Tamil Band ‘The Casteless Collective’ Proves Music Can Be About Caste, Gender & Politics

Posted by Saravanan Velusamy in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks
March 24, 2018

The famous musicologist Susan McClary once noted that music should not be treated as a “sublimely meaningless activity” that has managed to escape social significance but must be treated as a medium that participates and influences social formation.  She argues that music is “too important a cultural force to be shrouded by mystified notions of Romantic transcendence”. Caste is too big a monstrosity to be fought by music, but ‘The Casteless Collective’, 19-member Tamil band performing under the banner of Neelam Cultural Centre, is definitely making a mark in doing just that.

Founded by Kabali director Pa Ranjith, who brought together artists practicing different musical forms in Chennai for this cross-cultural collaboration of indie urban music, it’s effect can already be felt. A case in point is the ‘Quota Song’ by the band, which has music entwined with Dalit cultural assertion. When the audience dances to the fervent beats of protest music, you know the songs have reached home.

A non-Tamil Indian would draw an analogy with the works of Sambhaji Bhagat or Sheetal and team’s Kabir Kala Manch in Maharashtra. The songs bond the lower-middle class youth by instilling a sense of fraternity and camaraderie through a confluence of urban music traditions such as rap, rock, hip-hop and especially gaana, a form practiced on the streets of Chennai.

‘Quota Song’ is an example of how music becomes a performative act and a means of communication with the society. Emerging Dalit consciousness is a reaction to the historical injustice and the ‘Quota Song’ is their assertive answer to the uproar by Brahmins and other upper castes against reservation in the country. The politically charged songs of the Collective the songs on beef, on honour killing, the lesbian song, the farmer song, and a song to celebrate the spirit of Chennai  will bring solace to all the marginalised communities, including the queer groups and the farmers who are being treated with complete social disregard in the country. Beyond being the music of the oppressed, the songs of the Collective bat for social dialogue to make the discourse in our communities more democratic.

An important metaphor for emancipatory music used by the troupe is parai. It is an instrument which gave birth to the caste name parayars, a lower caste community in Tamil Nadu, and eventually became a symbol of their identity. From suit-boot symbolism to Ambedkar iconography, ‘The Casteless Collective’ has deployed everything consciously to transfer their sense of emancipation to their community brethren. It experiments that explores music’s potential for resistance and reflection. Political affirmation of the backward castes is musicalised to find a creative expression that would defy the precepts of classical music. The band strives to take back music from higher echelons of our society to where it belongs: the common folks.

An ardent follower of music for its aesthetic value and creative output would whimper a bit for poor production quality. When there is a lot of attention paid to lyrics, themes, and performance, music can take a back seat. Despite this wonderful start, the firebrand team of musicians need to put in more preparation to position them better for performance.

But perhaps that ardent follower can take a leaf from the book of T M Krishna, himself a Carnatic musician, who wants to the challenge the notions of the pure and the polluted. Since “music is pure, you mustn’t pollute it with ideas of gender, caste and the politics of life”. Such is “the snootiness of abstraction” Krishna intends to fight as a critical insider. Like he said, “Art becomes real only when the artist and the community are in the constant zone of trouble, of internal reflection. Art should make us question; discomfort is beautiful.” Music should then be a reflective practice not only for the artists but also for the aesthete. And that is the lesson ‘The Casteless Collective’ teaches.

Featured image: Facebook/The Casteless Collective