The Casteless Collective

The Casteless Collective is a group of twelve musicians in Chennai, India, who seek to use their music as a platform for socio-political commentary, activism and change. Ranging from rappers to instrumentalists to gaana vocalists, their first performance on January 6 2018 saw an audience of 7,000-strong come filing in. Born from a conversation between musician Tenma (who is also the force behind the Madras Indie Collective that hosted conversations on a range of subjects including mental health) and Tamil movie director Pa. Ranjith, it sought to use music as a means to throw light on caste discrimination and politics. The group has sung about Dr. Ambedkar’s fight against caste oppression, honour killings and the quota system amongst other subjects. Yashasvini Rajeshwar spoke to co-founder Tenma on the ethos and motivation behind The Casteless Collective.

The Casteless Collective (Photographer: Deepak Bagavanth)

If you needed to describe the purpose of TCC in 10 words, how would you?
Work towards building conversations and dialogue on socio-political issues culturally.

Recently, during a performance, you were asked to stop performing because of the nature/content of your songs. How does TCC respond to such hurdles?
It was stopped even before we went to the second line of the song, which was unnecessary. The idea of politics has been diluted over the years by various people with personal agendas. When someone says their art is political, there is massive skepticism even before they deliver anything. We continue doing what we do, irrespective of what the hurdles may arise. Asking questions is everyone’s right. 

In an interview with Carnatic musician and social commentator TM Krishna, a band member Gautam spoke of how performing wearing suits helped change the perception of gaana. You have also spoken of how TCC was needed as a platform to enable the singers to be valued. How important do you think the presentation of your work is? The choice of platform, the aesthetic, the way it is consumed…
Presentation is essential. Most artistes who deliver with conviction have enormous flamboyance in their presentation. Even downplaying it works for artistes like Kanye, Kendrick and many shoegaze artistes. They feel secure and confident when they are in their element. Sometimes artistes feel a level of insecurity that has been superimposed by various forces growing up. The suits, the stage, the combination of instruments, everything builds an artiste’s confidence. When they perform in this new avatar, the medium seems refreshed. It's about creating a hybrid and trans-disciplinary entity when delivering something new to the end user. It's about celebration. 

The Casteless Collective (Photographer: Deepak Bagavanth)

You have spoken of how well Carnatic music has been institutionalized. Is this something you think would be beneficial to gaana? How would you go about it?
Gaana comes from oral tradition. There is very limited information on how it evolved. We are just collecting information from as many sources as we can to make an academic format to share information. It comes from immense pain but finding joy despite having problems. Gaana cannot be taught. It isn't cerebral, it’s emotional. It is a form of music that you need to live because there is a thin line after which it can be misappropriated and sanitized.

Tell us more about Therukural and Roots. You mentioned that they are also two other musical platforms that involve women, transgenders and tribals. Is this part of the TCC banner as well?
The idea of Therukural came from ofRo and Arivu who started performing their songs in public parks. It is a community driven project to break an artiste’s initial stage fear. Eventually the album Therukural by Arivu X ofRo was produced and released by the The Casteless Collective.
Roots is an initiative by The Casteless Collective aimed at giving a stage for artistes from various social situations. We have had three Roots events so far. The first one had independent artistes who were trained and presented to an audience. The second was part of Vaanam where we featured artistes from minority groups. The third Roots event was a theme-based music show surrounding the folk form Oppari. As a collective, we associate ourselves with creating conscious music and building stages which empower artistes from anywhere.

Each of you have brought something unique and personal to the art form and it has grown. In so many ways, Gaana is a living art form, evolving and growing with every person who engages with it and every platform it is performed at. This makes it a far more accessible, personal art form. How has this been important to what you want to do? Is the creation of a counter-culture possible because of how alive gaana is? And yet, at the same time, is the counter-culture limited to only those who feel like they can engage with and contribute to gaana? What of the others?

