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What do you get when the parai and guitar are played together? Or when gana meets hip-hop? Chennai band The Casteless Collective presents its experiments with sound in the city during its upcoming début Madurai tour

Tenma’s spoken Tamil has a smattering of English. This is the result of 15 years in the field of music, collaborating with various musicians, and all the travel. “But when I get angry, my North Chennai Tamil surfaces,” he laughs. This space — from which we express our true, raw emotions — is the point of origin of Chennai-based independent music band The Casteless Collective. The brainchild of filmmaker Pa Ranjith, the band, according to Tenma, the leader and arranger, is also a “movement to make people aware of us and themselves”. The band will be in Madurai next week for their début concert in the city.

The Casteless Collective’s sounds are a heady mix of gana, hip-hop, folk, and Western music. But its heart lies in gana — the genre of music that is rooted to North Chennai; that people there see as a tool to express and liberate themselves. “We are the flesh and blood of Madras,” says Tenma. Instruments satti, kattemolom, parai, and dholak form the band’s core sound. “Ours in the sound of the soil.” There is no emotion that gana does not touch upon — from love and anger, to social messages and even death. Marana gana, for instance, is performed at funerals to help in the mourning process.

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Some artistes in the 12-member band have even played at funerals and for long, faced caste-based oppression, despite their soulful music. Which is why their first ever concert — that happened on January 6, 2018 in Chennai — saw lots of happy tears on the stage. “We talk about that day every time we meet,” smiles the 31-year-old. “Then, we had been together for just 20 days and were getting used to each other’s lifestyle choices and behaviour.” But two years, 35 songs, countless jamming sessions, and a handful of concerts later, they are now like family. “We gradually started laughing together,” he says. “And to make music, it is important that we do so.”

In their initial days, Tenma feels that people were quite uncomfortable with their music. “You tend to fear what you do not know,” he points out. “But art comforts the disturbed.” Gradually, people were drawn to their music and today, many of the band members are stars in their own right. “When we saw the changes we brought about in people, especially the physiological changes, the emotions we stirred...we felt liberated.” He wonders if this is what Bob Marley and black musicians such as Curtis Mayfield felt like when their music won them love across cultures.

Tenma feels that although music has its own set of aesthetics, what sets apart the soulful from the mainstream, is when it “comes from raw feelings”. He says, “Problems start when we hide these feelings.”

Although they are at a much better place when compared to when they started out, Tenma feels that the independent music scene in Chennai continues to be classist and casteist. “When we think of an independent artiste, what immediately comes to the mind is the image of someone from a privileged section of society. The problem lies in this symbolism; this state of mind. Caste itself is a state of mind.”

In the end, he feels that “people from every class in society need to start working together for the development of the planet.” Much like the medley of genres and instruments The Casteless Collective works with — there are guitars, drums, tavils, playing in perfect harmony with satti and kattemolom and there is gana meeting hip-hop somewhere along the way. Says Tenma, “When we bring together everything, something new happens.”

The Casteless Collective’s Madurai Tour is on at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, 8 pm onwards on October 28. Entry is free.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 4:25:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/one-love/article29806079.ece

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