CHENNAI — Twenty-six-year-old Arivu's small room, on the fourth-floor terrace of an apartment in suburban Chennai, is as lively as his music. It is in this room that Arivu shot his now iconic rap song "Sanda seivom", which effortlessly rips the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens apart.
Pictures of Ambedkar and Buddha are looking over him and an ektara (the instrument) standing tall. "It was a gift from the Tata Institute for Social Sciences when I recently visited them," Arivu says. "I intend to learn to play it and even use it in my rap." A single stringed instrument, the ektara might not sit well with his fast-paced rap, but Arivu is used to challenges — right from his childhood in Arakkonam.
"I lived in an urban cheri, so to say. It was also a Muslim neighborhood, and there was a beef slaughterhouse around. In today's India, perhaps a hugely controversial place. But life was a celebration there," he beams. His parents — Kalainesan and Thenmozhi — provided Arivu and his younger sister, now a medical doctor, an intellectual atmosphere. Arivu learned more from the music and books at home than at school. Soon enough, he wrote poems. "I wouldn't call them poems, but my attempts," he smiles.
Arivu's "anti-Indian" independent rap, surprisingly, never came in the way of his chances.
When he entered college (Arivu studied engineering at a college in Coimbatore and later did an MBA) he was ready with his first poetry collection. "Ever since entering college, I would practice singing at home in front of the mirror. I decided to put all my thoughts into it and sang in a thick voice. My friends said it sounded like rap — that was the first time I was hearing of it."
After college, Arivu tried his hands at various things including the civil services, and he spent most of his time "studying". But occasionally, when he got some money, he would go to Coimbatore to record a song that he had written. He had no idea, though, how to get them across on a public platform.
Arivu has been getting offers to write for music for movies, but he has been careful with his choices in the film industry. "Also, I would never quit independent music. That platform — with all its limitations — is dearer." Arivu's "anti-Indian" independent rap was a sensation, but such songs, surprisingly, never came in the way of his chances in mainstream cinema. "In fact, directors have asked me to write similar songs, but just tone it down a bit." Arivu has lost count but says he has written for some 20 films, including Surya's upcoming Soorarai Potru.
"Of course, I write love songs too, but I maintain my ethics. I insist on gender equality in such songs, I will never do body shaming or have phrases in praise of this or that skin color. I celebrate love, but will never allow it to become an excuse for sexism."
Arivu has no great plans for his future, but there is one thing he knows he should do, either as research project or as music document: work drawing parallels between oppari (the folk genre sung at funerals) and hip-hop. "People say I write well, but I know I cannot hold a candle to the grandmothers singing oppari in my village. See this:
Naan anju maram valarthen
Azhakaana thottam vachen
En thottam sezhichaalum
En thondai nanaiyalaiye.
(I planted five trees,
And nurtured a beautiful garden
My garden flourished,
Yet my throat is parched.)
"In these four lines, they talk about life. That is our folk art for you," Arivu says.
The cultural appropriation of hip-hop in Indian society is something that deeply bothers Arivu. "In Africa, hip-hop was a form of protest. People used it communicate their pain and oppression. When you import it to the Indian context, it should have naturally spoken in an anti-caste voice, because caste is the most important issue in our country today. But instead, hip-hop is used for teasing women, to glorify men. You copy their caps, hoodies and jeans, but leave the politics behind," he says. "How can that be right?"