“Life is an illusion. In the end, we are all food to dogs.” His voice is strangely soft, though with a head of thick, red-streaked hair and his aviator-like sunglasses, he cuts a formidable figure. Paralysed from the waist down, he sits on the edge of his customised black motorbike; around his neck is a gold chain from which dangles a heavy pendant in the shape of a skull and crossbones.
Viji is a poet, a street legend. He is an icon of gana, a musical genre that emerged from the slums of Northern Chennai. Gana is essentially freestyle poetry, its metre straightforward and its vocabulary concise. It’s recited in Madras Bhashai — a colloquial Tamil peppered with street slang spoken in many parts of Chennai.
Gana’s origins are commonly traced to the 1960s, when there was an influx of North Indian migrant labour into Chennai. Many of the workers sought shelter in the Dalit-dominated north and after a day’s work would often ask the locals for a gana, or song. With no instruments handy, singers snapped their fingers and improvised lyrics and a minimalist aesthetic was formed. In the rough-edged experimentation and story-telling of gana, Viji sees a parallel with hip hop. “Rap,” he says, “comes from the same kind of people, from the same parts of society.”
But no rapper, however rough in his neighbourhood, was born into Viji’s poverty. Abandoned in a cemetery as a child, he was forced to scavenge for food alongside the city’s dogs. At the cemetery, a young Viji noticed the folk singers, the performers of marana gana who exorcised mourners’ grief and were rewarded with “wads of cash”. “I realised,” he says, “that I could do the same.” He persuaded a veteran singer to teach him the art.
At 14, Viji performed for the first time. “I sang, uninvited, at a boy’s funeral about youth and death. His mother broke down and later offered me some rice. I realised that I could do this for a living.” He is unsentimental about his audience’s tears. It is, he says, his “job to make them cry, to enable them to release their emotions”. Ironically, though marana gana is about death, “if you spend enough time with me,” Viji says, unsmiling, “you’ll want to kill yourself”. It is rousing music, life-affirming. “For Dalits,” Viji explains, “the idea is to send the deceased off with dancing, singing and a procession. Thousands of years ago, the rishis saw death as a gift, a release from the suffering of life.”
‘I could be serenading a woman, trying to get her into bed, but my thoughts turn towards death,’ says Viji
Often, Viji says, mourners are so entranced by gana, by the singers’ poetry that he finds himself performing up to 10 hours at a single funeral. It is a cathartic sound. Viji, though, is haunted by death. He published a book titled Naan Sanditha Maranangal (the deaths I have encountered), and says, “Even after 3,000 funerals, I could be serenading a woman, trying to get her into bed, but my thoughts and my words always turn towards death.”
Viji’s songs are imbued with his existential philosophy, his awareness of “how wasteful and futile it all is”, but his own life is a triumph over futility. He has no formal education, cannot read or write Tamil, yet is celebrated for his dexterity in the language. He is successful enough to ponder the question of staying true to his roots. “Even though I’ve done well,” he says, “I still live in my slum. My music shouldn’t be listened to in an air-conditioned room. You have to come to the slum and watch me sing.”
It is that filth, that context Viji knows that is necessary, as marana gana attracts mainstream attention, to preserve the songs’ rawness. “I want everyone to know about it,” he tells me, “I will die someday but gana must live on.” Does he know who’ll be singing at his own funeral? He lets out a belly laugh: “I do not know. But I’ve written a song about it.”