Chennai’s Ennore Creek is still revivable and T.M. Krishna’s appeal through the ‘Poromboke’ song is doing its bit to create awareness.
When you translate, you dive into a dictionary, driven by a restless desire to find the mot juste that fits all the connotations a word adorns – feeling delighted if you do and giving up if you don’t.
Poromboke, in Tamil, is one such word whose meaning gets diluted in translation. It is part of a quintessential vocabulary of invective which when spat out, denotes something of no worth – utterly worthless. Carnatic music’s unorthodox practitioner T.M. Krishna has used poromboke, one of the choicest swear words in Madras bashai (language), in a music video to point to the effects of industrial pollution in Chennai’s Ennore Creek. And staying in character is his current profile photo on Facebook, where he trades the kurta and white dhoti for a bemused self-caricature in a shirt and printed lungi held aloft.
Normally, a regular Carnatic professional musician is caught in the matrix of the genteel settings of the December music season circuit, voice preoccupations and the Fabindia kurta. Social responsibilities and kutcheris don’t collude unless it’s a fundraiser. But Krishna, who has long given up the first one-third of the aforementioned matrix, released a video a few days ago that has gone viral. He has used the fabric of Carnatic music to sing of the violation of the commons, of communal spaces. In its original meaning proromboke refers to land left fallow for rivers to flow, for cattle to graze and for ecosystems to flourish, but the word currently is only known as an expletive. Its original meaning has been forgotten.
In the video, Krishna uses swaras, ragas constructed on a song set in everyday Tamil, in an effort to save a creek that is slowly being killed by concrete structures.
The opening shots of the musician and his accompanists – seated in a dystopian landscape, with masks over their mouths to avoid toxic fumes – are surreal. It seems to be a world leached of nature and life, where the only remaining humans are the musician and his accompanists, unable to breathe. These shots conjure a forceful image of a time – not so far away – when bird call, song, even breath, could be endangered. Interestingly, the poromboke song was written by 27-year-old Kaber Vasuki for a rock version.
A self-taught rock musician Vasuki was curious to see the song take on a Carnatic avatar and see his lyrics fit into ragas like behag and anandabhairavi. “It is the first time Carnatic music has trended on YouTube, ” he says.
There are those who say the video and the music aren’t as catchy as the rock version or a jingle. Carnatic music doesn’t work that way in any case – it takes many years of training to have a taste and grow a fine ear for this art, which settles in your being.
In this context it is fascinating to see that the local fishing population has been going home humming the Carnatic tunes, says Nithyanand Jayaraman, who conceived the project: “We took an essentially rock song and brought in T.M. Krishna with his golden voice and his own history of using art to heal social maladies. Ennore Creek is still retrievable, revivable and restorable. If saved, it can be a natural buffer against the ravages of the weather.”
Jayaraman and other environmentalists are pushing for an audit into the lapses of the pollution control board and the state coastal zone management authority, while appealing to the National Green Tribunal to direct the wetlands as a ‘no development zone’.
Krishna’s music video is playing its part in communicating the cause. Folk painting artist Ranjani Chandran, a trained singer, has been forwarding this video to her friends on WhatsApp. “The tune is melodious, execution is close to perfect and effect of the visuals churns my insides,” she says adding that she hopes this video contributes to making the community think about “social well-being” differently. “What I currently see is people judging themselves by economic parameters alone – like, say, a big house, big car, gadgets, partying or trips abroad.”
Gayathri Ramachandran, an organic foot-soldier, who runs several green campaigns in the city, is rooting for a healthy lung at Ennore. “Our society has its priorities all wrong. We are unbelievably blind to the large-scale destruction we are creating. I am so glad to see that art is being used for social change and not entertainment.”
The video appeals to the state government to be vigilant and guard the ecosystem of the creek that drains two major rivers – the Kosasthalaiyar and the Araniyar – into the Bay of Bengal. The dynamic brackish water ecosystem is capable of supporting a variety of flora and fauna. An online signature campaign has been organised by the Vettiver Collective and Justice Rocks to save this creek.
As Krishna inches to a crescendo towards then end, he stakes his claim to the common space while provoking the listener to act – in solidarity.
Dhanya Srinivasan is an independent writer based in Chennai.