A personal and political act: on Chennai’s Casteless Collective
The emergence of Chennai’s Casteless Collective shows a growing interest in engaging with art that talks about social and political issues. Jayant Sriram reports on the musical traditions it draws from and the possibilities that lie ahead On a June evening in Chennai last year, a young man, slightly built and bespectacled, took to the stage at the Madras Medai festival, an event organised to promote independent music artists. He wore jeans and a long white t-shirt that read, “They call me ARIVU.” He began performing a rap number that grabbed immediate attention with its first line: “What? Are you calling me an anti-Indian?”
“Close your eyes and hear my story,” he exhorted before questioning the idea of national pride.
Take your false pride and throw it far away my fellow Tamilians/ Are we all equal?/ Does everybody have land?/ Is this your tradition?/ We are fighting for Cauvery/ While we ignore our slums.
And then in another passage: Where is your Aadhaar card?/ Without that, do you even exist?/ The government gives us free rice/ Adulterated with stones/ Our children attend government schools that are next to alcohol shops their fathers visit/ I want only your tax,/ I don’t want your tears,/ The entire nation comes at a price. / What? Are you calling me an anti-Indian?
Cut to March 2019 to an event at Chennai’s Music Academy, considered one of the high temples of Carnatic music. One of its auditoriums on this occasion is being used for a barrier-breaking event, the first ticketed performance of Oppari music, a sort of funeral dirge sung in parts of Tamil Nadu that is associated with backward castes. This is a style of music that is widely shunned because many believe that it carries the stigma of death. One of the performers for the evening is a man dressed in a crisp blue shirt and a white veshti. He calls himself Serikuyil Set, or the nightingale of the ghettos. He is the last of the performers, and while those who have preceded him have sung the traditional lament, he announces that he is going to sing a lament for the nation.
In the Oppari style, with the rhythmic beating of the parai (a circular percussion instrument made of animal skin) following every verse, he sings of poverty and discrimination, demonetisation and Clean India. The music has broken out of a caste identity. It is free.
Microcosm of a movement
The Neelam Cultural Centre is an organisation headed by the film director Pa. Ranjith. It organised both the Madras Medai festival and the Oppari concert at the Music Academy. In its office sits Arivarasu Kalainesan, or Arivu, 24, the writer of ‘Anti-Indian’, who says Seri kuyil Shettu was one of his childhood inspirations. “I was never allowed to watch TV or movies growing up in Arakkonam (about two hours west of Chennai) so I used to watch performances like his. I would go early so I could sit in the front row,” he says.
The similarities here form the microcosm of a powerful cultural moment where there is an appeal for an authentic, organic style of storytelling through rap, reflected in the success of a Hindi film Gully Boy, based on the music of Mumbai rappers Naezy and Divine. Allied to this in Tamil Nadu is a movement mobilising art to speak about politics. This is led by the films of Pa. Ranjith and the musical venture that he co-founded a year ago, the Casteless Collective.
Incidentally, Arivu is one of the principal lyricists for the Collective. Until recently Arivu did not know that the poetry he wrote could lend itself to rap. That realisation came only after he joined the Casteless Collective and started working with his producer and co-writer, ofRO.
He learned about music, he says, from the temple near his home, which used to blare music from 4 a.m.; from Oppari; and from Gaana, a folk music style associated with Dalits from the slums of north Chennai, while travelling on the train from Arakkonam to Chennai. “The panels of the trains on the inside were made of wood, and that was enough for creating the basic percussion beat for Gaana songs,” he explains. “These were songs passed down over the years by men and women who travelled to Chennai every day. It was a kind of freestyle music that they would sing on the trains after a long day’s work, expressing the hardship faced by the marginalised communities.”
On the table in front of him, Arivu instinctively taps out a basic beat, and sings one of the many numbers he has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of: I never had the chance to go to school,/ When the neighbour’s kid was going to school I was taking care of my sister,/ When you were counting numbers,/ I was busy counting matches.
“It was probably a reference to working in a matchstick or firecracker factory,” he explains.
The Casteless Collective
Art that derives from traditional folk forms and is mobilised to start a conversation about major social and political issues is the central premise of the Casteless Collective. The Collective is a band comprising primarily of Gaana singers from north Chennai; instrumentalists who play the guitar, drums, and percussion instruments such as the tavil and parai that are played at funerals; and rappers, courtesy Arivu and the Dharavi-based Dopeadelicz.
