She came rapping into the hearts of the young. Rapping about issues that the world would conveniently like to forget. Her original style of electronic, hip hop and world music caught the imagination of a generation wired together in cyberspace. Her strikingly fresh style in art engaged onlookers. Through the two, art and music, her stage acquired a new lingo, a cool dimension. She received acclaim and phenomenal success almost immediately. British singing sensation of Tamil descent, Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, M.I.A. will be presenting a music concert, her first in India, at the inauguration of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Her art work too will be exhibited during the event.
M.I.A. has shared stage space with musical greats like Madonna and Rihanna, standing there in her own right. She has sung and been a part of the A.R. Rahman’s team for the music of Slumdog Millionaire .
Known for her avant-garde music, she has been nominated twice for the Grammy awards, an Academy award, the Mercury Prize and the Alternative Turner Prize award. And yet M.I.A. is nervous about her concert here. “It is more nerve-wracking than singing along with Madonna,” she says, in her slow drawl, sitting elegantly in the Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Kochi, unsure if her music will strike a chord with listeners here. M.I.A. is without her tour group and that makes her task a real challenge.
She plans to give an Indian touch to the concert by making interactive music with traditional local musicians and involving children from schools close by. “I am the bridge between the East and the West, I don’t want to abandon one for the other,” she says, indicating the global space that she has created with her music and art.
M.I.A.’s story is one of displacement of a young girl who fled from war-torn Jaffna to Chennai and moved on to London. There she created a space for her and her countrymen. The Tamil cause features strongly in her music and yet the singer has moved above to encompass a global approach to issues of discrimination, genocide, migration, displacement and acceptance.
Maya’s father Arul Pragasam was a Tamil activist and later became a mediator between the Tamil and the Sri Lankan government. But M.I.A. and her brother saw little of their father. What they saw and experienced were hardships of a life of a refugee, the struggle to merge with a new culture, adopt and adapt and be accepted. She says with the maturity of a person much ahead of her 37 years, “It is important to not let politics become contagious,” and talks of a tumultuous journey that need not end in hate and revenge but in a reincarnated form where peace rules.
Her name M.I.A. evokes curiosity. “It is a coincidence that Mathangi is the Goddess of Music and the spoken word, which can be rap,” she says elucidating that she found this information on research. “The Goddess is an untouchable and can be a refugee; she carries a sword for a cause, and in the chant- Aum Aim Hrim …. the word AIM is an anagram for M.I.A. M.I.A.also stands for ‘Missing In Action’, which often happens to people in war-torn zones.”
MIA began her studies as an art student, making posters, covers, tee shirts, set designs and stage designs. “The way I was doing it was cool. It was nice to have music as a platform for art because it got into popular commercial culture. I had to make my space look artistic rather than putting my art in a gallery. This led to visual appearance onto the Internet.”
Her art is not conceptual but direct like her music. Her first album, Arular , 2005, named after her father, was about finding something new. “I was angry but optimistic,” she says. With Kala , her next album, named after her mother, she moved on to discovering herself. “I discovered that everybody was the same- Ram, Sam or Cham, be it Indian, American or Chinese.” Maya , her third album, came at a time when China banned Google, When Blackberry was suspected of spying, when FaceBook was sold to Google. It was in an era when IP was currency. It was people’s lives in personal details. Maya was literally about the concept of ‘maya’ in Hinduism, of illusion. After Maya, she says she came up with a tough love album where her fans had to find the gems and find real information, she says.
M.I.A. feels very close to India, having studied in Chennai in her early years. “I came to India because it was open to me again. I was involved with Slumdog Millionaire . That happens all the time in India. There is an ‘Indian Dream’ and I want to find out about that.” Her visit has brought her closer to Indian spirituality. She discovered the Goddess who stands for her name and represents freedom of speech, somewhere simulating the Goddess through her music and art.
“The concept of freedom of speech is 5,000 year old, represented by a woman who is an untouchable and a refugee, who fights for free speech and rapping. It is not new to India. This discovery was very liberating. I was always struggling to communicate this. India made me realise this concept.”
Her outlook, shaped by her travails, is global and secular and yet at this point she finds herself attracted by spirituality. “I never pigeonhole my self into any religion but I feel it has found me. I am trying to make sense of it….the essence of the Mathangi concept.”
Kerala is not new to M.I.A. either. She was here in 2005 “in the jungles” to make a music video with Rajesh Touchriver, whom she tracked via the Internet.
The art that Mathangi will be presenting is conceptualised on the fact that ancient Indian wisdom lies buried under a heap of present day plastic, plastic of credit cards, holograms and lenticular materials. It is a concept that has to be discussed now- money, cheap labour, piracy, counterfeiting…”
The Tamil issue is close to her heart. She reacts to it with maturity. “Tamils all over the world have a sense of belonging to the world itself but our ancient roots come from India. I would like to explore India. I will keep coming back. This is the closest I can get to home,” she says, with a tinge of rue.