Fun, romantic, cheeky, profound… That’s gaana — city’s own folk music for you. Popularised by films, the simplicity of the lyrics, the everyday stories they tell and the throaty voice of the singers make the genre special. Akila Kannadasan tells you more

He wipes down tables in a hotel; picks rags on the roadside; washes tea glasses at an eatery; sells vegetables on the pavement… After a hard day’s work that drains him, there is one thing that the less-privileged man of Chennai does to recharge himself — he sings. This song has no rules or boundaries; he is its master. The tune is from his head; the lyrics are from his life. It’s gaana. He will lounge with his friends on the bench of a neighbourhood teashop, at the mosquito-filled precincts of the kuppam’s temple, or on the cool sands of the Marina at night and sing as the rest of the city sleeps and the kuppam stays wide awake.

Chennai is the birthplace of gaana — a genre of music popularised by Tamil cinema; it is straight from the heart of the marginalised people. Gaana’s beginning cannot be traced, says V. Ramakrishnan, a professor of Tamil literature who holds a PhD in gaana. “It is ageless. This genre is Chennai’s very own folk music.” Ramakrishnan has written the book Gaana Paadalgal: Chennai Adithala Makkal Varalaru, in which he details the gaana tradition.

Gaana singers sing of love, life, death, their day-to-day problems… the songs are sometimes profound — don’t let the simple lyrics fool you. Ramakrishnan says that gaana has traces of Siddhar Paadalgal, Hindustani, and Islamic music sung by Kunangudi Masthan Sahib, a saint who is said to have lived in North Madras decades ago.

How would one describe gaana? Lilting? Fast-paced? Melodic? Kaadhar, a 17-year-old resident of Doomming Kuppam off the Marina, shows that it is a mix of all the above. We sit facing the sea, surrounded by heaps of fishing nets as he reels off a gaana he sang at his father’s funeral. His voice defeats the monotonous ‘shhhhh’ of the waves; you hear nothing but the song sung by a son when he lost his father. “Enna vittu pona appa…” he begins, singing of how his mother Noor is waiting for his father Vaas to return. Gaana is popular in funerals — Kaadhar’s friend Vicky informs us that those who can afford it organise gaana kutcheris at the funerals of their loved ones.

‘Marana Gaana’ Viji’s is a well-known voice in such kutcheris. Orphaned when he was a little boy, Viji grew up listening to gaana songs. He is also a researcher of the genre. “A gaana singer raises his voice from the pit of the stomach. The voice is thrown with force,” he says. The lyrics consist of typical Madras baashai (dialect) — they have a smattering of English words, and sometimes Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and Malayalam words, explains Viji.

There are also gaana songs calling for social change. “I sing of revolution, social, and environmental issues such as how the ocean is being polluted,” says Viji. College boys in the city can be heard singing peppy gaana songs in buses to impress the girls.

Ramakrishnan says that there are also women who can sing good gaana. He has interacted with singers Shanthi, the sister of gaana guru ‘Aayiram Vilakku’ Selvam and Padmini from Kotturpuram for his upcoming book.

Mani, Jagan, Vinodh, Dinesh, Palani… the youngsters at Doomming Kuppam reel off names of the current crop of gaana singers who are creating waves. The kids store the songs of these artistes on their mobile phones. “I sing gaana when I walk back home after a football match if I’m in a good mood,” says Vicky. “I sing in the class too when there is a free period,” he smiles.

Gaana can be fun, cheeky, romantic, and serious; it can also be a meaningless bunch of words connected together for just good music. Kaadhar picks a thermocol float from a nearby boat and taps it as he sings for us the ‘share-auto song’ (See box).“

While gaana fascinates with its clarity of expression, it sometimes startles you with its ruthless honesty. For instance, Vicky’s song ‘Vidha Vidhama Matta Caseu En Mela’. It is about a man who laments about how he is pursued by the police. He sleeps outside his home one night and the police come to get him. He gives them the slip by hurling sand at their eyes. But they whip their guns out… “My grandfather told me this story,” explains Vicky. “It happened to him when he was young.” Suddenly, there is a commotion in the kuppam — a police car has just pulled over. “Ennada nadakkudhu (what’s happening)?” wonders Vicky. The boys run to find out. Perhaps they will sing of it someday.

On their lives

Vidha vidhama matta case-u en mela

Naa odi odi oliyurene unnala

Thirundhi vaazha mudiyalaye ennala

Share auto song

Share-auto share-auto

Janangalukku porattam

Anju roova kayila kudutha

Parakkuranga plane-aatom

Aerunga ma aerunga share autovila aerunga…

A fun song

Aaana aavvanna Kaadhar pera kelanna

Eeena eeanna ivaru paatu paatanna

Soku majaa soku ma

Indha paata kekka odi vandhu munnae nillamma