Since its first concert a little over a year ago, the group has made waves for its politically charged music. Their debut album ‘Magizhchi’ features songs such as ‘Jai Bhim Anthem’, which talks about B.R. Ambedkar’s life. Other songs dwell on the beef ban and manual scavenging. There is politics both in the showcasing of the traditional forms of Dalit music and in their deployment to speak of issues concerning caste and Dalit identity. In that sense, the Casteless Collective can best be understood as a controlled experiment, a trigger for a larger conversation about politics, music and the very politics of music.
“Gaana music originated with travellers who had come to the slums of north Chennai. It is basically a music of liberation for labourers,” explains music director Tenma, whose Madras Records collaborated with Pa. Ranjith and the Neelam Cultural Centre to find the various artists and form the cultural centre.
Having grown up in north Chennai himself, Tenma says that there is a variant of Gaana that is sung at funerals, a form that speaks about ideology and the struggle of the working classes and, from the 1980s onwards, a form that is a protest, a medium of conveying Ambedkarite ideology. Mobilising Gaana to speak of politics is intrinsic to its spirit, he points out, and the Collective utilises the traditional beats of the medium to revive old songs as well as write new material.
Since the ’90s, Gaana has been used sporadically in Tamil film music. But in most cases, it was used as a novelty device, says Tenma. “With a few exceptions, the stories were removed and the lines were sanitised.” The Casteless Collective, then, is the first attempt at scale to give it space as a valid
medium. “The message is that we are alive and we are winning. This is no longer a music form that has to be associated with slavery or with the marginalised,” Tenma says.
The addition of a rap or hip hop element was not something they initially planned. “When we were auditioning singers for the Casteless Collective, I wasn’t really expecting a lot of artists who we eventually came to work with. The initial plan was to have a band for Gaana singers,” he explains. Yet several young listeners now think of the Casteless Collective as a rap outfit and it’s no coincidence that the weeks following the release of Gully Boy saw numerous articles
branding the Collective as its southern counterpart. Tenma says that may be more indicative of an audience instinct to identify the band with the form of music that is more popular or considered cooler.
Yet, it’s worth questioning if the association with rap can help the Casteless Collective be a catalyst to bring to the fore and carry forward the wealth of cultural material and traditions of storytelling that live on in musical forms such as Gaana.
Madurai-based Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam sees a significant counter-politics in the very fact of Gaana — and musical instruments like the parai — finding a significant stage. “In Tamil Nadu, people will accept classical Carnatic music,” he explains. “When they want to look beyond that to folk music, they usually celebrate forms of music from Tamil Nadu’s agrarian communities. These are typically from places such as Tirunelveli, or music that valorises the macho culture of regions such as Madurai. Gaana, which is about the life and hardships of people who live in urban slums, has not even been given the status of folk art.”
Gaana music, however, has a story to tell about the lives and culture of a significant section of Tamil people who have barely been recognised. “If you go to north Chennai now, you will see kids playing cricket, football and carrom. You will find rock, jazz and other forms of music, different dialects and ways of speaking, and a community that has a lot of intermingling,” Rajangam says. They defy the feudal way of looking at Tamil society, which is still the normative perspective. This perspective is dominated by caste relations and may have contributed, Rajangam says, to a fear and mistrust of these communities. For Rajangam, then, there are stories to be told about this community and their way of life. “The Casteless Collective was specifically set up to communicate a political message but it is just a start. The form can change. What matters ultimately is that the music should have appeal.”
It is perhaps too soon to have a conversation about the commercial possibilities of the Casteless Collective’s brand of music, but it’s worth noting just how different their trajectory has been from other hip hop artistes in India that have found success. To pick a small sample size, let’s take Naezy and Divine from Gully Boy, and the two prominent hip hop artistes featured in Ranjith’s hit film Kaala — the Dopeadelicz, and Yogi B, a Malaysian-Indian artist widely regarded as the founder of Tamil hip hop. For all of them, their interest in hip hop originated in their curiosity about, and knowledge of, the Western hip hop tradition and artists. It is this learning which they then sought to apply to their own context. A profile of Naezy and Divine, published two years ago in the Mumbai edition of The Hindu, even notes that they had actually started out singing in English. It was only later that they realised that their message would come across stronger if expressed in their own language.
