs capture the violence of caste in the lives of the oppressed. Everyday objects like dustbins and lavatories were touched upon tenderly in his songs, and at the same time, they became sites of caste and class resistance.
Undying Faith in Student Politics
During the second wave of the Telangana movement from 2009-14, Gaddar stood strongly with the fighting students of Osmania and Kakatiya Universities, reiterating the role of students in the success of a separate Telangana state. He wrote several songs that were instrumental in the separate statehood movement.
Dagaapadda Telangana, Nee Paatanai Vasthunna, and most importantly, Podustunna Poddu, defined the second wave of the Telangana movement. He was always approachable and accessible to the student community and extensively visited universities across the country.
His belief in the transformative potential of student politics in the country and undying faith in universities as spaces of resistance were reflected in his performances, too.
bhavishya bhaarta bhagyama..”
(...the new generation, the youth
the future of India...)
The above verses are from his song Baanisalaara Lendira, which urges the younger generation to have an active political life, especially those from marginalised communities, to achieve political representation in legislative and governance structures.
Even though he fought relentlessly for a separate Telangana, he has also been an important voice in reminding us that the fight for Telangana is incomplete if we limit ourselves to a geographical imagination of the state – and not a socially just imagination.
In his interviews and public appearances, he spoke tirelessly about the non-translation of the vibrant democratic movement into the structures of the new state and remained critical of the undemocratic and exclusionary politics in the newly formed Telangana State.
Gaddar urged us not to forget the motto of “neelu-nidhulu-niyamakalu” (water, allocation of resources, and employment opportunities).
A Final Goodbye
As we pay tributes to this exemplary personality, it is important to recount his journey with ideas, ideals, and a desire for an egalitarian society. Cultural artefacts are reflective of their times. Similarly, they also hold a promise of possibilities.
Gaddar believed music and songs needed to have a force that could make revolution possible. Those of us who have had the fortune of witnessing his performance would agree that something within us underwent a deep transformation.
When I witnessed his performance at the University of Hyderabad earlier this year, Gaddar, at age 74, had the same vigour as he did several years ago. He held a Buddhist flag close to his heart and had bells tied to his waist and legs as he performed. He proclaimed to the audience that his body might fail him but his songs never will!
There may be agreements and disagreements about his politics and political life, but Gaddar's songs moved generations of people from across the nation. The life of this cultural icon seems to have transcended the boundaries of political parties.
(Dr Himabindu Chintakunta has a doctoral degree in media and communication from the University of Hyderabad. She has worked as a guest faculty at the School of Communication in the same university. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)