The hypnotic tune of ‘Cuckoo Cuckoo’ is breaking the internet, crossing 100 million views on YouTube. Never before has an indie Tamil music project become a global sensation, amassing so much popular and critical acclaim. Sung by Arivu and Dhee, with music composed by Santhosh Narayanan, it’s the first song from A.R. Rahman’s brand new label, Maajja.
To understand the political subtext in the lines of ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, we have to delve into the life and craft of its lyricist, Arivu.
The song’s lyrical fabric is weaved by Arivu’s experience, particularly him being the grandson of Valliamma. Arivu’s grandmother worked as a landless migrant labourer, whose ancestors were forcefully transported to Sri Lanka to work in the tea estates. Later, some of those migrant labourers were forcefully repatriated to India. One such migrant was Valliamma.
Elaborating on his maternal lineage, Arivu says, “Our family went to Sri Lanka 200 years ago to work as landless labourers in the tea estates. They returned to India 60 years ago, after the Sirima-Shastri Pact. My grandmother couldn’t even say goodbye to her sisters. To this day, we don’t know if they are alive.”
Either by a stroke of luck or by the design of destiny, rapper Arivu got a professional assignment that provided him with the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka. During that trip, he went on a journey to find his roots – his estranged maternal family line. It turned out to be a spiritual and emotional rediscovery, during which the creative kernel of ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ took shape.
‘Enjoy Enjaami’ celebrates the lives of our common ancestors, which preceded oppressive socio-economic institutions such as capital, caste, race, gender, nation, private property and so on. The song transports us to a time when humanity was at its harmonious best, without being muddled by oppressive hierarchies the world sees today.
A brief survey of Arivu’s craft reveals that a vision of dignified human life and an egalitarian world is at the core of lyrics. For this purpose, he often looks to the work and life of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, one of the greatest philosophers, civil rights activists and statesmen of the 20th century. Arivu has written rap numbers like ‘Jai Bhim Anthem’, ‘Jai Bhim Thalaimurai’ and ‘Onru Ser’, which recount Ambedkar’s struggles and victories against the hierarchical caste order. Even in his commercial hit numbers like ‘Vaathi Raid’ in the Vijay-starrer Master, Arivu has strategically weaved in lines like ‘Karpi, ondru ser (Educate and organise)’, the very motto spelt out by Ambedkar for the liberation of oppressed communities.
Similarly, in ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ too, Arivu paid tribute to Mahad Satyagrah of March 1927, spearheaded by Ambedkar to assert the rights of the Mahar community to drink water from the lake. Ambedkar questioned why the ‘untouchables’ were prohibited from accessing water, whereas the ‘birds and beasts’ were allowed to drink from the lake. Arivu’s lyrics – “The lakes and ponds belong to the dogs, foxes and cats too” – echo the egalitarian vision that Ambedkar fought for.
In taking us through the journey of the evolution of early human civilisation, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, at least for a split second, makes one recalibrate one’s role in space and time, in the larger scheme of the universe. The song poses a challenge to the self-importance we give ourselves and our assumed superior identities, by juxtaposing this with the common heritage of humanity during the time of our ancestors.
The land guarded by my ancestors
The devotee that dances
The earth rotates around
And the rooster crows
Its excretions fertilised the forests
Its turned into our country
Then our home too
An assortment of singing techniques bring out the depths of the song. While Dhee’s voice is amazing, Arivu proves to be a veritable powerhouse of different vocals. Further, he’s a multi-genre artist who can write and perform rap, folk, Gaana and Oppari, to name a few genres. Oppari occupies a special place in Arivu’s heart and he considers it to be the Indian form of hip-hop.
Through the lines of Oppari curated by late pavalar Mugil, Arivu expresses the troubles of the generations of landless labourers who have toiled to create profitable tea estates and skyscrapers, but do not own any land for themselves. In this instance, Oppari, which is popularly considered a mourning art, was deployed as a cry of resistance by showing that a labourer toiled hard but couldn’t enjoy the fruits of her labour.
