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The Casteless Collective – On Gaana and Dissent

Written by Ria Iyer,

October 18th, 2020,

Protest music has historically served the purpose of political expression in times of social unrest. Echoing the words of Bertlot Brecht, “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes there will also be singing. About the dark times“. Burra Katha, an oral folk tradition serves as an age-old example for this type of expression. It played a crucial role during India’s struggle for independence; even getting itself banned by the British government because of the attention it gathered. The art form was also used to give voice to the Dalit community in Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, several other traditional art forms such as Powada and Chamar pop took up themes that brought attention to the casteist narratives that plagued the nation. The Ska Vengers, a Ska group that sings in Patwa (English- based Creole language) quite explicitly call out those responsible for oppression through their music. “Stop your fooling around/ Messing up our future / Time to straighten right out / You should have wound up in jail” sings Taru Dalmia in Modi, a Message To You, a 2014 condemnation of the current prime minister.

Four hundred years ago, Kunangudi Mastan Sahib, a revered Tamil Muslim scholar and poet from Tondiarpet in North Chennai, as well as several other travelers, would sing songs at funerals. Over time, this tradition came to be known as Gaana. Originally referred to as funeral songs, the genre began to give a voice to oppressed communities in Chennai. It originated in the remote North of Madras (also known as ‘black town’)- a place that is still to this date subjected to a barrage of stereotypes, namely those of being dangerous, violent, and sleazy. It exists as a harmonious melting pot of people from a variety of religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including Dalits, Marwadis and Muslims. The working class population of North Chennai used the genre to serve as an expression of their struggles, evolving its form in the process. In the 80’s and 90’s, gaana was integrated into mainstream cinema, where it was thematically transformed into a more “sanitized” version. 

The Casteless Collective

Drawing inspiration from this rich history of a genre that had recently begun to fade into the margins, Pa Ranjith and Tenma, co-founded a group called The Casteless Collective. Discussing themes of equality and liberty, while blending a mix of rock, rap, jazz, hip hop, and Gaana, this Tamil Indie band quickly proved itself to be a raw, and necessarily outspoken voice. Composed of twelve members, The Casteless Collective draws its name from a phrase used by an anti-caste activist, Pandit Iyothee Thass (Jaathi Illadha Tamizhargal). Tenma, says, “What we’re trying to do is to eradicate the demon of the mind that people have gotten accustomed to, and to resist the sidelining of protest music for the sake of music of aesthetic value. It’s natural for us to cater to what people want, and because of the fear of losing people, we tend to take stands that we find will be more comfortable for others. But we want to change that- through our songs, and the way we present ourselves; our aim is to create social change.” 

Through songs like Vivasayam, Vada Chennai, Jai Bhim Anthem, Quota, Thailaivva etc, the fight against prejudices and exploitation is articulated in the midst of the rhythmic euphony of various traditional percussion instruments. ‘In a country where caste exists, equality can only be a gimmick’, raps a member in the song Jai Bhim Anthem. The plight of Indian farmers is expressed on the song Vivasayam, “Dhenam Sorupotta Saami Ippo Saagum Pasiyila” (“We, that fed you, are now dying of hunger”). Through combining traditional instruments such as the satti, kattemolom, tavil, dholak, parai with western guitar and drums, genre bending songs like Vivasayam keeps you coming back for more. 

Being active since 2017, The Casteless Collective has seen a considerable amount of success in their journey so far. Tenma expressed delight and pride in having an incredibly diverse audience, “I teared up during one of our gigs, because it was filled with people from a range of diverse backgrounds- and there were more women and transgender people than men. To make oppressed communities feel comfortable and have them relate to our music is truly something that fills me with a certain sense of achievement.” It’s no surprise that they’ve been bestowed with so much respect. Arivu’s assiduously written lyrics condemning the hypocrisy and exploitation that people of caste and class privilege engage in, the rhythmic beats of the ancient Parai and Thavil that reverberate in your ears long after the song comes to an end, coupled with Tenma’s ability to layer each seemingly disconnected strand, combine to create a uniquely mellifluous arrangement to each piece. Thailavva,– meaning “our revolutionary leader”- is driven by the steady, dynamic vocals belted by K. Muthu and the synchronous beats of the satti and daf. The song stands as a reverent tribute to Dr BR Ambedkar. Although most of their music exposes a dismal and cruel reality, it retains a sense of hope that the oppressed castes are finding their voices, and rising. ‘Velakku ippo eriyuthu, Irutta iruntha veedu ippo kalviyaala jolikuthu. Koondula iruntha paravai ippo, etti vaanathila parakuthu.’ (Look how our lives are filled with light, the darkness has left, and our education shines bright. The caged bird has found its wings, look how it flies high!) are a couple of lines from their song Quota, a powerful cry for reservation.

In response to how people of privilege can contribute to creating a safer, casteless society, Tenma highlighted the importance of providing platforms to people who have been through injustice and faced casteism. “Pass the mic to them”, he says, “don’t speak for them, you don’t know what they’ve been through, and you don’t need to be their saviour either”. As the band asserts in Quota- “Kadamaiyai Maranthu Vidatha….Unmai enanu therinjuko!” (Don’t forget your responsibility, understand what the truth is!).

The Casteless Collective are more than just a band. They are a landmark in the progression of independent music in this country, a movement that is astutely political and all encompassing, and an idea that defiantly stands for a better India.

Experience Further: Very rarely do you see commercial songs of protest broach issues faced by rural India. A far cry from the grand gesturing of anti-governmental dissent, “Vivasayam” compels the listener to pay heed to an uncomfortable reality – the perennial struggle of the Indian farmer. With an electric riff leading the instrumental alongside traditional Indian percussion, the song is emblematic of The Casteless Collective’s eclectic sound.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

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