Unsung songs

While the earthy Gana has emerged as a separate genre of performing art in Chennai, several other dynamic sounds have permeated and enriched its musical landscape.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

Gana singers B. Pasupathy, R. Vicky, A. Ismail and A. Kaadhar at Doomming Kuppam beach. Young boys who want to become professional Gana singers begin their learning process at the age of 14 or 15.

Gana singers B. Pasupathy, R. Vicky, A. Ismail and A. Kaadhar at Doomming Kuppam beach. Young boys who want to become professional Gana singers begin their learning process at the age of 14 or 15.


WHENEVER WE DESCRIBE A CITY and say what it means to us, we are actually describing ourselves. We only see, hear and feel that which we have been exposed to and experienced. In fact, our idea of the city is limited to how we live our lives in the city, and how we deal with life itself.

Our cities are only our perceptions of them .

As we wander every day from home to work, to shops, hotels, and restaurants, or meet friends and family, we do so within the limits we have drawn for ourselves. It is through this paradigm that we perceive ourselves and inferentially the city itself. We do “receive” impressions generated from what we read in the papers or notice on television screens. But even those get filtered through the virtual map our life draws on the city.

Now, this begs the question: Do we really know a city? More, can we ever know a city? The answer is self-evident. We cannot grasp all the myriad experiences a city has to offer, with the sites it is home to sometimes constantly altering its contours. Not just space, but time creates its own landscape for a city.

Our sense of a city’s music is also more about us than about the city.

The music of a city is only one more facet or expression of itself that any city has to offer. I hear only that music which my life seeks and I am, therefore, limited in my understanding of the music of a city. Chennai’s music is no different.

I am a Carnatic musician, born here, in Chennai, and have lived, live and will continue to live in this city. I just said “this city” but the city I know as Chennai is geographically south Chennai, with my “circle” being the Brahmin community. Inevitably, “my” musical sound for and of this city will remain Carnatic with the all-pervasive cinema music following behind. But what I seek to do here, in this essay, is to stretch my mind beyond this limitation and peek into other sounds that permeate and enrich the musical land of Chennai. I think the reader must forget for a while the overdone Chennai of “filter coffee”, The Hindu newspaper, mallipoo (jasmine flowers), Kancheepuram saris, Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.

In music, like in anything human beings create, there exists a hierarchy, a ranking system. People like me, from the “Classy Carnatic” environment, have strong ideas of subtlety, sophistication, class and complexity. “We” like to think of this as classicist but it is more like classist. This self-congratulatory illusion keeps us away from understanding without prejudice many musical forms. Like any other Indian metropolis, Chennai is a city of densely populated slums spread across its expanse. The city attracts many people from rural Tamil Nadu who come in search of work in what is seen as a far more lucrative option than being landless labourers in their native villages.

The class of people I speak about is Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in composition. These people have come from villages around towns such as Tindivanam, Chengalpattu, Villupuram and Gingee with the hope of making it here. In Chennai, they inhabit an intriguing space, its “underbelly”.

These migrants and the Dalits among them in particular make their homes along with local people who already live in these slums. It is a hard life of poverty, oppression and differentiation. They mainly work as vegetable, fruit or flower vendors, manual labourers, cobblers, loaders, autorickshaw drivers, or food sellers on the street, or are employed in low-level jobs at government offices or hospitals. In this move from the village to the urban slum, there occur many changes to their lifestyles, habits, values and rituals.

But Dalits have brought their own sense of music into these habitations and through the process of an intangible sociocultural-political negotiation created a musical genre called Gana (pronounced gaanaa). It is always in reflexive analysis of the created works that we retrace these transactions.

The music of death Gana in Hindi means to sing. It is quite possible that this was a borrowed term. No specific instrument is used for the rendition of Gana except for some accompanying percussion. Therefore, the word Gana here seems to refer to the voice itself as an instrument. The use of Gana, ganam , referring to singing, is also found in older Tamil writing. Gana music was originally part of the death ritual of Dalits and rendered in front of the house where a death had occurred or even on the death of a houseless person. It is from this death ritual that Gana has now emerged to become a separate genre of performing art. It is philosophically transcending to understand how faith inspires an artistic idea only to allow it to go beyond the faith itself. With the death of a person, family and friends are called, and a Gana performance is arranged.

