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Caste in cinema and music: the Kerala experience (Part 2)

Caste in cinema and music: the Kerala experience (Part 2)

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~ Caste in cinema and music: the Kerala experience ~

A S Ajith Kumar talks to Dalit Camera


Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes

This is the second part of an interview with A S Ajith Kumar, writer, musician and filmmaker based in Trivandrum (you can read the first part here). The interview was conducted by Radhika Pai and Gopika Nangia after the release of Ajith’s documentary 3D Stereo Caste, a few months ago.

(Transcribed and translated by Sudeep K S)

Caste in Music

In some places there are Dalits who perform traditional drums. Some of them face bans because they did not perform in some function. I have read about such a ban that happened in Karnataka. There are such bans in Kerala also, but in a different way. The ideas of music itself have a hierarchy within. There are several categories like “classical”, “folk” etc. There are various factors that work in forming these categories, such as caste and gender. Another division is on the basis of sound levels itself. Loud instruments are considered ‘Asuravadyam‘ and softer ones that sound like a soft chanting of mantras, are considered more respectable and are called ‘Devavadyam‘. The loud voice is often connected with the ‘lower’ castes. Thus the sound levels also have its politics.


In this film I have covered Chenda (a traditional drum of Kerala), cinematic dance and Nadan Pattu (folk music – literally, ‘local song’).

In Chenda itself caste works in many ways. One, there are different kinds of Chenda — the Vadakkan (Northern) Chenda and the Thekkan (Southern) Chenda. The southern Chenda is associated with Melams (percussion harmony) like Singarimelam. The northern Chenda is associated with Pancharimelam, Pandimelam etc. Singarimelam is considered lowest among these. Pancharimelam is superior. In places like youth festivals and school festivals, there is an unwritten rule that the top grades goes only to those who do Pancharimelam. I have addressed this issue in the film.

Singarimelam as I said is at the bottom end of the hierarchy. There was a Thalamaholsavam (a festival of rhythms) in Thiruvananthapuram sometime back. The festival showcased various Melams from Kerala, including Pancharimelam and Panchavadyam. They also included Melams connected to some Muslim art forms also. But the Singarimelam did not find a place there. When I asked the organizers, they said they included Singarimelam in a procession held as part of the inaugural ceremonies on the first day; hence they did not want to repeat it. Note that the procession was held on the road. That is where the Singarimelam belongs, in the “public space”. Not inside the ‘holy’ premises of a Thalamaholsavam. That is the kind of division.

Similarly one Chenda has two sides, the left side and the right side. One of them produces a louder voice. Inside the temple walls, the louder (Asura) side drumming is allowed, but not during the pujas. It is the softer (Deva) side that is used during the puja.

The caste of the drummer is also an issue. The “lower” castes are not allowed to perform inside a temple. This is also not a written rule; it is a rule that is enforced with the help of the senior performers. Kalamandalam Chandran, featured in this film, is a drummer who was ‘kept aside’ several times like this. He has been in this field for 36 years. Even then he faces this discrimination, just because he is a Dalit. (“Within the last five years, the caste system has become worse in the field of art, especially in Panchavadyam”, says Chandran).

About Nadan Pattu — that term itself is problematic. It literally means ‘local’ music, like ‘foreign’ vs ‘local’. I don’t know how ‘folk’ gets translated as ‘Nadan’. It could be to mean that this form of music lacks sophistication (eg. Foreign liquor and Local/Country liquor).

There is a hierarchy in this division, just like caste hierarchy. “Classical” is considered the highest form. Carnatic music is called ‘Classical’ music. Then there is ‘light music’ called ‘Lalithasamgeetham’ (literally means ‘Simple music)’. It means it is not complex. As if it is created by removing the complexities from the Carnatic music. This ‘light music’ has its own history. It was created by the All India Radio. ‘Nadan Pattu’ or folk music is placed even below.

It is not just the classification that is problematic, there is also a belief that all this should fall within certain limits. The classical music is believed to have remained the same for several years. But that is not the case really — there have been many changes. Like Changes brought about by technology — eg. how it changed with the arrival of microphones, or with the entry of women into the field.. It has never stayed stuck at one place. The concept of ‘classical’ itself is borrowed from the west.

The ‘folk’ music also suffers from many such stereotypical notions constructed about it. It is mostly created by those who do folklore studies. Some techniques, some particular types of music, are ‘allowed’. Rather than as a musical expression, they see ‘folk music’ more as just a cultural identity. They associate each type of music with a particular community. This music is considered as a ‘cultural mark’ of that community. The ‘classical music’, in contrast, escapes markings and it is for “everyone”.

