“Thani aala kashtapattu Valarnthu Varuven Mela (I will strive hard and single-handedly come up in life),” is the title of the most viral gana song of Isaivani, which has 10 million views on her YouTube channel.
The song, written by Docomo Mani, suits Isaivani, who, growing up in a humble neighbourhood in Royapuram, went on to be featured in the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women around the world.
She, in a way, embodies how gana, the unique musical art form of the working class of north Chennai, has evolved and thrived through different mediums over the years. Gana, which remained endemic to north Madras, became popular across the Tamil-speaking world with their effective deployment in film music by composer Deva since the 1990s.
Gana singers, however, largely remained unknown to a wider Tamil audience. This changed with personalities like Gana Ulaganathan, whose mannerisms and singing in the hit number Vazha Meenukum in Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006) made him popular across Tamil Nadu.
Then came director Pa. Ranjith’s Attakathi in 2012, which not only made Gana Bala popular with its two hit gana songs, but also revived the use of gana songs in Tamil movies. While Tamil cinema and gana singers mutually benefited from each other, the latter were also quick to adapt to social media platforms.
Platforms like YouTube have provided an avenue for newer talents to easily reach a wider audience and earn revenue as well. Singers like Isaivani and Gana Vimala, a trans gana artist, have not only made effective use of these platforms, but have also broken gender barriers in the world of gana, considered male-dominated.
While gana has always had politics by being the voice of the working class, the new generation of gana singers wear their politics on their sleeves, for which platforms like the Casteless Collective are an example.