Gana seems to have been influenced by a few Tamil music traditions relating to death rituals such as Oppari (lament), Maradi Pattu and Aravana Maradi Pattu. Different aspects of these traditions have been incorporated into the Gana genre. Various influences have shaped Gana, particularly songs of Siddhars, songs composed by the 18th/19th century Muslim mystic Kunankudi Mastan Sahib and the Christian composer Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-1889), tunes of Islamic songs and, of course, Tamil film music.

Gana is a result of musical and lyrical influences from various faiths and traditions. It is also said to have received influences from some north Indian traditions, probably qawwali. Although Gana is basically an oral tradition, it has taken in ideas from written lyrics of film music, making this a wonderful blend of both. Gana songs are very adaptable in form, and many musicians make changes in the lyrics during rendition. Musicians render well-established Gana songs and they also compose their own songs. In fact, most Gana musicians are composers themselves.

Young boys who want to become professional Gana singers begin their learning process at the age of 14 or 15. Like in many Indian traditions, they learn by observing and listening. It is only after a period of time that they are accepted as performers, after which they form their own Gana groups. Men usually perform Gana although there are some women musicians, too. They earn anything between Rs.2,000 and Rs.5,000 for an all-night performance. Some of the leading names in the Gana genre are Mylai S. Venugopal, Nochikuppam Kumar, Puliyanthopu Pazhani, Marana Gana Viji and Rajangam.

Percussive accompaniment for Gana pattu is provided by some commonly available household items such as a steel pot or even a matchbox. Of course, musical instruments such as the dholak and the tabla are also used. Although the music itself is related to mourning, it is not always depressing. The songs are spirited, with a flavour of courage, although the underlying tone is melancholy. The most attractive part of Gana songs is their rhythmic structure. In fact, it is this rhythmic structure that forms the basis for the syllabic and melodic structure, holding the song together. Other than the day of the death itself, Gana musicians are also invited to perform on the 16th day after the death of a person and then on his/her first death anniversary. Most of these musicians cannot hold a day job as their music calls on them to be awake all night singing. It is also common for performers to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while performing.

The lyrical content of Gana songs is varied. They are born out of the travails of these Dalits when they reinvented their life in the slums of Chennai. This is the musical expression of Chennai’s most unheard community. This is also the music of spaces that middle and upper classes consider dangerous and dirty. These songs are the voices of true-life experiences where the words are as blunt and sharp as the lives of the Dalits.

Gana as social comment

While Gana deals with death as such, there are different songs for the death of different members of a family, such as the mother, the father or a son. Other than death, there are songs targeted at the youth on social morality, songs that tease women, songs addressing the relationship between a man and a woman or a husband and wife, songs on love, sex, trust, god, alcohol, drugs, depravity, politics, politicians, violence, actors, work, the difficulties of rickshaw pulling or autorickshaw driving and poverty in general.

Local heroes are celebrated through Gana songs, the most famous among them being Alththota Bhupati. Being chased, beaten and arrested by the police is common among the Dalit youth, and this finds its way into the songs. Alcoholism and drug abuse are sometimes condemned but sometimes celebrated. Illicit sexual relationships such as a mother-in-law living with a son-in-law, which society rejects, are openly spoken about in Gana. Gana songs can also be extremely tender in dealing with love, sorrow and life’s hardships. Gana musicians also use the genre to spread awareness about AIDS, the environment and many important social issues.

The language used in Gana songs is typical “Chennai Tamil”, where Telugu, Hindi and English words seamlessly blend into the lyrics. If we disengage from our conditioned idea of linguistic sophistication, we will find within these words the most profound and the most banal emotions of man expressed in the simplest way.

Gana music began travelling beyond the boundaries of a death ritual from the late 1980s. The popularity of the music created a need for products. The recording age had arrived, and Gana musicians used that to propagate and promote their music. This also allowed for the outside world to realise the potential in Gana. Naturally, Tamil films became most captivated by this form.

