DAY SIXTEEN: Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence – Songs against gender based violence in India’

Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence. Sumangala Damodaran discusses the place of songs about GBV in protest movements in India.

Sumangala Damodaran

Featured image: Indian People’s Theatre Association commemorated on a postage stamp half a century after its founding. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega

Zulm karne wala seena zor banta jayega

Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega’

If women do not rise, oppression will multiply. This is the rough translation for the first two lines of a song written by Safdar Hashmi, theatre person and political activist. Hashmi  was assassinated on New Year’s day, 1989, for performing a play in support of trade unions who were on strike for better conditions on the outskirts of Delhi in India. Hashmi’s song was written for a documentary film made in the wake of the horrific burning or ‘Sati’ of a young woman, Roop Kanwar, in Rajasthan, which shook the conscience of the entire country as an example of extreme gender-based violence that was being condoned in the name of ‘tradition’.

The film was made by a young women’s filmmakers’ collective called Media Storm and contained two songs, the one mentioned above and another one that described poignantly the various kinds of work that women do, at home and outside, and yet were subjected to the most horrific forms of violence.

Some lines of the second song are:

Sataati hai rulaati hai use zinda jalati hai

(She is harassed, made to weep, burnt alive)

Songs about gender-based violence have been a significant element of wider struggles in India, having been written spontaneously as part of various campaigns and social and political events that brought issues to the fore, including before the mass mobilisation of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

There are several examples of powerful songs written in the late colonial and early post-independence period. During the Tebhaga peasant movement in Bengal in 1946, where peasants were demanding two thirds of the share of the grain they produced, the brutal murder of a young, pregnant peasant woman called Ahalya produced spontaneous poetry and songs. Ahalya was killed by hired goons of landlords, as she, along with others from her village, stood guard over the grain produced and harvested by them.

Paying homage to Ahalya, a song called ‘Aar koto kaal, bolo koto kaal, shoibo ei mrityur aupoman’ (How much longer shall we have to bear the humiliation of death) was sung by singer Reba Roychowdhury and other young women as they campaigned for the peasants resisting the brutal landlord system in Bengal.

‘Auratein Utthi Nahi Toh Zulm Badhta Jayega’ (Song mentioned at the beginning of the post)

In the Telugu speaking Telangana region in Southern India, rape and murder of women from lower castes by landlords and their gangs formed the subject of several songs written and sung during the Telangana peasants’ movement soon after independence in 1948. Under the aegis of a political cultural organisation called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and of similar organisations at the regional level, the beginning of songs focussing on gender issues, and to some extent gender-based violence, can be found.

However, even if there were many across different languages and different genres, these songs were not created as part of consciously gender-politics-driven objectives. That happened later with the growth of the women’s movement of the  1970s and after. From the late 1970s, the women’s movement started focussing on specific kinds of gender-based violence like dowry, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and violence at the workplace and various parts of India saw extensive campaigns against such forms of violence and the outdated and patriarchal laws that governed them.

Street theater and songs became popular ways to reach out to people in the streets, workplaces and near homes. Kamla Bhasin, the fiery, humorous and inspirational feminist from Delhi wrote several songs in Hindi and Punjabi and also raised the famous Azaadi (Freedom) slogans that she heard first in Pakistan and made them popular in India. ‘Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence’ was one such electrifying slogan. Working with simple and popular folk melodies from North India, Kamla Bhasin wrote songs that not only addressed violence against women frontally but also spoke to the patriarchal structures that shackled both men and women into the system of dominance and dependence that patriarchy represents.

“Todh todh ke bandhanon ko dekho behane aati hai…Ayengi zulm mitaeingi…Yeh to naya zamana laayengi!”

(Breaking through the chains that bind them, our sisters advance…they will eliminate repressions…they will bring forth a new time)

Thus went a song that became a rallying call for the women’s movement, like “Auratein Utthi Nahin To” mentioned before. Several other songs that Kamla Bhasin wrote focussed on gender based violence as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence every year between 25 November and 10 December.

As  awareness of gender based violence began to spread in the public consciousness, popular media also produced responses in the form of films, advertisements and songs. One such song is ‘Rupaiya’. Based on a folk tune from North India, it was written against dowry by popular songwriter Swanand Kirkire and sung by Sona Mohapatra. Appealing to the conscience and emotional bond of a daughter with her family, the woman protagonist in the song emphatically states ‘I will not be sold for rupees’.

Like in the struggle against patriarchy at the societal level and in individual contexts, cultural activists have had to struggle hard within their own movements to bring focus to gender issues and highlight gender based violence. Songs depicting the lives of women, inside and outside the home, in workplaces and society at large, and particularly focusing on the violence that is inflicted, have had to edge their way into larger repertoires around class, caste, racial and ethnic discrimination.

At the same time, these songs have played a very major role in mobilisation in not only movements that focus on gender-based issues but also go beyond to focus on various kinds of societal domination.

