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Universal Beach

Ananya Vajpeyi (vajpeyi@csds.in) is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. She writes about ideas, arts, politics and social transformation. Her long essay on Carnatic music appears in Ashis Nandy: A Life in Dissent (Oxford University Press, 2018), edited by R Jahanbegloo and A Vajpeyi.

Can we draw a line connecting everything that moves us to a social movement for the annihilation of caste?

 

What is the connection between that which moves us and a social movement? Is there a place for our innermost emotions and personal desires in an account of the political struggles that bring people together in suffering and solidarity? Can the deep feelings stirred by an art experience be harnessed and channelled towards the transformation of a society?

Is there a relationship between the aesthetic and the political, the two dynamically morphing into one another, together making possible a new social order, one that allows for change, for interaction, for mobility, for empathy? How are we to be joined with others, through what bonds of shared experience, through what process of mingling, which B R Ambedkar called “endosmosis”? How can we move, how can we be moved? When do our private transports, occasioned by the power of art, add up to create massive movements for social justice?

Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha

A young man with a deep voice, floppy hair, bare feet and a slow-burning intensity croons in Tamil into a mic. Kaber Vasuki, writer of a hit single titled “Poromboke,” is also the lead singer of a small pop-rock band, Kurangan. He is performing on a makeshift stage set up at Ellaiamman Kovil Beach as the sea churns behind him. There is a lunar eclipse on the nights of 10 and 11 February, coinciding with the Vizha of 2017, an annual arts festival that is occurring for the third time in the twin villages of Urur Kuppam and Olcott Kuppam at the edge of Besant Nagar, in South Chennai.

The celestial drama—a large moon of reddish hue hanging over the turbulent waters of the Bay of Bengal, palm trees swaying in the wind—is overtaken by the spectacle unfolding on the Vizha stage. Young people, especially women and girls in the audience of a couple of hundred, clap, hoot and shout as Kaber gutturally chants his minimalist lyrics that a friend simultaneously translates for me. He’s witty, political and cool. Youngsters are crazy for him.

But Kaber and Kurangan are slowly building to the climax of the festival: a surprise appearance by Carnatic vocalist T M Krishna, which surprises no one, even though it was not listed on the programme. The 41-year-old virtuoso runs onto the stage, lithe and wired, clad in a linen shirt and khaki pants, and the energy in the gathering peaks like an incoming tide. He is going to sing “Poromboke,” of course, a Tamil song written in street slang but rendered in stately ragas, its very title a cuss word—a startling marriage of contemporary and classical that has gone viral in a music video starring Krishna, violin maestro R K Shriramkumar and mridangist-composer
K Arun Prakash.

Kaber may have written the words, but Kurangan does not do Carnatic music. That does not matter. With his unerring charisma, Krishna draws in the younger musicians. He draws in K Saravanan, a fisherman in his mid-30s, member of the village council at Urur Olcott Kuppam, and lead organiser of the Vizha. He draws in Veronica Angel, a poet in her mid-20s, who has worked with elders and children of the village community to recreate a corpus of the songs of fisherfolk of the Tamil coast. He draws in Nityanand Jayaraman, a tall ponytailed environmental activist in his early 50s, whose idea it was to make a song about poromboke—an old Tamil word for “commons,” which in current usage means “useless,” “wasteland” or, for a person, “wastrel” or “good-for-nothing.”

It quickly becomes clear that none of these individuals can sing, and certainly none of them sings anything remotely like Carnatic. But that does not matter either. They all sing together: Krishna, Kaber, Saravanan, Veronica and Nityanand. The audience goes wild. Like a shoal of gleaming fish, the smallest children sitting nearest the stage surge onto the wooden boards, and within seconds adults follow, unable to hold back. The whole stage breaks out into a dance party, villagers and urban folk, fishermen and activists, observers and participants.

It seems like I might be the only person left offstage, taking photos, making notes, filing away this ecstatic night in my mind and heart, that I may never forget the euphoria that erupts when for once in their life people feel the confidence to venture out of their silos of caste and class, gender and occupation, age and station, and throw themselves into a collectively created space.

