The girl who has made it big in the male-dominated world of gaana

Gaana queen Isaivani performing at a show   | Photo Credit: Guna

There’s a certain unmistakable swag about Isaivani when she is on stage. When she breaks into a deeply political gaana number in an impeccable blue suit while keeping her assured smile intact, Isaivani transforms into the change she is singing about. On November 24, when the singer was listed among the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2020, Isaivani turned up her popularity a notch higher. The BBC called her a ‘distinctive gaana singer in India, [who has] spent years singing and performing in this male-dominated space.’

Growing up in Chennai’s Royapuram area, Isaivani had definitive influences early in her life. Her father D. Sivakumar was one, to begin with. “He is a self-taught musician. He would sing and play the keyboard. He did a lot of light music shows and that is where I started,” she says. Isaivani was barely six when she started singing. “My father was very ambitious for me. At one point, I was confident enough to handle many solos at light music shows.”

But the big break was still elusive. Till gaana came into her life. “I started singing gaana about four years ago, even before I came in touch with Casteless Collective,” she says. There were gaana singers who would come home to meet her father. She remembers listening to the singing of exponents Palani and Ulaganathan when growing up. “They had such depth and richness; I was fascinated.” So Isaivani decided to try gaana whenever audiences asked for it. “People immediately asked how I could sing gaana; only men could sing it on stage.” She convinced them to give her a chance, but even though the response was overwhelming it was not enough to make her go places. “I decided to give music a break and joined a private company.”

Joining Pa Ranjith’s band

In 2017, gaana singer and music composer Sabesh Solomon told her about Tamil film director Pa Ranjith’s new and yet-to-be-named band — which would later be called Casteless Collective. “Sabesh anna insisted I go for the audition. I was about to collect my salary, but he told me to do that later. I went and I was selected.” To this day, Isaivani hasn’t collected her salary.

Pa Ranjith, in turn, is enormously proud of Isaivani’s achievement. “I was very certain about including a woman in the band when we started. Initially, Isaivani had a lot of inhibitions. She was given training to open up her voice. Since all the singers came predominantly from working-class backgrounds, they were able to understand the politics that Casteless Collective was putting forth. We would often engage in conversations around feminism and caste.”

Her parents, who were initially wary of her singing gaana, were overwhelmed when they saw Isaivani on stage, effortlessly and stylishly belting out songs to rousing applause. As Ranjith says, Isaivani’s first performance for Casteless Collective was a revelation. “Her performance and appearance on stage was amazing. She could effortlessly create a fan base of her own.” The BBC recognition, says Ranjith, “is not just a proud moment for Isaivani, but for the entire team. I believe more women from the working class will emerge. I believe Isaivani will go places.”

“When my parents saw me on stage, I think that’s when they completely accepted me as a gaana singer,” says Isaivani, who calls the stage her ‘happy little world.’ She says she is an entirely different person when singing, who can let go of everything. “I forget my problems and worries the moment I get on to the stage. Gaana is my comfort zone, my safe place.”

Even though gaana originated as songs sung in praise of the dead, it has now become an all-encompassing and liberating genre. Isaivani believes gaana is the kind of music you can listen to at any time, in any mood. “It doesn’t matter if you are happy or sad, gaana could still be your song. There have been occasions when I have listened to my own song when I feel low,” she says, laughing.

Her songs for Casteless Collective, including ‘Beef Song’ and ‘I am sorry Ayyappa’ were instant hits, but also drew sharp criticism. People argue with her about the politics of these songs, and she explains to them that the songs are only about asserting and demanding her rights as a woman. “I have realised that when you speak your politics through art, it reaches people better.”

At Casteless Collective, Isaivani feels at home. “Right from Ranjith anna to other members like Tenma who arranged the team, and Arivu and Logan who wrote the two songs, everyone treats me as an equal. It is such a free, liberating space.”

And that’s exactly the message she wants other women to pick up. “Step out and try. You will feel the change.”

The writer is a Chennai-based independent journalist.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 7:07:20 PM |

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