Kasturi, who is this Kasturi?
He is the enemy of farmers,
Come find out the truth from us.
We are all one,
We are all one,
And will stand united against those oppressing farmers...
Don’t you come here tearing down farm prices,
And screaming like a murderer,
Kasturi, who’s afraid of Kasturi?
Dr Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, ex-chairman of the Indian
Space Research Organisation, current chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University
and member of the Planning Commission should recognise the catchy, fast and
slightly raunchy tune of a popular Malayalam song of the Nineties. The lyrics
are not the ones that mesmerised audiences watching superstar Mohanlal twirling
on screen with a seductive Urvashi in a movie about a travelling circus. The
words have been artfully changed to target the report the Kasturirangan panel
submitted to the Central government for protecting the Western Ghats.
The professor, born in Ernakulam, might shrug off the
accusation that he is an enemy of the people and that his report is a
conspiracy hatched to dispossess farmers. Environmental activists have
condemned Kasturirangan for being too
soft and selling out to the mining lobby but this, the good professor might
feel, is taking things a bit too far.
But the Congress and the coalition it heads in Kerala, the
United Democratic Front (UDF), cannot afford to take the allegations or songs
like these lightly. They’re a dime a dozen in the districts of Idukki,
Pattanamtitta and Wayanad, where they blare out of cars parked at street
corners, from the processions of rival candidates and political meetings at
All these are constituencies that have traditionally
favoured the UDF, but the fallout of the UPA government-commissioned report on
the Western Ghats could well trip the results when they are declared on May 16.
The Christian community, a bulwark of the UDF in central Kerala for decades, is
divided this time over fears that they will lose land once the report is
In an unusual political alignment, the Catholic Church and
the Left Democratic Front (LDF) are supporting the same candidate in Idukki
against the UDF. In an election fought across the nation over corruption,
development and the economy, the issues in its most literate state are
The man who wrote the Kasturi song is from Idukki, but he is neither a Congress supporter nor Christian. A Muslim songwriter by the name of K. A. M. Kareem, he also penned a song on the murder of T. P. Chandrasekhar by the Left for the UDF.
The ruling UDF government has been hit by a series of
political scandals one after the other. Chief Minister Oomen Chandy’s personal
staff were linked to a scam where investors were cheated of crores of rupees by
a fraudulent solar panel company, while his former gunman is facing a CBI probe
for land–grabbing, and a separate police case for attempting to abduct a woman
in broad daylight.
The Opposition coalition—led by the Communist Party of India
(Marxist) (LDF)—might have been sitting pretty if not for a disastrous
political murder whose trial allegedly leads right to its state leaders.
In May last year, CPI(M) cadres murdered T. P. Chandrasekhar,
a former member who formed a breakaway party. The fact that former communist
chief minister V. S. Achutanandan has joined the UDF in calling for a CBI probe
has left the Reds red-faced and their rivals rubbing their hands in glee. On
the backfoot over corruption, the UDF is making maximum mileage on the campaign
trail from the political goondaism of the Left.
ith so much grist for the mill, songwriters and singers have been working overtime to churn out foot tapping parodies of popular film songs to keep up with demand. The man who wrote the Kasturi song is from Idukki, but he is neither a Congress supporter nor Christian.
A Muslim songwriter by the name of K. A. M. Kareem, he also penned a song on the murder of T. P. Chandrasekhar by the Left for the UDF. To suit the serious theme, he set it to an old movie song about life and death by the legendary lyricist-composer duo of Vayalar and Devarajan and sung by K. J. Yesudas.
The fall of the Left
Is a tale of continuing misery,
This time, the whole foundation has come undone!
TP’s soul would be laughing now as the Left plummets,
And is revealed as the true face of murder.
People shower curses and the masks of the comrades come undone,
The comrades are roaming on the path of murder with knives,
But the people are gathering to tear off their false faces.
Kareem was once a supporter of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is an ally of the LDF. But when the firebrand Abdul Nasser Maudani started the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), he joined the new party and became the Idukki district secretary. The PDP’s political prospects died with the arrest of Maudani for the Coimbatore blasts and Kareem eventually left the party. Now he is an Aam Aadmi Party member.
The songs Kareem and Najeeb produced for UDF candidate Dean Kuriakose have got a lot of positive responses. Now his main rival, LDF-backed independent Joyce George has given an order for an album of five songs.
“During the last parliamentary elections, we did not have too many songs. The big scenes for us are the assembly and panchayat elections. But this time it has been different. This time no candidate can afford to not do songs. I have already done songs for the LDF, UDF, the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India), and AAP. We have recorded dozens of announcements for several parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most of the orders have been from Idukki. I expect several from other districts in the coming days.”