It’s magic. I’m laughing and crying, moved beyond words, spellbound by this glimpse of electricity that courses through our social body, if only it were not so utterly, ruinously segregated, every part cut off from every other. Over several weeks in December 2016 and January and February 2017, I have maintained my position at the edge of the Vizha: coming repeatedly from Delhi to Chennai, an academic among artists and activists, a Hindi-speaker among Tamil-speakers, watching the unfolding of a remarkable sociopolitical experiment that is also becoming an annual ritual.

I have attended Krishna’s marvellous concert on the Besant Nagar beach and helped clean up the littered Ellaiamman Kovil beach that lies adjacent. I have walked through the fishing village, listening to the origin myths of the Pattinavar community, taking in their village temple, Ellaiamman Kovil, where Shiva presides inside and Ellaiamman, a female deity of borders and boundaries, sits atop the roof, guarding the village and surveying its surroundings. I have stumbled among the fishing boats and fishnets that clutter the land’s edge, and stopped to hear about the tiny shrine of Nagoor Pir on the waterfront, where the fishermen seek the blessings of Andavar—“The God of Muslims,” they tell me, Allah then—before heading out to sea.

Saravanan related to me his own life story, of how he grew from a young fisherman into an environmental activist; his uncle Sundaramurthy, one of the village elders, told me the history of the Pattinavars and of Urur Olcott Kuppam. Nityanand and his team of passionate, argumentative, opinionated young colleagues at the Vettiver Collective and the Coastal Resource Centre, including Archanaa Seker and Pooja Kumar, have an office inside the village, in Thiruvalluvar Nagar.

They recounted their campaigns to clean Chennai’s beaches, reclaim marine commons from predatory developers, stop the government from building highways along the coastline, help coastal communities to stave off encroachment, displacement, the loss of their livelihoods and ways of life, and protest the severe air–water–land pollution and ecological degradation that have resulted from gigantic thermal power projects and other industrial activities, slightly north of Chennai at Ennore Port, also known as Kamarajar Port.

Art of Social Transformation

What do these accounts, about the political economy of Urur Olcott Kuppam and similar villages up and down the Tamil Nadu coastline, have to do with the annual Vizha, whose focus is on the performing arts, and whose tagline is “Celebrating Oneness?”

Krishna and a loose group of friends—Sadanand Menon, an arts critic and cultural curator who looks after the open platform Spaces, situated next door to the Kuppam at 1, Elliot’s Beach Road; R Rathindran Prasad, an award-winning young film-maker; Gita Jayaraj, a cultural anthropologist who studies a complex form of ritualised dance drama called Theyyam in northern Kerala; Monali Sanyal Balasubramaniam, a musician who sings in Tamil, Bangla, Hindi, English, Malayalam and Sanskrit, working with multiple genres of Indian music; and Sangeetha Sivakumar, a respected Carnatic singer and Krishna’s partner—these and many other volunteers have come together with Nityanand and Saravanan, as well as their respective associates and acolytes, since 2014. Together they do exactly what I saw them do so well on the night of 11 February 2017—make music.

The Vizha takes its motto of celebrating oneness very seriously. Vizha activities now unfold over several months, starting in about September and continuing through February. These include concerts and performances of a range of musical, dance and theatrical forms, traditional and contemporary, folk and classical, marginal and mainstream. Events occur in venues as varied as the beach, the railway station, on board particular bus routes, the village square, as well as smaller, more hospitable institutional spaces all over Chennai, most of them off the beaten track for regular audiences of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance.

Non-Brahmin communities, women and children especially, bring their musical and percussion instruments, such as the nagaswaram horn and the parai drum, performance practices and artistic expressions of both a religious and a secular variety, to elite upper-caste urban audiences who have no idea of the existence of a universe of art forms walled off by caste and convention. In February 2018, the Vizha expanded to encompass a fish market, and demonstrations of how to prepare local fish dishes. The Kuppam was no longer at the fringe of the city, but at the centre of attention, with a great deal of media interest and plenty of curious citizens turning up to see and learn.