In folk we have ‘Paraya folk’, ‘Pulaya folk’ etc, and the attempt is always to freeze it in a particular period in time. It is supposed to have been the music of the particular community in a particular time in the past. It is considered as not relevant in the contemporary world. The folk performers also follow this belief to some extent, choosing ‘old’ and ‘traditional’ songs. This has to change. Without fixing music to a particular ‘caste’ or time, the ‘folk’ has to evolve as a new musical expression. These are specific musical languages, which are very relevant in contemporary society. I don’t think there is anything wrong in using modern instruments like synthesizer in folk music.

Many folk singers, like Praseetha shown in the film, have been trying in this manner to change folk music into an art of the modern times. They use new instruments, wear modern attire and thus break many stereotypes attached to ‘folk’ music. Sometimes they wear traditional outfits as well, but that is more as a part of the strategy of marketing it, making the ‘folk’ a product saleable in the market.

There are affordability issues about synthesizers and computers. Most Dalits cannot afford it. But technology helps us come out of the rigid classifications; change the ideas about sound itself. The folk music becomes more contemporary by the use of modern instruments like this, moving it from a place where it is kept frozen. I have also been trying this — I have tried to make some songs this way. They use new kinds of language, a mix of languages. All Dalits do not share the same lifestyle. Some live in colonies, some go to colleges; there are some who lead a middle class life. I have been trying to make music that communicates these different Dalit lives. I have done 2-3 such songs. I have tried instruments different from the traditional ones. This creates a new kind of music that does not fit into the traditional vs modern classifications. It travels back and forth, and the border becomes narrow. Thus the identity does not get frozen, and the music moves into new dynamics.

Then the film talks about the body — the relation between the body and music. I think it is characteristic of ‘classical’ music to control the body. There is a Navaratri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram. The concerts there are organized by the palace, it comes under the palace. What is special about this place is, one, only Hindus are allowed to enter the concerts, and two, there are some customs that one has to follow. Men (only men were allowed till recently) are not allowed to wear shirts, they wear only a Mundu. While listening to the concert, one is not supposed to clap or make any kind of noise. Everyone should enter at the scheduled beginning time itself, and cannot leave the concert before it ends. There are many strict rules like this. These rules are designed to control the body. Not allowed to move, not allowed to clap – this control is characteristic of a ‘superior’ kind of music, music that is considered to be high in the caste hierarchy.

The textbooks on Carnatic music also say that good musicians should not make unnecessary body movements. This marks a division between the body (Shareeram) and the voice (Shaareeram). They say that voice is more important, and the body should not be given importance. If you look at the music reality shows on TV, there are performance rounds and melody rounds. There also there is a clear division between the body and the music.

But in the domain of popular music – e.g. in folk songs, Ganamela et al – the singers themselves turn as dancers. They often come down to the audience from the stage. Praseetha for instance carries her chordless mic to the audience and makes them sing along. The audience also get up and dance to these songs. There is such an active interaction.

There are two-three things in this – one, this changes the very idea of a stage. It does not remain an authentic space that is reserved for the performer. Usually in high music the audience is a passive entity who does not have any agency, or their agency is limited to tapping their hands. But in these popular music spaces they sing and dance along, there is such participation. They also have the freedom to hoot. They have more agency, and I think there is more democracy in it.

Cultural Assertion by Dalits

There hasn’t been a cultural assertion from the Dalits as part of any political decision in Kerala. If we take a closer look, there is a cultural assertion taking place. For example, for last 20-30 years the Nadan Pattu or folk songs have been a trend in Kerala. That can be considered a cultural assertion.


I think the development of Nadan Pattu as a branch of music can be linked to the Dalit political movements since the 1980s. There are many Nadan Pattu groups in different villages of Kerala, and they have developed along with the Dalit movements. Technology has also played a major role in it – for instance the audio cassettes. That is how this cultural assertion has shaped up. They do not talk direct politics. Most of these performances happen in Dalit spaces, in programmes organized by Dalit groups. Now it is changing, they are making their presence felt in more ‘public’ spaces also. There is a ‘capturing of public space’ involved in it.

When we usually talk about cultural assertions in Kerala, we talk about KPAC and their songs and plays. They are part of a secular, liberal discourse of the Nairs of Kerala. In most of the KPAC plays, Dalits are not the central characters. They primarily reflect the crisis of the Nair self. Their songs are also a symbol of various crises of the Nairs of that time – both in lyrics as well as in the music. It has developed in a certain manner.

If we take the famous song ‘Ponnarivalambiliyil..‘ for instance, it is addressing a Dalit woman. The agency is not on her. It is the Nair self talking to a Dalit. There are several crisis situations they faced in those times. The music was done by G Devarajan. Their dilemma was to make a music form. One, it should not be completely based on Carnatic music, and it should not be completely ‘folk’ either. It has to take a middle path, solving these two ‘issues’.

