Music
Chennai’s latest music movement is proving that rock and roll, rap, jazz, folk, gaana and classical music can, and should, live together.
Facebook/Guna Photography

For centuries, communities have used music to express, and address, a wide range of topics – usually ones that are seldom discussed. And through music, especially in India, runs a strong current of caste and caste-based discrimination.

Gaana, in particular, an indigenous music form, has been seen for decades as the music of the oppressed communities. So if anyone had told Gaana Muthu a few years ago that one day he would perform to a packed hall, he would have laughed it off. For, this sort of indigenous music, rooted to certain communities, often circulates only in closed quarters with a limited reach.

But The Casteless Collective (TCC) gave him precisely this opportunity. Madras Records, a music label run by Tenma, Santosh Kumar and Arun Ranjan, got together with the Neelam Cultural Centre, helmed by director Pa Ranjith, to organise The Casteless Collective.

“Here, I got the kind of stage I’ve not even seen in real life,” laughs Muthu. Coming from a family of gaana singers, he began performing early for small audiences and in funerals.

“I have performed on small stages and I’ve also put out a few YouTube videos, but I never dreamt of getting such an overwhelming response for my music,” says Muthu.

TCC on Saturday created ripples across Chennai with over 19 indie artists performing songs on several topics – ranging from the life history of Dr Ambedkar to manual scavenging to the recent debate on quota and reservations.

Isaivani, TCC’s only female singer says, “With close to 5,000 people turning up for the event, the evening was truly magical. I had a great time performing. Although my parents were not very supportive initially, I can see that they’ve opened up after the show.”

With Chennai becoming a part of UNESCO’s network of creative cities, the time is ripe for the art landscape to become more inclusive and throw the spotlight on those forms that have been kept away from the limelight.

In 2007, Chennai Sangamam, an initiative by Kanimozhi, a Member of Parliament from Tamil Nadu, repainted the art scene by focussing on folk art. Although the event eventually phased out in 2013, it was indeed a very important curtain-raiser for an all-inclusive cultural stage.

The Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha that was initiated a few years ago focussed on breaking art-boundaries. Carnatic music performances in moving buses and Bharatnatyam on the beach were some of the ways in which the Vizha unshackled rigid notions regarding art and space.

Arun Rajan of Madras Records says, “Art is the consciousness of the society. The alternative music scene is a relevant part of the cultural and socio-political sector, and has a very non-commercial agenda. The entire idea of TCC is to help put such art forms back on the radar and to bring more forms into focus, just like how we took gaana out from the ghetto.”

The team now plans to make this event a recurring festival. They also have some other ideas in the pipeline such as the Coimbatore Sangamam, Madurai Sangamam and more.

With the discussion demanding an all-inclusive stage gaining more and more traction, TCC couldn’t have launched at a better time – especially since it has the backing of a figure as prominent as Pa Ranjith.

Mentor of TCC and co-founder of Bodhi Muzzik, Paul Jacob says, “The audience here are bored with the usual and people in power usually tend to think that they know audience preferences. Evidently, after last week’s performance, TCC has proved that wrong. Although we’ve been trying to organise similar movements for over 10 years now, the time is now right for it to materialise.”

Paul also believes that TCC could reach an international audience too. “The audience that turned up for TCC ranged from auto-rickshaw drivers to those who came in a Rolls-Royce. This proves that music indeed has no boundaries. Then, what is stopping us from taking this to the rest of the world?”

And while there are people, audience and artistes alike, who are open to the change in the music landscape, there are some who hold on tight to the more traditional ideas. In this case, it is important the two coexist, says Arun. “Any comment is an encouraging comment. They have their space and we‘ve got ours, and there’s also place for more.”

And though the journey ahead is a long one, a strong foundation has already been laid.