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‘Mela Gadri Babean Da’: The Festival In Punjab That Celebrates Its Revolutionary Past

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By Nikita Azad:

October 30 to November 1 are days of the Communist festival in Punjab. Punjab, which is homeland to some of the greatest revolutionary martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Udham Singh, etc., has kept the tradition of celebrating successes of people’s struggles alive. Every year people of Punjab commemorate birthdays of various martyrs and pay homage at their death anniversaries. But, one of the most significant such celebration is “Mela Gadri Babean da”, which is observed every year from 30th October to 1st November in Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, Jalandhar. The fete is organised to pay homage to the great Ghadar movement, launched by Indians living abroad against the British regime in India.

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Image source: Nikita Azad

Gadri Mela is a fest that nourishes people’s culture and breaks the cultural hegemony that the state tries to impose by its ideological apparatuses including cinema and media. It brings forth a counter-culture which is not appropriated by the imperatives of corporates, and is free from the normativity of present day culture. In times as these, when individuals and outfits that do not succumb to the predominant understanding of society, and its processes, are murdered, a fest like this has enormous importance. It addresses questions of caste, class and gender away from the liberal humanist cultural representations, and shifts the angle towards cobwebs where the mechanisms of differential handling are invented. It provides platform to the voices which are being repudiated by so-called directives of modern cinema and theatre, by providing them space to proliferate their perspectives of comprehending reality.

The Ghadar party was formed in 1913 in the U.S.A, with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna as its President. The party published a newspaper which was the backbone of the party known as ‘Ghadar: Angrez Raj da Dushman’ (The enemy of British Rule). It was essentially a secular, patriotic party with Tarak Nath Das, Maulvi Barkatullah, and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle as its members. The party, as the name suggests was aimed at advancing a rebellion in India against foreign rule, for which it organised meetings in villages, and convinced people to revolt against prevailing injustice. Although it failed in attaining freedom for its beloved motherland, it served as a stepping stone in the Independence struggle of India.

This year, the 24th fete, paying homage to great Ghadar martyrs was celebrated in Jalandhar, which saw the 100th death anniversary of Ghadri leaders like Kartar Singh Sarabha, and V.G. Pingle. As usual, the fete commenced on 30th with singing and declamation competition in the evening, and plays in the night. Many students from different schools and colleges participated in the competitions.

On 31st October, Quiz and painting competitions were organised, and Kavi Darbar (Poetry Session) was held in the evening. Kavi Darbar was one of the most enthusiastic events in which different revolutionary poets of Punjab like Darshan Khatkar, Harwinder Bhandal, and Surjit Gag participated. The walls of the hall echoed with red revolutionary verses sung by poets of different ages. The motive of the poetry session was, according to the host Harwinder Bhandal, to politicise youth, and students, raise their level of critical consciousness, and alert them of the diversions which mainstream ideas try to bring in the name of religion. Harwinder Bhandal is an eminent poet of Punjabi, who has written several poetic volumes, including Khuskushi Ik Chup Di (Suicide of a silence). When I asked about the content and form of poetry that is being used these days, he commented, “There is a new trend among the youth. They update their statuses on facebook, write poems, and feel contented with the number of likes and shares. Such poetry is detached from the actual history of poetry. They do not know the level of poetry, they need to begin from the point where their previous generation has left poetry.” He emphasised the role of professors, teachers, and counsellors in uplifting the level of consciousness in youth. He said that the market discourse is isolating youth from its primary concerns.

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Image source: Nikita Azad

After the poetry session, three documentaries were shown by a group People’s Voice, namely, ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hai’, ‘In Dark Dream’, and ‘One Beautiful Dream’, directed by eminent Indian scientist and documentary film maker, Gauhar Raza. The theme of the documentaries was to expose the fascist character of Indian state, juxtaposing it with the reign of Hitler in Germany. The Ghadar movement itself was against the atrocities done by British on India, and against dictatorial rule which refused to tolerate any kind of resistance. Showcasing these movies made the audience relate to the present scenario of intolerance to that during the British rule.

