September 08, 2020

Casteless Collective - The Indian band shaking a cruel caste system

 The Guardian

'We will bring change': the Indian band shaking a cruel caste system

The Casteless Collective are repurposing the bawdy gaana style to confront class conflict – and call out everything from corruption to violence against women

When Isaivani starts singing the “beef song” with happy abandon it is nearly 10pm. The audience in the southern Indian city of Madurai seem to have lost track of time and erupt into cheers. Many wave blue flags, dance and whistle in high pitch to the fast tempo of percussion instruments. It is a warm night in October 2019, and very different to the India of today amid coronavirus.

This is a performance by the Casteless Collective, who are using music to shake up India’s notorious caste system of stratified social class. The band wear brightly coloured suits on stage, unusual attire for an Indian group. Isaivani, their sole female member, twirls as she sings high intensity, fast-paced gaana songs.

Gaana has its roots in the northern part of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state, and was confined there until it became more widely known through film soundtracks a few years ago. Originally these songs were a mix of dirge and eulogy, philosophical songs sung to keep mourners awake at night – the tradition is that loved ones should stay awake till the corpse leaves the house. Later, gaana songs evolved into depictions of life’s struggles, as north Chennai has a predominantly working class population. During the transition, an undertone of bawdiness crept in, with the songs and singers earning censure.

For Casteless Collective, gaana is a tool to end caste-based discrimination, which features in many spheres of Indian life. Manusmriti, a legal text from the first century BC, has a four-tier social system that places Brahmin priests and intellectuals at the top, then warriors, traders and finally labourers. Dalits – or outcastes – doing sanitary and menial works fell outside this classification altogether.

Though the post-colonial Indian constitution banned caste-based discrimination, the system has persisted and evolved into many sub-castes, deepening the divide. In villages, upper and lower caste people have houses in separate clusters, don’t mingle and have separate drinking water sources. Though not so prevalent in cities, discrimination simmers beneath the surface.

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