Resistance and identity through music

In Dalit music from Tamil Nadu lies the strength of new imaginings of hope for a free and just society. It announces the resistance of Dalits who have freed themselves form the hegemony of caste

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A Mangai

No one can sit still when a parai is played. Your feet start tapping; hands and shoulders move to rhythm; a pleasant warmth envelopes you. The power and energy of parai sound and the dance steps spreads is invigorating. Like any other community with ancient roots, Dalits also have their music. In Tamil Nadu, even though the paraiyar are referred to by the instrument, all Dalit groups have the instrument as theirs. But the attitudes to it have varied in different regions of Tamil Nadu. Wherever, parai and tappattam were represented as art as in the Cauvery belt, the artists adopted it as a call for protest and assertion of identity. But in places it was still deemed as part of ritual, especially of funerals, as part of feudal hierarchy, there was an orchestrated move to disown parai. This was the case in the Northern parts of Tamil Nadu, where the political mobilisation of Dalits was strong. To say no to parai meant saying no to caste-based labour. Both these standpoints are valid in their own terms.

The history of parai entering the stage and screen as respectable art form began with academicians and practitioners of theatre like Prof Ramanujam and Dr Murugesan of Tamil University mobilising them as part of their own theatre work. There was no effort to aestheticise the form or change its rudiments. I have been a witness to how the Chennai-based, middle and upper-middle class stage and screen artists halted in shock when a theatre festival was inaugurated with parai in the early ‘90s of the last century! Times have changed drastically, expedited by the Ambedkar centenary. Today the parai drum dance is part of the Tamil Nadu Music College syllabus; many schools and colleges have introduced it as part of their sports curriculum, much the same way Yoga was made part of the system. Almost all theatre groups begin with parai training for artists, especially the politically inclined street theatre groups.

The Church played a crucial role in spearheading this movement of making parai the rallying cry of justice. Mention should be made of Madurai-based Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary and of Fr Appavoo, popularly known as Parattai – meaning disheveled – in giving prominence to parai music as the spirit of resistance. Annual festivals were held in Madurai that became the congregation of performance as politics.

Like other ethnographic communities, Dalits have their life-cycle rituals full of songs. Like most communities these forms and songs are gendered in highly patriarchal ways. Women do not participate in the drumming or dancing as part of the rituals. Like in all other communities, lullaby, birth, marriage and funeral opparis are the lot allotted to women in this community as well. But many broke these rules. We have all-women Shakthi Tappattam group in Dindigul led by Sr Chandra for over three decades now. There are also women in many other groups all over the State.

There are documented studies undertaken of the work songs, ritual songs and protest songs set to their native tunes that are part of the repertoire of various activist groups. The more famous ones were the way Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (People’s Art and Literature Association) morphed them into political songs for campaigns. In the 90s, their audio disks titled Irunda Kalam (Dark Ages) and Asura Ganam (Demons Music) took the state by storm. The ripple effect was seen in the recent arrest of Kovan for the anti-tasmac song. Even though these songs were primarily those of left, progressive forces, the foundation was Dalit music. The songs underscored the caste politics of Manudharma. The group is still quite active.

The more urban version of Dalit music is the popular Gaana songs practiced in the slums of what is known as the Black town of Chennai. It is a counter culture in its very bones. Capturing the struggles of labourers and their lifestyle in the city, the songs also capture, in a very light-hearted vein, their flouting of the legitimised moralistic views, especially of sex and crime. Sung during funeral rituals, they also narrate the tales of political and cinema heroes. MGR is the major persona in these songs. Gaana was made popular statewide by Tamil cinema. The film Amaran heralded a new trend. Soon Deva, the music director took over. Many Gaana singers became playback singers as well. Students took to it with passion.

The most recent experiment has been the Casteless Collective mixing Gaana and rap in their recent concert this year. The effort was the brain child of film director Pa Ranjith. Working on this for over a month, the singers have brought out the full potential of music being a political tool in Dalit assertion.

Parai in Tamil means ‘to announce’. Dalit music certainly announces the resistance of Dalits who have freed themselves of the shackles of Hinduism and its core aspects of hegemony. In this lies the strength of new imaginings of hope for a free and just society.

The author is a theatre activist, academician and translator based in Chennai

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