It’s the space offered by Coke Studio Tamil that attracted Arivu, the singer, songwriter and musician known for The Casteless Collective, the album Therukural, the single Enjoy Enjaami and several titles in Tamil film music. “There are a lot of art forms here in Indian society locked in a void due to caste and religion. It has little to do with form or strength of the music, to bring them out into the open remains the biggest challenge,” says Arivu. The first of Coke Studio Tamil’s eight songs, Sagavaasi, with Arivu and Khatija Rahman, launched on YouTube on 1 February. The plan is to release one track every month.
“Beyond the fact that it’s an international brand and company as a sponsor, the platform is all that matters and must be accessible for all,” says Arivu. He says he immediately prepared a list of about 50 names that he could help feature in the offshoot of the globally successful Pakistan edition. Coke Studio Tamil is a strategic separation from Coke Studio Bharat, both reboots of the earlier India edition that lasted only a few seasons.
Coke Studio’s return after several years is an attempt to rebrand and go hyper-local, consciously distinct from film music. Marketing challenges remained. Malayalam independent music had had its day. Hindi and Punjabi music are almost indistinguishable from Bollywood. Learning from Coke Studio Bangla, the organisers saw an opportunity in Tamil, which has seen a spurt in independent music, multiple forms and artists beyond cinema. Though the performers may be familiar, if not mainstream, the idea is to create a confluence of genres with a well thought out thematic structure.
Arivu and musician Sean Roldan are the curators. But what does curation mean here? For Roldan, it’s the granularities of sound, a tune or even a note. “Going deeper into the sound is curation for me, the attention to detail.” He gives an example. They decided to use a Tamizh harp for Chinmayi’s song, a mother’s lullaby written by Kaber Vasuki, accompanied by the father narrating a story (by John Pradeep, who is not a musician), and they made sure the music was composed in a way that respected such an ancient instrument.
Take his own song (with Meenakshi Elaiyaraja, the bluesy, jazz Vendum that sounds like something Bharathiyar could have written, now produced with a three-piece brass. It’s about letting the artists adapt to each other’s styles for the magic to happen. Like reimagining Tamizh from a friendly closeness (as Tamizhi) over the divine distance usually followed for a number that infuses Pushpavanam Kuppusamy’s folk with ofRo’s hip hop, featuring lines of ease and warmth towards language and identity.
“Honestly, I did not know what curation involved,” says Arivu. For him, it’s about finding the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that the performer has envisioned—singing, songwriting or composing. “I believe bringing together artists and successfully collaborating with musicians from different genres are an integral part of curation.” A tune could be great but the song, written years ago, may have become outdated lyrically. He worked with Gana Ulaganathan on an old tune composed by the legend, contributing new lyrics. They made it into a fun song, Daavu La Darling—one may have several daavus (crushes) but there can only be one “darling”! It is a duet between Ulaganathan and trans artist Gana Vimala.
Arivu was also excited to work on a rock song featuring Jhanu & Band, a metal Kalingattuparani meets Oppari with artists Muthammal and Muthu. As much as there is curation and collaboration, Arivu is happy with composer credit for the first time in a project this big. A lot of care has gone into appropriate crediting—from sound engineer Toby Joseph for the live recordings and mixing to Mullai Kalai Kuzhu, a musical group from the Irula tribes that worked with Benny Dayal on a song.
The other ubiquitous presence is singer Kalyani Nair and her choir—Indian Choral Ensemble. As Roldan put it, if you have Nair, your soundscape is sorted. She added vocal harmonies along with arranging the strings for Sunshine Orchestra. For her and many others, recording video and audio live was an exciting experience. “There is no luxury of multitracking, so for the choir I had written all the scores and rehearsed separately. And there were more rehearsals with all the musicians during the take,” says Nair.
The vocal-centric songs were a special challenge, given the genres. Though some songs lend to the chorale’s familiar six-eight part harmony structure, others demanded something offbeat. The yakko yakko bit from Sagavaasi was a tweak or two away from the traditional Western classical tone they practise. Sagavaasi took four takes, while some took 16-17 takes, says Arivu.
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But there is one song they all can’t wait for the world to hear—Urudhi, featuring Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Arifullah Shah Fakir and Punya Srinivas. A song on faith, Subrahmanyan begins like he would a viruttam (a prologue of verses leading to a main song) in his concert, only for it to go in unexpected directions. A fakir of Nagore heritage who sings at Chennai’s Thousand Lights Mosque comes together with the Carnatic world to talk about faith in its purest essence, without a nod to any religion. It was one of the biggest productions, with 28-30 people on stage. There were goosebumps and some tears.
Aditya Shrikrishna is a freelance writer and film critic from Chennai.