SONGS FOR THE DEAD

Tehelka - - THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH -

VIJI HAS a folder stacked with pic­tures of rot­ting corpses — ca­dav­ers, pu­tre­fy­ing, half-sub­merged, be­ing fer­ried by the Ganges.

“Life is an il­lu­sion. In the end, we are all food to dogs.” His voice is strangely soft, though with a head of thick, red-streaked hair and his avi­a­tor-like sun­glasses, he cuts a for­mi­da­ble fig­ure. Paral­ysed from the waist down, he sits on the edge of his cus­tomised black mo­tor­bike; around his neck is a gold chain from which dan­gles a heavy pen­dant in the shape of a skull and cross­bones.

Viji is a poet, a street leg­end. He is an icon of gana, a mu­si­cal genre that emerged from the slums of North­ern Chennai. Gana is es­sen­tially freestyle po­etry, its me­tre straight­for­ward and its vo­cab­u­lary con­cise. It’s re­cited in Madras Bhashai — a col­lo­quial Tamil pep­pered with street slang spo­ken in many parts of Chennai.

Gana’s ori­gins are com­monly traced to the 1960s, when there was an in­flux of North In­dian mi­grant labour into Chennai. Many of the work­ers sought shel­ter in the Dalit-dom­i­nated north and af­ter a day’s work would of­ten ask the lo­cals for a gana, or song. With no in­stru­ments handy, singers snapped their fingers and im­pro­vised lyrics and a min­i­mal­ist aes­thetic was formed. In the rough-edged ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and sto­ry­telling of gana, Viji sees a par­al­lel with hip hop. “Rap,” he says, “comes from the same kind of peo­ple, from the same parts of so­ci­ety.”

But no rap­per, how­ever rough in his neigh­bour­hood, was born into Viji’s poverty. Aban­doned in a ceme­tery as a child, he was forced to scav­enge for food along­side the city’s dogs. At the ceme­tery, a young Viji no­ticed the folk singers, the per­form­ers of marana gana who ex­or­cised mourn­ers’ grief and were re­warded with “wads of cash”. “I re­alised,” he says, “that I could do the same.” He per­suaded a vet­eran singer to teach him the art.

At 14, Viji per­formed for the first time. “I sang, un­in­vited, at a boy’s funeral about youth and death. His mother broke down and later of­fered me some rice. I re­alised that I could do this for a liv­ing.” He is un­sen­ti­men­tal about his au­di­ence’s tears. It is, he says, his “job to make them cry, to en­able them to re­lease their emo­tions”. Iron­i­cally, though marana gana is about death, “if you spend enough time with me,” Viji says, un­smil­ing, “you’ll want to kill your­self”. It is rous­ing mu­sic, life-af­firm­ing. “For Dal­its,” Viji ex­plains, “the idea is to send

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