Folk artists of Tamilnadu strike new -found resonance amid COVID-19 — a reminder of the role they played in past epidemics

Agencies. Updated: 7/30/2020 3:19:12 PM Art and Culture

Marginalised and subaltern forms of musical expression, performing arts and literature have historically fulfilled a range of purposes in Tamil Nadu

Jammu, Jul 30: “To appreciate a parai artist is one thing, but to travel with a parai artist on a town bus is a different experience altogether. Many folk art forms were born out of poverty, and those who want to take up these art forms should understand this, otherwise it is destroying art.” Discrimination, says singer-songwriter Arivu of the Chennai-based Tamil indie band The Casteless Collective, takes on many guises — and technology is the latest.

The pandemic may have distracted the world from certain deep-seated issues, but it has done nothing to drown out the beats of Arivu’s three most recent independent releases. Staying true to the band’s distinct style of blending a local music form gaana with contemporary rap, hip hop and rock, Arivu’s tracks are a telling commentary of our times. In 'Vanakkam Virus', he says that casteism and an extremist mindset pose a larger threat than the novel coronavirus, while 'Monkeys with 5G' showcases how technology is readily embraced by the very same people who succumb to an ingrained casteist mindset in the confines of their homes. To listen to Arivu’s work is to receive a humbling initiation into the language of sociopolitical discourse that has long permeated Tamil Nadu’s musical fabric.

V Arisu, retired professor of Tamil at Madras University, says, “Gaana is a byproduct of the migrations that occurred as people moved from villages and rural areas to urban slums and settlements and mixed folk songs with various borrowed cultural and cinematic influences, resulting in a unique genre. It used to be sung exclusively in death houses, and as it gained popularity, gaana singers would be hired to perform at marriages and puberty attainment ceremonies.”

The evolution and mass appeal of this relatively unknown fringe form from North Madras has been chronicled by Chennai-based writer and novelist Tamil Praba. “Gaana emerged after the 1960s. North Madras was organised by the British in such a manner that all their needs were catered to by marginalised people. Help was sought from the Dalit people and the surrounding fishing hamlets, small-scale industries and colonies. The people of these areas possessed political knowledge, and they expressed their oppression through music. They were mostly physical labourers and used gaana as an outlet for their pain after a hard day’s work.”

This context is essential in understanding why both parai and gaana became a part of the resistance lexicon in subaltern and Dalit movements, and the subsequent textual diversity that led to new-age artists championing a range of larger issues in their music, from labour displacement to the improper disposal of waste, with rap-like influences.

Marginalised arts finding a renewed resonance with people in the time of COVID-19 should come as no surprise. Subaltern categories of literature, oral expression and the performing arts have been known to lend a voice to the voiceless. The very premise of gaana after all, as explained by Praba, is that, “it is an unorganised art form that doesn’t need a particular instrument or voice. It is an expression of emotions and doesn’t have any scales, unlike Carnatic music.”

Arivu talks about how community transmission of the virus rattled the existence of the already dispossessed across the country. He says, “Pandemics come rarely, but the caste system and exploitation are ways of life that are more clearly visible now.” He is not alone; many other artists and performers have made humorous and satirical references to preventative measures such as social distancing and incessant hand washing — luxuries available to the rich.

Historically, folk art forms have assumed various roles in Tamil Nadu. The famed drum parai was, in its earliest avatar, used as a communication mechanism to alert people against imminent danger and natural calamities. Arivu delves into the etymological roots of the ancient skin instrument, whose name translates to 'to tell'. Parai artists served as town criers and performative heralds of sorts. The instrument was played to convey news, and, “with time it evolved to include lyrics and vocals, played along with other instruments."

It is befitting then that Manimaran, Chennai-based parai artist and founder of one of the state’s most popular folk art troupes, has used his art as a means of debunking COVID-19-related myths through educational songs that he has penned, along with a 30-minute Facebook live programme titled 'Corona Kumbidu' that he hosted with his wife Maghizhini for 45 days of the countrywide lockdown.

The task of purveying news to the common people has been traditionally served by vernacular literature. Chennai-based historian and writer Nivedita Louis explains how the most distinctive attribute of ancient Gujili literature was that it relayed news to people, who could not read, through the rather unusual medium of songbooks. Women would go to marketplaces carrying these books in baskets over their heads, while men would wait for a crowd to gather and sing verses from them. They reached every corner of the state and were not time-bound. “The period between the 1850s and 1940s was when Gujili literature emerged and major historical events – from the first train that ran in the Madras Presidency to the first exhibition flight taking off – were chronicled.”

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