Cinema Gana Cinema in its own way has been a leveller of social inequalities, and therefore, it was natural that the music of the downtrodden was imbued into its creativity. This did have some serious repercussions for Gana and people’s perception of the form. In the early 1990s, Gana songs came into vogue in Tamil cinema. One of the early popular Gana songs was “Vethala Potta Sokkule” in Amaran . From then on, Gana music has become common in movies, and unsurprisingly, advertisements have used, or I should say cashed in on, the genre. The music director Deva popularised Gana in Tamil cinema, making his name synonymous with the form.

Thus, from being a purely funeral-related musical practice, Gana evolved to become a form of entertainment in the Dalit community. Gana troupes are invited to perform kutcheri s (concerts). This has resulted in an interesting class issue. Once they have come on to the kutcheri stage, Gana musicians do not sing at funerals. They cite two main reasons for this. They claim that they cannot sing without mikes any more as that would hurt their voices. Secondly, they are unwilling to be seated on the ground while performing (which is the case when they attend a funeral). For their kutcheri s a stage is erected, even if it is only a makeshift platform created by putting together two bullock carts. The real reason is understandable. If Gana musicians were to go back to singing at funerals, they may lose out on kutcheri opportunities. This creates an aspiration among funeral Gana singers, which quickly becomes a commentary on quality and class.

Gana music in Tamil cinema, and now south Indian cinema, has also resulted in a certain appropriation of the form itself. Today, Gana singing in cinema is mainly about gyrating women and item numbers. Gana in movies seems to ignore the rather broad spectrum of content that it has to offer. Cinema has divorced Gana largely from its roots. With the visuals that are only sexual in nature, there is a natural tendency to think of Gana only as some orgiastic form of music. This is how many Gana songs have been picturised and contextualised in cinema. Drugs, sex and violence are part of the Dalits’ life but all these elements have various interpretations in Gana. This fact is also ignored. Even the fact that sex and social taboos are expressed openly in Gana songs has been reduced to a form of titillation. The most serious nature of Dalit society, which Gana represents, has almost disappeared, exceptions not included. Tamil cinema has further marginalised the people of the slums by giving us a skewed idea of their lives.

Rocking Chennai Let us now in a dramatic shift move from the music of the underprivileged to that of the privileged.

While the beautiful city of Shillong nestled in Meghalaya has come to be accepted as the rock capital of the country, many do not know that Chennai had and still has a small yet vibrant rock scene. Right from the 1970s, this city has had many young bands performing in clubs, parties and hotels. Madras then and Chennai now has been seen and perceived as a conservative city, an observation that has validity. But behind this sense of “tradition”, the city has always welcomed music and dance of various forms. Although rock music has not really become a part of the mainstream musical narrative of the city, one cannot deny that it is for a large section of the upper class, English-educated youth, its very own music.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the upper middle class and higher classes sent their children to convent schools. That was also the time when Christian colleges were considered superior. India was still a “new” country and the British hangover was heavy. The interaction of upper-class youth with Anglo-Indians and Christians had a significant effect on the listening culture of this class. It is also true that these Christian institutions were inclined to English music rather than Indian music. Many old English-speaking Madrasis will vouch that Radio Ceylon was also an essential part of the listening culture. For the youth, “Binaca hit parade” was the programme to tune into to hear the latest popular music from the West.

Dean Martin’s singing “That’s Amore” or Frank Sinatra’s “Singing in the Rain” and “White Christmas” were hugely popular. There were other favourites such as Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star”, Bing Crosby’s “Don’t Fence Me In” and Doris Day’s unforgettable “Que Sera Sera” from the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much . Young college-goers had on their lips Pat Boone’s “April Love”. Many of these were theme songs or were featured in movies, performed by these actor-musicians. The young loved the music of these stars as much as they followed their films. At the same time, black musicians such Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong and their renditions of “My Personal Possession” and “What a Wonderful World” respectively were the “in” thing. While a listening culture was clearly developing, there was no real vibrant local band culture. They probably remained as small college groups.

Bonding in bands By the late 1960s and 1970s, young bands emerged with intriguing names such as Missiles, Versatiles, Vital Statistics, Voodoos, Wild Angels and Silencers. Some bands had brothers playing together and they were in general four-member outfits. The music played included Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Santana, Steppenwolf and Elvis Presley. This was a different era when getting the right equipment was difficult. These bands played with basic Ahuja mixers, electric guitars from stores such as Violin Craft or Musee Musical and drum kits that were basic, yet the passion and love for music drove all these guys. The bands seem to have been mostly male. This is where, maybe, the conservatism of Madras shows its head. The music was driven by the attempt to sound as close to the original as possible. The band members were usually dressed in suits, and belted out these melodies.

