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The Casteless Collective: Taking Gaana Beyond Its Confines
Tamil Nadu

The Casteless Collective: Taking Gaana Beyond Its Confines

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

Singer songwriter Logan who hails from Vyasarpadi in North Chennai is making toes tap in Kollywood

“I used to write poetry when I was in school and my teachers, annoyed that I wasn’t studying, would tell me I would never achieve anything in life. But a few years ago, when I had gone back to my school – MCSM higher secondary, Chengalpet – as a guest, I realised they were all so proud of what I do,” said 29-year-old songwriter G Logan, who has worked in 69 films including the upcoming Kaala (2018), starring superstar Rajinikanth.

Logan’s tryst with songwriting for the film industry started in 2009, when he penned the lyrics for an album called Music Torture. Since the words he wrote were different – woven with vernacular indigenous to slums and with political overtones – he got opportunities to work in films. “Love songs I can write on the spot. But I take time to write political lyrics because I would want to think about what I’m going to say. Songs should be important to a film – they can make it a hit, evoke emotions in people, and even course correct the ways of a nation and inspire generations to come.”

Logan sings for The Lede

A song he wrote for the 2016 film Pichaikkaran (Beggar), about the hypocrisy pertaining to money, power and social justice, was only released on YouTube as the ‘Glamour Song’, and not used in the film, because they worried it would cause problems after release. “None of the words I pen are from my imagination; it’s all reflective of reality.” 

As the only one amongst his family and friends who works in the film industry, Logan has received a lot of support and admiration. His work, he hopes, would help other talented youngsters, who are often overlooked due to their origins, get a foot in the door in cinema.

A resident of Vysarpadi, a North Chennai neighbourhood with a notorious reputation for high crime rates and violence, Logan vehemently asserts that his locality is often portrayed incorrectly to serve the business interests of some. “After film work, in the evenings, auto rickshaws refuse to go to the area. To bring about a change in how the locality is seen and portrayed, we need music.”

Logan is one of The Casteless Collective, a consortium of young musicians from the slums of Dharavi and North Chennai, who came together to showcase Gaana, a kind of music that is indigenous to their lifestyle and culture. He met film director Pa Ranjith, a new age Ambedkarite and the force behind this initiative, while working on Kaala. 

Ranjith, a Dalit himself, is known for using symbols of Dalit pride in identity prominently in all his movies – Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala. Through this initiative, he wanted to use art as a weapon to bring about political awareness and discourse about social inequality and caste.

In the month leading up to their first show, Logan and his fellow musicians keenly looked at issues pertaining to their social reality and identity, before they started writing and composing songs. Why do they dump garbage in the slums, they wondered, from areas far away? Where are the people who lived along the Cooum river, they tried to investigate. “In North Chennai, Gaana is live and flavoured with the emotions of the people. The things we cannot say in cinema songs, we can say through Gaana. The art form needs to reach beyond its confines and reach the rest of the world to earn respect,” explained Logan. 

In an exclusive interview with The Lede, Pa Ranjith explained the idea behind the name of the collective: “Iyothee Thass Pandithar, an intellectual from Tamil Nadu, wrote about the “Casteless Tamilian”, instead of referring to them as lower or marginalised caste. That idea was inspiring: instead of bearing the burden of the caste, you stand without its weight, proudly Casteless. It was not just interesting, but also political.”

But ask Logan about his caste and he shoots back, “Is that even a real thing? Would you say no to money because someone of a certain caste gave it to you? Would you ask for a doctor’s caste before he treats you? Would you refuse food if you did not know the caste of the farmer? When you don’t wonder about caste in such cases, then why speak of it at all? Caste exists only because some people are trying to elevate themselves by asserting this false sense of identity.”

Yet, when The Casteless Collective took the stage for the first time earlier this month, they did so while dressed in three piece suits reminiscent of Ambedkar’s symbol of resistance against a social mandate, also used prominently by Rajinikanth in Kabali. Their music was striking, with lyrics laying bare the narratives of those marginalised in today’s society like Dalits, farmers and fishermen. “Only if people come together and start demanding their rights, will things change,” expressed Logan.

Feisty and dedicated, Logan’s drive to make something of himself is evident. In fact, he said, every morning he reiterates to himself, “I should win, I should achieve, I should accomplish,” even before he opens his eyes to see the sunlight. “I write according to the situation that the director gives me, but I always leave a mark that lets people know it’s me behind the words.”