Music has often accompanied social change. American jazz heard in Eastern European countries during the Communist era, for example, has been credited with inspiring grassroots democracy movements. And 1960s rock and roll and soul music went hand-in-hand with liberalized social mores. But creating popular culture expressly to jumpstart social change may be a new idea. And it’s the premise of a young political organization called Breakthrough, based in New York and New Delhi: to create music and popular culture purely to promote human rights.
Mallika Dutt is an Indian-born lawyer who lives in New York City. For twenty years, she worked on human rights issues for major aid organizations and she became increasingly frustrated.
“One of the things I began to feel was that we weren’t really talking to large-enough audiences,” she said. “And so the question became how do you get your mom and dad involved, how do you get people who aren’t directly involved in the issues to care about human rights?”
Ms. Dutt had a hunch about how to do that. In 2000, she quit her high-paying job, and out of her Manhattan apartment, with the help of student assistants, she launched Breakthrough, to spread the message of human rights through popular music and media.
“Everybody in the [music] industry laughed at us when we began this project, and thought we were, I mean, everybody just thought I was insane,” she said.
That attitude didn’t last long. Breakthrough’s first project was a CD: “Mann Ke Manjeere: An Album of Women’s Dreams.”
“The idea was to raise awareness about the status of women in South Asia, but to do it in a way that didn’t necessarily get into the issues,” she said. “So the songs weren’t about domestic violence, or dowry, or discrimination but the songs were really about women’s hopes and women’s dreams, and where they wanted to be, where they wanted to go.”
The CD was a huge popular success, among the top-ten records in India for three months. A music video for the title track, directed by Sujit Sircar and Gary of Red Ice was an even bigger hit, according to Ms. Dutt. “We ended up winning the screen awards in India,” she says, “we got nominated for the MTV awards, and we were getting 50,000 hits a day on the web site from people wanting to know how they could do something about women’s issues.”
The title song on Mann Ke Manjeere, which means simply “rhythms of the mind” was inspired by the life of a woman named Shameem Pathan, who left an abusive marriage to become the first woman truck driver in India. She’s played in the music video by Indian actress Mita Vasisht. The vocals are by top Indian singer Shubha Mudgal.
Breakthrough’s success with Mann Ke Manjeere has led to new collaborations with artists, including a DVD made with one of South Asia’s most popular rock bands, the Pakistani group Junoon.