Published: 26th March 2019
The Therukural Story: How Arivu met OfRo and rapped about Periyar, Politics and Parai isai
Arivarasu Kalainesan and OfRo are coming together for their debut Tamil rap album and tell us all that has gone into creating it
Arivarasu Kalainesan didn't watch too many movies growing up. He didn't listen to too many 'mainstream' songs either. He was somehow drawn more to the music made by the folk artists near his hometown who sang about Ambedkar and Periyar. So in a couple of years when he did start to watch a lot of movies and listen to more commercial music, he was surprised. He didn't recognise the houses the actors lived in, he didn't recognise the kind of lives they led, the food they ate or the things they said. It was the same with the music, the music or instruments he grew up with didn't figure anywhere in the songs. No 'mainstream' art reflected the truths of his life. So as a young rapper when it came to deciding the content of his debut music album, he and his producer, OfRo knew quite instantly what it had to be about.
It would be the story of Arivu. In his words. In his voice.
Arivu is a member of the Casteless Collective and has been performing with the band over the last two years. It was at their first performance that Rohit Abraham, aka OfRo, first witnessed the talent of Arivu. "When I watched him I was sure he had been training for years. But I was shocked to find that he had only started to learn rap. Forget training, he had only just begun to listen to rap music," Rohit said. He knew then that Arivu would be the person he would collaborate with to produce his first Tamil rap album.
Ambedkar, Equality and Education
Hailing from Arakkonam, both of Arivu's parents are teachers and he credits them for having raised him on a steady diet of Periyar and Ambedkar. He has been writing songs since he was in college but like Rohit said, rap is new to him. He came to be a part of the Casteless Collective because he is a self-confessed Pa Ranjith fan and had gone to meet him while the auditions were going on. "I love how he talks about equality and empowerment. I remember how he told us how education is the only way for us to be liberated and break away from the caste system.That day I went home and read every book that I could lay my hands on," Arivu tells us.
Before they met, Rohit had been part of several bands, had worked with top music directors in the Tamil film industry and also brought out albums. Being born into a family of musicians, Rohit said he pretty much grew up inside a studio. His foray into Tamil music happened after he realised that there was a huge divide between the people who liked western music and Tamil music. "I wanted to bridge the gap. And that's how I decided to get into Tamil rap," the music producer said.
Cut to the present.
Arivu and Rohit have already brought out a couple of songs together. One of them was called Anti-Indian and as one would expect, it ran into a lot of controversy. When Arivu first suggested that they write a song based on this subject, Rohit was apprehensive. But then when they worked on it and he heard the song, he knew it had to be released. The song did exceptionally well but was removed by Facebook within a few days, "If you listen to the lyrics of the song, you would know that it is more patriotic than most politicians claim to be," Rohit said.
Early beginnings: Arivu started rapping only about a year ago but he has been writing and singing since his college days
Word on the street
Understandably, their first album, titled Therukural (Which translates to voice on the street and is a play on the word Thirukkural) features a lot of songs dealing with political issues, "In fact, when you listen to the song, you would know exactly which month it was written in because we wrote the songs depending on what affected us. So if Arivu felt strongly about something happening then we would write about it. We have a song on Snowlin (a victim of the Thoothukudi firing) and Asifa too. We also touch on subjects like feminism," the duo explain.
From everything they tell us about it, Therukural can potentially be labelled as a political album. If it is, then it's probably the first of its kind. "It is definitely the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu, at least. But when people make albums, they write about themselves, it is artist-centric. They write about their fears, their beliefs and about their experiences. This is purely a hip-hop album and like most albums, this is about the artist and if the things that affect him are political, then it's going to have some political content. But I'd like to emphasise that it is a hip-hop album first and foremost," Rohit explained.
Arivu thinks its essential for certain issues to be talked about openly, "People will get angry, some will get uncomfortable but not talking about something does not make the problem go away. For example, caste is a mental illness. We only give ourselves caste names when we know that there is somebody below us who is at more of a disadvantage than us," the young rapper explained.
