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The Casteless Collective’s brand of musical activism

The band has been hosting virtual concerts and posting songs on social media to spread the message of equality

The Casteless Collective has rappers, rock musicians and ‘gaana’ singers as members.palani kumar
The Casteless Collective has rappers, rock musicians and ‘gaana’ singers as members.palani kumar

 Though it is just a quarter of a rupee, it is a government salary.

So, I go around the city, cleaning shit with my bare hands… .

The underground sewer gets clogged up often enough.

They send us down with only a rope tied around.

Will it be dark?

Will the depth engulf me?

If I were to even slightly slip, will I survive?

(translated from Tamil by the band)

This recent song from The Casteless Collective, India’s largest ensemble political band with 12 members, exemplifies the way it uses music to question the caste system—and other forms of oppression or inequality. During the ongoing pandemic, it has continued its mission, posting songs on social media and organizing virtual concerts. It’s planning to release a new track soon, and the musicians are jamming online to produce it.

The band, which sings in Tamil but is popular in other parts of the country as well, was formed in Chennai in December 2017 at the behest of film-maker Pa. Ranjith and independent music producer Tenma. The name comes from a term used by 19th century caste activist Iyothee Thass, “who said that one has to be ‘casteless’ to annihilate caste", Ranjith told The Guardian in a recent interview.

Since its first concert on 6 January 2018, attended by more than 5,000 people, the group has been singing about Dalit assertion, rights of the LGBTQ+ community and honour killings. And much more. Take Dabba Dabba, translated as My Dear Ballot Box, Hear My Doubt, written during the 2019 general election. It’s a satirical take on politicians who make big promises during campaigns but forget them the minute they come to power.

While the themes are serious, the lyrics are conversational, tinged with humour. And the forms of music are varied, featuring just about every genre that “comes from a place of aggression and anarchy". The group has rappers, rock musicians and gaana singers. At the heart of the band’s style is the gaana genre, originally fatalistic songs sung during funerals in Tamil Nadu. In previous interviews, the members have mentioned that gaana was never really meant to be sung on stage but the band has used it to highlight caste and class issues. “The genre has several left- leaning and Ambedkarite songs," says Tenma, who, like most of the band members, chooses to use only his first name. But they also borrowed from the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of equality, to express “all the pain that we have assimilated over the years". They also use variations of the parai drum, which are associated with mourning.

Over time, the songs have begun to position the inequalities of caste in a contemporary context, in an effort to help the next generation understand it as a psychological state of mind more than anything else. “And it is never-ending. It takes on demonic forms with time. Also, our songs are about equality, be it for the LGBTQ+ community or for gender fluidity. Today, there are extremes of wokeness as well. We are trying to find a balance somewhere in between," says Tenma.

And they are seeing an impact. Earlier, people would murmur “impurity" when it came to the use of variations of the parai drum. Today, their children learn the drum from band members.

The band is also credited with having changed the perception of gaana singers. Their suits, and pink-green-blond hair, initially came as a surprise to the audience. “Every music style has had its own glamour quotient, with the glam metal bands from the 1980s wearing spandex, long hair and an androgynous look, and hip hop artists of the 1990s with baggy pants. People expect gaana singers to be shabby, but we changed that," Tenma explains. The ensemble’s popularity has even inspired a change in attire among the majority of gaana singers on Tamil reality shows.

Interestingly, the band members come from different sociopolitical backgrounds. Take Sahib Singh, the guitarist. He had been playing with Tenma for years before he joined the collective. It opened up a new world, one Singh didn’t even know existed. “I got to know of the stories of oppression and survival, which I had no knowledge of. Bala Chander, our vocalist, used to catch pigeons and eat. He had to survive, with no money for food. This story has stayed with me. The band has allowed me to see things on the ground as opposed to what we see in the media," says the 28-year-old.

Then there is Isaivani, the band’s only female member. As a teenager, she was fascinated by Carnatic music. But as she told The Guardian, when she approached a traditional music school, she was asked for a caste certificate—and rejected.

Today, Isaivani and other members are trying to inspire their audience to think and question. “We are fighting an age-old system to restore human dignity. At the end of it., we are trying to bringing dialogues and discourse in the society through our songs.," says Tenma.

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