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Our music is about raw primal instinct: The Casteless Collective

The Casteless Collective in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Ever since its first performance last January, The Casteless Collective (TCC) has emerged as the most talked about independent music band in Chennai. Not only has it impressed with its no-holds-barred music but also set out on an artistic-political path that is unchartered. Its music is rooted in the sounds of Chennai’s Dalit community, especially those who live in North Chennai. Singing the musical form Gana that has its origins in funeral music, accompanied by percussions that are socially associated with the rhythms of the graveyard, they have posed numerous aesthetic, social and political questions to the art world. (The band members are Tenma, leader and music producer, singers Muthu, Bala Chandar, Isaivani, Arivu and Chellamuthu, Dharani (dholak), Sarath (satti), Gautham (katta molam), Nandan (parai and tavil), Manu (drums) and Sahir (guitar).) Excerpts from an interview:

How did TCC happen?

Tenma: I come from the much stereotyped and stigmatised North Chennai. I began reading Periyar when I was 20 but it was only when I was older that I began expressing myself. I had started the Madras Indie Collective and was trying to bring musicians together. It was at that time that I received a call from Neelam, the organisation spearheaded by Pa. Ranjith, enquiring if I was willing to work with a bunch of Gana singers. Ranjith and I met the very next day and spoke for over an hour, the conversation was political, very little about music. Within a week or so, we put out an audition call and about 150 aspirants came in. Along with their musical proviso, it was the conversations that mattered, simply because we were embarking on a socio-musical-political journey. Many did not understand the idea behind such a band — what was its intention they wondered. But amongst them were also people like Muthu, Balachander, Dharani, Arivu, and others, in whom there was spark, spirit and understanding. We did not only bring in Gana singers. I wanted a blend and therefore hip-hop and rock and folk musicians were brought into the mix. We were 19 when we began working together. But a band is not a project, it is a family, one that embraces and fearlessly and fiercely argues. It took a while, but one day everything exploded, the inhibitions vanished and we realised that we had become a band, a unit, a family. It was only after this moment of togetherness that we began writing songs. Ranjith and I decided to launch the band with a performance on January 6, 2018. We reworked existing songs and also wrote many new ones. Today, we are a band of 12 to 15 members.

Why the name The Casteless Collective?

Tenma: The name is from 19th century anti-caste activist and writer C. Iyothee Thass’s usage jaathi illadha Tamizhargal. The fundamental problem of Indian society is caste which masks itself behind other structures such as class. We are demanding the destruction of the caste system and the band is enabling this idea.

Arivu: We challenge the comfort level of people of and in caste and trigger a discussion. Those with caste privilege will never speak about caste because they have never felt the pain. Caste is an access card. Only when there is rejection will the questioning appear. We have moved way ahead from the times when we did nothing, giving up our rights. We are now saying caste must be eliminated.

If I may add, the name has another side to it. The casteless state is usually expressed by those of caste who have never experienced caste oppression. But now by proclaiming casteless-ness, you are reimagining the term and taking control over the notion of being casteless. Are Gana and the music of the Dalits stigmatised in society? And has TCC changed people’s view?

Gautam: When I used to go play at funerals, I couldn’t even keep my molam in front of a tea shop. They would demand that I remove the instrument. I have never understood this. People dance with joy when we play at funerals, but treat our art as an untouchable.

Sarath: In temples, it is the raja-vadhyam that is used to worship the goddess, and also to placate her when she is angry. But people still hold on to negative perceptions. I once went for a studio recording. I kept the satti (instrument) on the ground floor. Soon people gathered and asked me to take it away and rudely enquired if I wished for death in their homes. When a song of mine became successful and I went back to the same studio, I was recognised and my work lauded. I asked them how it was fair to enjoy the music but stigmatise my instrument. “But you use it at funerals,” they said. I told them it was the same instrument which created the art — the music they loved so much — on the silver screen.

Tenma: I believe Gana is the song of liberation and freedom sung by the oppressed community. They have been pushed to the edge of society and the music is hence marginalised. Instruments connected with these communities are naturally treated with scorn. The only thing Ranjith requested of us musically was the use of the setti molam (instruments played at funerals) because of the caste and cultural stigma attached to them and the community that plays them.

Arivu: There is a huge difference between someone claiming to be a Carnatic singer verses a Gana singer — that in itself tells a story. But today there is a minor shift. And the credit for this change goes to singers like Gana Pazhani and in today’s context, TCC too. The 90s’ generation of Gana singers also reduced its stature by writing songs that contained abusive lyrics and were sexist in nature.

Tenma: I don’t agree that much has changed. Even today, if you, a renowned Carnatic singer, enter a studio, you will be received with greater respect than Muthu. Arivu, Bala and Muthu needed a TCC to be valued. Other Gana singers remain where they were. The form is not yet respected as art in the eyes of many.

Gautam: Because I am a member of TCC, people do view me differently now. We perform wearing suits and added to that is our success. Many people look at my molam and ask whether it was the same instrument I played with at the concert.

Balachander: Our family owned a beef biriyani shop. In fact, I was nicknamed ‘biriyani’ in school. I always loved music and would wake up in the middle of the night to play the molam. If I had been born in a family of cultural privilege or affluence, I would have been sent to drums class or something like that — but my parents were uneducated. When I was 17, I went to jail for public disturbance. In jail, I sang Gana songs to express all my hardships. The inmates encouraged me. After coming out, I did other work but began taking Gana more seriously. I used to listen to the songs of Gana greats like Ulaganathan and Gana Pazhani, and practise.

