WORK by KAVISHRI JATHA RASULPUR
Kavishri Jatha Rasulpur is a folk music group that performs revolutionary songs in Punjab. Also known as the ‘Inqilabi’ (revolutionary) Kavishri Jatha, it was founded by Amarjeet Pardesi who was involved in the left, progressive cultural movement of Punjab during the 1970s. It was one of the first groups in Punjab that steered away from religion and presented a materialist understanding of inequality, labour, marginalisation and injustice. Many of their songs tell stories of Punjabi legends and figures of resistance to oppression.
Kavishri, like dhadhi, is a form of dynamic vocal singing that is performed by musicians who travel to audiences in order to spread messages about contemporary issues affecting society through an invocation of history.
The group, whose members all come from one family, is based in Rasulpur village in Punjab’s Moga district. When Amarjeet Pardesi launched the group in the 1970s, he was performing at programmes and plays for communist organisations. At the time, Amarjeet was an employee of the Punjab Power Department where he worked from 1976 to 2015. Earlier in his life, Amarjeet had been a village-level activist of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a communist and socialist organisation founded by Bhagat Singh and other anti-colonial revolutionaries, which dates back to the 1920s.
Photo credit: Kavishri Jatha Rasulpur
ਸੀਸ ਤਲੀ ਦੇ ਟਿਕਾਕੇ ਉੱਤੇ ਤੁਰਨਾ ਤੋਰ ਥੋਡੀ ਤਾਜ਼ ਰਹੂਗੀ। ਖੂਨ ਨਾਲ ਲਿਖੀ ਤਵਾਰੀਕ ਸਾਥੀਓ ਯੁੱਗਾ ਤਕ ਯਾਦ ਰਹੂਗੀ
With head in hand, history written with blood will be remembered for eternity.
Amarjeet Pardesi. Photo credit: Varinder Maddoke
In spite of restrictions during the era of state repression and militancy of the 1980s in Punjab, he was an active leftist organiser and performer when it was dangerous for left-wing activists to speak publicly. He braved police lathis at least nine times and sustained head injuries, which have had lasting effects on his health and speech. Sikh men, in particular, were targets of state and police violence and surveillance for over a decade from the 1980s.
After retiring, he started writing songs steeped in revolutionary ideology. Earlier in his life, he had sung alone, but later he teamed up with his brother, Swaran, who is a skilled kavishri writer.
ਓ ਮਿਲੀ ਨਹੀਂ ਅੱਖ ਸਾਡੀ ਤਾ ਆਜ਼ਾਦੀ ਨਾ,
ਓ ਖੇਡਦੇ ਰਹੇ ਹਾਂ ਸਦਾ ਬਰਬਾਦੀ
ਇਕ ਮੁੱਠ ਹੋਜੋ ਜੁਗਾ ਤੋਂ ਬੇਗ਼ਾਨਿਓ
ਤੀਰ ਬਣ ਜਾਇਓ ਕੁਲੀਆਂ ਦੇ ਕਾਨੇਓ
We haven’t been liberated
They are plotting our destruction.
Be united, O all oppressed.
Be arrows from the grass huts.
As Swaran says, ‘to make people aware, it is important to explain things in a rational and innovative manner. We even present religious kavishris from a rational point of view.’
Most importantly, Swaran highlights the power and potential of kavishri as a musical form for communication and social change:
‘Kavishri doesn’t require instruments. It is a simple medium by which we can reach out to people with a few resources. And people easily understand what is presented on the stage.’
Kavishri Jatha Rasulpur has performed on various platforms, including before and during the farmers’ agitation. They played an active role in mobilising the masses to take part in and support the historic farmers’ protest of 2020-21 which overturned new agricultural laws promoting corporate control of farming.
Amarjeet and Swaran (seated). Rupinder and Rajinder (standing). Photo credit: Varinder Maddoke
Swaran’s two sons, Rupinder and Rajinder, have continued their studies while handling the responsibilities of the kavishri group. In a passing of the mantle from the elder to the younger generation, his elder son, Rupinder, is the one who introduces the form and significance of kavishri at the start of each performance. The dedication and commitment of the elder brothers Amarjeet and Swaran has continued in the next generation who are learning and innovating with the kavishri style of performance.