College culturals have always been another major platform for bands. With hormones being at their most potent stage, dandily dressed young band members were the girls’ heartthrobs. Indian Institute of Technology Madras’ Mardi Gras (now renamed Saarang) cultural festival, and the culturals conducted by Loyola, Vivekananda and Stella Maris colleges were huge platforms for these young bands. Soon Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and then the folk wave with Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bob Dylan engulfed the city. Through the 1980s the platforms were the same, it is only the music that changed, and Madras kept pace (maybe just a teeny-weeny bit slower!) with the rest of the world. Louder rhythms, electronic music and more equipment entered the musical spaces as it did elsewhere. Who can forget the AC/DC mania of the 1980s? The late 1990s witnessed the boom of recording. Though nothing compared with the explosion in the world of cinema, the rock bands found it far easier to release albums.

With the virtual digital world, this has only become much easier with Sound Cloud, YouTube, etc. Chennai event managers, colleges, hotels and clubs have also been more adventurous in inviting bands from across the country and from other countries to perform. Music festivals have become more eclectic with the acceptance that rock can coexist with Carnatic in the same festival. But opportunities for rock music shows are still limited in the city. Spaces such as Unwind Centre have their draw and dedicated audiences, but many concerts are in other cities such as Bangalore and New Delhi. In these cities, the idea of a Chennai-based rock band carries with it an intrigue. Bands such as Skrat, LBG, Tails On Fire and Franks Got the Funk play different kinds of rock music, including rock ‘n’ roll, acoustic, funk, alternative, progressive and electronic, with each having its own cult following. Many of these bands not only present covers of great bands from around the world but also write and compose their own original music.

But it is a fact that Chennai has not been an incubator for great bands. Insiders argue that the issue is not a dearth of talent but limited exposure leading to the stunting of great talents. There is no doubt that the image of Chennai as not being a “happening city” has also played a role in the lack of acceptance of Chennai-based rock musicians. But things are changing, and the Internet has played a crucial role in giving these bands a great reach beyond the confines of Chennai.

Jazz and the like But there is one curious fact. Neither in its older avatar as Madras nor as Chennai has the city been truly welcoming of jazz, rap, hip-hop or R & B. A few musicians have presented the occasional jazz show and a few bands have dabbled with blues, but that is still not the mainstay of the city. Rap is non-existent. I am tempted to speculate that there is probably a subtle racial angle to this but one cannot be sure. But some of these forms do influence the Chennai “world of fusion”, but the world of Western popular music in Chennai has largely ignored these forms of music from the West. I wonder whether the greater influence of black music on fusion is also a form of class revolt.

Contemporary Chennai In Chennai, there exist two dominant musical forms. The largely popular film music with its ever-changing sound and the much-celebrated classical form, Carnatic music. Therefore, the world of contemporary music here is foundationally based on these two genres. All interpretations and departures have a connection with these forms. In this world, where geographical space is of no consequence, artistic space is only further blurred. Musicians are exposed to music from Brazil, Africa, Europe, West Asia, India and South-East Asia apart from Western popular music. Today, Chennai is flooded with musicians who are trained in Carnatic music, Western music or musicians from the film world coming together to create new music, which they believe is accessible to all. Chennai, of course, hosts the KM Conservatory, founded by the celebrated music composer A.R. Rahman, and the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. Both these institutions provide students wide exposure to numerous genres of music.

But what is this contemporary music? For long, musicians used a simple formula of using a keyboard and drums and adding Western grooves and simple harmonies to Carnatic kritis. This was some sort of neo-Carnatic. Now, they have moved to using ragas as melodic basis for their own compositions. The piece is composed, rehearsed numerous times and played on stage. At times, a solo improvisation is given to the lead instrumentalist or vocalist. Included in the mix are many percussion instruments. For bands that use a Carnatic base, the mridangam, the ghatam or the kanjira is common. Other percussion instruments such as the darbuka or cajon are also a common sight. Drums are almost a given! Some bands use film songs as their base for fusion, and this is naturally the most popular form.

