Conversation with Pushpavathy – Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram
Pushpavathy is a singer and songwriter from Kerala who has been associated with Carnatic music for over 34 years. Apart from being a successful playback singer in Malayalam movie industry, she composes, releases, and performs her own music that talk about the plight of marginalised communities in an attempt to create wider awareness around the issues they face in contemporary India. She regularly performs at conventions, meetings, and public gatherings organised by the leadership of Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI(M)), which forms the current elected government in the state of Kerala.
Following are excerpts from an interview with Pushpavathy conducted by Nakul Krishnamurthy for the project Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram, commissioned for Counterflows at Home 2021. She talks about how caste manifests in music, her experiences of having been discriminated against, and how music can be an effective tool in raising awareness and questioning dominant modes of thought.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell us when you started learning Carnatic music? You said you have been learning and performing Carnatic for the past 34 years?
Yes. I started studying music at the age of 12. I took a short break when I was doing my pre-degree course, which is when I started associating myself with the revolutionary movement. At that time, I protested against the Hindutva and the Brahmanical cult by refusing to go to temples and disregarding ‘Classical’ music. But soon, I started looking at music as a large terrain of knowledge and returned to my formal study of it at Chembai Music College, Palakkad.
How did that break and involvement with revolutionary movement impact you? Did you find any differences in your approach to music after that break?
Definitely, for the first time in my life, I saw a Veena, Tanpura, Violin, and Mrudagam, a space that I always wished for. Even at a very small age, I had an innate passion for music and always longed to study music.
There were many reasons that led me to take that break for one and half years. I had many bitter experiences as a student of Carnatic music. Most of the students with whom I studied were my teacher’s relatives who hailed from a Nambiar [an upper-caste] family. This didn’t affect my personal relationship with the teacher—the guru-śis̩ya [teacher-student] relationship—because she liked me for my talent. But they had a joint family set-up which practiced all the brutish conventions of evil casteist customs and practices.
For instance, at my teacher’s house, all the students used to be served a big meal on occasions like O̅n̩am and Vis̩u [festivals in Kerala]. But I was never allowed to sit among the other students. I was asked to sit separately and was served my meal there. When the other students asked why I was sitting separately, my teacher told them it was because I was their team leader and deserved a special spot. But I knew that it was because of my caste I was not allowed to sit with the rest of the students. Similarly, I was not allowed inside the house to drink water, I had to wash my plates separately and keep them outside so as not to ‘pollute’ them or the house. They always viewed ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ through the lens of their beliefs. Therefore I decided to distance myself from this system which was agonising and painful for me.
Did all these difficulties you faced play a part in your protest and your time in college studying Carnatic?
In our government college, around 97% of the teachers belonged to the Brahmin caste. It should be noted that only in the wake of customs and rituals complications arise. When I was a student in Chembai Music College, I didn’t feel like I was discriminated against in the same way people are when they are a part of the wider society. This was because I had no personal rapport with teachers and their families. I was also an exceptional student, studying lessons very carefully, being elected as the best student in the college, and having completed the course course holding a first rank.
However, a strange incident happened after I graduated from college when one of my teachers told my juniors in college about my talent in singing, but called me arrogant and egotistical. Maybe it was because I was courageous and strongly voiced my opinions, and challenged existing attitudes and norms of patriarchy and male supremacy. I spoke up boldly against such social injustices.
In what ways are your politics embodied in your work today? How do you engage in activism and voice your politics as an activist?
I have always questioned social inequalities through music. Through my music, I attempt to address caste-based inequalities. I am a singer who engages with the works of Sree Narayana Guru, Poikayil Appachan, Kabirdas, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore among others. I released my first album titled ‘Kabir Music of Harmony’ in 2004, composed by me and produced by Dr. Christina Doctare from Sweden. Later, I released audio cassettes of the songs of Sree Narayana Guru, songs like Daiva Daśakam, Anukambā Daśakam and Kun̩talini songs. I also set to music a poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam and Malayalam translations of some parts of Tagore’s Gītāñjali. In my concerts, I sing my own compositions.
From a very young age, I was fascinated by Communist and Marxist perspectives. It has helped me unpack identity politics, comprehend social hierarchies and hegemonic structures, and has helped me raise my voice against the politics of Brahmanical domination. Such oppressive systems deny certain sections of the society their existence.
