A. Srivathsan on the music that does not figure in the mainstream but is an inseparable part of the city’s intangible heritage

I cycle my rickshaw like a rocket

Only fifty paisa remain in my pocket

Chest pains when I pedal

Body, muscle, and nerves

Want some medicine in all

His debt lies unsettled, his burns unhealed

The one who revers his mother

Left flying without informing

(Translated from Chennai Gana — A collection of Gana songs by V. Ramakrishnan)

Sung in earthy voices and engrossing rhythms, Chennai Gana carry words of hard labour, pain, fragility of life, love and broken affairs. This music of the marginalized, produced and circulated in slums and poor neighbourhoods, may not figure in the mainstream Madras week celebrations, but it is quintessentially Chennai and an inseparable part of the city’s intangible heritage.

The story of Gana is the story of the city. V. Ramakrishnan, assistant professor in Government Arts College, Ponneri, has been documenting and studying Gana songs for the last 15 years. But he finds it difficult to explain the origin of the word ‘Gana’ and how it came to be associated with Chennai.

“Gana could mean two things: as a broad word, it can describe songs that are sung in a rhythm or it could mean a song sung with instruments. What is clear is that Gana has strong folklore roots and reached Chennai through migrants who came in search of work. Since then, it has flourished as the expression of the poor in the city,” he says.

The extant corpus of songs shows multiple influences. There are songs with explicit folk roots and their language captures it. Some are influenced by popular songs of siddhas — Sufi-like saints; and some have unambiguously emerged in the urban milieu with distinct language traits. Changes are made to old tunes and new ones are regularly composed.

Ramakrishnan maps 20 different kinds of songs and relates them to the ritual pattern of the urban poor. Prominent among them are the ones sung during funerals. There are also special songs on urban legends and local heroes. The most famous among them is the song on Alththota Bhupathi, a poor worker who lived on Peters Road. Major patrons and composers of the music are men, and the songs often reflect the dominant male gaze.

Gana singer Periamedu Rahman is often invited for funeral or death anniversary functions. “A typical session lasts three hours and they pay me about Rs. 300 to Rs. 400. I also sing jolly songs along with my friends when we perform together,” he says.

Vyasarpadi Rajinikumar, another singer, is only 30 years old, but he is a veteran with 17 years of experience. “I stopped studying after class I, and later, took to Gana. The songs come naturally to me,” he says. His repertoire includes romantic songs, jolly paatu (fun songs) and vazhthupaatu (songs of greeting). The pay is not much and to make a career out of it is difficult. However, there are more than 500 singers like Rajinikuar in Chennai, many of who live in and around George Town.

“No one can equal Mayilai Venu in terms of intellect and rich content. He lives in poverty, but still holds the tradition firmly. The next person I would rank high is ‘Rave’ Ravi. He is the last of the great singers,” says Ramakrishnan.

‘Rave’ Ravi (52) comes from a family of well-known Gana singers. One can often find him along with young artists at Lilly Pond shopping complex near Central station. “I encourage youngsters, even take them to kutcheris. They sing along with me and I often ask them to practice well. We need a lot of support,” he says.

Chennai Nagooran is the coordinator of Tamil Nadu Gana Artists Association.

“We owe a great deal to writer Jayakanthan for his support. We began this association in 2007, and now have more than 750 members. We have to find ways to protect the interests of artistes. One option is to request film music directors, who often use and borrow Gana songs, to commission our singers and support them. So far, only one of us has made it to the limelight. There must be more,” he says.