SONGS FOR THE DEAD
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