Gana used be sung only in homes where someone had passed away. The family and friends would stay awake all night and our songs keep them going. The Gana musicians sang about the hardships of life and that of the deceased person. Later, this funeral artform came to the stage. I myself have added something to Gana. Earlier, the singers would sit on the floor. Then they would stand like a rock and sing. But I began dancing while singing, I moved my body, broke it away from physical rigidity. I believe that emotions must come from the body, starting with our legs, and consume us entirely. It is music only when your body sings.

I can say without a doubt that TCC has given Gana respectability. Gana is like an oppressed caste because it comes from those people. And hence when we performed on that big stage it was a victory for me.

Muthu: I cried on the day of our first performance. I was used to singing only at deaths and other minor life events, but now we had a huge platform with thousands watching us. It was overwhelming.

How does one make sure that this challenge that TCC has thrown at larger society does not remain trapped within the identity of the collective, that it becomes an unfettered socio-aesthetic movement?

Arivu: But this is bound to happen. We are creating a counter culture and those in the forefront will receive the limelight. This has to move to the next stage of universal respect and recognition.

Tenma:That is the only thing I like about the Carnatic music community. You have institutionalised the music so well that it transcends individual artistes within the form and has become a larger than life image.

But that is because we have the social capital and privilege to do it.

Tenma: As of now, we are dealing with our own ecosystem, understanding it, figuring out who inhabits this space. There are singers who use Gana for socio-cultural and political affirmation and there are also those for whom this is just a masculine expression of sexual urges, fantasies and desires. The biggest problem with Gana is that it is stuck in North Chennai. When TCC band members like Manu, Nandan, and Arivu who do not belong to North Chennai get involved in this art form, perceptions change, angles shift. For an art form or band to grow, it needs to go beyond its own community and captive receivers.

Isaivani, you are the only women in the band, right?

Isaivani: Yes! And I am proud to be part of the band. Though I am the only women I do not experience any form of discrimination. Our thoughts are completely aligned. We are after all saying that everyone is equal. My family was initially hesitant, but after meeting the team, they realised this was an important opportunity. Today many girls are singing Gana after seeing me, and the band should take in more women.

Tenma: We have put out an open call for female musicians. We are very conscious of patriarchy and make sure that it does not crop up within TCC. But Isaivani being the only woman in the band also leads to skewed perceptions. Each singer sings two songs at a performance but because she is the only woman, we are accused of marginalising her. That is untrue. We also have two other musical platforms called Therukural and Roots in which many women, transgenders and tribals have been featured. But not many women/ girls come forward to be part of TCC. We are a very edgy band, we wear our politics on our sleeve and that probably makes it difficult. Our music is about raw primal instinct.

Is it a conservative mindset that is stopping women? And do aspiring members need to be overtly political?

Arivu: It is enough if they are not normalising patriarchy and casteism. We are those who say caste must be destroyed and therefore placing ourselves in a risky position and hence we need women who are also willing to do that.

Tenma: If you see the comments on Isaivani’s Facebook page, you will realise how difficult it is to be a girl in this band. Out of the 500 comments, 400 are ugly and abusive. That is because every time we perform, we place ourselves at the precipice.

Arivu: The body of a woman is the very institution of caste. So when a woman sings against caste, society finds it very difficult to accept. People are angered by the presence of a woman in this band. The man is so used to dominating, controlling and using the woman to endorse his own patriarchy and casteism that he is unable to accept her strong voice. He cannot accept that he needs to come down and he does not want the equality that it brings.

What about sexuality?

Tenma: We talk about sexual fluidity in our songs. Sexuality is very normal. We speak of freedom and liberation and within that are the desires of the individual.

Arivu: In one song, Isiavani sings: I will choose my own partner, I will decide how I want to dress, I will decide if I want to be single. She challenges culture. Caste is about community, wealth and purity. And the woman is the firewall that is used to protect, perpetrate and secure caste. She is property. Women have also bought into this controlling narrative. Through our art and by just being who we are, we are trying to break this down and reveal the reality of this oppression.

Has Tamil cinema bastardised Gana by reducing it to an item number?

Balachander: The Gana in cinema is what it is because we have to do what they demand.

Tenma: Gana is the easiest way to convey something because it does not use metaphors, it is direct and hence has been exploited. Cinema has vulgarised it and everyone is at fault — lyricists, music directors, film directors and playback singers. The caste hierarchy within the industry has also played a role. I want to add that most Gana singers only sing the track. The song itself is later rendered by playback singers who musically sanitise it. Even the North Chennai dialect in Gana has been stripped of nuance by the film world.

Muthu: People like me learnt about Ambedkar and socio-political ideas from listening to songs of Gana Pazhani. But the film industry wants us to sing songs with sexual overtones and have labelled our music accordingly.

Balachander: But Gana is about ideas, wisdom, real life, defiance and the politics of the subaltern.

Muthu: We sing for every situation. People from our part of town are daily-wage labourers and municipal sanitation workers. All of them love Gana music. Gana gives them relief from their brutal life.

How has the rock and independent music world received TCC?

Tenma: Truthfully, the entire independent music community in Chennai has not even acknowledged the existence of TCC. And that is because they have their own agenda, which is to perform and receive appreciation within their own groups. The independent music scene here is casteist and classist. But that is not the intention of art — it should transcend everything.

The Casteless Collective will perform on Besant Nagar beach at 6.30 p.m. on January 27 as part of Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha.

(A shorter version of this article was carried in the print edition.)

The writer is a rebel, whether against cultural conventions or injustice or just bad tea.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 8:29:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/our-music-is-about-raw-primal-instinct/article26028183.ece

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