'How can you be an artiste and not reflect the times?' The inside story of Arivu's fight against oppression
From ‘Sandai Seivom’ (Let's Fight, a protest song against the CAA) or 'Snowlin' (about the teenage girl shot dead during the Sterlite protest), Arivu's music — like his existence — is political.
“How can you be an artiste and not reflect the times?” asks Nina Simone in the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? The 2015 documentary was recommended to me by Arivu. We are on our way to Guindy in his car and he’s passionately talking about Simone. “I learned about her only recently,” he says.
He is not talking about Simone’s music. He is talking about her politics, how she was married to an abusive capitalist – Andrew Stroud, later her manager – who only wanted to milk her talent for money and fame, but her concerns lay elsewhere. “In the stage, she found a place she could use to speak out for her people,” says her daughter Lisa. As response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, where four black children were killed, Simone wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam’, her first “civil rights song”. She sang the song in front of thronging crowds at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The day before our meeting, Arivu had just returned from Kochi, Kerala, after performing at a ‘We The People’ protest event against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. As we are driving, he remembers Rohith Vemula, for the day of the march coincided with Rohith’s death anniversary, and Arivu tells me he became emotional on stage while performing ‘Snowlin’ – from his album, Therukural, with OfRo – in the protest. ‘Snowlin’ is named and written for J Snowlin, the 19-year-old girl who was shot dead during the Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi in 2018.
How can you be an artiste and not reflect the times?
A cursory look at Arivu’s shelf more than hints at his voracious appetite for books. A Malcolm X autobiography (“I like him a lot!”), a book on Tupac Shakur and Stormzy’s Rise Up, a Tamil translation of Woman and Socialism by August Bebel, Brian Senewiratne’s Sexual Violence Against Tamils in Sri Lanka, Eleanor Zelliot’s From Untouchable to Dalit, and Tamil Prabha’s Pettai. He says this is only a sample of his stash, the rest are in boxes for lack of space.
The reading habit was one imbued in childhood thanks to his parents, both educators. Arivu’s father is a recently retired college professor and mother a government school teacher, back in Arakkonam. Both moved from Kaganam, Cheyyar in Tamil Nadu in search of a better life. They value education; both were part of the Tamil Nadu government’s Arivoli Iyakkam back in the ‘90s. That work has rubbed off on their son. Art has always been on his mind, for that is the prism through which he both views and receives life. He says music is what taught him about society and politics, he had relatives who played the parai and sang oppari; special functions on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary or remembrance days were centres of learning for him. These events reflected and reiterated a lifestyle that while he recognised, he also had a lot to learn from.
His parents strove hard to send him to a school that was beyond their means at that time, the cognisance of which was never lost on Arivu. He had friends who mingled at school but were aliens outside the walls. They never visited the cheri where he lived. Even playgrounds neatly marked the divide. “The kind of cricket bat on either side will tell you the difference between the two groups,” he says.
Arivu wanted a government job, but music found him in college where, again, he was sidelined. In his college in Coimbatore, there were bands with panoply of trained musicians – Carnatic, western, instruments – who were the gatekeepers.
He took it upon himself to shine a light on his work, he had no other way. “I was always a kid with inferiority complex but anything that affects me emotionally, I channel it in my writing, in my poems,” Aruvi says. In his second year in college, he self-published a book of his poems, not for profit, but just for the satisfaction of having created something and putting himself out there. It was called Gunindhu Varaverkum Gudisaigal (in Arivu’s own translation: Huts that Welcome You Humbly). “It was an extremely uncharacteristic thing to do in an engineering college! ‘Look at this guy writing poems instead of attending seminars or publishing papers’,” he laughs.
There has been an inflection point in the last decade in Tamil Nadu where political awareness and rationalism espousing roots of early Dravidian politics have strengthened with vigour. The political side itself has only been further dumping its effluvia on the public but as if in response, the changes have come through other means — pop culture, music, literature, and, well, memes.