We live in a time where we are at the verge of excommunicating certain sections of the society using tools like the CIA, NRC and NPR. I had raised these issues through my music as early as 2004-2005, having foreseen this is where we are headed as a country. At that time, I received hardly any support from the left political parties. I had written a song titled Āzādī [meaning freedom] discussing these issues, but they started paying attention to my works only in the last 4-5 years.
Why did you choose music as your tool of political activism?
I strongly believe that music has more potential when compared to other genres and modes of activism. It is a medium that immediately reaches the common masses and that’s why I choose to voice my politics through music. Music is more effective than conducting seminars and discussions, it produces a spark in our inner mind. Its success lies in the fact that it can reach the wider population, the masses.
You mentioned your forte is Carnatic music. Do you think casteist attitudes persist in the domain of Carnatic music today?
Absolutely. Evil practices of caste system has prevailed in India for centuries. Even before the establishment of British rule, there was an upper-caste supremacy in India. After independence, the condition of Dalits was terrible. They were not even considered as humans, they were treated like animals. It is the interventions of Renaissance leaders [of the Kerala Reformation Movement] like Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Arattupuzha Velayudha Paniker and so on that made Kerala a fertile land for communism to grow and prosper.
Kerala is one of the states that heinously practiced caste system. This is clearly evident in the works of Poikayil Appachan. He talks about the plight of the children orphaned because their parents were traded as slaves by the people of upper caste. Such histories of slavery, just like its other forms in different parts of the world, is heart-wrenching. In order to escape slavery, they embraced Christianity, only to find that similar caste-based segregation and oppression existed there too. In the end, caste remained and remains the same.
Listening to your compositions, I can see that you are influenced by certain other forms of music, like black popular music from the US…
There is a reason for that. Poikayil Appachan had set his poetry to music himself, but I find it to be sorrowful, a kind of grievance. But I think the time for grievance has passed. It is time to be brave and question these unjust practices through political means. So these songs should not be a grievance anymore, but should instil confidence in people to raise their voices. And that’s why I decided to compose my own music for these poems. With these Western musical influences, we can see these songs in a new light, bring about a renewed confidence, and encourage the youth to take up these issues boldly. I recorded a few lines of one of these songs and posted it on Facebook. It went viral garnering more than 100,000 views. This is evidence that people are relating to it more and are inspired by it.
Do you see any similarities in the politics of black popular music and their struggle and your own musical activism?
Oppression based on colour and race exists everywhere in the world. George Floyd was killed because of his race. The sorrow that the black population faces is the same as that the marginalised in India also face. The only difference is that the hierarchical organisation of castes makes it a bit more complex in India.
We do find that the value of sadness is the same, the sorrow that the oppressed feel everywhere in the world is the same. The predicament of the African American population in the US is the same as of Dalits and other marginalised communities in India. So the music that talks about such a predicament, irrespective of where it is from, should be without borders, without boundaries. It should be celebrated and taken up everywhere. This alludes to the concept of Vasudaiva Kut̩umbakam [the world is one family]. The world is and should be our family. If the death of George Floyd brings me as much sadness as for the people in the US, it means there are no borders. The only classes are the ones who oppress and the ones who are oppressed.
You remarked that we can clearly see a caste hierarchy in Carnatic music and many ways in which we can feel it. What do you think we can do to dismantle this?
Firstly, we must question how power coalesces around the dominant castes in the Indian political system by advocating for Constitutional norms through democratic means. Secondly, representation must be ensured for talented Dalit artists in music festivals organised by the government. Thirdly, India must democratically elect those political parties that engage with Dalit identity politics, and uphold the rights Dalits have been guaranteed but denied due to caste based hierarchies. Fourthly, social justice should be championed without losing the essence of our Constitution imagined by Ambedkar. At the same time, there should be continuous and incessant cultural interventions through music, dance, dramas and other art forms. Since music is my forte, it is my primary tool of resistance.
