Chennai: The recent Rajinikanth starrer Kaala, directed by Pa. Ranjith and set against the backdrop of a Dalit uprising in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum in Mumbai, ends in Chennai with a character declaring the land rights movement in Dharavi has echoes in the slums of Chennai. There’s a hoarding in the background with the sardonic message, “Singara (beautiful) Chennai is no more a dream."
From September to December 2017, over 4,784 families were evicted in slum clearance drives in Chennai—part of some 260,000 people driven out of their homes in similar demolitions carried out across India last year, mostly for slum clearance and city beautification, according to Delhi-based NGO, Housing and Land Rights Network India.
“Relocating people from slums across Chennai and consolidating them in specific areas like Kannagi Nagar and Semmencherry, in the name of resettlement, is nothing but depriving them of their political power," says Stalin Rajangam, a Tamil writer and Dalit historian.
In recent days, Chennai—formerly known as Madras— has been witnessing a popular cultural intervention through public discussions, music and art that is attempting to fight inequalities and reclaim the lost space and identity of the working class and Dalits who built the city.
One such initiative is, “The Casteless Collective", a music band that is bringing out music as a political tool for Dalit assertion in order to counter what it calls the hegemony of caste in culture.
“When we started this collective (along with Kaala director Ranjith), we wanted to make people politically aware," says Tenma, a member of the music group, which sings about caste oppression, reservation, equality, beef politics and manual scavenging.
“Gaana (a form of music with origins in Chennai) has been a mere entertainment element in Tamil cinema since it made its appearance in the late 1990’s. However, the politics of Gaana is beyond that—it is the music of the working class and the oppressed," adds Tenma.
“Gaana is to us what hip-hop were to black politics in the US."
As Dalit movements established itself across rural Tamil Nadu after 1990, Chennai’s urban subaltern space remained politically unorganized, says Rajangam. “However, this political churning influenced Chennai in a more sociocultural sphere and led to the growth of Dalit literature, music and art," he adds.
A recent public discussion titled Enga Ooru Madras (Our Hometown Madras ) saw writers and historians come together to discuss how Chennai was a political and cultural hub for Dalits and how this was lost. Historians claimed that the non- Brahmin movements in then Madras presidency had theirs roots in the progressive movements of late 19th century by Dalit leaders C. Iyothee Thass and Rettamalai Sreenivasan.
According to Rajangam, Chennai saw a rapid physical expansion after 1970, which pushed Dalits to the margins, bringing further political powerlessness.
“For the Dalits who have lost Chennai, (these initiatives) will aid in reclaiming their lost space and identity and, will be significant in breaking the shackles of subordination," said Rajangam.