A resurgence can be spotted in areas of Dalit history, caste consciousness and Ambedkar-Periyar politics. In popular consciousness, it began with several films — directly or indirectly — placing the anti-caste narrative at the forefront and either introducing characters rarely seen before in popular cinema, or reshaping the way those characters were depicted by an older generation of filmmakers.
The breaking of the mould occurred on both sides. People writing about cinema learned better to spot everything from caste pride to misogyny — as a result, questioning their own biases and checking privilege — providing context for the subaltern assertion that was happening right in front of their eyes. It is nothing short of a revolution and a huge face of this movement is director Pa Ranjith, who has not only been creating space in the fictional worlds he imagines, but also the much-needed space for this conversation in the real world.
Pa Ranjith’s oratory skills awed Arivu. It had nothing to do with Ranjith’s cinema or directorial abilities. “I rarely watched cinema growing up and television was frowned upon at home. Studies were the focus.” Ranjith’s speeches gave him the opportunity to interrogate his own past. “I liked Ranjith’s speeches and his personality. He spoke about the life that I have lived, it was so relatable. Only after his speeches did I start respecting my grandparents. Till then, I was fairly ignorant.”
Those speeches led Arivu to a window to his own past, what his grandparents had been through, [re-examining] the violent ways in which caste manifests. He says he read stories of untouchability assuming they were fiction but as he grew older, his knowledge from books and experiences around him began to interject. Pa Ranjith was a major influence in making this happen.
It was during such a visit to listen to Ranjith speak that Arivu met Udhaya of Neelam Cultural Centre, a different flank of Ranjith’s multifaceted efforts in the revolution. At the Neelam Cultural Centre office in Triplicane, I met Udhaya. The office projects an air of egalitarianism; there is no hierarchy with a separate office for the branch head. There is reading table with four chairs and three other rooms, the main one filled with Ambedkar paraphernalia including a life-size cut-out. At the entrance is a shelf stacked with copies of the new books published by Neelam Publications.
Udhaya recalls meeting Arivu by pure chance, having missed his original train. (This was a time when Neelam Cultural Centre had representatives in about 32-33 districts in Tamil Nadu, and it was one such event that Udhaya was travelling to.) He said that Arivu wrote a poem during that event and was keen to present it on stage but due to various reasons, it wasn’t to be. But they kept in touch and Arivu even attended the press meet called by Ranjith at Chepauk Press Club when Prakash (a student from Govt. Fine Arts College) committed suicide.
Around the same time, during the Naanum Oru Kuzhandhai photo exhibition at the Lalit Kala Academy, some gaana artistes’ performances gave Ranjith the idea of changing the perception of the genre and using it as a tool to bring about change. That’s how the idea of The Casteless Collective came to be. “Ranjith anna wanted this taken to a higher league, make these artistes mainstream, and therefore we started auditions to form a collective," Udhaya says. "I recalled Arivu and wanted him to be part of it. He hesitated because he was in Arakkonam and didn’t want to travel all the way.” Arivu made it on Udhaya’s insistence and arrived almost at the last minute to perform 'Android Yugathu Ambedkar Perargal'.
Concept albums are dime a dozen but what about a concept band? A uniform, collective significance informs a concept album but here is a conceptually united band, ecumenical in its approach to annihilation of caste. The Casteless Collective’s first album underlined several issues and even registered protests. Titled Magizhchi, the songs ranged from 'Beef' and 'Naanga Platform' to 'Quota' and 'Vivasayam', majority of them penned by Arivu.
Music has been a part of protests for ages, right from 'Bella Ciao', famously used to fight fascism, both against the Nazis and Italian Social Republic, to Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s 'Hum Dekhenge', an anthem against Zia Ul Haq’s regime made iconic by Iqbal Bano’s version in Alhamra Hall, Lahore. The echoes of 'Hum Dekhenge' crossed over to India in the end of December when the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC erupted countrywide, especially following the violence in Uttar Pradesh. History is witness to a long lineage of art created for this very purpose but in the Indian zeitgeist that was exploding with awareness and fighting to sustain an artistic revolution against the privileged and the establishment, a space for a new idiom had to be carved out and that’s exactly what Pa Ranjith and friends did. As Tenma says, “For some artistes, their music is politics. For some, their existence is itself politics.”
