'Marana Gaana' Viji is Chennai's most-sought after death song singer. Tune in to his stoic tale

Living in proximity with death has sculpted this intriguing man. A physically challenged boy forsaken to the streets by parents and society, he eventually found home in a cemetery, scrapping out a meagre sustenance by recycling the robes and the metallic remains from cremated bodies. And now, he's famous for his power-packed singing and his book ‘Naan sanditha maranangal' (The deaths I have encountered). Meet Marana Gaana Viji, Chennai's most sought after ‘death song' or ‘marana gaana' singer.

Now, Viji has even composed a marathon death song with 183 major sections running into hundreds of lines, which he sings extempore for sometimes as many as nine hours at a stretch. And not to forget, besides the book, he has also written two plays. Plans are also afoot to translate his death songs into English. Viji has even had a documentary film made on him and his art by V. Ramu, a veteran in theatre for over two decades, and has been the subject of a research project.

Soaked in philosophy

Viji's songs come soaked in philosophical concepts and anecdotes. They are unique, because he combines the Chennai gaana (a rap-like, catchy folksong genre unique to Chennai's Tamil dialect), with metaphysical concepts. “Consciously or unconsciously, whatever I compose turn out to be about death,” says Viji, who is inseparable from his heavy metal chain with a skull pendant and black clothes, and the thapattai (drum), sanku (shell) and dol (a circular metal sheet) that he plays as accompaniments to his songs.

Living in cemeteries, for he had no other place to stay, the concept of death made a huge impact on the boy's fertile mind, and he easily picked up the songs he heard there. And at 14, he sang at a young boy's funeral. “The mother broke down. Later, she offered me some rice. That was the first thing I earned from my songs”, says Viji. Veteran gaana singer Aayiram Vilakku Selvam influenced him as well, and one day, Viji gathered the courage to request him to teach him. Sometime later, N. Muthuswamy, the founder of Koothu-p-pattarai, would hear his songs on the sands of the Marina, and invite Viji into their group. This is why this formally uneducated man now speaks chaste Tamil.

It is incredible that Viji radiates humaneness, despite the inhumane indignities he has endured in life. Once, a young Viji had been starving for two days, and saw some leftover food lying around. He crawled towards it, but a dog ensured he was denied even that. “That day, I made up my mind to stay alive to tell someone about all the sorrow in the world,” he says. As a nameless orphan, he came to be called Viji only because a prostitute by that name found him begging on the sands of the Marina, and took him under her care for a few months. “She succumbed to AIDS soon after that, and I was abandoned again.”“Like many other orphans in the city, I took to manual scavenging . My fellow scavengers were very kind to me, and share their food with me,” he recalls.

Did you think death songs are macabre? Sounds ironic, but they are not morbid at all. These songs speak of the fragility of life. They make you understand and appreciate life — while it lasts.