New Delhi: The critical and commercial success of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy shows that the Indian audience is receptive to mature, politically-aware forms of entertainment. And while Bollywood has rarely showcased it, there has been no dearth of this kind of entertainment in India’s states and local cultures.
From folk forms to street theatre, from underground rock and metal bands to southern India’s intertwined polity and entertainment industry, music has been used to make political statements for decades, even centuries. And one of the key new followers of that long tradition is a political ensemble band called The Casteless Collective, which counts among its founders Tamil filmmaker Pa. Ranjith.
The Collective was founded by Ranjith’s Neelam Cultural Centre and music producer Tenma’s Madras Records. It derives its name from a term coined by a 19th century anti-caste activist from Tamil Nadu, C. Iyothee Thass Pandithar.
Ranjith had said of the Collective “This is a collective that is without caste, that aims to eliminate caste and religious discrimination through music.”
The Casteless Collective is made up of independent musicians from North Chennai (or as they like to call it, North Madras), who mix a traditional Tamil form called gaana with rock and rap music.
Gaana is a genre that doesn’t have any set rules or structure. Its lyrics are colloquial and it is usually performed by common people, who mostly hail from the ‘lower’ castes and live in ghettos.
Usually illiterate, they articulate their emotions and resistance against any oppression through gaana, accompanied by any material that produces sound — from aluminium vessels to a proper parai (percussion instrument).
There are many varieties of gaana, such as Attu, Aalu, Jigiri, Deepa and Marana. But gaana in general is identified these days only by the latter, which is traditionally performed at a funeral. This association is why this form has never received the widespread acceptance that Carnatic classical music has, because it is associated with divinity.
Ranjith, who hails from the Dalit community, understood the significance of gaana and has included it in all his films. Tenma and the other independent artistes associated with the Collective grew up as Dalits in North Madras, where gaana was a part of their everyday lives. This is why the music of The Casteless Collective, which is often seen as ‘resistance music’ due to its aims to talk about politics, also celebrates equality and unity.
The Casteless Collective compose their own songs, based around subjects like working-class life, caste discrimination, manual scavenging, honour killings, reservation, gender, feminism, and LGBTQ+ issues among others. Their songs also carry anger against untoward incidents in society like the rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua, J&K, and the Thoothukudi firings.
One of the Collective’s most celebrated songs, written by Arivarasan ‘Arivu’ Kalainesan, is the Jai Bhim Anthem, an ode to Babasaheb Ambedkar from its first album Magizhchi. The lyrics are originally in Tamil, but the YouTube video features the Collective’s own translation:
To talk back, overthrow
Who gave us the right, tell me now
To touch us is impunity, they said
To see us is sin, they said
Kept building myths and fables
Made sure we were animals in stables
Schools we can’t enrol
Temples can’t save our soul
Roads we can’t walk
Kill us even, no one will ask….
Babasaheb is the one, the father of this nation
Babasaheb is the one, got us rights when we had none.
Another song penned by Arivu, Quota, talks about the significance of caste-based reservation.
Concession, this isn’t!
You have no right to take away my right
Charity, this isn’t!
To slog under you is no matter of respect
You talk justice in front of everyone
And ask my caste in the presence of none
Give my Panchami land
Will things remain the same then
India is infested with caste
Reservation is much-needed social justice.
The Collective also writes topical songs, such as Periya Kari Beef, where its talks about beef-related lynchings (rough translation):
Why does your stomach ache, if someone eats this meat
You cooked up a story around the meat, just to discriminate against us
Your caste discrimination even in food is deplorable.
On the Sabarimala controversy, the Collective’s I Am Sorry Ayyappa states:
I am sorry Lord Ayyappa. What will happen if I enter (your abode)?
It’s not old times when we can be cowed down with fear
If it doesn’t open, break it (open).
The song Kaalu Ruba Dhuttu talks about manual scavenging, and states:
You will all pass by closing your nostrils
We are the ones who die suffocating (while cleaning the drain)
Who needs your relief fund money
Take this money and give my father’s life back.
Two songs called Lesbian take things a step further ahead and question the so-called ‘moral discipline’ in society. In the first, the Collective states:
Equality doesn’t have gender bias
There is also a right to be homosexual here.
In the second, it says:
In love, the whole structure of gender is smashed
Nothing is wrong, sister… Fall in love with any gender.
A fight for dignity
The Collective gathers its members through auditions conducted by Tenma, with a majority being daily wagers or young professionals from the Dharavi-like slums of North Madras.
For example, Arivu, who generally composes and performs songs on caste discrimination, is an IAS aspirant who holds an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He also penned the lyrics for the song Urimaiyai Meetpom in the recent Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala, directed by Pa. Ranjith.
Singer Muthu used to drive an autorickshaw and clean septic tanks/drainage for a living. His father polishes shoes outside the Madras High Court even today.
Singer Balachander’s day job is that of a load man — he earlier used to work at the Chennai airport canteen and biryani shops for a living.
Isaivani, a singer with an electrifying voice, is a rare woman in the male-dominated gaana space. She is employed with the railways.
Percussionists Sharath and Gautam work in the crematorium, while Nandan, who plays parai, is a college student.
Most of the members of the Collective say it has given them dignity, and reduced discrimination.
Tenma himself said: “Discrimination comes with how little privilege you have. I have been bullied in this industry for more than 15 years now. It is about access, and in all of these cases, we feel miserable.
“Ninety per cent of The Casteless Collective had no access to formal music education. It took me 28 years to learn Hindustani music. It’s easy for one to say that one needs to come up in life. But the artists we work with are daily wage labourers. They need to drive autos or clean toilets or septic tanks for a living,” said Tenma.
“Our rap was never given such importance until the independent musicians from our community started coming up with songs/albums telling some hard-hitting societal truths.”