The Trio: Tenma, the leader of the Casteless Collective, Rohit Abraham aka ofRo and Arivu performing together
Haters gonna hate, politicians gonna cuss
However, in an age where almost anything you say can get you branded as a hater, I ask them if it ever crossed their mind that they are stepping into dangerous territory. "As independent artists we have independent thoughts and we have to get these thoughts across to people. Even for people who don't like me for what I believe in should listen to our songs. Someday, hopefully they would feel that what I said was right," said the 25-year-old. His producer agrees with him quite effusively, "Arivu is generally a very empathetic person. He thinks about something and he feels it too," Rohit said, patting Arivu on the back.
But politics or no politics, both Rohit and Arivu are firm about one thing — they want their album to be entertaining. "As musicians, our prime motive should be to entertain our listeners. Only if the music is entertaining, will people pay attention to the words in the song. With this album too we were focused on creating entertaining music," the music producer said.
Not all the songs are serious, Arivu said, "Some songs are fun too, like the song Thamizhachi is sort of a love song. The songs all talk about the different facets of life. And our personal lives are political. Where we live, where we come from, what work we do to what food we eat, everything is political. I actually didn't think that my life was worth writing about, Only in the process of this album, have I come to realise that there are so many stories to tell." And those stories make sense, "There is a lot of context in what we write, a lot of social messaging," Rohit added.
Coming Together: The two have worked together on this album for the last one year and they call the experience super fun!
Why Arivu's voice matters
The duo met last April, so they've been at this for about a year now. So has the working experience been tiring, hectic or fun, I ask them. "It's been a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights but it has been fun. Fun is the centrepiece of our work life. I think we both struggled till the point when we met each other," Rohit said. But in the last few months, they've also written continuously for days, "For instance when we read about Snowlin, we were deeply affected by the story but we began to read about it much more and do our research. Then we sat down to write," he added.
Speaking about why it was absolutely essential that Arivu himself be the voice of these lyrics, Rohit said that when they pitched the song to producers, a lot of people were thrilled with the lyrics. But they suggested that the song be sung by popular singers like Sid Sriram or Pradeep Kumar, "This is the Indian version of whitewashing or cultural appropriation. They are both great singers but these are stories from Arivu's life. His point of view. So it makes no sense for anyone else to sing it except for him," he said.
Rapping in the park
If they are not jamming together at their studio in Kilpauk, the duo are performing — not on a stage but in a park. Every other Sunday, the duo organise the Therukural, which is an event that brings together artists of various kinds from singers to dancers to poets to writers. They pick a park in the city and then spread the word through Facebook and good old word-of-mouth does the rest. Artists from across the state turn up at these gatherings and just perform for each other.
Park-Stock: Arivu at one of the Sunday Therukural events. The duo meet artists from across the country and they all perform together every other Sunday
"One day we were sitting in the studio and writing when I saw that Arivu was feeling really low and he wasn't able to write much. So I suggested that we just get out, go for a walk in the park maybe. And so we went...for a walk," Rohit said smiling. When they got to the park, Rohit asked Arivu to go up to a stranger and perform for him. Arivu was apparently and understandably completely taken aback by this suggestion and was feeling awkward about the whole thing. But then when Rohit kept nudging him, he went ahead. "I just walked up to a stranger, introduced myself and asked him if he would listen to me sing. He was surprised, obviously, but told me to go on, so I performed for him. And guess what, he really enjoyed it," Arivu recalled laughing.
So every other Sunday after that, the duo kept visiting the park and performing for random strangers. And soon, more and more artists began to join them. "We began doing Facebook Live videos and people became really interested and reached out to us. They would send us their poems or songs and we invited them to come and perform it, so now we have an average of 50-100 people who turn up," Arivu said.
The album is in the finishing stages but Arivu is a man who is already setting several stages on fire. Here's hoping this Arivu-OfRo album sets a new benchmark and inspires other fiery artists to always be brave enough to say what they have to say.