Published: 29th October 2018
Viva la Vada Chennai: How youngsters here are using hip-hop, rap and gaana to rewrite music history
The marginalised communities in the housing boards in Chennai are taking to hip-hop and mainstreaming gaana to speak up about their stories and struggles
He tightens his shoelaces, sweeps his hand through his hair, wipes off the sweat from his forehead and tugs his cap into the correct rakish angle.
He runs a few steps, his forward lean becoming a freefall that ends in a handstand that changes in an instant into a 360 degree flip in midair. He lands, light as the air he just inhabited, and almost before you can take in the complexity of what he just did he is airborne again, flipping, landing on his back, suspending himself horizontally in midair then shifting to the vertical, moving to the music in his head.
Shiva -- everyone calls him machchi -- is next up on the floor. He tries a flip, it flops, but the applause is as deafening as if he had invented a new move. Shiva is just two years old, and his far older peers on the dance floor are giving him the encouragement, the lift, he needs as he introduces himself to this art.
It's a regular day at the My Lady's Poonga (park) near Vyasarpadi, one of the biggest housing board areas in the city where hundreds of Dalit and other minority communities live. It is one of the few spots in town where the "boyz" can practice their b-boying. While the elderly, the homemakers with their noisy kids, and the exercise freaks, huff and puff through the park, these b-boyers dance the evening away.
Top Spin: Since they cannot really afford to rent out a hall or a dance studio, the b-boyers make use of the local parks in the area and gather every evening to dance their hearts out
Vyasarpadi is one example of an increasingly common sight in the housing boards across Chennai. Groups of young men and, on occasion, girls, all dressed in the uniform of hip-hop: loose bright coloured t-shirts, low-waisted jeans, professionally styled hair, cut mohawk-style and streaked with vibrant colour, the ensemble rounded off with brightly coloured sneakers.
Areas populated by marginalised communities, such as Vyasarpadi, were till relatively recently hotbeds of petty crime and gang violence. Which is the case with most marginalised and underprivileged communities and even if it doesn't hold any truth, it is an assumption that most people make. Today’s generation, though, turns its attention and energies to song and dance and, as they become more aware of their Dalit identity, use art as a tool of resistance.
Musical by-lanes: Vyasarpadi is one of the oldest localities in Chennai and the housing boards in the area is holding within a long history of song and dance
Easy access to YouTube is a contributing factor; the young find and share hip-hop videos and are inspired to emulate until today the form has, literally, taken over the neighbourhood, bringing colour to its streets. And in this lies a certain irony: today, hip-hop in the West is mostly about cool, about bling-laden artists living rich lifestyles. But the form had its origins in the social unrest of the 1970s when the African American community, unable to get the larger society to listen to their voices, found in rap and dance a new way to attract interest to their messages. 50 years later, while the hard edge of protest music has been diluted in the lands of its origin, the Dalit community in India has picked up the form and returned it to its protest roots.
"When the rich and the privileged think of learning dance, they go for the classical forms, or for newer fads like the salsa," says S Vadivelu, a 28-year old b-boyer. "There is less risk of injury. B-Boying, on the other hand, is all about risk -- one wrong move and we could get paralysed for life. Which is why I feel it is something only us slum children choose to learn -- we have nothing to fear, we don't have much at stake. Dance is our life, and nothing can hold us back from it. Nothing."
Dancing dream: The youngest person is Velu's class is Shiva and he can almost do an entire flip. Despite his family not being too happy about Velu's choice of career, he says he will dance till his last breath
B-Boyer Velu, as he calls himself, started dancing about 8-10 years ago. "I once saw someone perform it in a park somewhere, and was enamoured by it. "Today, he conducts classes in various slums across Chennai, most of them for free. As his boys practice in the park, three women on their evening walk stop by to ask for details about the fees and the timings, and what the minimum age is to join the classes. Pointing to Shiva, Velu says, "That little boy is only two years old and he's pretty much mastered it. So if the child is old enough to comprehend what I'm saying, he is old enough to dance."
"There is a reason I teach for free," says Velu, recalling that long ago evening when he first spotted a man dancing in the park and was inspired. “When I asked him to teach me, he demanded Rs 5000 as fee. I couldn’t afford that, so I kept asking around till I found someone willing to teach me for free." So now, teaching for free is his way of paying it forward, discharging his debt to that long-ago mentor.
