Pehlu peshe se dairy kisan the
Bas khata itni si thi ki yahin paida huye
Aur, musalmaan the
[Pehlu was a dairy farmer/ His only fault was he was born here/ And that he was a Muslim]
Earlier this month, 29-year-old Aamir Aziz released a talking blues track called Ballad of Pehlu Khan. The five and a half minute song is a dirge not just for the 55-year-old man lynched by a mob in Alwar, but also for the ideals of secularism and equality that underpin the Indian constitution. Over a simple, finger-plucked acoustic guitar, Aziz narrates the grisly details of the incident in a matter-of-fact voice, letting the facts – rather than the performance – provide the emotional heft that moved many listeners to tears. In the end, as the video shows scenes of the lynching and quotes from prominent BJP leaders underplaying the incident, Aziz indicts not just the cow vigilantes responsible, but also the rest of us. Our silence, he reminds us, is complicity.
"I wanted to write a marsiya (elegiac poem) for all the people who were murdered for no reason, who received threats in the name of justice," says Aziz, whose first track – Achche Din Blues – received a surprising amount of acclaim for a debut, racking up 158,000 views since its release on March 14. "130-135 people have been attacked, 40-45 people have been killed. But even now the gau rakshak organisations responsible are intact. Nobody has received justice."
Aziz grew up in rural Patna in a lower middle class family with no background in either politics or the arts. It wasn't until he moved to New Delhi in 2006 to pursue an engineering course at Jamia Millia Islamia that he became involved in student theatre, performing plays by subaltern writers like Badal Sarkar and Habib Tanvir on both the stage and the streets. Theatre – as well as the charged atmosphere of student politics in the capital's universities – led Aziz to become more politically aware and engaged.
"The things we were discussing, I had seen growing up," he says. "Bihar can be called the best feudal metaphor in India. Living there, you see everything, but you don't have the language to understand and make sense of it. As soon as you get that language, your expression gets a direction."
Aziz had also picked up the guitar while in college, and started writing songs inspired by American folk artists such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, as well as the Indian left tradition of people's songs spearheaded by organisations like Indian People's Theatre Asssociation (IPTA) and Jan Natya Manch (JANAM). He would perform them at small gatherings of his friends, as well as the occasional protest or town hall meeting. But music, for him, was just a means of personal artistic expression. His passion was still acting, his first love, and he was intent on making a career as an actor. In 2016, he moved to Mumbai to join tinsel-town's rank of struggling actors.
At around the same time, Aziz wrote Achche Din Blues, a poetic and occasionally surreal commentary on the state of the nation. Inspired by the lynching of two men in Jharkhand on the suspicion of being cattle smugglers, the track interrogates how we got to this particular moment, where religious and caste-based polarisation is at its peak, and our democratic freedoms are being sacrificed at the altar of aggressive hyper-nationalism. Aziz would play the song when hanging out with his friends from Mumbai and Delhi, who convinced him to record and release the competition. He invested his meagre savings, and called in favours from his friends, in order to put together the song's simple but emotionally devastating music video.
"I made that video because I realised I had become so numb to the imagery of violence that we see everyday," he says. "Someone's murder, live on video, can be so disturbing to anyone. But now these videos are uploaded every 10 days on Facebook and Twitter, and their shelf life isn't even a whole day. By the second day, some joke or meme takes over the social media. I found this very haunting. This fear that, in some respects, the society isn't even willing to acknowledge. I thought maybe if I recreate this imagery with my lyrics, it will create some sort of meaning."
That fear, Aziz says, is something that many of India's minorities have felt long before the BJP came into power. It may have deepened in the last five years, and become more visible to the rest of us. But for many Indians, it has always been there. "Earlier the fear was that we would have been accused of being terrorists," he says. "Now the fear is that we can be murdered anywhere, anytime."
"…people also say I only released these songs because of these elections, even though these issues aren't exclusive to any government or regime," he shrugs. "I'm not bothered because I don't have any plans to make music my career anyway. It is more of a personal thing. Something I must do to express myself."
Despite the relative success of Achche Din Blues and Ballad of Pehlu Khan, Aziz is aware that as a Muslim singing about atrocities against Muslims, he runs the risk of being tarred with the brush of identity politics. "But people also say I only released these songs because of these elections, even though these issues aren't exclusive to any government or regime," he shrugs. "I'm not bothered because I don't have any plans to make music my career anyway. It is more of a personal thing. Something I must do to express myself."
Being a vocal critic of the ruling party today comes with a lot of risks attached. Critics and dissidents have had to face everything from police and legal harassment to death threats and even mob violence. Is he worried that his music – and the public visibility it has brought him – makes him a target? Especially as an actor trying to make a career in a notoriously politics-averse industry?
"To be fearless and invincible in this time, belonging to a minority community, is not so possible," he admits. "There are all kinds of fears. Will the acting career for which I came here be affected? Will I be safe walking on the street? But I do want to say that even with this fear, there are a lot of people who are supporting me, who want to work with me. I'm sticking to the belief that our industry is not blinded with jingoism and communalism. There are people who know that art has purposes to serve beyond entertainment."