It was on 30 November 2017 that I received a call from Neelam Culture Centre, a movement headed by filmmaker Pa Ranjith (Kaala, Kabali, Madras and Attakathi), inviting me to a meeting to train a gang of Gana singers. Up until that point, I was an independent musician performing at various types of platforms, organising events and trying to build an inclusive independent music scene, brick by brick. I met Ranjith the next day, we had a conversation about music and politics — and the conversation led to us auditioning over 150 singers and musicians from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
After reviewing the type of artists we had found through the auditions, Ranjith wanted to start a band which speaks about equality and social justice. I was extremely excited about the idea, then again it was a tough one, since most of these musicians don't come from musically academic backgrounds. We had 20 days to make 20 songs with 20 artists, who had varying mind frames and came from different situations. It was an impossible task, but somehow, music was the common language they spoke. The artists come from genres like Gana (working class music of North Madras), Rock, Hip-Hop and folk. Ranjith requested me to use the satti and kattemolom; they are instruments used for funerals, and the caste connotation they carried needed to be discarded. The band's name came from the vision and dream of 19th-century anti-caste activist Pandit Iyothee Thass: that to unite as Tamilians, we need to first become casteless. We played our debut show on 6 January 2018 to a crowd of almost 7000 people. We saw tears, celebration, and joy in the peoples' eyes. It moved us so much that we realised the purpose of and value in the context of our songs.
We performed at various venues and events. We released our debut blbum called Magizhchi, which is a Tamizh word that means many varied expressions like happiness, joy, excitement, glee etc. It’s a nine-song album which speaks about several issues, from songs about the situation a manual scavenger finds themselves in, to the dialogue on reservation, issues a landless farmer deals with, and many more. The album reached the number one spot on the list of top Tamil releases on JioSaavn. The audio launch was held on 31 December at Vaanam Arts Festival in Chennai — a festival for equality designed, produced and executed by Pa Ranjith and the Neelam Culture Centre.
Fast-forward to the present: On 27 January, we performed at the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, a festival of the arts headed by TM Krishna and Nityanand Jayaraman. We went as a small ensemble, performing songs from the album as well as some new songs. We started performing to an audience who were quite thrilled every time the organisers mentioned our band's name. We were feeling encouraged in a territory that is new for The Casteless Collective. We started performing our set. At one point in our performance — it was around the eighth song from the set list — a police officer approached the organisers and asked them to stop us from performing. This happened during the opening of the song titled 'Modi Masthan'. This tune and the idea for it comes from an old song called 'Nagoor Masthan' by Gana Pazhani. We rewrote the lyrics to suit a modern context.
'Modi Masthan' is about a magician, a mystic. The word has been used for many decades in Tamil households, as part of conversations.
I don't know what issue the officer had, but it was completely unfair to stop us from continuing after the first line. That did not stop our spirits, we still managed to finish our setlist with a grand celebration, where the audience danced and celebrated the event.
Globally, musicians have been singing songs about life, love and politics for many centuries now. Many times in the past, issues have been raised against singers who align themselves with any movement that aims to create a dialogue about equality. Songs like 'Move On Up' by Curtis Mayfield or 'What's Going On' by Marvin Gaye have inspired thousands of people helped to challenge the status quo in society. Songs are the easiest form of communicating a large idea. As musicians and artists from small households, we sings songs about issues that we have observe around us while growing up. We have always stressed that these songs are meant for everyone, but why is there still an objection to them?
It is heartbreaking to be in a situation where we can’t use certain words or phrases, especially since these words do not induce any hatred. Yet, artists continue to be stopped from performing. The band consists of children who grew up and still living in slums, taking up daily wage work for survival. When artists from more privileged backgrounds sing about these issues, it is never a problem, but when they are sung by a demographic which is not meant to sing about them, issues like these arise.
Is it the patriarchy which dictates who can and who cannot sing? Is it a language issue, since there have been countless international artists who have performed in India and sung songs on protest and politics? These questions haunt me as a independent musician of this democratic country: Will our voices be heard? Will the life and the people portrayed in our songs ever get noticed? Perhaps time will tell, and hopefully the music fraternity will come together to engage in a dialogue about this issue. If it has happened to us now, it could happen to any independent artist writing the next song on equality. For now, The Casteless Collective will continue singing songs about equality and fraternity. We believe in peace, dialogue and discourse. Let's walk towards a casteless and equal society. Let's reclaim human dignity envisioned by Dr Ambedkar, together.
The author is the band leader and music producer of The Casteless Collective
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 18:45:37 IST