Is music free of caste? Politically conscious TN music collective ruffles feathers

While some have taken objection to talking about caste in music, others feel a discourse on the subject is the need of the hour.
Is music free of caste? Politically conscious TN music collective ruffles feathers
Is music free of caste? Politically conscious TN music collective ruffles feathers
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The debate surrounding Pa Ranjith’s The Casteless Collective has taken social media by storm. With popular artists pointing to non-existence of caste in music, many others are appreciative of the fact that caste, a fundamental social stratification in Indian society, is being addressed through art.

Pa Ranjith announced The Casteless Collective in December, an event to take independent music to the younger generations. It was a fusion of rap, rock and gaana from musicians hailing from underprivileged backgrounds. The event that took place on January 6 saw musicians singing about caste, reservations and the historical suffering of Dalits at the hands of the Brahmins.

Speaking to TNM before the event Pa Ranjith, who has been vocal about caste discrimination in society, said that the name ‘Casteless’ Collective comes from Iyothee Thass. “When the government was taking its census, Iyothee Thass, a 19th century Dalit writer, named the population that is discriminated against as ‘Tamils without caste’. That’s where the name comes from.”

He also said, “Art is political. I believe we can have a lot of conversations through art. That’s how I see cinema and that’s how I see music. If art is for the people, then it is political.”

However, The Casteless Collective event has not gone down well among some who take issue with the fact that music should not be used in such a manner.

Responding to a user who had asked the singer why the argument about caste could not be reversed (to include caste in music), singer Srinivasan Doraiswamy said that he was referring specifically to film music.

He wrote, “For me, even the language doesn’t matter when it comes to music ... Music is the only way you can convey emotions without even a language ... How can caste even come into music ... Yes society is ridden by thousands of problems like that ... There are so many forums that you can raise those issues ... I would like music to be left out of it since it is a pure art.” (sic).

However, senior journalist Kavin Malar disagrees. She points out that caste discrimination permeates every aspect of a musician’s life.

Speaking to TNM, she says, “There is a clear discrimination in handling the music instruments. Some percussion instruments like the parai are being played by only Dalits. There is a specific caste called ‘Isai Velaalar’ that plays certain instruments like nadhasvaram and melam which is considered as “asura vaathiyangal”. The soft ones like mridhangam are taken over by Brahmins. So, one cannot argue that music is casteless.”

In an interview to a Tamil news channel, Pa Ranjith had also said that while there is no caste in music, there is caste amongst musicians. He was pointing to the caste discrimination prevalent among musicians and the kind of music that certain castes/musicians have access to. This sentiment has been documented, especially in the field of Carnatic music which has traditionally been the domain of Brahmins.

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