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 busy junctions.

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 implemented.

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 decidedly local.

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. 

 (Maudani was acquitted but later arrested for the Bangalore serial blasts. Human rights groups and PDP supporters accuse the government of framing Maudani.)

 Najeeb’s recording studio in Vannappuram, a small town in Idukki, hums with activity. On April 8, with more than ten days to go till the last day of campaigning, Najeeb and his team are struggling to balance routine recording with the rush of election orders. Najeeb has already recorded more than a dozen songs for political parties and candidates and is expecting more in the days to come.

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.

 “We are waiting for the candidate to get his symbol. They are supposed to get it today. Once they call it in, we can fill in the lyrics for that bit and start recording. There are three important things we have to mention clearly in every song: the name of the candidate, the name of the party and the election symbol,” Najeeb says.

 When Najeeb started the studio in 2001, he did not have election songs in mind. Having time on his hands, he started doing announcements for political parties during the poll season. He soon realised that there was a market for recorded announcements. The computer revolution was slow in coming to Kerala, but by this time personal computers and CDs were becoming a common sight.

 “There are many reasons parties would prefer recorded announcements to a live announcement. It allows them to standardise the message and make sure quality and content does not change with individual announcers. Also, it is not easy to find good announcers. The announcers the party prefers may not be available when they suddenly fix a programme. CD recording changed all this,” he says.

 Najeeb’s was the first recording studio in Vannappuram and parties soon started flocking to him for announcements for all kinds of routine political programmes. “I first did a song for a friend who was contesting the elections. One of his rival candidates heard the song, liked it and approached us to do something similar. My friend was livid when I told him, but eventually I managed to convince him that this was just professionalism.”

 After some of the songs became hits, the studio’s reputation started to grow. Soon requests for songs parodying the other side started to come in from all political parties and from all parts of the state.

 Some candidates preferred to pay famous lyricists and music composers for original songs. But new songs did not attract listeners as much as familiar music wittily rewritten to deliver sarcasm, invective and poll promises. Bigger music studios that did work for the movie industry had little time to spare for parodies.

 “An album would take up to a week,” says Najeeb. It was a vacuum that smaller players like Najeeb were ideally placed to fill. “We usually complete an album and send it to the customers within 24 hours. Earlier, someone would have to come and collect the CD. But now we can just email the song. So, we get customers from all districts.”

 He started gathering a team of announcers and ganamela (film song concerts) singers, who would be available at a moment’s call. Kareem was already a known lyricist. Najeeb started encouraging other singers to start penning lyrics.  He soon had a pool of songwriters and singers based around Thodupuzha and Muvattupuzha. During the panchayat or state elections, this gave him the flexibility to keep up with the sudden rush of short-notice orders.

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 says.

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.

 Ashraf says he became an announcer not by intention but by accident. This, he says is probably true of most announcers he knows. Ashraf was an IUML worker as a youngster. Professional announcers were virtually unknown then and it would have been impossible for anyone to do work for two different parties. Whether it was election campaigns, political meetings or processions, the local party faithful took care of the announcement.

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.

 Doing “live” announcements is a completely different game from recording in a studio, says Ashraf. The schedule is gruelling, the pay less and there are the occasional risks of political retribution. “Things changed during the Nineties. Parties started to hire professional announcers rather than rely on amateurs. The ‘Dear sisters and mothers!’ kind of announcements became unfashionable. While one couldn’t make a living from announcements, it became a good side-income,” he says.

 At first, Ashraf stuck to the IUML and its ally, the UDF. But over the years, political parties became more accepting of announcers with different political backgrounds and the field started to become thoroughly professional. He started doing announcements for independent candidates, the LDF as well as other smaller parties. 

 “There were a couple of times when I got into a spot of trouble. Once in Thodupuzha, I was surrounded by CPI(M) men on bikes. In the election before that one, the LDF candidate from Thodupuzha had worked to defeat another LDF man. In all my announcements, I asked Left supporters if they wanted to vote for a turncoat. The CPI(M) men threatened me and asked me not to mention it again. I didn’t tell the UDF election committee about it and just decided to drop the matter from my announcements. If I had told the UDF, they would have insisted that I use the same material as much as possible,” he says.

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.

 Ashraf doesn’t miss the action. Recorded announcements have not completely replaced live ones, and a younger generation of announcers is in the market. He is too old for that kind of work, he says. But he does miss the personal acquaintances he forged with politicians over the years.

 “P. C. Thomas (former UDF MP) and P. J. Joseph (MLA) both came to my wedding. Even now if I call them and say this is Ashraf, the announcer from Thodupuzha, they will ask me ‘How have you been keeping?’ The lead announcer travels in the same vehicle as the candidate and during two weeks of campaigning one ends up being on familiar terms. When you have working relationships with people from so many parties, you have a sense that if you need something, there are people who will help.

 “But now, these contacts are disappearing. Most candidates don’t see me personally; the district party president or someone from the party office gets in touch with us and everything is done through the phone and the Internet.”

 Ashraf says at times, he cannot help reflecting on the role plays. “There are times when I have actually felt bad thinking that I am promoting all kinds of candidates and ideologies. Some of my friends asked me jokingly a few days back: ‘We are confused. Yesterday we heard you asking us to vote for Congress to prevent non-secular forces. Today you are saying that Prakash Karat is going to be the Prime Minister. Who should we vote for?’”

 On a more serious note, he talks about the times people have criticised him for doing what he does. “Some people called me up from Thodupuzha recently after hearing announcements I had made for the BJP. They asked me how I could support a party with an ideology like the BJP? I told them that there is nothing personal about it. It is my profession. What about the people who put up flex-boards for parties? Are they responsible for what is painted on it? If I don’t do this job, someone else will,” he says.



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.”