How ‘Bella Ciao’ became a Movement of the Left

The earliest script of the song 'Bella Ciao' (goodbye, beautiful) dates back to 1906, with the author unknown. Women working in the paddy fields of Northern Italy suffered exploitative working conditions, with eight-hour workdays under the sun, the risk of malaria, malnourishment, and higher rates of miscarriages than other women workers. These workers developed a number of protest songs, the histories of which have developed through verbal re-telling.

Starting in the 1900s, women from these fields began joining left-wing organizations, the Italian Women’s Union, as well as institutions for the working class. They won important concessions from the fascist government in terms of improved food and shelter provisions through strikes and protests. They played a crucial role in resisting the Nazi forces prevailing in Italy by hiding members of the resistance in their homes, refusing to work for the government, and protesting their replacement by agricultural machinery. The song talks about life as a partisan and giving up one's freedom and liberty for the movement.

The song shot to exceptional fame in contemporary times when it was featured in the popular Netflix series Money Heist. The song is now being adapted to movements of all kinds all over the globe, but its roots must not be forgotten. In the Indian context, the history of the song resonates, almost to an eerie extent, with the women protesting for their rights at Shaheen Bagh, Haus Rani, and other Muslim ‘ghettos’. The song talks about being attacked as a member of the resistance, being buried under the shade of a flower for passers-by to visit and remember as a partisan who died for the cause of freedom, and is echoed by the Shaheen Bagh slogan, "desh ke inn pyaaron par, phool barsao saaro par (shower the loved ones of the country with flowers)".

A version of the song was also popularized in Palestine, with a recent revision being used to protest Trump's Palestinian-Israeli deal that would cede large swaths of the West Bank to Israel and put forward a set of near-impossible conditions for Palestinians to meet. Adaptations of the song can be found in many languages, with most of them used as a rallying call against nationalistic governments that suppress dissent. A popular Hindi version of the song was released by Poojan Sahil, titled, ‘Wapas Jao (go back)’, to protest recent legislations CAA, NRC, NPR.

However, it’s worth noting that the culture surrounding the song Bella Ciao is not all rosy or empowering. Women members of the resistance were hardly given their due credit or portrayed accurately in media. One field worker’s husband was given an award for his role in the resistance, and when the same award was offered to her, her husband intervened and refused the recognition. These women were sexualized in media for the skirts and shorts they chose to wear while working on the rice fields. But, worst of all- their memory is now being completely erased.

The song is being adapted all over the world and sampled for music in Bollywood movies, without acknowledging its history. Often, when the Left uses it as inspiration to fight varied wars, it forgets the importance of women’s contributions to the resistance. Italian women gave up their families and livelihoods to fight a war they gained no credit for winning, at a time when women were actively discouraged from political activity.

Irrespective, the contributions of these women live on, and so does their memory. The song is known across the world, condensing their sacrifices into a few chords.