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Changing Of The Guard
Changing Of The Guard

There’s a new wave of Dalit Pride taking over the country, on the streets and in the cultural zeitgeist. Simrit Malhi spoke to the millennials who are determined to change the way we think about caste one album, Tumblr account and book at a time

Simrit Malhi

Arivarasu Kalainesan, or Arivu (“wisdom” in Tamil), as he’s now known, is a slight, unassuming 26-year-old. Quiet and contemplative, he weighs every word before he speaks. Except for his brand new Adidas kicks, it would be hard to imagine him as one of the country’s most promising rappers. Well-read, razor sharp and a prominent face of The Casteless Collective, a 19-member music crew, Arivu raps “because hip-hop came from pain. There is so much oppression in this country that’s ignored. People ask, where is the caste? But every street in India is divided according to it.”

Arivu grew up in Arakkonam, 70km outside Chennai, without a television or any other form of mainstream media. His teacher parents supplied him with books instead (he can recite Tamil poets like Bharathiyar and Thiruvalluvar from memory). By the time he left for engineering college in Coimbatore, he was already writing his own work – his friends told him his poetry, and the way he recited it, was called rap.

While his playlist now includes everyone from Lil Wayne to J Cole, there’s no talk of bitches and fancy rides in his music. He has none of the affected swag of his peers; and no sign of bling. He may be a rapper, but he’s a poet and writer first. His recent album Therukural (“The Voices Of The Streets”) has gone viral, and he has invitations to perform abroad.

But perhaps we would never have heard of Arivu if it hadn’t been for Pa Ranjith. The poster boy of Dalit assertion in Tamil Nadu, his last movie Kaala (2018) had the superstar Rajinikanth play a Tamil gangster who rules Dharavi (Pa Ranjith publicly denounced any connection to Haji Mastan, also a Tamil Dalit).

Impressed with what he saw of Dharavi’s thriving music scene while shooting – Dopeadelicz, a Tamil rap crew that grew up there, sang three tracks on Kaala – Pa Ranjith called Tenma, indie music producer and founder of the record label Madras Records, as soon as he was back in Chennai. He was determined to create a “conscious music” band in a city otherwise famous for its exclusive Carnatic concerts.

Tenma, who’s gained a reputation for speaking out against the classism, casteism and nepotism of the Tamil music industry, founded Madras Records in 2017 after the demise of his cult band, Kurungan. Though their politics aligned perfectly, he was still surprised to receive the call. “I had never met Pa Ranjith before, and our conversation that day went on for over an hour. We spoke more about politics than music.”

What was clear was that Pa Ranjith wanted to bring back Gaana in its original form. Steeped in the history of (then) North Madras, Gaana originated in “Black Town”, north of Fort St George, or “White Town”, home to a growing native population in the 17th century. Separated by the colour of their skin, Black Town was further divided according to caste, each with its own village. Gaana is the music of those at the lowest rung of this ladder.

The story goes that a travelling Sufisaint inspired the musical form. Encouraged by his verse, the people of Black Town began to sing of the struggles of daily life, the injustices they faced, and were vocal in their plea for equality. The music also reflected the diversity of its singers – with influences from Sufipoems, Christian hymns and folk songs, using colloquial words – all accompanied by the rhythm of loud drums traditionally associated with funeral processions. Gaana entered the Tamil film industry in the early 1990s with the movie Amaran and the hit song “Vethala Potta” that the hero, Karthik, sang himself. The genre was eventually appropriated by the industry. “Gaana was sanitised, stripped of all its politics and only the melodies were used for the longest time,” says Tenma, while taking me through the nuances of the form as it was practised in Black Town, where he grew up. He likens Gaana to the “blues of Chennai”.

Tenma organised an open audition after that conversation with Pa Ranjith, and 19 members were eventually selected – including traditional percussionists, guitar players, Gaana singers and rappers. Arivu was chosen as their lyricist, and they were called The Casteless Collective.

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August 2019