When you talk about these different ways in which we can challenge or “smash” Brahmanical patriarchy…
It is a war waging in our inner minds. Many cultural activities have the possibility to transform perspectives but we can only dismantle such vicious hierarchies through laws and judicial systems. The only weapon we have in our fight is our Constitution, but the upper-caste establishment is continuously trying to sabotage this very Constitution that guarantees us our basic rights. So the first indispensable need is to protect our Constitution. People should be aware of that, and it is through such cultural interventions that we can create that awareness. It is not about just implementing these five steps, it is a continuous, combined effort.
You mentioned that you have had quite a few bitter experiences and faced various various struggles…
I have so many experiences. One instance is that, on my birthday, my mother made pāyasam [a type of pudding] and I took it to my neighbours’ house to share. But they refused to take it [because of our caste], insulted me, and sent me back home.
Another time, I was at my the house of my old school teacher to teach her daughter Carnatic music. I entered their living room and they had couches and chairs there, but they spread a mat for me to sit on the floor. I refused and sat on the couch instead, and sang a few Kīrthanams [compositions in Carnatic music]. It was only then that they realised my worth. At that moment, all their casteist attitudes just melted away, and they never discriminated against me based on my caste. But if this was any other person, who was not bold enough to sit on the couch, and did not sing Carnatic, they would still be sitting on the floor.
Does it mean that singing Carnatic music somehow gained you a respect that they did not otherwise have for you? Carnatic music conferred upon you a certain legitimacy that you otherwise did not have?
Kīrthanams are praises of different deities in Hindu religion. I truly believe in God; I am what I am today because of his omnipresent grace. That’s the truth. And firmly rooted in that truth, I oppose all social inequalities through my activism.
There was this other incident, when I went to teach music to a daughter of an Ambalavāsi [family attached to a temple]. There are restrictions for lower class people to use their toilet, which indicates how inhumane the caste system is. The first time I was there, I wanted to use their toilet. And I did. The next time I was there to teach the student, it was written on the door of the toilet that I am not allowed to use it.
Even if I was a teacher, I was looked down upon on the basis of my caste. Even the chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan is addressed as ‘Chovan’ [a derogatory term to refer to someone belonging to the marginalised Ezhava caste]. By saying, we have to efface caste hierarchies doesn’t mean that we are devoid of caste. Because, one can easily identify one’s caste from their appearance. Nowadays, many Dalits claim that they don’t have caste. It’s wrong, only by realising and reclaiming our identity and standing by our identity firmly can we question social inequalities.
In Margazhi music festival, most of the people who sing are Brahmins. I have never seen a Dalit singing there. Same is the case with the Swathithirunal and Kalpathi music festivals. I often raise questions to avoid such disparities in government sponsored programmes like Nishagandhi and other festivals. Since I have a voice now and I am taken seriously, I continue to raise such questions. And I get my opportunities to perform by and only by raising my voice against such injustices.
You told me the other day that you have never been given an opportunity to perform in the temple in your hometown. Even after being such an accomplished singer.
I haven’t performed even a single concert in my own native place. They do collect a lot of funding from us to conduct the festivals but I have never been invited to perform.
You introduced yourself as a playback singer at the start of this interview. Have you faced any discrimination here as well?
Definitely, caste plays out in a very subtle form in Kerala unlike the untouchability in North. It becomes apparent when I am chosen to sing only folk songs and not any other genres. I am not favoured to sing a melody or love song. Most of the songs of Dalit women in movies are sung by ‘beautiful’ upper-caste women.
Not a single playback singer from upper caste who sings folksongs is asked to sing a folk song in a live show. They are not labeled as ‘folk singers’. But I have been labelled as a folk singer even if I have not sung any folk songs on stage. I openly ask them whether it is because of my skin colour or caste that they address me as a folk singer.
Once Sree Narayana Guru was asked about his caste. He responded, ‘If you can’t find out my caste by looking at me, then what’s the point?’ What he meant was that we all belong to the same caste, the human caste.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I aim to accomplish a lot of things through my music. Predominantly, the mindset and perspectives of people ought to change and later, issues of caste-based hierarchies and marginalisation should be solved through the judicial system. Darkness should give way to light in the minds of humans and I hope to get opportunities and stages to propagate the work of Sree Narayana Guru, Poikayil Appachan, Ayyankali and other activists. Thank you.
Translated from Malayalam by Shilpa B. and Nakul Krishnamurthy