Stop Appropriating Songs of Resistance

Salman Sikandar, Aminah Chaudhry

Recently, a video of some young people dancing on a mehendi went viral and drew criticism on social media. Many people were offended, not because they objected to the dance moves, but because the song used for the dancing – Bella Ciao – was completely out of place with the context.

The video was a tragic signifier of a general ignorance of revolutionary traditions that pervades our polity, which is why it was easy to use a resistance song for a wedding dance. It is unfortunate that a song which has played a role in reshaping world history has been deprived of its essential historical significance. The video and the dancing in it reminds us that commercialisation of revolutionary art can never do justice to its essence.

Field workers in northern Italy first sang Bella Ciao against poor working conditions in the 19th century. It is such a powerful song that it resurfaced again in the 20th century when it was taken by the Resistance against Mussolini’s fascist, dictatorial regime. Bella Ciao has always been a song of the Resistance.

In political contexts, the song has recently been heard in anti-Brexit protests in the UK, pro-independence movements in Spain and the Yellow Vest Movement in France. The Kurdish resistance is also singing Bella Ciao as they face military assault under Erdogan’s regime; young Kurdish men and women on the battlefields hum its tune to keep up their morale and courage. In Pakistan, the tune of Bella Ciao was heard last November at Students Solidarity March, when a violinist took to the stage to play for a crowd of thousands of young people demanding the right to unionise. With its catchy tune and powerful lyrics, Bella Ciao creates an image of the resistance and also capture the emotions of the people fighting for it.

Bella Ciao recently seized global attention when it was used in the popular Netflix series Money Heist – a show which also plays upon the prevalent anti-establishment sentiment in Europe. An anthem that was once sung by revolutionaries against fascist regimes is now being danced upon by young people in clubs and fancy weddings.

The commercialization of revolutionary art has always betrayed the aesthetics in them. Take the example of beautiful ghazals of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, such as Mujh Say Pehli Si Muhabbat or Hum Dekhainge. Both these ghazals are pearls in our rich tapestry of revolutionary aesthetics. They are a perfect blend of form and content. The revolutionary appeal of these ghazals can be evidenced in claps and sloganeering by the audience when Iqbal Bano sings them in her powerful voice. But when the same ghazals were sung on Coke Studio, they did not receive much praise. Deprived of their historic significance, these ghazals seemed so ordinary.

Similarly, we can never forget the role of Ajoka Theatre in the dark times of General Zia’s dictatorship. The plays produced by Ajoka played a vital role in resistance against dictatorship. Yet, when it began producing plays for commercial purposes, it could no longer capture the masses the way it used to.

These are just two examples of commercialization of revolutionary art, but they underscore that money can never buy the beauty of art, love and revolution.

The aesthetic value of revolutionary art lies in the fact that it is never completed. Just like love and revolution, it is in a constant process of creation through history. With the promise of an ideal, it keeps getting beautiful with time so it can never really become an object for commodification unless it is deprived of its essence and closed in a bottle. The commodification of art breaks its connection with the Universal and commercialization can never do justice with the essence of art. For many decades, even in the circles of resistance, art has not been given the place it deserves. The value and power of art has been greatly undermined and ignored. This is one of the reasons that not a lot of novel revolutionary art has been produced in these three decades. This is also the reason behind commodification of revolutionary art. We have given this art to the capitalist with our own hands.

We need to establish the broken link between art, people and history so that people can experience these ideals promised by art before it is all engulfed in the fire of commercialization. This is the only way we can reclaim the art of the people, by the people, for the people.

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