by Barathi Selvam
In the wake of the 21st century, a minute yet momentous change brewed in the Tamil-language cinema in the southern part of India. An array of left-leaning filmmakers sporadically entered the cineindustry armed to disrupt the age-old status quo rooted in an archaic and a discriminatory caste system through their artwork. This includes filmmakers like Lenin Bharathi (Merku Thodarchi Malai, 2016), Gopi Nayanar (Aramm, 2017) and Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal, 2018).
PA Ranjith (Kaala, Madras, Sarpatta Parambarai) is a contemporary filmmaker in this progressive clan. His cinematic talents are used to parade the mistreatments and polemics grappling with the oppressed community in the name of casteism. Traditionally and rather condescendingly, the oppressed community is regarded as the lower or lowest caste leaving them with nothing but a life subservient to the dominating castes. The hierarchical order is rooted in systemic discrimination that separates human beings with specific roles, jobs and statuses according to their birth.
Thus, anti-caste activists and social reformers fought the hierarchical orders espoused in the caste system. The monumental figure, Dr. Ambedkar popularised the term ‘Dalit’1 to represent the oppressed community, mainly as opposition to MK Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’ (Children of God), which was considered derogatory to the oppressed community.
The weapon PA Ranjith chose was film, and he loaded his films with the ideology of Ambedkarism. His feats weren’t limited to featuring protagonists, plots and stories from the perspectives of the oppressed caste, the tenacious filmmaker was pivotal in creating a musical band dubbed Casteless Collective in 2017.
Abhorred by the classification system, many have resisted and even lost their precious lives for refusing to be subjugated to socially constructed rules, norms and agenda. This century old system remains divided amongst the masses. The dominant/privileged caste vs the subjugated/oppressed caste has been an ongoing narrative.
Within the musical domains of culturally rich India, Karnatic (classical) music possesses a respectable (almost a divine status) position compared to the folks’ music and songs. The dichotomy becomes even more pronounced with the Oppressed Caste's flavour of music played with instruments created from their environment.
Instruments such as Thappu or Parai are closely associated with caste identity. In this case, the oppressed community. According to a journalist, it is:
“Resembling a flat board, cut from the wood of a neem tree and in the shape of an arc, the parai is a hollow drum played by two sticks of different length and thickness. Usually accompanied by a dance called attam — the performance called parai attam — the instrument has been around for centuries and has been played in the courts of the Cholas and the Pandiyans. The word ‘parai’ itself means to ‘speak’ or ‘tell’ and for centuries the instrument was used to announce messages” (Manik Sharma, 2017)2.
Their colloquial language (mainly a combination of Tamil, Urdu, and English) is often manifested in their original songs and dubbed Gaana songs.
What was meant to be a communication tool, evolved to become a music of the marginalised, played only in the event of death during a funeral procession (inauspicious circumstances). Hence, the musical status of the oppressed community, just like the people themselves, couldn't negotiate its way through the hierarchical order. A disproportionate belief is accepted as the rule of the day. Against this background, Casteless Collective emerged to contest this unsound social order.
Embodied by the spirit of B.R Ambedkar, a national figure who ferociously stood against Casteist practice, the Casteless Collective donned three-piece suits as their spirited abode to Ambedkar himself. The suit, for Ambedkar, was a political statement against the oppressors as the Dalits (oppressed community) historically were told, amongst others, what they can and cannot wear.3
Their resistance and quest for identity are fortified in the music of Casteless Collective. Many of the talents in the band originated from slums and were handpicked by P.A Ranjith himself, who attributed the Black Rap Culture as an inspiration to the formation of Casteless Collective.
Namely, several songs had quirky lines in celebrating the Dalit’s lifestyle, culture and rights. The ‘Quota Song’ penned by Arivu addresses the criticisms levelled at affirmative actions designed for the oppressed community. It is a known fact that acquiring education is just another dream for the oppressed community. For many generations, access to education was a privilege of the affluent and dominant caste.
Meanwhile, the ‘Beef song’ celebrates beef as their primary appetite and depicts a ruling fascist regime that polices food consumption of the people. Various incidents of harassment and policing, even physical abuses, were recorded against the oppressed community for consuming beef.4 Casteless Collective’s ‘Beef song’ meticulously elaborates the cultural significance of beef to their livelihood. The oppressing caste’s mentality is made a mockery.
Though it appears that Malaysian Indians who have migrated, settled and relatively integrated in Malaysia demonstrate a minimal affiliation or appreciation to caste identity, it is naïve to presume casteism has been uprooted within them. Casteist practices amongst Malaysian Indians emerge in significant ceremonies, predominantly weddings, funerals and religious events. The inception of certain political parties, domination of temple leadership and vote-baiting during elections rears the ugly head of casteism as its undercurrent politics. This discreet practice is not unknown, and is now commonly questioned by the younger generations.
Casteless Collective’s songs are a beacon of hope to the oppressed community whose music, just like them, has been marginalised. The loud thumps of Paarai and Thappu will break the chains of oppression and the hierarchy enabled and sustained by the caste system.
1‘Dalit’ is generally agreed to refer the oppressed or suppressed by the upper caste and believed to be used for the first time in the Poona Pact that took place between Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. M. Mithul, ‘Word ‘Dalit’ Has Its Origini in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s Poona Pact’, News18, 5 September 2018. See: https://www.news18.com/news/india/word-dalit-has-political-and-cultural-context-intellectuals-weigh-in-on-ministrys-advisory-1867913.html
2 M. Sharma, ‘Liberating The Parai: An Instrument Played by The Dalits has Found a Champion, Who’s Fighting to Take It Mainstream’, The Indian Express, 27 March 2016. See: https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/liberating-the-parai/
3 A. Masoodi, ‘The Changing Fabric of Dalit Life’, Mint, 21 April 2017. See: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/avsrwntNuBHG3THdAb5aMP/The-changing-fabric-of-Dalit-life.html4 ‘Muslims On India Train Assaulted Because They Ate Beef’, BBC News, 24 June 2017, See: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40393331
4 B. Saran & S. Dey, ‘Man Accused of Carrying Beef Beaten to Death By 100-Strong Mob In Jharkand’, Hindustan Times, 30 June 2017. See:https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/jharkhand-man-accused-of-carrying-beef-beaten-to-death/story-3fuowiHpgloxAbERlouZ4M.html