The small studio consists of a narrow rectangular waiting room and a small recording room behind glass windows. Najeeb, a tall, moustachioed man, is dressed in a dark shirt and off-white jeans. He sits on a swivel chair in front of the recording console as Kareem and a singer discuss the next song they have to record. The songs Kareem and Najeeb have produced for the UDF candidate Dean Kuriakose have got a lot of positive responses. Now his main rival, the LDF-backed independent candidate from Idukki, Joyce George, has given an order for an album of five songs. Kareem has already written the lyrics and freelance singers have been assigned particular songs. Now Kareem is taking one of them through the lines.
Najeeb gets a call from the LDF office saying Joyce George has been allotted an election symbol: a torch. Kareem goes to work on the sheets of paper in his hand, correcting lines to include the election symbol.
But he was quite unprepared for the 2010 panchayat elections, when the demand for professionally recorded announcements and musical parodies touched a new peak. Najeeb remembers taking out an advertisement in a newspaper. It turned out to be money wasted.
“The last panchayat election was a game changer for us. I
had hired extra systems to take on the increase in work, but was completely
overwhelmed by the avalanche of orders. We did hundreds of songs and God knows
how many announcements! For two weeks, we pulled all-nighters, sleeping in the
studio. Even then it wasn’t enough. We could meet only half the orders,” Najeeb
Some candidates would want them to perform live on their
campaign trail. Najeeb, Kareem and their colleagues fitted out the back of a
hired truck with a stage. Bookings often came for week-long programmes. With
thousands of candidates in the fray across various wards in the state, it was
impossible to make new songs for every customer. Working on a series of common
songs, Najeeb and his songwriters would change the name and symbol of the
candidate for different wards.
However, things are quite different for state and central
elections. The rates are higher and each candidate asks for a different song
and unique lyrics. “They sometimes give us a theme. But usually they just trust
us to do a good job. I read several papers every day and make sure that I know
all the political issues in the state. I also take ideas from the pamphlets and
manifestoes that parties bring out. Songwriters have to be familiar with the
ideology and political stands of all major and minor parties,” says Kareem.
Najeeb soon gets a call from the LDF office saying that Joyce George has been allotted an election symbol: a torch. While Kareem goes to work on the sheets of paper in his hand, correcting lines to include the election symbol, Najeeb is already on to the next project, trying to arrange singers for a live concert for the LDF’s campaign. This is the first time that any party has booked a live music programme for national polls.
Najeeb is hoping that a good performance will lead to further
bookings. Does he perform on stage or will he just stand there with the mike
and sing? “No, no, we want someone who can perform and do some steps. That is
what audiences want.”
shraf sits behind his office desk, a few streets away from Najeeb’s studio. Ashraf is Kareem’s younger brother and owns a photography and recording studio. He also works as an announcer for political parties. A tall, handsome man with a straight nose and an angular face, Ashraf sports a neatly-trimmed French beard. He looks like a man who has just entered his 30s, but his actual age is closer to 40.
An announcement takes 20 minutes to record. The whole work can be done in an hour. I charge ₹1,500 to ₹2,000 for an announcement, says Ashraf. That is what he used to get for an entire day’s work.
Ashraf’s first foray into announcement came during the 1991
elections. An expatriate Malayalee, on leave from his job in the Middle East,
was chosen to be the main announcer for IUML’s Idukki candidate. But the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led to elections being postponed. By the time of the new
poll dates, the Gulf worker had gone back home. Ashraf stepped into the role.
Long hours, exhausting travel with few breaks for food, the physical strain and monotony of day-long announcements—it’s all behind Ashraf now. By the time his friend Najeeb opened his recording studio, the transition from live announcements to recordings was under way in many places.
Four years ago, Ashraf started his photography and recording
studio. While Kareem takes care of the songs, Ashraf does announcements for
political parties, religious events, business advertisements, school programmes
and so on.
“Now, an announcement takes me 20 minutes to record. With
editing, the whole work can be done in an hour. I charge ₹1,500 to ₹2,000 for
an announcement this election,” says Ashraf. That is what he used to get for an
entire day’s work, accompanying party candidates touring the constituency. This
time he has been commissioned to do announcements for the SDPI, BJP, AAP, LDF
and UDF from places like Thodupuzha, Muvattupuzha, Adimali and Kudappanakunnu.