To go back to the Azaadi slogans popularised by Kamla Bhasin in India, they were first raised by Pakistani feminists as calls for emancipation from all kinds of bondage. 

Prof Sumangala Damodaran singing ‘Aar Kotho Kal’

Author Bio
Prof. Sumangala Damodaran is Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of Industrial and Labour studies and more specifically on Industrial Organisation, Global Value Chains, the Informal Sector, Labour and Migration. She is also a singer and composer. Her  book  “The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the IPTA”  is a documentation of the musical tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association from the 1940s and 1950s. Her album titled ‘Songs of Protest’ and a collaborative project titled ‘Insurrections’ has resulted in four albums. She is currently engaged in researching the relationship between music and migration, particularly of women in slavery and servitude across centuries and across vast tracts of the globe that were linked through long distance trade in commodities and symbolic goods. This work is being done in collaboration with several universities in Africa and Asia.

DAY SEVEN: We can’t breathe!

Performance Artist Maria Adela Diaz discusses her performance piece tackling psychological abuse of women during COVID 19.

“Crazy”: Image from Maria Adela Diaz performance We Can’t Breathe. Photo by Frank Sunseri. Reproduced by permission

Maria Adela Diaz

Have you ever felt like you can’t breathe? Not because you ran a 5K marathon, but because you are tired of hearing what’s happening around the world? Or perhaps because your intimate partner’s insulting words are cutting your breath away and maintaining you in isolation from others?

This abusive and controlling behavior is used to gain power and control over you! Domestic violence affects women and men but happens mostly to women, regardless of their racial, ethnic, age or economic group. It happens all around the world, and if you are aware that you are suffering from it, have the course to denounce it! Tell your best friend, your parents or take it to court. We can’t keep accepting degradation from anyone. It is time for change.

“Illegal”: Image from Maria Adela Diaz performance We Can’t Breathe. Photo by Frank Sunseri. Reproduced by permission

Physical abuse is the most easily recognized form of abuse, but domestic violence is not only physical. Victims that suffer at the hands of their intimate partner can suffer violence by way of emotional, psychological and verbal abuse. In fact, these three types of abuse are often more damaging and difficult to heal from than physical abuse. These types of abuse can also include sexual abuse, financial, technological, legal abuse, threats of physical harm, destruction of property and abuse of loved animals at home.

During periods of health crisis such as COVID-19, the risks of domestic violence and exploitation against women and girls increases due to tension at home, and the uncertainty generated in families by the decrease of income, as well as coexistence for longer periods of time. Furthermore, women and girls who are survivors of violence face additional obstacles in fleeing risky situations or in accessing protection mechanisms and essential services that can save their lives, due to factors such as restrictions on movement or quarantine requirements. 

  • An incident of abuse happens more frequently than every 3 seconds around the world.
  • In the US, 1 of 3 women and 1 of 4 men have experienced some form of abuse by 
      an intimate partner.
  • Women with disabilities, undocumented migrants, and victims of trafficking are most at risk of domestic violence, which can start with verbal abuse and develop as far as murder.

A UN expert noted that, for many women, the emergency measures necessary to fight COVID-19 have increased their burden with respect to domestic work and the care of children, elderly relatives and sick relatives. This economic crisis has created additional barriers as well as an increased risk of sexual exploitation within the household. 


This is a video performance art piece that talks about the very starting point of domestic violence. It sheds light on the fact that domestic violence can start with a single word. Vulnerable women are often the receptors of this abuse, particularly as women have less resources to defend themselves due to an imbalanced economic system that allows men to be paid more and have more access to education. 

My motivation to create this performative video was that during COVID-19 women I know were getting attacked by their intimate partners during quarantine. I also have lived it myself and I wanted to shared a very common abuse that sometimes remains invisible. Women don’t denounce this type of psychological abuse and it becomes suffocating internally, damaging women’s self esteem and much more. My purpose is to inspire women who are trapped in this type situation and let them know there is a way to denounce this behavior and that is not okay to take this from anybody.

“Bitch” Image from Maria Adela Diaz performance We Can’t Breathe. Photo by Frank Sunseri. Reproduced by permission

This performance piece is an action of liberation for the artist and serves to liberate other women that have been emotionally or verbal abused. 

The artist sews insults that her and her friends have received during Covid-19, with the degrading words sewn onto rice paper with red thread, as an act of resilience and courage for all the women who can’t breathe!


Guatemalan native and international performance artist Maria Adela Diaz, has used her body and various media to explore the complex essence and sublimity of a woman’s nature. This video performance took place in the artist’s home in Los Angeles California where the artist works and lives. Maria’s work raises objections to patriarchal values, political deception, migration and discriminatory ideologies. Employing video and installation to seduce and provoke the observer within unexpected, every day contexts. Maria has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in venues around the world. Maria currently resides in Los Angeles, where she works as an art director.

Her website can be found at

Photos and video were taken by Frank Sunseri. Reproduced by permission.