When Aamir Aziz’s phone started buzzing insistently Thursday morning, he figured one of his songs protesting the plight of minorities in India was making the social media rounds again. A self-taught musician and poet – formally educated as a civil engineer – Aziz has become a popular figure at demonstrations in India, his poetry providing a voice to the gathered masses. But on Thursday, he was en route to perform at a rally in Patna, his hometown and capital of Bihar, an eastern Indian state popular with Buddhist pilgrims but also long considered the country’s badlands; the internet connection was not good, so he ignored the notifications.
It wasn’t until he was on his way to the airport that evening to catch a flight back to New Delhi that he finally clicked through the YouTube link sent to him. That’s when he first saw Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters reading a translation of Aziz’s poem Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega (Everything Will Be Remembered) at a protest march in London last Saturday, demanding the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“I think this kid’s got a future,” Waters said, as onlookers cheered. The video has since been watched by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Aziz’s phone was inundated with thousands of messages. He didn’t share the video himself. He felt as if he was the last person to see it.
Watching Waters read his poem, Aziz felt a numbness of sorts. Growing up in Patna, his introduction to Western music, when he was in his 20s, was through the trifecta of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. However, his co-passenger in the car speeding to the airport had no idea who Waters was, so there was no one to share the moment with.
“Besides, it was a stressful time. There was communal violence going on in [New] Delhi. I really couldn’t figure out how to react. I still don’t know how I should react,” said Aziz, 30, in a phone conversation from his home in New Delhi.
Protest poetry and performances have been a recurring feature of India’s student-led demonstrations opposing a new citizenship law. From the #OccupyGateway movement in Mumbai to assemblies in Bengaluru and Kolkata and the ongoing female-led sit-in in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, public spaces have become open-air arenas for artistic expressions of dissent.
A musical late bloomer, Aziz started writing protest songs as a way of dealing with the atrocities he’d seen around him. He hadn’t even seen a guitar up close until he arrived in New Delhi in 2006 to study civil engineering at Jamia Millia Islamia university, where he saw a friend of a friend playing one at a school get-together. He scrimped and saved from the monthly allowance his family sent him and the money he earned teaching to buy the cheapest guitar he could find.
A friend taught him a few chords, and he picked up the rest from YouTube tutorials and watching videos of Dylan, Jim Morrison and Pete Seeger. He was also influenced by the works of renowned Indian poets and lyricists such as Sahir Ludhianvi.
His first song, Achche Din Blues, which invokes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s erstwhile election promise of better days, was inspired by the 2016 lynching deaths of two men in the state of Jharkhand. They were cattle traders, killed by a vigilante group claiming to protect cows. He posted the song on his YouTube channel in March, 2019. A month later, he posted Ballad of Pehlu Khan, inspired by the murder of a dairy farmer at the hands of a similar group.
Writing songs is a way of survival for him right now – to document the times he’s living through.
“These poems haunt me as well,” he said. “If the world would have been a better place, poetry would have made people fall in love … The time must change, the world must change. It’s become nightmarish for everyone.”
At the same time, these songs give people courage and hope, he added.
“There’s a feeling of togetherness,” he said. “Some people have come up with the idea that we will not subscribe to hate. We will subscribe to love, unity and brotherhood.”
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