Two, the ‘Malayali’ self of those times is the Nair self itself. KPAC was trying to develop that Malayali self. We could say those were among the first Malayalam songs. Before that it was mostly Tamil songs or Malayalam songs with Tamil tunes in the theatre in Kerala, it was an influence of the Tamil drama companies in Kerala. Even in Malayalam films either Tamil tunes or tunes of Hindi film songs were used. ONV (who wrote lyrics for KPAC drama songs) has written about the struggle to create a ‘Malayalam music’ during that time. Devarajan was among those who tried to create an identity and style for “Malayalam” music that is free from the Tamil influence. A Malayali self was also taking shape at that time. Malayali memorial etc also presented a Nair self. ‘Malayali’ and ‘Nair’ carried nearly the same meaning, as it was Nairs who were considered Malayali in general. People like ONV Kurup and Thoppil Bhasi in KPAC were also part of this ‘project’ of developing a liberal Nair self. They tried to imagine it to be a Malayali self. In music, this involved getting rid of the Tamil accent and doing away with the Tamil tunes.

Coming back to Ponnarivalambiliyil, G Devarajan composed the song in raga Shankarabharanam. Apparently he removed the classical complexities of the raga and made it simple. This solved the first crisis I mentioned. It couldn’t have remained completely Carnatic, as that music belongs to an elite class. Here the song had to address a Dalit character who does not fit into that class. At the same time the song couldn’t be completely Nadan either – the folk songs lack the sophistication. The song was written in the Kurathi mattu (a folk style associated with the Kurava community), which is then brought into the order of raga Shankarabharanam. Thus it gets ‘elevated’ from its original position. There are several such issues.

The point we were discussing is that it is KPAC plays and songs that is considered as a symbol of a revolutionary cultural resistance, but it was primarily the crisis of the Nair self it dealt with. There were a lot of struggles and resistances against feudalism going on in Kerala during that time, and most of the big names in KPAC were from these very feudal families. Their works had their origin in their consciousness of guilt. Most of the Communist leaders were also from the dominant castes. This is what they could do – when the resistances against the caste dominance gained strength, they had to align themselves with the Dalits in that struggle rather than remain on the oppressors’ side. It was a liberal approach which has it base in their feeling of guilt. It did not have the political content to question the caste system. It could only serve to solve the crisis of their self.

The Dalit cultural assertion that came alive along with the movements of 1980s through new kinds of folk songs is different from that kind of a cultural assertion. They do not stick to the rules of ‘pure’ folk music set by the folklore scholars. Most of these groups have not got their songs from their ancestors. Many groups have developed without such possibilities. Audio cassettes have helped them in this regard. If I take an example, cultural groups like ‘Dynamic Action‘ used to perform on stages and also release cassettes of their programmes. People like C J Kuttappan, Kumarakam Basu and Johnson were part of it. They were folk performers and friends, and worked together for this group. Their audio cassettes reached many Dalit households, they had a good reach. Many Dalit singers learned to sing folk songs listening to these cassettes. Many singers have told me that they learned singing listening to C J Kuttappan on their cassette player. This is how the trend developed.

Similarly there are many folk songs that are available on You Tube now. They are on a rise as part of a political awareness. There are possibilities that this opens up – a group from Kollam could sing the same song as that of a group from, say, Palakkad. They may have learnt from the same cassettes, or from the same song on the internet. There is a new Dalit awareness developing here, and this cultural exchange is also part of it. What is interesting about these Nadan Pattu groups is that they are not necessarily songs of their own community. The same group sings the songs of Parayas, Pulayas and that of Adivasis. Or even folk songs from West Bengal or Chhattisgarh. This results in a new kind of Dalit identity development. Beyond one’s caste or tribe, it defines a larger ‘Dalit community’. It is a political identity, and it is getting developed through these cultural activities. This is a Dalit assertion in the cultural field.

Another outcome of these assertions is that it is creating vibes in the ‘general’ cultural and music space as well. Folk songs are now enjoyed not only by the Dalits. It has its space in colleges and public spaces, and people from other communities also enjoy it. Even in films, earlier, folk songs used to appear outside the main narrative. It was not the central characters who sang those songs – there would be a boatman, or a mad person or a drunkard who sings it. I remember a mad character by Nedumudi Venu singing a folk song, in the film Aaravam if I remember right. Sometimes the hero also sings it, but not when he is in his senses. Like the drunk hero singing in the film Kazhcha. They sing only when they are outside their Savarna space, in the older films. But now things are changing. Folk songs have gained some respectability. It is now ok for people from other (dominant) communities also to sing those songs. Remya Nambeesan was seen singing such a song in a recent Malayalam film. This brings about a change in the general cultural space. So there are changes occurring in two ways – one as an assertion of a Dalit identity and the other, the cracks that it creates in the general cultural space.

Please read the first part of this interview here.


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