One could not help but juxtapose this with Krishna’s famous dictum from the Bhagavat Gita: ‘Do your work, don’t expect the fruits of your labour.’ Arivu’s placement of Oppari could be seen as a cultural counter-narrative, expressing the desires and disquietude of the marginalised masses as opposed to the hegemonic narratives propagated by the elites.
I planted five trees
Nurtured a beautiful garden
My garden is flourishing
Yet my throat remains dry
Despite being enrolled in an engineering college, Arivu was penning poetry, performing mimicry, writing lyrics, singing songs and showcasing his craft wherever he got the opportunity. Even back in those days, he was entrepreneurial enough to build a band from scratch with the support of his friends and was performing at various events. He barely made any money from these gigs, but he invested whatever he earned to record his songs professionally in studios. In the nascent days of YouTube, Arivu circulated his songs to a small circle of his friends and acquaintances by email.
Coming across director Pa. Ranjith’s speeches substantially influenced Arivu’s priorities as an artist. After the release of Attakathi in 2012, Arivu was increasingly attracted to the radical intellectual and political questions raised by Pa. Ranjith on public platforms. The egalitarian socio-political vision expounded by the director served as a guiding light for Arivu on using his art to give voice to the struggles of the oppressed and marginalised.
A crucial milestone in his life was when Arivu auditioned for the band Casteless Collective, and was selected. He not only had the camaraderie of fellow musicians, but also access to a massive platform to showcase his lyrical and singing talents. This opportunity, he says, forced him to push his creative energies to its limits. He has tapped into his reading as well as the collective experience of the society we live in to craft the lyrics we hear in various Casteless Collective songs: Jai Bhim Anthem (sung by Arivu), Quota (sung by Muthu) and Beef Song (sung by Isai Vani).
The ‘Jai Bhim Anthem’ rap is a biography of Ambedkar, who fought to recover the dignity of the oppressed masses. It recounts the dark history of social oppression and how Ambedkar played a decisive role in challenging caste hierarchies. ‘Quota Song’ is a poignant yet defiant narrative of the historical and intellectual reasoning behind why reservations exist. Taking its strength from the lived experiences of historically oppressed communities, ‘Quota Song’ challenges the vicious propaganda of the upper castes against the legitimacy and fairness of reservations in education and employment. It emphasises reservation as a right of the historically marginalised rather than the charity of the state, a lesson which, unfortunately, even the hundred-year legacy of the Dravidian movement couldn’t drive home.
Alongside working with the Casteless Collective, Arivu has released numerous independent songs. His track ‘Anti-Indian’ challenges the jingoistic nationalism that’s sweeping the country by raising counter-questions through his rap on the responsibility of the state for its citizens’ welfare. It was much appreciated for its lyrics that exposed the fault lines in the seductive rhetoric of nationalism peddled by the Hindutva forces. ‘Kallamouni’ slams privileged liberals who are notorious for their selective outrage and calculated silences. It hits on this class of political mercenaries and armchair philosophers who use political outrage for their selfish ends instead of fighting against all forms of injustice and oppression.
‘Sanda Seivom’ has become the protest anthem of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests and questions the state’s motives. One of his recent songs, ‘Enga Nilam Enga’, written for the short film Soru directed by Tamil Prabhakaran, articulates the pains of the farmers and the politics involved in appropriating farmers’ labour. This song also highlights the concerns of the farmers’ protests that continue to rock the nation’s capital. Despite being busy writing for movie projects like Sarpatta Parambarai, Kadaisi Vivasayi, Jagamae Thanthiram, Doctor, etc., Arivu continues to speak truth to power through his independent music projects.
Arivu’s oeuvre, at its core, touches the lives of the oppressed and marginalised. At times it celebrates and soothes them; in other instances, it thunders as their voice against injustice. When quizzed about the inspiration for ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, Arivu categorical states that it is not merely a product of his individual genius, rather it’s an artistic effort to see himself as an extension of the generations that preceded him. The true roots of ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ can be traced back to the untold and uncountable pasts that have been lived by oppressed communities. In more than one way, we need more Arivus to both celebrate the beauty and critique the injustices of our collective humanity.
Karthik Raja Karuppusamy is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently co-editing The Shudras: Vision for a New Path with Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd for Penguin Publications.