When Vinaita Sivakumar began to sing the P Suseela and TM Soundararajan melody, ‘Enna enna varthaigallo…’ at Off The Record in Nungambakkam on a Thursday evening, the crowd joined in with ‘12B flat-inile...’ in unison, referring to a popular version of the same song by comedian Vadivelu.
A couple of years ago, this would not have been possible most of Chennai’s premium nightclubs. Now, amid dimmed lights, bar snacks and cocktail glasses, you can sing-along with, or dance to popular Tamil and regional tunes.
In the last decade, Bollywood nights started getting popular at clubs that normally drew a young. hipster crowd for their techno, house and EDM. However, even in Chennai - the heart of Kollywood - Tamil music was denied a spot in the DJ’s mix. “There has always been an unwritten rule about playing Tamil songs across many pubs in Chennai. There was a feeling that playing Tamil songs wouldn’t set the right standard,” says Hari Chandran, managing director of Off The Record, a popular city hangout.
This culture of condescension to Tamil songs was restricted to only Chennai, says Sinbad, general manager at Kommune Bar and Kitchen in T Nagar. “When you go to Singapore or Malaysia, there are clubs that play Tamil songs and have been doing so for many years. While guests often requested for Tamil numbers to be played, we used to refuse. Then, two years ago, we wanted to give it a try. So we introduced Regional Nights into our weekly roster,” he adds.
By 1999, when Chennai got its first proper nightclub — Hell Freezes Over — it had a dress code and curated play list, like most big clubs around the world. Then came EC41 on the East Coast Road, Pasha at The Park and Dublin at Park Sheraton (now Crowne Plaza).
In 2014, judge D Hariparanthaman and two other advocates were denied entry into the TNCA club for wearing veshtis, and later that year, the Tamil Nadu Government passed a bill to remove dress code restrictions in clubs across the State.
Although there was no rule discouraging saris or veshtis, you would rarely see people in them while party hopping on Saturday nights. That too is changing, as some bars encourage their guests to dress local and stay comfortable, for Tamil and regional nights.
“We grew up seeing our parents in saris and veshtis and listening to Tamil songs. But when it comes to going out to party, we consider this to be off-brand,” city-based DJ, Deepika Naveen. She adds, “When I wore a sari for the first time to play Tamil songs at an event, I saw that the crowd loved it and wanted to make it a regular practice. As the organisers of these events, it is our responsibility to bring back pride in embracing Tamil culture, even on the dance floors.”
Club owners say a concern that held them back from hosting regional nights is crowd control. “The strategy here is to filter guests efficiently. We try not to permit stags, unless they are our regulars,” says Hari Chandran. An even ratio of men to women and alert bouncers helps make the space safer and more comfortable for women guests.
While partying is often considered recreation for the young, the introduction of Tamil and regional nights have opened up the guest list further. Raghu Raman, director, Cycle Gap says, ”We have been hosting Regional Nights for two months now and there is change in the age of the guests that come to this event — they are slightly older. Earlier we used to have mostly groups of friends or co-workers but now we are able to see some families coming in as well.”
For the guests, these events have become a much-awaited occasion to sing their favourite songs, either belting it out with the soundtrack or singer, or diving into the joys of karaoke. Further into the night, chairs and tables are moved around to accommodate dancing to the DJ’s mix. “I usually have a line-up ready with peppy numbers from the ‘90s, 2000s and some recent hits as well but I make it a point to accommodate all the requests I get. Sometimes, songs that become social media trends are also requested. Every now and then, I also use this as a platform to play songs by independent artistes to support their talent,” says Deepika.
While this is a growing trend in Chennai’s clubs, it is not a new practice to a few. Pasha at The Park and Black and White at The Residency have been playing Tamil and regional tunes for more than 15 years now — long before club hopping through the week became this popular. ”Given the fact that our precincts were once home to the iconic Gemini Studios, it was more apt that we dedicate one night to local music at Pasha,” says Rajesh Radhakrishnan, general manager, The Park Chennai.
During what they call the ‘Top Tucker Tuesday nights’ at The Park, gun powder podi idli, kozhi melugu, Khundapur mutton ghee roast, tawa prawns, fried fish and Chettinad fish fingers are served. At the other clubs too, signature cocktails and curated dishes are on the cards as owners, mixologists and chefs notice the enthusiasm with with party-goers are responding to regional menus.
As clubs increasingly embrace this culture close to home, it is reaping some logistical benefits as well. “The decision to host Tamil Nights has paid off. Before we introduced it, we would get about 50 guests on a Thursday. Now, we see up to 200 people,” says Hari, adding “This only makes us think: Why did we wait for so long?”