You have seen movies and read books about Dr BR Ambedkar. But have you heard a rap based on the story of the jurist, economist, politician and social reformer? Meet The Casteless Collective. The 12-member band is India’s largest ensemble political band. In October, their first track—Jai Bheem Anthem—was released on Spotify. The hip-hop-styled track is a tribute to Ambedkar. Written and performed by rapper, lyricist and singer Arivarasu Kalainesan, simply known as Arivu, the song aims to “take Ambedkar to the younger generation”. “We wanted to do something more contemporary and relevant,” explains Tamil-indie musician and composer Tenma, co-founder and music producer of the band, who, like most of the other band members, uses only his first name.
The band, which performs in Tamil, was formed when filmmaker Pa Ranjith’s organisation, Neelam Cultural Centre, collaborated with Tenma’s label Madras Records. The name—Casteless Collective—comes from a term used by 19th century caste activist Iyothee Thass. The group has rappers, rock musicians and gaana singers—a form of music that is usually identified with funeral music as it is sung only in homes where someone has passed away. Later, this art form came to the stage, but has been much stigmatised for its close relationship with death. Ranjith’s aim was to provide a platform for such marginalised artists.
The song ‘Thalaiva’ is sung in this typical gaana way. In the song’s treatment, Tenma says he was inspired by one of his favourite songs—Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. “I wanted our song to be like a rock-folkish anthem,” he says. And, why not? The band borrows from the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of equality. The African American-led Black Arts Movement encompassed the works of a group of politically motivated black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians, and writers. This talented bunch emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement, somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s.
The Casteless Collective’s next work-in-progress is a song called ‘Vantheri’, meaning immigrants. Tenma describes it as the next step as far as their idea, music and where they’re heading as a band is concerned. For the last year or so, the band has been ideating, brainstorming and building the song. “It is about how slums get displaced and people are left without land. The government wants the land, and the ones who can’t fight back end up being attacked. It’s a very emotional song that connects all of these stories,” says Tenma. Written by Arivu, the song will be performed by him along with Tenma.
Known for using music to question the caste system—and other forms of oppression or inequality—the band sings about Dalit assertion, rights of the LGBTQ+ community and honour killings. During the ongoing pandemic, it continued its mission, posting songs on social media and performing in virtual concerts. In August, the band had its first-ever virtual concert organised jointly by Virtual Now, Troque and Brown Post. For the members, it was a very unique and different experience. “Usually, we’re in front of thousands of people. This was the first time we were just 15 people, including the technical crew, videographers and the audio guys,” says Tenma. In the coming months, they hope to put out some more songs and new shows.