Tenma, the independent musician who is at the forefront of the collective, expands on that story. “I just liked being with and around Ranjith, first,” he says. Having been an independent musician for close to 15 years, Tenma has seen it all. For him, independent music is a lifestyle choice, it’s a life with all its ups and a lot of downs that one has no option but to make peace with. He was already on a quest to create a musical scene that’s more socio-politically aware, with his Madras Indie Collective and events like Madras Medai. So when Ranjith got in touch with him, their visions coincided. Tenma was there at all the auditions and he selected and trained the members who would go on to form the collective.
The day Tenma and I met was also the day Kalakshetra withdrew their permission to host the release event of TM Krishna’s book Sebastian & Sons. Tenma guffaws. “This is fear. There is comfortable art and uncomfortable art. For almost 200 years, we’ve gotten so used to comfortable music and the conversations on who owns classical music that we ignored the implications of shying away from that uncomfortable art. Kurangan [an erstwhile band Tenma was associated with] has performed in Kalakshetra but, so far, The Casteless Collective hasn’t.”
He has observed the reception of The Casteless Collective in various places. While the performances have been acclaimed and written about, the conversations have indeed been uncomfortable. For example, there have been problems in engaging with a member, due to language barrier for instance. Tenma has seen the English media respond with typical refrains, “Local pasangala?”.
Tenma and Neelam Cultural Centre as an organisation took it upon themselves to undertake not just musical training but also classes on politics, sexism, Ambedkar-Periyar etc. Social commentators and activists took part in them, such as Nityanand Jayaraman, who talked to the collective about the environmental issues he has been actively working on. Nobody comes armed with knowledge, so it is important to cover their blind spots, Tenma says.
It comes through that for Tenma, training independent musicians is his life’s mission, and has been for several years now. Right now, he is working with other artistes on songs on climate change. He sees the collective as a platform from where these artistes can expand and become independent musicians with their own body of work. Like Arivu, a lot of them have already done that. “It’s a collective. As we go, it will have new members, and soon, it must be able to run without me too.”
The “independent artiste” tag is something Arivu takes pride in, even though he has now written and performed several film songs. With a few other artistes, he performs in public parks around the city every week. Recently, they even performed in the rains, to protest the sudden slum clearance of 3,500 people living along the Cooum river in Chintradipet. His single ‘Sandai Seivom’, a protest song against the Citizenship Amendment Act, was entirely self-produced. He wrote it on a whim, his friend shot it right where Arivu is seated across from me, and another friend did the subtitles. Arivu doesn’t qualify protestors — “Some people’s protest ends with Facebook and Twitter, some get on the road, and some get arrested. All of it matters.”
On the subject of CAA-NRC, he says, “Everyone is an immigrant. Nobody knows what their great-great-grandfather’s name is.” According to Arivu, CAA-NRC is just legal sanction. In its implementation, the practice has existed for ages. “Getting a community certificate is something you need to jump hoops for, and you are left to the whims of the bureaucrat. He knows who you are, where you are from, that you don’t own a house or land, but he still won’t give the certificate.” But he is confident that things are changing rapidly.
“There is definitely a cultural war afoot, youngsters are speaking up and there are people breaking their privilege and coming out to dissent.”
It’s only 70-odd kilometres but Arivu has his hands full for a trek home. When he visited recently for Pongal, he met several youngsters who were familiar with him through his music, videos and interviews. “I stressed on the importance of talent and artistic skills. And that such talents shouldn’t be ignored by the parents.” He expresses sadness over the fact that children in his town still dance to devotional beats. Or that installing an idol of Ganesha is a matter of pride for teenagers around town. “I did make some sarcastic remarks,” he admits.
When he was honoured at a small event, he took to the stage. “I asked all the kids who danced to those songs to raise their hand. And told them that there is someone else above all this. Someone who strove for us, who got educated so that he can teach us the importance of education and social awareness. He is not a god. He is a mortal, Dr BR Ambedkar, who must be remembered. Not what you are dancing in the name of.”
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