Streets of Vyasarpadi: Probably the first time that Dalit hip-hop artists were featured in a movie was in Pa Ranjith's Madras. The film was about two gangs fighting over a wall in a housing board area, the walls are usually painted with portraits of local political leaders.
Before hip-hop took over, the music of the slums was ‘gaana’, an edgy folk music characterised by a hard-driving rhythm and earthy lyrics that swept the streets but was shunned by the guardians of "classical music", the prerogative of the upper castes.
Increasingly, there is a backlash against such segregation, and it is led by activists such as film director Pa Ranjith, who started The Casteless Collective as a platform for gaana and hip-hop. Most of the artists in the collective are from the housing boards such as Vyasarpadi.
Thirty-year-old Balachandran, one of the Collective singers, makes quite the style statement – half his hair in front is dyed blond, the other half pink, and at the back it is coloured a bright blue. His attire, which matches his edgy hairstyle, is pure hip hop but when he sings, it is pure gaana, the music he heard as a child in lieu of lullabies.
'Gaana Bala': Balachandran has worked with music composers like Santhosh Narayanan, GV Prakash and is working with other top names as well.
"The lyrics in a gaana song is not about some beautiful metaphors, it is everyday life.” He says. “Things I tell my sons, things my mother told me. It's about real things, real people.”
He demonstrates, breaking fluidly into a song about professional stuntmen in cinemas. He sings about their lives, and how they take risks that threaten their lives and livelihoods, and how when the stunt they do make it to the scene, it is attached to the face of the hero.Stuntmen, he says, is again a profession usually limited to the Dalits. But that is a story for another day.
Arivarasu Kalainesan, 25, is another of the Collective’s discoveries – an engineering student who is also a singer and songwriter. "Growing up, I never saw myself on screen, meaning there were no characters like me or from the community that I come from. Neither in cinema nor in music. I didn't see me or my people in the media. That's why I'm intent on writing and singing about what I've seen growing up, and about people that are around me.”
Staying true: Arivarasu Kalainesan was hip-hopping even before he could fully understand or even listen to pure hip-hop. He says politics is always personal and he cannot imagine singing about anything else
No matter how hard you try, he says, you cannot get away from caste, and from the discrimination that comes with it. “That's why Casteless Collective is an important platform for us to speak about it and sing about it, whether through rap or gaana," he said.
Tenma, the director of the Casteless Collective, says when he first met Pa Ranjith to discuss the Collective, the director asked him where his music came from. "It comes from suffering," Tenma said, and the director was sold.
The Collective has garnered an enormous fan base, and inspired countless more from marginalised communities to take to music to give voice to their pain, their longing. 23-year-old Vijay L is one such – a newbie to the art who says Arivarasan is his mentor. For now, the songs he sings are all Arivu’s, but he hopes to start writing his own songs soon, "After our first show where about 7000 people turned up, there were families approaching us and crying,” Arivu recalled. “They said they had never seen their lives portrayed on stage before. What more can an artist need?"
Slow but steady: Neethi Arasi is only 12 but is already recording her songs. While the music and dance space has been dominated by men, women and young girls are slowly gaining ground too
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and turn to find a man with a little girl in tow. "Namma ponnu kudo nalla paadum ma. Aval kitte kelvi kelunga (My daughter also sings well, interview her too)," he says. We walk over to their home, and soon find ourselves surrounded by excited family members and neighbours.
"Ayya paatu paadu (sing Ambedkar's songs)", they demand. The little girl, Neethi Arasi, wants to sing Thalapathy – the sobriquet of Tamil superstar Vijay – instead. “Sing both,” I tell her and she obliges, performing with depth, soul startlingly mature in one so young.
"It is not only about pain," says Arivu. "Ranjith once told me we should not only dwell on the pain of the minorities but also on their triumphs, their victories."
People like to paint our communities as sad, pathetic, he says. “We have to take charge of our own stories, and talk positively about our lives. We might be oppressed, but we still have things that we can rejoice about, that we can celebrate.”
(This article was supported by the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk Workshop 2018)