What Arivu's 'Enjoy Enjaami' Tells Us About the Cultural Resistance to Caste

The song is a remarkable lyrical and musical intervention that takes us one step closer to annihilating caste.

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Four months after its release, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ is a global hit, entertaining and educating audiences around the world even if,  in the words of the lyricist, the intention wasn’t “to comfort anyone” but to “disturb”.

Arivarasan’s homage to his grandmother, Valliammal, a landless labourer with a turbulent past, is a strong reminder of feudalism and its contemporary manifestations. The lines “Verva thanni sokka, minukkum naatu kaara (Glistening with sweat, stand tall, oh rustic man)” speak of the dignity of labour, and the beginning of civilisation.

Praising the labouring class, this line directs our attention to the fact that caste and labour in the Indian context happen to be two inseparable entities. As B.R. Ambedkar puts it, “Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers”. Labour is directly responsible, it is said, for a flourishing civilisation. Since here it is labour that is being exploited, the irony cannot be more apparent.

Labour, after the abolition of slavery by the British Empire, gave way to a fancier version of slavery called indentured labour. This system was one of the forms of bonded labour in which people belonging to the lower rungs of the society opted for, as they were faced with poverty and famine in their native countries. Many Indians migrated with or without consent to work on sugar, tea plantations, etc., under terrible circumstances.

The Indians who became bonded labourers – indentured labour – in the Indian Ocean countries and the Caribbean also faced social ostracisation when they came back to India, because of the taboo of crossing the ocean. Female labourers ran the risk of sexual harassment as they served in the households of plantation owners, landowners, etc.

Also read: Arivu’s ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ Is a Journey in Discovering Roots and Celebrating Equality

The exploitation of labour through mere trickery and the subsequent abandonment in foreign soil to fend for oneself thus amounted to harrowing psychological trauma. One such labourer happened to be Valliammal. Hence, these are landless labourers of a different kind. Their loss is emotional in nature, as well as material.

As expressed in the lines ‘pandal la pavakkai’, the imagery evoked in these lines (the toil of others being reaped and enjoyed by somebody else simply by virtue of being a landowner) is not a new one in the Tamil literary world. C.N. Annadurai’s short story, Sevvazhai discusses the plight:

“I have toiled and I am going to get the full benefit. The life would be so much better if I get the same result from my toils in the field. I have not put in one in hundreds of effort in the banana that I have put in the field. But there, only toil is mine and the land is his and thus he enjoys all the benefits.”

Deeper meaning 

“Enjoy Enjaami”, now a famous catchphrase among the youth of the country and beyond, has meanings deeper than it reveals.

The word ‘Enjoy’ has a different meaning apart from the obvious one that one infers seeing the English spelling, it can be heard sung in strongly accented Tamil in the song, ‘Enjaaee’. The other meaning provided by the lyricist is that of the word being a derivative of the phrase ‘en thaai’ as spoken in a dialect of a particular region. The language one hears throughout the song is that of people who do not find representation in mainstream media. A lowly farmer tilling his lands in rural Tamil Nadu around Tanjore district probably affectionately calls his daughter ‘enjaai’ today. But normally, the term was used to refer to one’s mother.

The following word ‘enjaami’ being a term used to address a feudal lord and colonial master basically can be read as a call to all the so-called masters to come together. The lyrics thus mean, my dear lady, my dear lord, please come together to reap the bounty of nature.

The use of the traditional musical instrument ‘parai’ in the beginning is indicative of cultural history. The instrument in itself has a rich history; a kind of drum made of animal hide was played to draw attention, to make announcements of wars, etc. Here, the drumming is paired along with ululating sounds. Women raising ululation is considered auspicious in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

Arivu assumes the character of his grandmother or simply that of a woman and sings the oppari which forms an integral part of the song. Oppari is an art form associated with death that is traditionally sung by a group of women in rural areas. Again this was an isolating profession for those who practiced it. But today, initiatives to revive the dying art form are attempting to turn the stigma on its head.

Oral history and traditional knowledge were passed on through bedtime or moral stories in the domestic space, a task mostly taken on by the women of the household; mothers, grandmothers, etc. And as it happens, ‘Valliamma peraandi’ or Valliamma’s grandson’s tribute to the matriarch of his family is special in more ways than one; for the first time, a story-telling grandmother has a name. Not much unlike in a grandson’s imagination, she also has a majestic seat in the video.

As we know, the women belonging to a lower caste are victims of double oppression, one due to her caste, and another one for her gender. There exists another demon they have to face: poverty. In such a case, her voice being heard and her story being told are enormous leaps.

As a group within the society, the lower caste people suffer because of discrimination, which more often than not happens to be a humiliating experience as we know from accounts of untouchables and other lower castes. In some cases, even being seen is an unclean act; menstruating women belonging to any caste remain unclean beings to this date and have to isolate themselves for the duration. Women in India in general and Dalit women, in particular, are among the most marginalised lot in the world. Gender inequality and caste oppression deny these women access to health care, basic human rights, justice and of course, resources.

Furthermore, gender representation and gender roles in ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ are other interesting aspects. As mentioned earlier, a male taking on the feminine voice and/or any feminine trait is a matter of ridicule in society, it is an issue frowned upon and considered shameful to his family and to him. But here, the lyricist/singer quite literally becomes the voice of his grandmother. Arivarasan singing in a woman’s voice is him breaking gender stereotypes, and moving forward to a more egalitarian world.

The video features real people from rural India, the lyricist’s grandmother and her compatriots who shared her life experiences. The choice of making regular villagers and actual native agricultural workers feature in the video is an interesting one, as it mainstreams the ‘unfavourable’ and ends up featuring not-so-commercial faces. Thus, making clearly visible all that is unclean and was avoided earlier, especially the old women and men.

