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Rapping truth to power: Arivu pulls no punches in his album 'Therukural'

Lyricist and singer Arivu is the latest Tamil music sensation and he pulls no punches in his overtly political album Therukural.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 21, 2019, 09.44 AM IST
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Therukural has had 2 lakh streams on all audio streaming services and another 2 lakh streams on YouTube, according to Abraham.
There is a YouTube video of Tamil rapper Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Arivu, where he seldom takes his eyes off the music stand right through his rendition of “Anti-Indian” at a festival in Chennai in May 2018. “I had written the lyrics just the day before and did not have the time to memorise the words,” says the 25-year-old.

“Anti-Indian” is the infectious, standout track of his recent hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues album Therukural (Street Verses), a play on the Tamil literary classic Thirukural (“Sacred Verses), which has earned him praise from commoners and musicians alike.

Seamlessly segueing from caste and religious divisions to government apathy, jingoism and Hindi imposition, “Anti-Indian” is the receptacle into which Arivu claims to have poured all his anger at the time.

“Nee kattum vari dhaan vendum, nee sindhum kanneer vendam/ Nee yenbadhu vote-u mattume, naadu yenbadhu rate-u mattume (We only need your taxes, not your tears/You are nothing more than your vote and this country has a price),” sings Arivu. Carnatic vocalist and cultural commentator TM Krishna is among the fans of the album and Arivu. “It (the album) is about saying things as they are.

There is no beating around the bush. Arivu has the ability to go to the kernel of an issue very quickly.”

The other songs in the album, which Arivu has created with music producer Rohith Abraham, who goes by OfRo, tackle the anti-Sterlite protests, women’s rights, the troubles of the middle class and the hypocrisies of lawmakers and voters.

Though there have been Tamil rappers before him, like Yogi B and Dopeadelicz, Arivu could do for hip-hop in Tamil what Divine did for the genre in Hindi. Born in a Dalit family, Arivu grew up in Arakkonam, 80 km west of Chennai.

There was no television or radio as his teacher-parents wanted him and his sister to focus on their education. That meant the only music he heard during his childhood was folk — oppari (dirge), nattupurapattu, which translates to village song, and gaana, popularised by the Dalit settlements of north Chennai.

He also got to read the Communist and Ambedkarite magazines his parents subscribed to. He started writing poetry on poverty and caste in school, which continued into engineering college in Coimbatore, where he became more politically conscious.

While in Arakonnam people knew his caste from where he lived, in college the way of identifying his background was different. “They would ask if I ate beef or the lecturer would ask who among us were (Scheduled Caste) quota students,” Arivu tells ET Magazine by phone from Chennai, before leaving for Malaysia to record a new song. But he remained popular in college, as few had his felicity for words, which he put to good use on stage. He went on to do his MBA and then, in 2017, met Pa Ranjith, the filmmaker who has been responsible for mainstreaming the anticaste discourse in Tamil Nadu, primarily through his films, including the Rajinikanth-starrers Kabali and Kaala.

Later that year, when Ranjith was putting together a band called The Casteless Collective, Arivu was called to audition and was selected. Arivu considers Ranjith a mentor of sorts. “Any political doubt I have, I ask him. His politics is reclaiming human dignity.

That’s my politics as well.” Ranjith was not available for comment.

After Arivu joined The Casteless Collective, he listened to the likes of Kendrick Lamar (whose influence can be heard in Therukural), Drake and Bob Marley, and read Alex Haley’s Roots. He considers Karl Marx, BR Ambedkar and Periyar as his literary inspirations. Among the songs Arivu has written for the band is “Quota”, in which he says: “Ooruku munnala pesurada needhiya, yaarukum theriyama kaekurada saadhiya (You talk justice in front of everyone and ask me my caste in private).”

Tenma, music director of The Casteless Collective which has released Therukural, says Arivu’s biggest strength is his Tamil vocabulary. “He comes from a non-sanitised environment.”

Abraham, who worked with Arivu on the album for more than a year, says what is interesting about him is that he is not influenced by hip-hop at all. “Everything Arivu writes about is factual, based on real incidents and his experiences. There is a lot of relatability.”

Therukural has had 2 lakh streams on all audio streaming services and another 2 lakh streams on YouTube, according to Abraham.

In addition to independent music, Arivu has written around 20 songs for 15 films, including one in Kaala.

It’s not just poetry and rapping that seem to come naturally to him, but even facing the camera. He looks quite self-assured in a music video for the track “Kalla Mouni” from the album, sporting a high fade, shades and a printed shirt.

He has been overwhelmed by the response to Therukural but knows there is a long way to go before the change he desires happens. “Technology may have improved but mindsets haven’t. We are still making films on caste pride.” Arivu is not done reminding us of such follies.
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