Arivu: Independent art will be an alarm for the society
Kollywood's latest rapping sensation Arivu talks about making socially responsible art, and how personal is always political
One of lyricist-rapper Arivu’s favourite things to do as a child was to pretend to be a newsreader. His Maara Theme and Vaathi Raid might currently be topping playlists, but it all began at home when he read the dailies for his family. Slowly his interest in poetry and also in the language grew. “I used to speak in Tamil whenever I could. My friends didn't call me, 'mama, machan'. They used to say 'vaanga aiya' and ask me doubts concerning the Tamil language. That made me very happy.” A fortunate twist of events introduced rap to Arivu in college, who admits to not listening to much mainstream music while growing up. Arivu and rap turned out to be a match made in heaven. Rapping, he says, is poetry on a metronome. “It makes extended sessions of poetry interesting to listen, for the millenials. I was fascinated.” He adds that hip-hop as a genre, was a tool that the oppressed turned to, to tell their stories. “We like the art form; why have we left the anger behind? ” he asks.
From the streets of Arakkonam to the parks of Chennai, Arivu’s quest to make socially responsible art has taken him several places, including the studios of Kollywood’s most popular music directors. “Equality is a lifestyle. There is no point in just writing about situation-oriented equality. So no matter what situation I am offered, I will try to see equality in it.” Breaking stereotypes is a byproduct of this process. “Uyara parandhalum oor kuruvi parundhu agaadhu is a popular idiom. But I find it to be racist. And hence, I provided an alternative with 'Parundhu aagudhu oorkuruvi' in Soorarai Pottru. Arivu admits that he has refused several opportunities because some are opposed to his beliefs. “I don't want to mess up the ideological constructs I have created through my work.”
Anger at social injustice and a call for equality are strong motifs in Arivu’s work -- both in indie and mainstream. The first poem Arivu remembers penning, back in school for a contest, was about child labour, titled ‘Vidiyuma?’. It isn’t a surprise to know that one of his earliest poems is titled ‘Android Yugathil Ambedkar Perargal’ (it bought him a ticket into Neelam's The Casteless Collective.) “I only strive to look at how I can infuse equality more into my art. I had the desire back then, and I now have the opportunities to do it. Oru writer aitom-ndrathula naama right-a irukom nu illaye. I see every day as a test.”
On an average, Arivu takes two days to write a song, especially when it comes to film music, where the time span is limited. During this period, he goes into a lockdown of sorts -- no phone, no sleep, and no food even. Arivu gives a shy laugh, acknowledging it to be a bit crazy. “Every song is a huge opportunity.“ He says he writes for the next generation, which genuinely wants to see a just and casteless society. “Avangala vitturave koodathu. To achieve this in two days, mutti modhi ezhutharen. I return to normal life only after I have delivered.”
His independent music gives him more flexible deadlines. Arivu says he takes more time to research and construct a thought than to actually pen it down. Considering his fascination for the newspapers, the sustained urge to use facts is natural. For example, the idea of ‘Anti-Indian’ was about a year in the making before he bled it onto paper in a day. “The term disturbed me. It is not just about knowing the problems, but also figuring about what your take on it is. Vilambarathukaaga government-a thittina, it won't help. But if you sensibly read up about an issue, the information would help the listeners and also reach more people.” There’s research involved in his film songs as well, based on the situation and context. “I am new to this (rap), and I have to bring my unique perspective to it, especially when you have been waiting to do this. Research is paramount.”
Arivu’s casual demanour is in contrast to the intensity of his lyrics. You can sense this quality even in his lighter work, like Vandha Raajavadhan Varuven’s Red Card-u. Remove the flashy dance, and you will have a song about a man who is barred from a place without justification. Arivu laughs in acknowledgement. “Indha samoogam thara pressure than adhu. One has to look at the struggle our ancestors faced. My grandfather has never seen urban areas, because of oppression. This beautiful city also has a cruel face that is stained with sweat and blood. I want to speak about that.” And there’s a lot of personal struggle to tap into. New to hip-hop, Arivu didn't really get the culture, and it was reason enough for people to question his voice. “Naan gramathulerunthu varen, enakum hip-hop kum enna sammandham nu kepanga.” But for the young rapper, it was all about storytelling. “My grandmother is the biggest storyteller. I believe that hip-hop exists in the villages too. People who are 'yo-yo' can't accept that,” he says. However, Arivu is clear that the objective isn’t to attack anyone but to shine the spotlight on stories of the discriminated. “My personal tribulations might be disturbing, but I want my art to be positive.”
The popular notion is that a career in film music brings more visibility to indie artists. Arivu says the vice-versa is true too. “A live video of me singing Sanda Seivom in a park went viral. That got me several messages from the industry. Even Anirudh, when he introduced me on stage, called me an indie artist first.” He admits that sustaining an economy is tough, and hopes tomorrow would be better, but before we move on, asks a more basic question. "What is independent music? There are several definitions. If it is just non-film music, then don’t we have Carnatic music? Or choirs, acapella bands?" He believes that there is class and caste discrimination within independent music, just like in our country. "Non-cinema music that is made in elite spaces do function as businesses.” The more worrying question is whether we respect indie artists who want to make socially responsible art? “They would be viral, had they done something else. But they do what they do because they care about the public. But are there spaces that respect their thought?”
Arivu’s Therukkural is an initiative that attempts to preserve such voices. Artists get together in public spaces, like parks, to sing and perform art. “It now sees a hundred people, where at least 60 people are indie artists who write about social issues. I believe if such voices get cognisance and not just the soup songs, it would make a mighty contribution to the social equality discussion. Independent art would then be an alarm for society. It would have a legitimate role to play.”
Does art always have to be political? Arivu believes there is no other way. “I might not know much but I believe personal is political. Our individual lives are by itself, manifestations of politics.” From what we wear, to where we live, to the God we pray to, everything has a socio-political history to it. “If art was just aesthetics, won’t that change from person to person?” he asks. For some, it might be lazing to the strums of the rain on the balcony, with coffee in hand. “I live in a hut house. How will I know that? Wouldn't my aesthetics be in enjoying looking at a sparrow that has chosen to sit in a hole in our hut?”
Even if he wasn’t creating art out of struggle, he assures he would be on the ground, the battleground. Taking a page of poet Inquilab’s thoughts, he feels it is dangerous to say that he will only sing about an issue. “It’s something I read in my childhood, but it has stuck. So whether I write or not, I would still go to protests and listen to people there, even though I am not very active. That's how I connect myself.“ Arivu is aware that his political voice could lead him to trouble, but he says he is equipped to face it. “I think I haven't grown enough to draw controversy. But I am aware that it may happen.” Every song is an opportunity, a preamble to a discussion. “My song should never be the reason for two people to fight. En paata kettu, oruthan inoruthana kevalama paakkama irunthaan na, I will be happy.”
The kutti story behind Vaathi Raid
"The call from Anirudh for Master for Vaathi Raid, came out of the blue. Vijay sir's name guarantees a huge audience. They should have a takeaway of sorts. For me, a good teacher always inculcates good discipline. So bringing that into the lyrics was my objective. Anirudh is extremely fast; he worked in beast mode, to be honest. All the experience I had so far, helped me match his speed. We didn't sleep the first day, and took a day's break and completed it the following night. It is my first song with him and also for Vijay sir. I was a bit nervous, but Anirudh was supportive."