The Tamil film industry has a gravity all its own. It absorbs whole livelihoods, cultures and traditions. Young people, mostly men but women too, flock to it in search of something like liberation. But due to its power, dealing with Kollywood can be like bargaining with gods or devils. You might get what you want, but it always comes with a price. This was the kind of deal that Gaana had to make to enter films.
Gaana is a collection of rhythms, beats and sensibilities native to the dalits of Chennai. Its origins are hazy. Some songs bear the influence of the mysticism of the ancient Siddhars, the Sufi poems of Gunankudi Masthan Sahib and even Christian hymns. Others might be folk songs that came with migrants into the city. Some are clearly newer compositions, steeped in the slang of north Chennai. Regardless, they are today the idiom of a particular caste and class of Tamil society. They are the dirges of the dalit funeral, the folk ballads that help mourners keep night vigil over a body, and the improvised lamentations of life’s unfairness that accompany copious quantities of alcohol and ganja. These lamentations cannot help but be deeply political. Something that typical Tamil cinema avoids in favour of bland hero worship. As far back as 2001, S Anand was writing in Outlook India on how the film industry’s embrace of Gaana was turning it into “a dirge to itself”.
The film industry had offered a new life to singers like Marana Gaana Viji, who was abandoned by his mother and lived in graveyards as a child, begging for survival. Viji and numerous others have found success, singing and writing songs for films. The films definitely paid more than the ₹300 per performance that a singer might get otherwise. But the films changed the songs. They were sanitised and depoliticised. The original version of ‘Aal Thotta Bhupathy’ is around four hours long — a tale of love and revenge. The film version is around four minutes and mostly has actors Vijay and Simran shaking their hips at each other.
To reclaim the music as political ground, film director Pa Ranjith flipped the formula, using his huge success in cinema to ‘give back’ or create a new space for the music. His previous movie, Kabali , featuring superstar Rajinikanth, made around ₹500 crore in the domestic and international box office. His next movie, Kaala , also starring Rajinikanth, will release next month amid expectations that it might do even better. Ranjith has managed to build this success while subtly redesigning the furniture of the Tamil masala movie. From the streets of north Chennai in Attakathi to the tenements of Mumbai’s Dharavi in Kaala , his settings are atypical. His characters read Ambedkar and My Father Balaiah .
Inspired by African-American culture, Ranjith believes in the politicisation of art. He hopes to achieve it with his movies and through his organisation, Neelam Cultural Centre. Through Neelam, Ranjith reached out to Tenma, music producer and founder of Madras Records. The two of them clicked instantly. Tenma began to audition musicians for a new ‘political band’. For the band’s name, Ranjith took inspiration from the anti-caste activist Iyothee Thass, who had urged Tamil-speaking dalits to identify themselves as “Tamils without caste” in the colonial surveys. Dass had converted to Buddhism later in life. After hundreds of auditions, The Casteless Collective was formed in December 2017.
On January 6 this year, The Casteless Collective and Mumbai-based rap group Dopadelicz strode onto a massive stage, dressed in impeccable grey suits (with Ambedkar in a suit projected on the backdrop) and belted out 20 original Gaana songs to a 4,000-strong crowd.
It was the biggest stage that many of the performers had ever had, but Tenma knows it’s only the first step. “It was more like a jam session,” he says. After another big show last week, as part of the new homegrown indie music festival Madras Medai 2018, the next step for the group is recording an album.
Proudly not purist
The recording for the album will be a technical feat of sorts, given the huge crew of sound and mixing engineers, producers and performers involved. The style will be a distinct fusion of Gaana and rap, folk percussion and electric guitar. Tenma hopes to make the percussions the driving force of the album, like they would be for a live performance. Instead of a standard studio recording, he rented the Museum Theatre, a 19th-century government-owned performance venue in the same compound as the city museum. And the end-product is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “I like my music to be raw,” says Tenma. “If you [the listener] feel that it’s dirty or impure, then I’ve achieved what I wanted. I’m the exact opposite of a purist. If the tradition says it’s impure, I have actually succeeded.” Paul Jacob, veteran musician and collaborator on the album, says, “The aim is not to equate it with classical music or anything like it. It is to provide an equal platform for these musicians.”
While they have more than 30 original songs ready, the album will contain eight of the most popular songs from their opening show. This includes ‘Quota Song’, sung by Muthu, Arivu and Stony Psycho from Dopadelicz, which Tenma describes as “an anthem with two rap sections”. The song’s refrain does not pull punches. “Look at these hands that tied up your cow/ Those same hands carry school notebooks now/ This change took us a thousand years/ You calling it a freebie is outrageous!”
‘Beef Song’ is sung by Isaivani, the sole woman in the group and the rare female Gaana performer. She reckons she has performed more than 10,000 times in Chennai and Puducherry over the last 14 years.
“In these songs, the people whom you have chosen to ignore are calling you out,” says Tenma. In one song, a manual scavenger criticises our society’s hypocritical ideas around sanitation. With several manual scavengers having died this year alone, the singer calls out the government system of monetary ‘compensations’, saying all he wants is his father back.
Criticising the film industry’s manner of using Gaana, Tenma says the intention is merely to generate hype and garner ‘likes’. “It’s an independent form of music. But why has it never been given that status?” For Ranjith and Tenma, the term ‘independent music’ does not hold the same meaning as it does in America — namely, freedom from the stranglehold of major record labels. For the duo, it means folk music, handed down generations, without any formal institutions.
“For an artist, an album is promotional material,” says Tenma. “Nobody makes money off albums.” In their case, the album is not just to promote the artists, but also spark off discussions. “As a society, we’ve stopped talking to each other. We need to build conversations. That’s my goal and Ranjith’s… Nobody needs money. They need respect.”
The question of whether this respect will be forthcoming is still open. Paul Jacob, who has taken dozens of Indian folk artists to tour Europe, says the opportunities in India are limited. “A place like Phoenix Market City and Express Avenue (large malls in Chennai) rejected us because we had Tamil content. Where the hell are we going to go? In your own city, you’re not allowed to play in your own language. You have to go back to the streets of north Chennai.” He’s much more optimistic about prospects outside the country. “You want an audience that respects who you are.”
Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016