A huge Ambedkar portrait greets you at Gaana singer Palani's home, a modest affair built by the slum clearance wing in Chennai's Puliyanthope neighbourhood. "He is the god I first worship. Other gods come later." Palani says he owes his success in the world of Gaana to the Dalit father figure. "I always begin my performances with a song to Babasaheb." His song Aaana aavanna Ambedkarai paaranna (O brother, Look up to Ambedkar) is a major hit.
Palani is an 'exponent' of Gaana, a rap-like musical idiom of the Dalits in Chennai. "Tamil thenjaal daan Gaana", in Palani's words—only when you grind Tamil, do you get Gaana. The genre is doggerel in form, rhyming verses and talking about the loves and lives of the slum people. Gaana comes from a mixture of different Tamil dialects and other languages the Dalits of Chennai encounter. Interestingly, Gaana artistes of the slums are known by the part of the city they live in: Puliyanthope Palani, Vyasarpadi Ulaganathan, Vyasarpadi Lekshmipati, Chindadripet Punniyar, Ezhumbore Antony, 1000 Lights Selvam etc. Like rappers, they dwell a lot on police harassment, addiction and unemployment, the perennials of their life. "Most of them are forced to live near burial grounds and other dirty places," says Punitha Pandian, editor of Dalit Murasu, a Tamil monthly. "No wonder the music goes unrecognised."
Not quite, actually. Gaana has moved from the slums and burial grounds where the genre was spawned to cinema, commercial gigs and recorded tapes. From an instant improvisational form, the genre has become a distinct, marketable commodity.
It all began with Thalaivaasal, a low budget campus movie which incorporated the genre on its soundtrack. But the film also harmed Gaana to some extent, giving it a sexist, misogynist tag. Music director Deva, the undisputed master of filmi Gaana, was using elements of it as far back as in 1993 in Sooriyan, the film which made Sarath Kumar a star: the Gaana number Laalakku dol dappi maa, to which Prabhu Deva showcased his moves, was on everybody's lips soon. Five years later, director K. Subash had Prabhu Deva, now as hero, singing-dancing Gaana in Ninaivirukkum Varai: Oothikine Kadichikalan, Pothikine Paduthukalan (You could drink and munch, or munch and drink, lie down and drape a blanket, or drape a blanket and lie down), which has become a benchmark now for movie Gaanas.
Producer D. Pandian of Shiv Shakti Moviemakers has used Gaana in all his seven films—from box-office hit Kaadal Kottai to Kanave Kalayaade. But Subash, now planning a film titled Gaana Paattukkaran (The Gaana Singer), rues certain aspects of Gaana have to be sacrificed in cinema. "The slum-dwellers express themselves freely on any subject—sexuality, love, violence. But our hypocrite society won't allow this. English-speaking Indians love it when Eddie Murphy uses f*** a hundred times but can't tolerate the same in Tamil. So we're forced to sanitise Gaana a bit," he says. The upshot: in most films, Gaana has been turned into a fun add-on.
Gaana's commodification isn't restricted to the movies alone. Film-maker Rajiv Menon used the genre for a Coca Cola ad this year: filmstar Vijay raps a Gaana—and drinks the cola—to woo a young urban girl. Menon calls Gaana the "Blues of Chennai". But times truly have changed: while arrack was always the quintessential symbol of Gaana, today it's used to sell Coke too!
Pre-recorded Gaana tapes have been doing brisk business in recent years.Local businessmen, who were only into distribution, have even begun producing slum Gaana now. "They pay us a one-time sum of Rs 1,000 per song. There's no royalty. At best, we make Rs 8,000 per tape," says Palani. The most popular among these is the 10-volume Gaana Ulagam (World of Gaana).
Most fans of Gaana are aware of it only through cinema. "I thought they are just item numbers aimed at the frontbenchers," says P. Suresh, a music buff who has a collection of all the 'filmi-Gaana' tapes.
But for real Gaana, you have to look elsewhere. Time was when at the end of a hard day, the men would gather at the nearby burial ground. With some ganja or saarayam (arrack) for inspiration, they would break into a Gaana. "Denanthorum rickshaw otti poyakirom/ patta sarayaththulai sambaadyattha ayikkarom (We slog on a rickshaw all day/ On booze we waste all money away)". A death in the slums meant an opportunity for an all-night performance. The only musical prop would be the beat produced by clicking fingers, an empty matchbox or an old metal box making do as a drum. "I grew up on Gaana," recalls 51-year-old Deva, the most sought after music director in Mollywood after A.R. Rehman. "I too am a product of these slums".
After the slums, it is in Chennai's colleges that Gaana flourishes. But here too, it has an almost exclusively Dalit male following. But issues like politics or caste are never addressed here. For, college Gaana is, naturally, all about having a good time. "It's about the two Fs: Friend and Figure," says Kutti, a second year BA student of Presidency. (In college slang, figure refers to a woman.)
Meanwhile, Kapilan, researcher and film lyricist, says commercialisation has taken the soul out of Gaana. The Ballad of Alanthoppu Bhoopathy would run for four hours, including a long dirge (oppari). At the end of it, there would not be a dry eye in the audience. Today's Gaana singers and film songs cannot recreate this, he says. Deva agrees: "The earthiness of some Gaanas will be too much for the censors and the middle-class morality brigade." Sample this: A city-bred slum youth, asked if he would marry a village girl, firmly rejects the idea through this Gaana—Ava naaththu naduva/ Naaththum naruva/ Ava vandu pudippa/Suryanukku sooththa kaatuva (She plants paddy saplings/ And she's always stinking/ Runs after crabs/ And bares her ass to the sun.) Original songs are full of references to ganja, arrack and beef-eating which films run shy of. Consider this one: Mylapore milli-adiccha/ maattu curry kekkudu, ayya/ Mandaveli milli-adiccha/ paralokam poga solludu (A drink at Mylapore/Makes me yearn for beef/Another round at Mandaveli, sir/Takes me heavenwards.)
Kapilan, low on funds during his research days, borrowed money to tape Ulaganathan singing the Natchathira Bungla (The Starry Bungalow) Gaana for an hour-and-a-half. That was in 1991. He even took some photos—the setting included a mat, a clay pot, scraps of metal and some ganja. Things have come a long way since then. Today, 36-year-old Puliyanthope Palani, clad in a safari suit, performs on stage with a synthesiser, speakers and all the trappings of a light music concert for a fee ranging from Rs 5,000-10,000. This is also Gaana. It is still sometimes about death, as Palani sings for a 16th day ritual at Chittakadu, 25 km from the city. But it's not the same—in some ways, it's almost a dirge to itself.
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