Thursday, September 4, 2008

Where's JLO by the Cooum?

Ranjitha Gunasekaran's article in The New Indian Express on life by the Cooum was read more out of curiosity (read article). Weirdly, it excited me more than enticing sympathy. From the rubble of utter despondency has come the world's most stunning revolutions or breakthroughs. Apart from the French Revolution that rose from the 'let them eat cake' ignominy, it's the more spiritually uplifting movements such as jazz in New Orleans and rap from the Bronx.

Forget karma, forget the soul, forget a higher power. The most evident sign of life, as we know it, is water. The two are immutable. Everything from Mars space expeditions to WALL-E's girlfriend Eve have their eye on this tie. It is not for nothing that rivers and water bodies are known to be the cradle of civilizations. In fact when the world was Pangaea, the floating mass was in a cradle of water. There 's a lovely line from the Upanishad that talks of a river's unconditional love and giving nature - Nee elavatraiyum thuppavaki vittu, nee aaviaagi maraindhu vidugirai - meaning you give so much, you cleanse us and it's you who vanishes without a trace (it doesn't sound half as good in English but it's poignant in Tamizh). But with the vanishing comes the invisible; the masses who get left behind by the banks to create a community out of squalor and poverty. This is one constant in a river's history, be it the Cooum of Madras or the Bronx of New York.

Much like the Bronx, the Cooum too was the site of industrialisation and the hub of a settlement. Francis Day and Andrew Cogan strolled past looking for an ideal port after failed attempts on the East coast. And they spotted a large piece of land by a meandering river that flowed past cotton-rich Chintadripet or Chinna-dhurrie-pet and they knew that they had struck gold. And so on August 23 1639, the Nayak of Poonamalee handed over the land where Fort St George (a view of the Western entrance above) was to be built a few hundred yards north of the mouth of the river leading out to sea. Soon villages around the Fort cropped up, industries came up, the waterway began to play a key role in trading and in the creation of Madras.

But again like the Bronx the Cooum has a history that reaches way past the arrival of Europeans. The Bronx was the Aquehung for the Mohecan Indians and the Cooum was the site of two sacred Sivan temples (Ilambaiyankottur temple [R]) whose beauty has been immortalized in Thirugnanasambandhar's Tevaram. Both rivers sustained a past culture that fell to industrialisation that left in it's wake effluents, sewage and slums. As always the uneducated, the manual labourers get left behind in the wake of success.

Ranjitha let the teenage boys tell their stories, their favourite spots by the stench, their ambitions "fashioned" around the bottle and dope much like their fathers. It's the same set of experiences that the young boys who turn into hustlers on the streets of the Bronx and the one's by the Cooum face - school drop outs, drugs, booze, violence. And as for the girls - early motherhood and drunks for husbands (if at all they stay), are the norm.

It was the apathy, the borders, the palpable difference that gave rise to rap in South Bronx. It was a tool to express their frustration, the way it felt to be ignored, to be black or Hispanic, to vent what they want even if it was just a fuck with the most bodacious black woman on the block. It ranged from social activism to gangster rap. And it spread from East Coast to the West. It was a way out, an option like no other to get close to all the bling in the world that they only saw from afar and got killed trying to get there much like 50 Cents' Get rich or die tryin'.
There's Fat Joe, Grandmaster Flash, Mary J Blige and the diva JLo who cleaned up and got out of the Bronx. But as many new talents come out, there are several more queuing up or not knowing how to get out.

Projects like the Art-Start's Hip-Hop Project cater to the one's lagging behind or the one's hustling, dropping out of school, or stepping out of prison to find a route. The Hip-Hop Project was kick-started by Chris "Kazi" Rolle, a student who discovered Art-Start in 1999 as his last option to a regular life. He brought together several kids with talent and those without any to pick up rapping and make something out of it for themselves even if it's only their pain they can talk about. After four years of working on their skills they produced an album and had their experience documented and showcased around the world. Bruce Willis set up a studio for these kids and also produced the docu along with Queen Latifah. The docu's won several awards across the world. (Drop by the Hip Hop Project)

Much like rap, we in India have gaana or koothu paatu. The rhythms are pretty much the same and it focuses on the same issues of poverty, lack, desires and more. Unfortunately though, the music industry here is primarily dependent on the movie industry. But it has picked up koothu on and off in the past. But of late it's taken it and turned into a dance routine with elements from the west. And usually it goes the way of gangster rap or the cheesy hip-hop where it's all about curves and who wants to lay who. Gaana paatu is not yet a mainstream art form, it's not even respectable poetry to many. People listen to Amiri Baraka. Who's going to listen to the guy on the steep side of Spurtank Road? One of the most brilliant things about rapping is, it's not entirely about the voice. DMX was known for his barking tones. And so it is with koothu. Content is right here. Rhythm can be picked up. What the folks by the Cooum need is the door to the option.

With music directors like Yuvan Shankar Raja picking up kooothu and infusing it into the storyline of movies such as Pudhupettai, not only authenticates the experience but has gotten us to acknowledge it as well. It's songs like Variya and Yenga Area Ulla Varadhey (watch video below) that bring out the experiences of the invisible folk and their territorial markings more than Yogi B & Natchathra from Malaysia.
Hip-hop's going through its whole commodification phase. One's trying to figure out who has real talent and who has the producers backing them up. Though not to that extent, here too it's a case of what's authentic. A friend was disillusioned when he found out that Blazee was a Tamizh brahmin. He felt that to be a true hip-hop artist you've got to serve time or at least have a single police record.

But like the Hip-Hop Project proved it's not about reveling in one's misery. What the youth by the Cooum need more than its beautification plans which is as stagnant as the filth in it, is a project that would get them to talk about their experiences, see it for it what is, see what's more to life and show them a way out of the rut. And maybe all they need is just one Gill Scott-Heron to step out, speak up, cut an album and then it's up to them.


Anonymous said...

Didn't get much of the music stuff, but yes the spirit of grit against the odds came through.

Here's another dead river from your part of the world...though worldwide the ancient river valley civilizations have all been tragically destined to end up as sewer sludge - there's gratitude for you.

The evocative photo essay "River Bleeds Black"
Dhaka’s 12.6 million people produce about 3,200 tons of solid waste daily. Approximately 80% of city’s sewage, in addition to 40,000 tons of untreated toxic industrial waste is released directly into the river daily making much of Buriganga river biologically dead. The river has become so polluted that water has turned literally black and has a glue-like consistency. With failing infrastructure and little investment in systems, thousands of people living on the bank of the river have little or no choice but to continue to use this highly contaminated water to wash, bath and even to drink.

Anonymous said...

you what else could be a good anthropology-esque screen name for you?

Appu rocks.

Get it? Rocks, as nevermind.

This project would work and despite what I think of Mr Yogi, I kinda see this chap fuelin' proactive fire.

I still do miss the cartoonish side of speckles, but this blog is fun too!

And the geek in me says, "Learning rocks too"