The idea of contemporising involves using Western grooves, chord arrangements and a huge mix of influences such as jazz, blues, rock, country, bossa nova (Brazilian music), African music and West Asian sounds and patterns. There has also been an attempt to create a modern interpretation of Tamil folk music. With this background, I found this comment by a young contemporary musician on the lack of original work valuable. He asks, “We don’t find musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Why isn’t Madras a hub for independent artists?” These are telling thoughts as they describe both the music and the market. The music obviously still banks on the familiarity of Carnatic music and film music. The musicians are basically piggybacking on this to make a living. In general, contemporary music in Chennai is essentially a way of making Carnatic music cool! Or reinventing film music.

This has automatically led to the limited growth of a truly original contemporary music. In short, today contemporary music is about a lot of mix and match. There is also a lack of understanding among listeners about what or why they listen to contemporary music. It is young, casual, fun, melodious, lilting, light, exciting, etc., etc. But they seem to miss the fact that it also needs to be serious, and in not giving it that respect, they have trivialised the music and limited its possibilities. Maybe this is a sense being generated by contemporary musicians themselves, but that is only something they can answer. The search for a new sound, musical thought or expression is still elusive. In spite of these obvious musical issues, the professional world of the contemporary musician in Chennai is viable. Unlike the rock bands, these groups have numerous opportunities to perform. Wedding concerts, corporate gigs, contemporary music festivals, parties and hotels are all welcoming. In many ways, they have replaced film music concerts and Carnatic music concerts in many spaces. Bands such as Sean Roldan and Friends, Poorvaa, Oxygen and Karthick Iyer Live are popular in the circuit.

There exists an interesting dynamic between rock and contemporary musicians in Chennai. Rock musicians in general seem to have a sense of superiority about the music they play. Like Carnatic musicians, they too believe that their music is authentic. They are being true to a form, while contemporary musicians are just picking things from different “musics”. This undercurrent is quite evident when we speak to Chennai’s rock musicians. They may have respect for individual musicians in contemporary bands but do not think much about the music that is being made.

There is another line of separation which is as intriguing. In general, rock musicians come from upper-middle-class backgrounds and many do not look at rock music as their mainstay in life. Some seek that upper-class acceptance through the music. They love the music and are serious, but there will be a time when they will leave all this behind. Therefore, many do not look at music as a profession or with a long-term perspective, though I must confess that opportunities for growth may be limited. I am sure there are exceptions to generalities but this trend seems real. You will find that many young rock musicians do not really have a connection with the Carnatic or the film world. The connection between Western popular culture and the higher sections of Chennai society is nothing new and this is only a continuation. There is definitely a sense of elitism that is connected with musicians who are part of rock music in Chennai.

The contemporary bands are filled with middle-class boys and girls who are seriously considering this as their future. These musicians use their skills gained from training in Carnatic, Western or film music to create a contemporary band. Though influenced by rock, they try to reinterpret the music in their own terms. They need to make money from playing music and look at music as a career. I must also mention that many contemporary musicians also straddle the Carnatic and film music fields. To the contemporary musician, rock musicians are not experimental and creative enough. They are even considered repetitive, and therefore contemporary musicians view themselves as being part of a far more creative genre. Between the rock and contemporary musicians, we find different sounds of discord. Elitism versus middle class, amateur versus professional, authentic versus counterfeit and creative versus repetitive. These are the different counterpositions held silently that keep the musics apart even when they share common ground.

The reader may wonder why this piece has not dealt with Chennai’s vibrant film music industry or its Bradmanesque Carnatic stature. There is no doubt that these are the two forms that dominate any musical discourse of Chennai, but maybe it is time we looked beyond them to understand Chennai differently. We have today traversed an unusual landscape. The oppressed Dalit, the middle class and the upper class belong to different communities, castes, classes, religions, geographical spaces, political positions and social environments, yet they have been bound together by their passion for music. This is a celebration of different people living in some shared and some differentiated spaces, all in one city with art connecting and in many ways disconnecting them.

A vocalist in the Carnatic tradition and writer, T.M. Krishna has authored A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story and is a columnist with The Hindu.

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