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The Rhythm of Caste


Music is well known for its tranquilising effects, and songs in particular tend to linger in our minds for long periods of time. It also has a significant impact on the society. The article titled, “Beats of Misogyny” by Anjana Menon (EPW, 1 August 2020), denotes the misogyny and the deep-rooted patriarchal thoughts that exist within song lyrics in Malayalam cinema. In addition to that, songs appearing in the Malayalam cinema are not just propagating misogyny, but also caste hegemony.

There have been several discussions regarding the presence of caste dominance within Carnatic music, as pointed out by different scholars through articles in EPW. T M Krishna, a renowned Carnatic music vocalist, has mentioned in many instances that, “Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated world.” This notion of upper-caste dominance is reverberated and reinforced through Malayalam cinema. To further reinforce this notion, one of the most crucial techniques employed within Malayalam cinema is to build a storyline around women falling in love with the hero through their musical abilities. In most cases, these scenes involve Carnatic music or even music with a classical feel to it. The song “Nagumo” in the film Chithram (1988) evidently portrays a scenario where the heroine, who initially has an extreme dislike towards the hero, eventually falls in love with him post the song sequence. Beyond the storyline, there are some subtle references that revolve around casteism as the characters involved in this scene belong to the upper caste.

Furthermore, within Malayalam cinema, there exists a growing trend of casteism exhibited through symbolism with classical music as a medium. Most scripts involve an upper-caste family or a hero, along with a background of Carnatic music or a specific member of the family who sings Carnatic music. This is showcased in the movie Paithrukam (1993). In this story, there are many instances where the hero, who is also a Brahmin (Jayaram), sings classical music with a harmonium. A similar notion is expressed in the movie Bharatham (1991) where an upper-caste family is depicted with a great affinity towards carnatic music.

Aaraam Thampuran (1997) is another classic Malayalam film where upper-caste dominance in the field of music is blatantly expressed. The hero is shown as a person who has an exceptional flair for Carnatic and Hindustani music. The song he sings is named “Harimuraleeravam” that hits every Malayali with nostalgia. When deeply scrutinised, it can be seen that the characters who have an affiliation to music belong to the upper caste. This notion begins with the hero (Mohanlal), who is represented as a Brahmin and with Krishna Varma (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) and Unnimaya (Manju Warrier), who also hail from the upper caste. Another subtle reference to upper-caste dominance reflects through the hero when he says that the foundation of his musical abilities comes from his mother. Lekshmi Thampuratti, who does not appear in the film but is referred to multiple times, is said to have appointed Krishna Varma to teach Carnatic music to the kids in the palace. This, again, refers to the affiliation of upper castes to Carnatic music. There is a clear differentiation between the castes when it comes to music in the film Aaraam Thampuran. A Brahmin is always shown as an expert in Carnatic music, while the other characters that include Magalam played by Kuthiravattam Pappu are portrayed as people with no awareness about it. This representation of the layperson not having any affiliation towards music is visible across several other films. In the film Rock and Roll, the Muslim character named Khadhar played by Jagadi Sreekumar says that his knowledge about music is quite limited. On analysing other characters in this film, a clear depiction of upper-caste dominance can be seen. Chandra Mouli, played by Mohanlal in the film, is represented as a successful musician.

“A non-Hindu could never be successful in the field of music in Chennai,” is not just a dialogue from the film Rock and Roll. This dialogue is expanded and shown in the film with the character of Issac (played by Lal), who is an extremely talented, but an unsuccessful musician, whereas Chandra Mouli, the most successful member in the team belongs to the upper caste. Connecting music to religion is another trend that is significant within the Malayalam film industry. A Muslim character is seen singing qawwali or ghazal. In the film His Highness Abdullah, the central character Abdullah played by Mohanlal is an upper-caste Hindu man named Vishnu Namboothiri in disguise. The character Abdullah sings qawwali, while Vishnu sings Carnatic/classical music. However, Abdullah is elevated to the position of a Brahmin when Udaya Varma, played by Nedumudi Venu, says “Brahmin is he who knows Brahma, music is like God and you know music,” and the film concludes.

It is certain that Malayalam films are not just propagating misogyny through songs, but there is also a silent propagation of caste hierarchy. Classical music is now used as a tool to express superiority of the hero. On the other hand, if the character is from the upper caste, there will be a reference of Carnatic music.

However, this article has not made an attempt to understand the females represented in connection with Carnatic or classical music, as seen in the setting of the song “Kalabham Tharaam,” from the film Vadakkumnadhan.

But, all in all, the representation of upper-caste hegemony is augmented by the use of classical music in Malayalam cinema.

Mitul Joseph




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