Yogi B, a star in Malaysia, makes frequent appearances in Tamil film songs and recently contributed the vocals to the song ‘Katravai Patravai’ in Kaala. The song is intensely political (‘Katravai Patravai’ means ‘Educate, Ignite’, a motto of Ambedkarite politics), but interestingly, Yogi B says he had very little understanding of caste politics when he did the song.
“When I started doing hip hop in Malaysia, I felt no necessity to address caste discrimination, as it is not a big issue in Malaysia,” he explains. “But I think the kind of music that the Casteless Collective and artists like Arivu are writing now is extremely powerful. I was taken aback by the in-your-face power of their lyrics.”
There is excitement in Yogi B’s voice when he discusses the potential of fusing hip hop and Gaana. He sees the movement started by the Casteless Collective as true to what he calls the soul of hip hop, a music of upliftment. Political music needs good back up, Yogi B says, and he acknowledges that at this particular moment, with an influential figure like Pa. Ranjith involved, it’s likely to draw the spotlight.
Yet, there is a pause as he considers how far it could go. It may not be the intention of Pa. Ranjith or Tenma right now to consider the commercial pull of the Collective’s music, but in the veteran Yogi B, you can see exactly those considerations being weighed out.
Keeping it real
It is true that the Collective’s music follows the hip hop edict of ‘keeping it real’, which means singing about their own truth, and their own life experiences, as a way of identifying the personal with the political. For Yogi B, this approach is, of course, essential for creating a sound that pulls audiences in. But he adds a caveat: “If the music is overtly political, it will burn out after a while because the message first has to be personal, and it has to be uplifting. Once you have built an audience, you can get into addressing purely political issues.”
Yogi B is thrilled by the buzz that the Casteless Collective has generated but is startled by the idea of rap being composed without an understanding of the Western hip hop culture. “I was amazed to hear that Arivu hadn’t listened to any hip hop when he was writing his songs. He told me he had picked up the intonation and his manner of delivering the lines by trying to imitate a Christian pastor he had heard when he was young!” On the other hand, an example of a band that follows the more conventional hip hop idiom is a new group that Yogi B is mentoring, named Madurai
Souljours. Syan, the group’s lead singer, says the group was keen to adapt the hip hop template and give their own language a fresh kind of music. “We basically sing about the issues that affect us in our daily lives — the neighbourhoods we come from, our journey to be recognised as musicians,” he says.
As Yogi B reiterates, often groups that taste commercial success with a more organic sound subsequently pick up themes that are overtly political. For instance, the Mumbai hip hop collective Swadesi, known for singing about urban gullies and ghettos, has gone on to take up the cause of saving the local Adivasi population from being displaced by a controversial development project in Aarey Colony. Meanwhile, Dopeadelicz, whose music used to focus on issues such as marijuana legalisation and police troubles in the slums, is now an active part of the Casteless Collective, and has begun to incorporate elements of Gaana into their music.
A new fusion
Arivu wrote his first song when he was in Class 10 for a singing competition in his school. It was inspired by Gaana and was about the beauty he saw in the world around him. “I sang about how my school was beautiful, how the girls were beautiful, how the teachers were beautiful. I think some of the lyrics didn’t go down well, and the school cancelled the singing competition after that,” he says, laughing. “I’m pretty sure if I had sung that same song in Carnatic verse, it would have evoked a very different response.”
The episode seemed to have had a carry-on effect on Arivu. He says he struggled for a long time to write material that was personal. It’s a conversation that he often has with ofRO. “He’s very good at writing about issues like manual scavenging, but I keep telling him that he needs to write more about his life and his story,” ofRO says.
Their independent album is yet to be released. Aside from ‘Anti-Indian’ that has already made waves, there are tracks like Snowlin, about 17-year-old J. Snowlin, who was gunned down by the police in Thoothukudi last year during the anti-Sterlite plant protest. The song, notably more conversational and less urgent in its delivery, is like a combination of Oppari and gospel. Other tracks are more personal — one talks of Arivu’s personal journey to joining the Casteless Collective and finding a place for his music. Still another talk about what he calls “middle class life”.
It would be interesting to see to what extent this album moves the Casteless Collective’s cultural project forward, one year after it was formed. If it pulls off a potent fusion of various storytelling traditions that Arivu seems to channel, with the popular appeal of hip hop, it could mark a start.
Courtesy: By Jayant Sriram / The Hindu