The next day, 1st November, began with custom hoisting of the flag at 10:00 a.m. in the morning, which was inaugurated by Mr. Gurmeet, trustee of Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall. It was followed by a band performance of students of DAV School, Dirba. This team of school students of adolescent age enthralled the audience with their errorless performance, and hearty obeisance to martyrs. After it, Song of Flag, a choreography, highlighting the entire history of the Ghadar Movement, and signifying its importance in the present was performed by different teams, under the leadership of Harwinder Diwana, Lok Kala Chetna Manch, Barnala. The choreography mesmerized the audience with its beautiful story and direction. For me, the most heart-throbbing scene of the choreography was in the end when the entire team paid homage to Kalburgi, Panesar, and Dabolkar by holding their placards. This event involved over 150 participants who regularly practised in the hall for endless hours.

The second event of the day was honouring the families of those who were martyred a century before this year. The family of Vishnu Ganesh Pingle came all the way from Pune, Maharashtra to receive the honour. Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics, JNU came to deliver lecture on the Imperialism and Agrarian question. Shamshul Islam was also invited to speak on the ‘Rise of Fascism’ in the nation. The entire night saw various plays, namely, ‘Bagane Bohr di chaan’, ‘Kachi Garhi’, ‘Mera Bharat’, ‘Dastan-e-Gadar’, ‘Spartacus’, and ‘Tain ki dard na ayeya’, under the direction of Prof. Ajmer Aulakh, Keval Dhaliwal, Dr. Sahib Singh, Gurinder Makna, Vicky Maheshri, and Balwinder Bullet respectively. Many singing groups, including Jatha Rasoolpur, and Dastak Manch performed during the night.

On all the three days, the most eye catching thing of the fete were the book stalls. People came from all over India, to set their stalls and purchase books. The book exhibition is the biggest one of Punjab, which is attended by people different colleges, schools, villages, and even cities. I happened to talk to one publisher, namely, New International Publications, who came from West Bengal to showcase their literature to the people of Punjab. Gautam Paul, one of the publishers, said, “This fete is very crucial since it unites the broad left against ruling class. It liquidates the differences within the left for some time, and shifts the camera towards the state. Also, it is very difficult to find such a tradition of openly criticising the state for its fascist character. The counter culture it boosts is extraordinary.”

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Prof. Jagmohan, nephew of Shaheed Bhagat Singh also came to the fete and recognized the year as a historically special year where on one hand, the state is trying to rewrite history, and on the other, people are holding the flag of their history. His message to the youth was, “Bhagat Singh once wrote that realism is my only cult, and I was really surprised to see the word ‘cult’ in an atheist’s writings. But I understood later what he meant. The youth of today needs to acknowledge the reality, to face the objective situations and unitedly think about it.

A question that kept teasing me was that how could Leftist forces purchase such a big hall for anti-state, pro-people propaganda. I met the convenor of the programme, Amolak Singh, who gave me detailed information about the history of the hall where the event was being held, and how it achieved such fame. He said, “In 1959, Amar Singh Sandhma, Gurmukh Lalton, Sohan Singh Bhakna, and others sold their lands to purchase this piece of land. The immediate purpose of the hall was to help the families of deceased. The first name of the hall was Parivar Sahiyta Committee (Committee for the help of families). Later the name changed to Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall. In 1992, when we organized the fete for the first time, it did not even last for one night. But the benchmark was set in 1995, when we organized a 15-day workshop where plays like Gadri Goonja and Spartacus were prepared under the direction of Keval Dhaliwal. Then, in 2013, when Gadar completed its century, we organised a programme of five days. The most important aspect of our programme is that we have no Chief guest. People are our chief guests.

The ambience of the fete was such that the hall was decorated with different lights, slogans, charts, and speakers that echoed in the night. Also, there was proper arrangement of breakfast, lunch, and dinner for people. The gender gap seized to exist in the fete since an almost equal number women came to see the fete and stayed overnight. The atmosphere itself confronted patriarchal notions, where in play teams, singing groups, women took the head on authority. Smiling faces of workers, peasants, and innocent little children doubled the glory of the fete.

In the end, the fete brought together contesting left ideologies together on one platform, and made them engage in serious political discussions such as a theoretical line of revolution. It also brings about contesting, yet similar literature in one lawn, which offers an opportunity of studying various differences in the left, especially for the youth. It uncovers the stereotypic version of revolution which begins and ends at Bhagat Singh, and provides deep insight into international scenario, the challenges at present, the debates of past, and the predictions of future.

To the State, the Gadri Mela is an open challenge posed by masses against imperialism, its policies and culture, but for the left, it is a platform to collaborate, thrash out differences, and clear the path for revolution.

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