Many orders have come in for parody songs too.
rowing up, Kareem wanted to be a singer. He did not have a radio at home. So he accompanied his older sister to the house of a rich neighbour, where he could catch music programmes broadcast by All India Radio. “I would pick up songs quickly, practice and learn to sing it,” he says. As a kid he picked up smoking, a habit that he would later rue, but never abandon. He dropped out of school after eighth standard and two years later ran away from home. He travelled to Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi, working odd-jobs. When he returned home after a few months to angry parents, he still dreamed of being a singer.
“Whenever, there was a music function in Vannappuram, I was
asked to sing. I sang at marriages, political meetings and election programmes.
In the Eighties, a mike set was an object of fascination in villages. Marriage
houses would play loud music and neighbours would not say a word. It was like a
festival. Pamphlets for party programmes would have an ‘NB’ saying that there
would be a mike set,” Kareem says.
He might be disillusioned by politicians and parties, but Kareem takes pride in writing songs that will help them win elections.
These gigs usually brought some money. He used it to enrol in a music academy. The academy attracted some talented singers, including a teenaged Minmini, the playback singer who shot to fame with A. R. Rahman’s first movie album Roja. But Kareem never completed his musical training. He ran out of money after six months. A friend, impressed by his talent, gave him money to complete a year in the academy. His parents did not offer to support him.
Kareem’s career as a singer did not last very long. He sang for various music troupes and worked as a B-grade contract artiste for All India Radio for a few years. But his chain-smoking was starting to kill his voice. “I had a God-given gift. But I did not give it the commitment it deserved. If I did I could have succeeded in the music field.”
Kareem drifted into odd jobs and away from music, even as he
became involved with politics. But his political life too, was one of a
drifter. He was first an IUML worker. But as his political views matured, he
says he became uncomfortable with the League’s politics. Kareem feels the
League used the iconic status of figures like former state party president and
Islamic scholar Shihab Thangal (the Thangal family claims descent from the
Prophet Mohammad through an Arabic-Yemeni lineage) to appeal to the entire
Muslim community, while serving the interests of an elite class of businessmen
and political bigwigs.
“Most mosque committees have IUML members. So, they have a great
hold on Imams and on ordinary Muslims who expect help from the mosques. I
joined the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) because it espoused a politics of
empowering Dalits and marginalised Muslims,” he says.
After Maudani’s arrest, the party started to disintegrate.
Kareem, who was the Idukki district secretary, left the PDP. In 2005, he joined
the short-lived Democratic Indira Congress (DIC), started by former chief
minister Karunakaran, after breaking away from the Indian National Congress.
“Karunakaran was a good leader. That was why I joined DIC. But I realised it
was a mistake when the party supported the LDF.”
The formation of the DIC was seen by most political
observers as a cynical power-play by Karunakaran to benefit his son. Soon,
Karunakaran switched back to the Congress. “Once the DIC dissolved, I became
disillusioned with all parties. I left political activities completely. “
In the years that he was hopping parties, Kareem was also
writing songs—for all parties who wanted them. Having abandoned his stage
career, he decided to do an album of Ramzan songs. He decided to write the
songs himself. That was the first time he had seriously tried his hand at being
a lyricist. The album was produced by a friend and became a big success. Such a
success that he got offers from two Hindu temples and a Christian believer to
do devotional albums.
“The Vishnu temple was so pleased with the songs that they commemorated me and gave me a cash award,” Kareem says. As his reputation as a song-writer spread, offers for songs came for party programmes and election campaigns. As computer recording replaced cassettes, Kareem found that song-writing could be big business during the polls. By the time he quit politics, Kareem had been collaborating with Najeeb for four years.
He might be disillusioned by politicians and parties, but
Kareem takes pride in writing songs that will help them win elections. He
enjoys writing lyrics, trying to fit in words as neatly as possible into tunes
that were never meant to carry them.
“Many election songs start off crudely by asking the
listeners to vote for a particular candidate. I never write like that. I make
sure that my songs are subtle. I have a particular style. There should not be
awkward places where words are stretched out to fit the tune.”
Four months back, Kareem joined the Aam Aadmi Party, whose
leader Arvind Kejriwal says he is initiating a new kind of politics. One he
claims is the antithesis of the corrupt and dishonest politics of all
established parties. How does he write for these very parties?
“Some Muslim friends had reservations when I wrote Hindu
devotional songs. Islam forbids belief in idol worship. They asked me how I
could write songs worshipping idols. I told them that what I wrote was the
emotion a devotee of Vishnu would feel when he stands in front of the deity he
loves and prays. Those are not my emotions. No poet ever writes his own mind.”