The only female member of The Casteless Collective, Isaivani with her striking hair and flamboyant style, is a familiar face for those who have followed the band's journey and its politics. And now, Isaivani has been featured on the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) '100 Women 2020' list alongside women achievers from across the world. "I have been receiving calls all day from well-wishers. It's overwhelming but I'm very grateful for the support and to all those who backed me in my journey. I'm at a loss of words to express my happiness," says an enthused Isaivani, speaking to TNM.
The Casteless Collective came together after Madras Records, a music label run by Tenma, Santosh Kumar and Arun Ranjan, collaborated with the Neelam Cultural Centre, helmed by director Pa Ranjith. Isaivani is a gaana singer with the band, and among the few women performers in the space. Writing about her, the BBC said, "Isaivani is a distinctive gaana singer in India. Gaana music emerged from the working class neighbourhoods of north Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil Nadu. Isaivani has spent years singing and performing in this male-dominated space."
"To perform on the same stage as other popular male singers can be considered an achievement by itself. Isaivani has successfully broken an age-old tradition, which has led other young female gaana singers to come forward and express themselves," the report added.
Isaivani says that the credit for her success first goes to her family and especially her father, who always encouraged her to keep singing.
"November 24 is a day that I will never forget. I learnt of the news as soon as I got up. I am at a loss of words. The entire team is proud of me and everyone who has supported me is proud of me. As a woman, I never thought that I would get such an honour. I always wished only to bring change in my immediate surroundings. But I have gotten global recognition for it and it's a very big deal," she says.
The Casteless Collective is known for its Ambedkarite politics, and has made a name for itself in Tamil Nadu with its sharp political commentary through music. Whether it's a song about beef curry in 2018, when multiple incidents of Dalits being lynched came to light, or a song about the Sabarimala issue, where women fought for the right to enter the temple in Kerala, the band has not hesitated to express its opinion on politically volatile issues.
At the same time, true to the genres that it explores, the lyrics have always been accessible and catchy. The band is able to flow through and mix multiple genres effortlessly whether its blues and jazz, rap and hip hop or gaana, perhaps best exemplified in their 'Jai Bhim Ambedkar' song. Through such efforts, they have been able to take their music to a much wider audience.
Despite being the only woman in the band, Isaivani says that she was always treated as an equal by the rest of her colleagues. "I also owe my gratitude to the entire team of The Casteless Collective and all those behind it. They never treated me differently simply because I am a woman. I must also thank elders of the gaana tradition and those who came before me, from whom I have learnt immensely," she says.
Isaivani also says that with this recognition, she has set a precedent for other women to enter the gaana music space. "Not just hope, I have the belief that more women will follow. There is no doubt about it. Many women have come forward and begun not just singing, but courageously singing, and that makes a big difference. They are ready to stand up and assert themselves. More women will come and the gaana tradition will carry on," she says.
Asked about her future plans, Isaivani says, "I will try to bring about as much reform in society as I can. I will do my best to provide opportunities for more women. Wherever women are oppressed, they should come out courageously and I am ready to support them and do what I can."
Athlete Manasi Joshi, climate activist Ridhima Pandey and protest leader Bilkis Bano are the other Indian women on the list.