Nearly 35 years after he was abandoned by his mother, and almost as many years trying to keep death at bay, Marana Gana Viji is today a funeral singer of some repute.
His life story, despite Viji’s lyrical rendering of it, is a gut-wrenching tale. “I was conceived in a liaison intended only to produce children for begging. I belong to the dark world that comes alive after the lights are turned off. Possibly because I was born with a disability, or it could be any other reason, my mother abandoned me. But as far as I can remember, even when I struggled for food, my only intent was to survive that day, to beat death.”
His first memories, and they are still fresh in his mind, are of crawling the sands of the Marina as a rag picker, with four other friends. “Each of them had a story similar to mine; we had all escaped from a destiny of begging, we lived off a burial ground in North Chennai,” he says. “But they were the ones who raised me: Peeda, Sekar, Babu, and Egmore Lakshmi. Also, there was a sex worker who used to buy me food and help me out at times. I got my name, Viji, after her. I did not have a name until then,” he says, fingering the silver skull medallion he wears around his neck.
Today, in North Chennai, Marana Gana Viji is a name many recognise. He’s invited to sing at funerals, he’s sung at over 3,700 occasions, and also ‘gana’ songs on various themes at many events. His rate today for a programme is Rs. 25,000. He has clearly come a long way since the first-ever funeral he sang at, where, afterwards he was given a few rupees and one bowl of the previous day’s cooked rice. Viji, who never had an opportunity to go to school, has authored three books on his life, and his experiences with death and dying.
“My genre is marana gana, which is slightly different from gana songs (Chennai’s own beloved folk medium). I sing of death, of the dead, of the living, how ephemeral life is, of the meaning behind our death rituals.
A typical marana gana song lasts for all of nine hours, and comes from the bottom of my heart, and my deep interest in spirituality and death. And no, alcohol does not inspire me” he explains. He’s written his own grammar and rules, on the lines of the experiential ‘gana’ song in the oral tradition, but with variances for the occasion.
For someone who is about 35 years old, (“I don’t know how old really, because I do not have a date of birth”), he seems to have a precocious interest in death.
“I was drawn to it when I was only 7. I learnt all the basics from Karuppu Parayanar, who used to light the funeral pyre on the cremation grounds. And then, when I was older, I wandered from place to place, including Kashi, researching death.” Perhaps, it was fighting death daily as a child, and vanquishing it, that has created a unique bond for him.
He believes that it is this bond that helped him triumph, despite all odds, and make a future for himself.