Dalit Rhapsody

An anti-caste collective challenges oppression through music

The 23-year-old gaana singer Isaivani performs with the band. Women are not encouraged to sing because of the prejudice that only young, unemployed and unruly men sing gaana songs. M Palani Kumar / Pep Collective
Elections 2024
01 May, 2020

On the evening of 6 January 2018, about five thousand people trickled into the grounds of the CSI Bain Matriculation Higher Secondary School, in the Chennai neighbourhood of Kilpauk. The rows of chairs in front of the stage quickly filled up, leaving the open ground for the rest of the audience to occupy. It was the Tamil month of Margazhi, which lasts from 16 December to 13 January. In Chennai, this “auspicious” month is synonymous with the Carnatic music season. Scores of music lovers from around the world, most of them from the Brahmin community, throng the concert halls of southern Chennai to listen to their favourite classical musicians, who are also mostly Brahmin.

That year, however, a 19-member musical group called the Casteless Collective, composed of artists from marginalised communities, set the stage for a different sound. With instruments considered “impure” solely because they are played by the Dalit community during funeral processions, the band fused gaana songs—a genre of Dalit urban folk songs, sung on the streets of northern Chennai—with rock and rap music, and belted out 20 songs of resistance in front of a mass audience.

The mere physical presence of the band, all clad in tailored grey suits, sporting ostentatious hair colour and playing “inauspicious” music, made a statement: annihilate caste, and its rules that accord purity and superiority even in music. Their songs themed on beef and reservation have since gone viral, with over two million views on YouTube. After their first event, the band has performed at least fifteen shows in both urban and rural areas, including a three-day mega event—the Vaanam Arts Festival—in December 2018.

“The objective of forming this collective was to create a counterculture,” Pa Ranjith, the renowned contemporary Tamil film director and producer who has been the driving force behind the Casteless Collective, told me. Ranjith came into the limelight for his portrayal of northern Chennai in his movies Madras and Attakathi, which represent gaana music. “There is a notion that Dalits are devoid of any cultural identity, but the reality is contrary,” he said. “Music and art are omnipresent in their lives. It is not something that they acquire, but it is inbred. It is evident when you visit a cheri—where Dalits reside—and ooru—where upper castes live—in the villages.”