Gaana is an easy medium, one that anyone can understand. It is a simple yet powerful songwriting format.  Gaana is close to home, rooted in Chennai and that was a common ground to start with. The Collective has changed the narrative of independent music. We are a hybrid mix of music, art forms and culture. Some of us come from various schools of thought. Our common goal is making conscious music which shakes a status quo that gives comfort to only a select group of artistes. I personally come from a myriad of musical thoughts. When I make music, it's about bringing stories together in a form understandable and accessible by all. We have a jazz and blues guitarist, a metal drummer, and a folk musician in the collective. We have also given stages to other independent artists like Othasevuru (Easy Listening), Siennor (Blues), Dr. Shakthi (Reggae), MC Sanna (HipHop) and many more who don't come from the Gaana sensibility. Music is the easiest form to send messages. It doesn’t matter what genre they represent, as long as the stories are genuine and the artistes deliver with conviction.

You have one woman in the band, Isaivani. Tell us about her positioning and why it is important. You have spoken in the past about how the woman’s body is the institution of caste. Gaana does not use metaphors and the woman’s body is the ultimate metaphor. How does this contradiction play out?
The biggest response we have received for our songs are for the Beef Song and the Thadikaran Pethi song, both sung by Isaivani. Most of the negative comments have been sexist and extremely dangerous. The mainstream media has always objectified women. Either that or they have used women as a tool for surface-level female empowerment politics. I am against this situation because we are merely undermining women to soothe and reduce the male patriarchy guilt. Intersectional and inclusivity are not spoken about. The difference in our treatment towards women of various classes and caste is so huge. Isaivani is questioning all of that patriarchy, even that which liberal men seem to be holding on to for many years.

In an article for, you mentioned that you were confident that The Casteless Collective will soon translate to a political movement. You have also mentioned that your initial conversation with Ranjith was more political, less about music. You identify TCC as a socio-musical-political journey. What is the role of art in politics, do you think? Can art ever be apolitical? Should it?
The majority of art in India is trying to be apolitical so that the artiste or publisher can keep audiences in their favour. This in turn builds a patriarchy that ensures that only artistes with a specific skill set or genre are highly appreciated. This is the most unfortunate situation, one that many of us have not realised. What about artistes who have no access to education or exposure? Why is it that I was not asked the same question earlier in life when I played for bands or making my music? This question keeps coming up now. How many political artistes who are not associated to political parties exist? Ranjith is an advocate of a casteless, equal society where we reclaim human dignity that is lost due to social diseases like caste divide. This is the most fundamental problem in this country. Artistes like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke have been instrumental in making the civil rights movement stronger with their songs and words.

What do you think is the role of independent music in the future of socio-politics in the country?
The idea of independent music that takes a social stand is itself counter-culture, questioning the mainstream and shaking up the status quo. Artistes who come with an idea of protest and who want to bring social change are always looked at as troublemakers. This is completely wrong. This is not how art helps in developing social consciousness. Songwriters, artistes, bands and producers have a responsibility towards the society they exist in. Most of them get away with surface level politics and are happy spreading jingoistic propaganda. As a community, it’s imperative that art is intersectional and inclusive. Art doesn't serve any purpose if people are pulled away from the medium and the message. Either the message has to be clear or the medium. In a situation like The Casteless Collective, the medium and the message are designed to question the status quo. We wish more artistes become conscious and realise they have a moral responsibility to the people around them.

What are the first steps that you think one ought to take to embrace castelessness and equality? If someone comes to you with good intent but no direction, what would your advice be?
Confronting your own caste pride is the first demon we have to battle. It doesn't matter which part of the system you belong in. One must read and understand how the disease has spread, broken social equity and crushed the existence of people. How long can we be silent about the continuous oppression of minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, adivasis? Most of the time, people get confused between caste pride and anti-caste activism. We need to know how society has evolved. Has it evolved? If the government talks about development, we need to ask whose development? Babasaheb Ambedkar, Pandit Iyothee Thass, Thanthai Periyar are important Anti-Caste revolutionaries that people need to read.  Dr. Ambedkar has said caste is a state of mind; it is a disease of the mind. Being casteless is the anti-caste remedy to cure that disease.