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The changing face of the Indian slum
'Marana Gaana' Viji from a Chennai slum has become an inspiration for many youngsters. Photo: R. Ravindran

Soul music, the graveyard shift

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Soul music, the graveyard shift

'Gaana' has spread far from north Chennai neighbourhoods to win fame in Tamil film music for its lilting outpouring of emotions.

June 01, 2016 01:09 am | Updated November 29, 2021 01:25 pm IST

'Marana Gaana' Viji from a Chennai slum has become an inspiration for many youngsters. Photo: R. Ravindran

'Marana Gaana' Viji from a Chennai slum has become an inspiration for many youngsters. Photo: R. Ravindran

This report is the fourthof a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods

Gaana, born in the narrow lanes of the slums at Tondiarpet in north Chennai, is a vocal imprint of subaltern identity. The simple tunes and soulful lyrics in a hybrid language have made their way into Tamil films from the dusty streets of Tondiarpet, Vyasarpadi, Puliyanthope, Doomingkuppam and Korukkupettai. To the young singers, music now offers freedom from begging and poverty.

“Gaana is a way of life. It is not something that can be learnt,” says Marana Gaana Viji, a funeral singer known for taking the genre to Tamil film music. “People from other districts feel angry when we tell them that it is something that belongs to Chennai, but that is the truth as it holds so much more meaning for someone who has grown up with it,” he says.

Philosophy of life and death

Viji, who is differently abled, says he was among the many children brought to the world only to beg. “My mother abandoned me, and I escaped a life of begging by living with friends in graveyards across north Chennai where I picked up Marana Gaana. We sing about the philosophy of life and death,” says the singer now in his late thirties.

V. Ramakrishnan, an Assistant Professor of Tamil Literature, who has authored the book Gaana Paadalgal: Chennai Adithala Makkal Varalaru , says the genre is entwined with the lives of youngsters in these slums.

“Many of them sing about their poverty and struggles. While the themes predominantly focus on friendship, love and struggles, many emerging singers have now taken to singing about social and environmental issues and so on,” he says. In the past decade, Tamil film music’s inclusiveness has propelled Chennai’s very own form of folk music and its practitioners like Viji into the limelight. Gaana Bala is now among the most popular singers in Kollywood,” he says.

Viji underlines the identity question. “Many youngsters are now inspired by many of us who have managed to make it big. Many of these songs are still sung in slums because it is reflective of the identity of the youth there — they want to carve out and chart a path for themselves for which this is the perfect medium,” he says.

Evolving gaana

Gaana Ulaganathan of Vyasarpadi, who started singing when he was nine, says the music form is, however, undergoing an alarming evolution.

“Nowadays, just about anyone becomes a Gaana singer and any song is brought into the category. Since the genre belongs to the city, local issues from the smaller areas are what the songs generally revolve around. Vulgar lyrics alone don't become Gaana songs,” he says.

The singer shot into fame after his song about freshly caught fish in the harbour became a runaway hit.

"The song was a simple one describing a marriage between fishes. Gaana songs usually contain a lot of words and phrases native to the localities here," he says.

Lure of Kollywood

With the lure of Kollywood shining bright, most Gaana singers agree that many more youngsters are getting inspired to take up a full-fledged career in singing.

“Many of them approach us, asking to be trained. Gaana, however, has been, and always will be, about spontaneity. I just ask them to stick to that,” Viji says.

While earlier the singers used to record their songs and sell cassettes, the genre is now everywhere — on CDs, YouTube and iTunes — because of the film fame.

What Kollywood has done for the genre, giving a whole new spin and reach, is best observed in Danga Maari , a song which has Gaana lyrics penned by Rokesh of Vyasarpadi and sung by Viji.

The song went viral, establishing Rokesh as a Gaana lyricist for films. The song turned around the fortunes of Viji from a Gaana singer who used to perform at funerals to an established playback singer and stage artist, enabling him to travel the world.

> Read all articles in the 'The Changing Face of the Indian Slum' series

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