Gaddar: A revolutionary, balladier and changemaker

The Telugu Poet, People’s Balladeer and activist Gaddar passed away in Hyderabad on August 6, 16 days ago
Image: The New Indian Express

There is no one like Gaddar and no song like Gaddar’s song. He galvanised different sections of society for progressive causes, across decades and with an ever-graceful smile, he gave inspiration to all those who want to use art to speak truth to power.

Gaddar, born as Gummadi Vittal Rao, was the most popular artist in the Telugu-speaking states. Households were familiar with his name and more importantly, everyone has heard his song, Lacchumamma and Seshaih. Gaddar’s parents moved to Aurangabad, Maharashtra from Medak, Telangana after he was born in 1947. Aurangabad too, was under the Nizam’s dominion and there, Gaddar’s father worked as a contractor and was deeply influenced by the speeches of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar. The family shifted back to Medak, Telangana after Hyderabad’s annexation into the Union. Gaddar went on to join the Osmania University Engineering College, but later dropped out. It was at the Osmania University, that Gaddar was influenced by the socialist ideas of his teacher Keshavrao Jadav. From there, his tryst with progressive politics begun.  He came in contact with Art Lovers Association and gave a revolutionary bent to the organisation by singing songs on the emancipation of the people. Later, the People’s War Group contacted Gaddar in 1972 to have the Art Lovers Association transformed into the Cultural Wing of the People’s War Group (PWG). The Art Lovers Association thus became Jana Natya Mandali.[1]

Gaddar was arrested during the Emergency, even tortured. He laid low after he was released. As his participation in the cultural wing of the PWG grew, he became more popular with his songs. In 1979, the movie Maa Bhoomi was released in which he sung the famous song writted by Yadagiri, ‘Bandenaka Bandi Gatti, padahaaru Baandlu Gatti’ that was once used in the Telangana Armed Peasant’s Struggle, featured. The Jana Natya Mandali used to tour villages, reaching out to people with their songs and sharing the message against caste discrimination, economic inequalities and feudal character of the society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Gaddar’s songs galvanised the youth to take up the radical cause of the Maoists. Gaddar’s songs played a major role in the use of the song to attract many to join the movement. His songs were not inaccessible literature for the masses but were their own stories put to music. The people could easily relate to Gaddar. Some songs were in conversational style like ‘Lashkar Bonalu’ which was about a wife and husband discussing how they should plan for the Bonalu Festival’s expenditure while in debt. The daily happenings in the lives of marginalised became the central points for revolutionary poetry including that of Gaddar.

Vasanth Kannabiran’s translation of Gaddar’s Lashkar Bonalu poem where Balamani is speaking to her husband:

You keep saying debt-debt-debt

How much, after all, is this debt you speak of?

I am the one who brings home the food

I am the one who clears the debt.

You only have to cook food and serve and yet you grumble ‘Hoon…haan’

Let the young one grow just a little bit more,

We can bond him to a farmer for a sum, O Balamani!

And clear all our debts, O Balamani!

Last year’s debt is still unpaid.

I begged and begged the butcher

And brought home a goat head and legs

You can’t see any of this, can you?

You won’t see that we don’t have a crumb

You say, ‘Bring it on! Bring it out! Bring more!’

You order, ‘Serve! Serve! Serve! Serve!’

I have wiped every pot clean, O Bavayya!

I slept on an empty belly last night, O Bavayya

As the years passed by, Gaddar’s politics evolved and he began to advocate for a Telangana state, the infusion of caste question into existing Marxist thesis of the PWG. In 1988, while underground, he even resided in Baroda masquerading as a Research Scholar who researched on the systems of production and the type of songs the region produced. Although he became a part of the Military camp of the PWG in 1989, he started to see the limitations on the cultural movement being seen as a front of the PWG rather than as an independent entity.

In 1995, Gaddar was suspended from the party and the Jana Natya Mandali was dissolved. Gaddar stated that the disgrace of the suspension “disempowered” him and “harmed” him profoundly. He resigned thereafter.[2]

Despite the severance of ties formally with the PWG, Gaddar remained a popular figure who sung progressive and revolutionary songs. He also maintained his ties with the Maoist movement. In 1997, he was shot by unidentified assailants five times and one of the bullets remained in his body since it was too dangerous to remove it. Although there has been no confirmation from official sources, Gaddar and his Comrades consistently stated that it was the Police that shot him. The Andhra Police had a reputation especially after the killing of the civil rights activist and a doctor-A.Ramanadham in his own clinic, or the kidnapping of civil rights activist, Balagopal in the 1980s.

He later joined the Telangana movement and sung the famous song “Podusthunna Poddu Meedha” that energised and galvanised youth to participate in the movement. He also launched Telangana Praja Front during the separate Telangana Movement in 2010 and later resigned in 2012.

After the Telangana state was formed, Gaddar embraced Ambedkarite ideology and inclined towards being an active messenger of progressive values enshrined in the Constitution. In 2018 he backed the anti-KCR Mahakutami alliance in Telangana. He also cast his vote for the first time in 2018 elections in Telangana.

He continued to have an active political life. He joined the Praja Shanti Party, founded by KA Paul, and then later announced that he will float a new political party called the Gaddar Praja Party. His journey in election-oriented politics had a recent start with the announcement. The Telangana Praja Front in 2010 was an Umbrella organisation rather than a political party. Gaddar’s politics evolved and he distanced himself way from the traditional Maoist theory of viewing Indian society with only a Class narrative rather than a Class-Caste narrative. He wrote, in his song:

We will strip bare the meaning of caste

We expose its villainy

And eviscerate the madness of intoxicating faith.

Drenched in sweat,

We have ploughed the fields;

Now we will drench these cotton fields in our blood.

We will harvest the paddy fields We have tended.

We will unite our brothers who have been left behind.

Let us wage a caste war and a class war together.

Gaddar was not only a powerful Balladeer, but he was also a thinker. He understood that cultural power that occupies the minds and souls of humans needs to be changed if humanity is to be made progressive and for that mission, he chose the song. He is not just any singer but an intelligent singer who could sing of oppression and exploitation and weave stories of common masses into music. He always stood against the establishment and cemented his position as a cultural icon through his songs. Although he is no more to participate in the public life, his song will remain in public memory for a long time to come.

(The author is a legal researcher with the organisation)

[1] Kannabiran, V. (2021). My Life Is a Song: Gaddar’s Anthems for Revolution. India: Speaking Tiger Books.

[2] Ibid



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