Celebrating Oneness

That night after the spontaneous party at Ellaiamman Kovil beach, where everyone danced, then helped clear out the rows of plastic chairs and take down the lights and sets, the core group of Vizha volunteers repaired to Nityanand’s house nearby in Besant Nagar, which he shares with his partner, urban studies sociologist Karen Coelho, for dinner. Saravanan, giddy with the success of the Vizha, which is entirely crowd-funded and free of corporate sponsorship or institutional support, clambered onto a divan next to Krishna, and started to sing “Poromboke.”

Krishna looked at him in amazement. Saravanan was loud, off-key and determined to carry on. After a point he began to imitate Krishna’s characteristically dramatic hand gestures, with a bodily precision in inverse proportion to his ability to sing in tune. Krishna collapsed in laughter, as did the rest of us.

But then the hilarity became camaraderie, as Krishna and Saravanan put their arms around one another and sang a duet. Both their voices, one mellifluous and trained to perfection, the other rough and earthy, were booming. Tamil is their common language, beloved to both. It struck me that Carnatic, a product as much of courtly Thanjavur as colonial Madras, is a music that draws its contours from the sea exactly like the simple fishing songs known to Saravanan, his uncle Sundaramurthy and their fellow villagers.

Why do we associate Carnatic music’s aesthetic properties exclusively with temples and kutcheris, but not with the natural surroundings in which those man-made structures are set? “We go out to sea, with our nets and boats,” Veronica said. “And we come back with our catch of songs and stories.” This was an old lyric she had gleaned from village elders, made her own, and taught to village children who will not grow up to practise their ancestral calling.

“Veron can’t sing to save her life,” Krishna said. “She’s one of those people who just can’t be trained to sing.” Veronica grins at his despair. Chennai’s famous Carnatic music practitioner and fabled teacher, adored by his students, cannot get a good note out of her for all his virtuosity. But without Veronica, perhaps the lyric repertoire of the Pattinavars would be lost forever, as boats are mechanised and nets, sails and oars given up, along with the music that for centuries softened and narrated the labour of fishing.

Veronica Angel—bright-eyed, creative and linguistically as gifted as she is challenged musically—is a key lieutenant for Nityanand and Krishna in the Vizha’s planning and execution each year. She is the self-appointed archivist and bard of Urur Olcott Kuppam. She now translates for me not only the Kuppam’s fishing songs and her own poems, but also the poetry of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, which Krishna sings more and more. Through her unique consciousness, her intuitive sensitivity to land and sea, to a people and their memories, I have come to enter into worlds of poetry that move me beyond all the poems in all the languages I know—for I know no Tamil.

An Equal Music

By song’s end, by evening’s end, Krishna and Saravanan were locked in an embrace, yelling on the top of their voices. They seemed, as indeed they are, like brothers, alike but different, separate but akin. I thought about their elective kinship, forged in a common cause. This is what Ambedkar would at first have called by its liberal name “fraternity” and later by the Buddhist “maitri” or “bandhuta”, so lamentably lacking in India, especially in Hindu society, where caste does not permit such bonds to even be imagined, leave aside built in real life.

As Krishna and Saravanan embrace in Nityanand’s house, three distinct agendas become intertwined: a project for cultural democracy, a project for cognitive justice, and a project to protect the commons. Parity of the arts, parity of knowledge systems, parity of resources—together these can make for a truly egalitarian vision of Indian society.

I thought about how it would be to have such fraternal and friendly feelings writ large, an equality of lived spaces, a mutual respect among art forms, a level-playing field for all communities, a “universal beach,” to quote the poet Vivek Narayanan, also from Chennai. Caste is the breaking of primordial connections that thrum in our blood, across bodies, through the earth and astride the sky; caste is abnormal, against the order of nature.

Can we dream of such fellow-feeling, such parity, such give and take; can we begin to do this all the time, in all our activities—disregard caste and turn our societal order into a Vizha? Can we draw a line connecting everything that moves us to a social movement for the annihilation of caste? Can we truly and constantly celebrate oneness?

 

Poromboke Paadal:

 

Final scenes from the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, 2016:

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Updated On : 25th Mar, 2018

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