For several months, Tamil film director Pa Ranjith had been mulling over the idea of forming a music band that engages with the current political and social issues in the state. Instead of making music for entertainment alone, he wanted to speak about matters of public concern, “to create political awareness through art and music”.

Ranjith’s organisation, Neelam Cultural Centre, collaborated with the label Madras Records, to form a 19-piece band called The Casteless Collective that includes four rappers, seven instrumentalists and eight gaana musicians, a popular folk music style in Tamil Nadu. The name of the band was inspired by a phrase – “jaathi ilaathu Tamilargal” – used by Tamil anti-caste activist and writer C Iyothee Thass, said Ranjith. During the first Census in 1871, he urged Dalits to register themselves as Tamils without caste. “This is a collective that is without caste, that aims to eliminate caste and religious discrimination through music,” said the director.

A fantastic debut

The Casteless Collective gave their first performance on January 6 in Kilpauk, Chennai, in front of an audience of more than 4,000 people. Dressed in identical, well-tailored grey suits, the 19 members, including one female artist, strode into the grounds of CSI Bain School in Kilpauk and took up their positions on a large stage. Their cries of “Jai Bhim!” were greeted with a thunderous applause, and they grinned widely at the crowd’s enthusiasm. “None of us had expected such a crowd,” said Tenma, the music director of the collective. “It was an intense, emotional experience.”

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Along with the band of rock musicians onstage were two instrumentalists on the katte and chatti, percussion instruments that are played usually during funeral processions. The artists were overwhelmed at the idea of performing before a large audience. “Till now, I have only performed on the occasion of a death,” said Gautham, the katte player.

This was not a concert that had people head-banging or jumping to the beat of their drums. Instead, the audience was listening to the songs with rapt attention, breaking into applause and shouts of agreement whenever the lyrics hit home. The Bhim Rap, a song on BR Ambedkar’s life and work, was met with particularly enthusiastic reception. So was the rap song that condemned honour killings in the name of caste pride – a major social problem in Tamil Nadu. Another popular track, Madrasin Magizhchi, spoke about the small joys of living in Madras, despite being poor.

These were written and sung by 24-year-old Arivarasan, an engineering graduate and rapper, who authored eight of the 20 songs performed by the collective. Arivu, as he is commonly known, first took to rap while in college, and with the encouragement of his friends, began writing his own music. “We have to look at what issues need to be addressed in society at the moment,” he said. “As artists, we need to soulfully carry a meaningful message to the people.”

New platform

Ranjith’s other aim was to provide a platform for independent musicians in Chennai who mainly performed at venues for small audiences. He roped in music composer Tenma, who had started the Madras Indie Collective, a space for independent artists to meet, collaborate and showcase their work – “Independent music should get the respect it deserves,” said Tenma. Tenma began auditioning artists for Ranjith’s band, looking for unique performers who wished to convey a message through their music.

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For this reason, the director was particularly keen on bringing in gaana musicians whom he had been listening to since he was a child. “Gaana is usually sung only on the streets of Chennai and is not really respected by other musicians,” he said. “But it is a form of music that speaks the language of ordinary people and expresses their everyday problems.”

One such candidate was Chellamuthu, a self-taught gaana singer and songwriter. He had left a comfortable job in the city to be a full-time gaana artist, and over time, had slowly gained recognition within the local community of singers. “At first, I did not understand what they meant by The Casteless Collective,” he said. “I just went in and sang a song I had written about fisherfolk and their problems.” The singer was immediately selected, and then went on to write another song on the farming crisis.

The Casteless Collective via Facebook

Over a month, Chellamuthu and the other gaana singers learned how to sing to the tune of a guitar. The rock musicians immersed themselves in the world of the rappers. The rap artists timed themselves to the beat of the katte and chatti. “We didn’t change each other’s style,” said Chellamuthu. “When combined, we simply had an entirely new output.”

The concert on January 6 created ripples on the internet as videos of their performances were shared widely. The artists are confident that The Casteless Collective will soon translate into a political movement. “Music will somehow reach deep within your mind,” said Chellamuthu. “Some change can definitely happen.”

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Arivu said his songs have already caused a stir among his circle of friends.

“We wouldn’t normally talk about caste with our friends,” he said. “But it still exists under the surface and spreads like a cancer. But now my friends are calling me up and asking me what I meant to convey through my song and why I wrote those lyrics. At least now, a discussion has begun.”