Musical resistance 

“Enjoy Enjaami” is a blend of a traditional Tamil folk song with rap, adding freshness to the song. The use of traditional instruments sets the mood, which is an earthy, rustic one that stays true to the essence of the song. The song is an engaging story a grandmother tells starting off from the beginning of time to a time when the world became ‘home’ and then ending with a moralistic and metaphorical coming together of all, to rejoice in oneness.

Arivu performing. Photo: Special arrangement.

The single innovatively uses gaana and rapping musical forms. Both have a history of being used widely in fighting oppression.

Going by the definition of gaana and rap, it is loud and clear that these two art forms are born out of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Gaana and rap are a symbol of resistance. The recent Tamil gaana-style rap single “Enjoy Enjaami” is a perfect example of resistance and a fitting response to caste oppression/discrimination. This song is composed with a mix of music grammar of oppari, gaana, rap, hip-hop, Tamil folk song and oppressed people’s language.

If rap is performed to fight against the discrimination of the blacks in the Western countries and the Americas, gaana is performed to fight against the discrimination of lower caste communities in India and other South Asian countries.

Caste connotations 

Let us analyse the title of the single “Enjoy Enjaami”. ‘Enjoy’ can have two explanations. The first explanation is very simple. It is an English word. There is nothing to explain since it is crystal clear to all those who know English. The second meaning is noteworthy not only to English-speaking audience but also to Tamil-speaking populace. This “enjoy” comes from a well-known Tamil expression/phrase “en thaayee” (என்தாயி). It is also a colloquial way of saying “en thaai” (என்தாய்). According to the singer Arivarasu Kalainesan, “en joyee” is a distortion of “en thaayee” just like “enjaami” (என்ஜாமி) which is a distortion of “en saami” (என்சாமி).

Enjaami was an expression used by Tamil-speaking slaves/labourers during the colonial period. This was how the people addressed their British officers. “Enjaami” refers to “my master”. But the literal meaning of “enjaami” or “en saami” is “my god” or “my lord”. With this explanation, it goes to prove that master-slave relationship was perspicuously manifest in British India. What is unfortunate about the use of “enjaami” today is that it is still used by poor landless Dalits even after 74 years of independent India. These Dalits address their bosses (who belong to mostly upper caste categories) as “enjaami” when they seek help or favour or even when their monthly wages are due at the end of the month.

In addition to the above-stated explanations, the third explanation/definition of “enjaami”, in my opinion, is the most endorsed and time-honoured. The third meaning is “my darling”. One can get to hear such a phrase every day in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu and in Tamil-speaking regions of the world.

Also read: Meet Arivu, Who Wants to Take Rap in India Back to Its Political Roots

Though there are many more meanings attached to “enjaami”, the first two meanings will be further studied and critically analysed in this article as the singer himself claims that the song was written to pay tribute to his grandmother, a poor landless Dalit labourer who was exploited by her feudal lords. Plus, it is also the expression used by the slaves/bonded-labourers to address their landlords (pannaiyars/zamindars).

It is interesting to note that how this simple word “saami” metamorphoses into the most complicated metonymy. “Enjaami” is a classic example of metonymic and polysemic statement. The meanings and the functions that go with “enjaami” are lengthy and deep.

As discussed above, it has been used with a different purpose which was undoubtedly colonial in nature since the arrival of the British until their departure. It is painful and shameful to notice that the use of “enjaami” did not cease to exist even after the independence. This continuum wouldn’t surprise social scientists and historians because according to them it is a well-known fact that “enjaami” was in use even before the British invaded India. India was and is still a caste-ridden society. Hence it has a caste-induced connotation.

A 2015 Indian Express article exposed how was still being followed in schools in Tamil Nadu:

“While the upper castes find varied ways to secure their social hierarchy, they also find ways to not let those they consider below them to ever question their place. Lessons in caste began early in a Tamil Nadu school where students had to wear wristbands with colour codes based on caste. It’s red and yellow for Thevars, blue and yellow for Nadars, saffron for Yadavs — all socially and politically powerful Hindu communities that come under the Most Backward Classes (MBC) category — while students of the Dalit community of Pallars wear wrist bands in green and red and the Arundhathiyars, also Dalits, wear green, black and white.”

Caste has always been a burning issue in India and Tamilnadu is not an exception. Caste-Hindus (savarnas) have always been keeping the fire un-extinguished. This fire doesn’t seem to extinguish in the near future. Dalits (avarna) have been at the receiving end. Let me recount an anecdote:

Our friend Manish (name changed) from Bihar told me that he was not even allowed to stand aside for cover in the rain while he was walking through an area where upper caste people lived. Why? Because he happens to be a Dalit. This was the condition in the 1980s.

During the time of the Travancore Kingdom (present-day Kerala), lower-caste women were not allowed to wear clothes that covered their breasts. Higher-class women covered both breasts and shoulders, whereas lower castes, including Nadar and Ezhava women, were not allowed to cover their breasts, to show their low status. They had to pay the breast tax if they wanted to cover themselves. This harrowing practice began in the 1800s and continued till 1925.

Such atrocious stories on caste discrimination are aplenty. What is thought-provoking is that forms of caste discrimination vary but the content is exactly the same all over India.

Against this backdrop, Arivu’s “Enjoy Enjaami” is a remarkable attempt to take us one step closer to annihilating caste. The first line of the song says it all. “Enjoy enjaami vaango vaango onnagi”. It means “My Lord. All of you come together”. The implication of this sentence is the following: Let us all come together to fight the caste hierarchy.

Sreenidhi Padmanabhan is a student of M.A (French) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Prof. Ajith Kanna teaches French at JNU.