The songs of freedom—Land, Caste, Guns, Women

Every now is Dalit History Month
All are welcome to join Bhim’s caravan

Who makes history? What makes history? What is the story? Who is telling it? Listen to this 53-second song clip by Pandi Yellamma. It may not be in a language you know—the Telugu of a madiga woman of Telangana. First, you will fall in love with her colours; her toothless smile, the way she lights up the phone screen, and her joy at being asked to remember Gitamma, that is Gita Ramaswamy. Set language aside, and attend to the rhythm and music the words bear. Some words in the refrain will stand out: Gitamma/  Ennalo Ennala / Ravana Sandanalo. Gitamma, Moon O Moon, Hail King Ravana. Telugu thrives on vowels, softening all consonants:

Gitamma(gari) ennalo ennala
ma kanna talli ennalo
aame vacchindi sandi ennalo
aakilu tappinayi ennalo
patella sainadi ennalo
aluku alikedi ennalo
Ravana sandanalo ennalo rajyaniki (raju neeku) vandanalo

Iruvai serlala ennalo
Jonnalu icchedi ennalo
Iruvai serlala ennalo
Vaddlu icchedi ennalo
Nela anta chesedi ennalo

Ravana sandanalo ennalo rajyaniki (raju neeku) vandanalo


Gitamma ennalo ennala moon o moon
She is our mother, moon o moon ennalo
Since she came, moon o moon ennalo
We stopped sweeping their courtyards, moon o moon ennalo
We did not have to sprinkle dung-water, moon o moon ennalo
In the courtyards of the patels, moon o moon ennalo
We did not have to make muggu, moon o moon ennalo

Ravana sandanalo ennala rajyani kundanaalo
Hail Ravana, oh king! I salute you

For just twenty seers of jowar, moon o moon ennalo
Or just twenty seers of paddy, moon o moon ennalo
We slogged all days of the month, moon o moon ennalo

Ravana sandanalo ennala rajyani kundanaalo
Hail Ravana, oh king! I salute you

To the end of this clip, Yellamma says, ‘I can sing better if I sit down. If I remain standing, my breath won’t cope.’ This is a song that remembers the history of her and her community’s freedom from bonded labour. Rewind and watch and listen again.

This fragment came to us on WhatsApp from Gita in October 2020 during the making of Land, Caste, Guns, Woman. We savoured it and saved it. As the book makes it to the world, we think to the hundreds of dalit men and women Gita met during the land struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s who did not make it to this book. This is a memoir, a story about one self, and yet it is the story of all the others who shape that self.

This April, as we celebrate what is going to be one of the most beloved books of our time, we asked Gita about Pandi Yellamma who does not figure in the book: ‘Pandi Yellamma was one of the great natural composer-singers during the Ibrahimpatnam struggle. She was present in all the major meetings and dharnas, leading women and men in composing long strings of ballads about the issues at hand. This video was shot by Gyara Shiva Kumar, a former employee of Hyderabad Book Trust when he ran into her in Turkayamjal in October 2020.’

What is it that Yellamma’s song of freedom sings? In her book, Gita writes about how madiga women were forced to toil in the landlords’ households. In return, they got some grains of jowar and occasionally a sari. Gita recalls: ‘Our women sang wonderful songs in the meetings and dharnas. They could sing for hours, making up endless rhyming lines on the spot. The leader sang a line, others joined in the refrain and an entire story unfolded in the improvisational back and forth. … They matched rhythm with beautiful stories and ever-evolving melodies, that were collectively made up in the moment.’

These songs defeated the reddys who had lorded over them for centuries. ‘Women were in the forefront and the Manchireddys could not even step out lest they faced the anger of the women. … The women spat at the policemen and jeered at them. Songs and slogans rent the air and no landlord could move about freely on the streets.’

We consulted an ‘expert’ about Yellamma’s song fragment. He called its refrain a ‘nonsense rhyme’. Why? ‘Since this goes so totally against the hegemonic cult of Rama, how did this refrain survive? Hence, it must be a nonsense rhyme. Please note that the argument is not based on fact.’ All we can do in response is sing along with Yellamma: Ravana sandanalo ennala rajyani kundanaalo!— Hail Ravana, oh king! I salute you. This Dalit History Month, redemption songs. Songs of freedom that go, Hail Ravana. Hail Gitamma. Hail Yellamma. And Our Moon o Moon, Babasaheb!

Gita Ramaswamy’s Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary is now available for Rs 399 at All through the month of April we will be offering free shipping on all orders over Rs 999. Head over to our website, read the stories of freedom.