Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2019
On a breezy Sunday evening at Besant Nagar Beach, stars twinkled. Sparks flew from the embers of corn sellers’ coal stoves. Close to the Urur Olcott fishing village, near the end of the beach, festivities were on as part of the Chennai Kalai Thiru Vizha. The Casteless Collective, a Tamil band was warming up the medium-sized crowd with its unique blend of gaana, rap, and independent music.
They sang of the travails of men doomed to clean the city’s sewers, who sometimes died in the process. (You can keep that compensation money, I’d rather have a living dad, thank you, they sang.) There were verses in the praise of the architect of the Indian constitution who lay down the legal framework for an egalitarian society (founding father of the country, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar). They spoke of the angst of those who dreamt of a casteless society but were forced to use the caste card to get ahead under a “quota” system in education and employment. (The takeaway was stop feeling guilty, this is what it takes to end centuries of oppression.)
Let’s face this – this is not your average person’s Sunday evening entertainment. But the beats were rousing, the music was woeful and witty, and the words got you thinking. The collective, which was conceptualised by film director, Pa. Ranjith, gave its first public performance early last year. My favourite song of the evening was based on this idea: Hey, it is the 21st Century and why are we still singing about caste? The group pretends to agree with the privileged person who thinks caste has been eradicated and then proceeds to list the many ways in which caste-based discrimination is alive even in our capital city. Time to take those blinkers off.
As we were just waking up to this social truth, another bit of reality hit us. The group started singing about Modi Mastan, a term used in conversational Tamil as a shorthand for a mystical fraudster. Was he a real person or was he a character in a piece of fiction? Maybe city historians will unearth this piece of information for us. In any case, the song was set to the tune of Nagoor Mastan by Gaana Pazhani. Even before we knew where these verses were leading us, cops stepped up and asked the group to switch to another song. As it happened, this new song had a peppier beat. Led by the man behind the event, T.M. Krishna, the crowd began dancing to the music. They calmly dispersed soon after. The next day, the papers reported that the song about “Modi” was stopped midway because it may have been about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That bit of over reaction was unexpected, but we do live in intensely political times.
At the beach, the acoustics were not great but that was not the point of the concert. The heartfelt lyrics of The Casteless Collective had left their mark. The band has interesting things to say about some topics we would rather not think of. That evening, they had performed soon after much-in-the-news Chinmayi Sripadha had finished crooning a few of her hit songs from the movies. Recently, she had taken on a powerful man in the film industry but there was no visit from the goon squad to break up the proceedings at this very public venue. Instead, a few people mobbed her for selfies. Things went off without a hitch – more or less.
I am glad I went to the beach that evening. I had stepped out of my comfort zone and learned something about myself and the city I called my hometown.