You have probably seen the Hindi film named Dirty Picture. A befitting name indeed! It profited big time by deriding the hardships of the South Indian film actress Silk Smitha’s shattered life that ended in her suicide. Vidya Balan, the current day actress pranced through the hugely successful potboiler practically semi-naked, was honoured with a National Award for best actress! The song ‘Ooolaala Ooolaala’ from that film was a super hit, credited to Vishal Shekar as composers. It was sung by Bappi Lahiri, popular Hindi film song composer of eighties, and Shreya Ghoshal. That song left me perplexed in more ways than one.

The very first confusion was the artificial rendering of the song by Shreya Ghoshal. I always thought of her as a natural! Another shock that assailed me was that it was a rank copy of the song ‘Ui Amma, Ui Amma’ from the 1983 Hindi film Mawaali for which Bappi Lahiri himself was the composer. He sang the song ‘Ooolaala’ without mentioning anywhere that it was his own music! But what really shocked me was the astounding fact that the audio quality of ‘Ooolaala’ could not hold a candle to the audio quality of ‘Ui Amma’ that was recorded thirty years earlier! Anyone who doubts my word on it may listen to the vinyl record of Mawaali on a Hi Fi music system.

Similarly A.R.Rahman’s songs in the recently released Tamil film Kadal was bewildering for me. Though I was happy that even twenty years of continuous innings in the industry has not diminished A.R.Rahman’s ability to offer creative music, I was totally unprepared for the shocking fall in the sound quality of his songs, something I have not seen in over two decades of his career.

I heard his song ‘Anbin Vaasaley’ from the film Kadal at midnight on an FM Radio channel. The music arrangements was fantastic but its rank sound quality, the way different sounds bumped into each other to emerge without clarity or separation, made one doubt whether it was indeed an A.R.Rahman song. The next song broadcast was his ‘Anjali, Anjali’ song from Rahman’s 1994 film Duet. The saxophone intro at the beginning of the song resonated with an astounding clarity, as if someone standing near me was playing it for my exclusive benefit. Amazing sound quality permeated every note of that song.

What is happening? And I can’t believe this fall is happening in an era when audio technology is scaling new summits! Was this an inadvertent mistake that happened during recording or while making copies of the songs? Or worse, has A.R.Rahman come to the conclusion, after his world-wide success, that sound quality is not important any more for his music? Is sound quality irrelevant for music?

Music happened when man composed the natural sounds in a pleasing order. In the beginning music was rendered either with music instruments or man’s vocal chords directly for the pleasure of music listeners. It was a truly natural music. This natural rendering of music continued for centuries. Many would have, in that early era of music, desired to record the music so that it can be heard again and again. But they had no means of doing it.

As per the recorded history, it was only 155 years ago that a publisher of books in France found, for the first time ever, a way to record sounds. Edward Scott was running a press in France. He invented a machine called Phonautograph that recorded audio on paper. He first densely coated the paper with the black soot of an oil lamp and recorded on it an old French folk song that went something like ‘On the edge of the moonlight’ with a female voice. Thus music became the first ever sound that was recorded! The recording on the paper looked like the scribbling of a child. But the phonautograph had no provision to play back the song! Nobody believed the scribbling on the paper to be the recording of music. The world believed it only in 2008, 150 years after it was recorded; when it was played back with the help of a computer!

By 1890s equipments were made to record sound and then hear it by playing it back as often as one wished and whenever one wished. Never-say-die efforts of scientists like Emile Berliner and Thomas Alva Edison made this possible. The sound record that was then made is, to date, the best audio play back format that man ever invented. What was first made in the form of cylinder and then a heavy round disc called the Diamond Record underwent many improvements and changes over the next hundred years to sustain itself as man’s most favourite form of audio reproduction.

With the arrival of the compact cassettes in 1970s, the records started losing their popularity. But the fact remained that compared to the sound quality of the records, the sound quality of cassettes were sub-standard! However, the ease and convenience of handling the compact cassettes made the unwieldy records that needed highly careful maintenance to beat a hasty retreat.

The compact discs that came later had audio quality that was many times better than that of compact cassettes. But audio of a CD can never compare in quality with that of a record played on a properly maintained music system. After spending many years listening to music from records, I can say with certainty that no modern audio format can compare with the sound of records.

Today’s technology compresses thousands of songs as MP3 and we listen to them on computer, iPod, iPad, Cell phones etc. But most of us do not realize that their sound quality is much worse than that of audio cassette tapes. The natural warmth of sound that we can sense to some extend in audio tapes is missing in all possible digital audio formats like MP3.

In the 1890s audio recording studios were started, mostly in U.S.A. and Europe. In the following 35 years Acoustical recording method was followed for recording as neither Microphone nor Amplifier had been invented then. In those days either a sound-insulated room or places with low incidence of external sounds were used for sound recordings.

Musicians used to sit before a cone-like contraption, as seen in the Gramophone Record players that came into vogue later to produce their music, whether vocal or instrumental. The audio thus produced would directly carve circular grooves on a wax / shellac plate or record. This system remained popular for decades as the records could be immediately played back and heard. Soon portable audio recording systems were also developed. I have listened to a three-minute record of a conversation in Tamil with a Horse cart driver outside the Central Railway Station in Chennai recorded in 1907 on one such portable audio recorder brought from Germany!

Electronic recording of sound became possible because of the invention of microphone and amplifier circa 1925. But nobody in those days made any effort towards recording of the sounds with natural clarity and depth, without the intrusion of extraneous noises. After all, it was the era of complete satisfaction that sound could be recorded at all and be heard again and again at will!

The American singer-actor Bing Crosby is important among pioneers who pushed to move the industry to the fidelity of the recorded sound. I have quite a few records of Bing Crosby recorded around 1930, and considering the state of technology those days, their sound quality is indeed something of a miracle. The sound quality of the Western music records scaled new heights by the end of 1940s. Even today, hearing the music records of those years surprises us with their audio fidelity.

The mono audio recording was in vogue for many decades. Many records were made with mono sounds that were with impressive sound quality. Then the stereo sound recording and playback was introduced. This was a system where the audio was made to emanate through three separate channels on the left and right and a virtual middle. The stereo recording of audio increased the naturalness of the played back audio many-fold. The recording and listening of music entered a new era of popularity.

But it was only a few decades later stereo recording of Indian film songs became a popular reality. India’s first stereo film record was that of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s compositions for the movie Jal Bin Machli Nrithya Bin Bijlee released in 1971. The songs composed by Ilayaraja for the movie Priya in 1978 were the first Tamil songs with stereo sound. But it was only in 1980s that Indian film songs completely shifted to stereo audio.

Entry of world-class audio technology notwithstanding, the quality and fidelity of audio recordings in India remained many decades behind its peers in the western world. Hindi composer R.D.Burman was the first one in India to attempt to bring world-class sound to his songs. Today when I hear some of the records of his songs, I am struck with wonder at his tireless efforts and dedication to bring high fidelity to every bit piece in his songs. Thus R.D.Burman stands out as the first Indian to create a real hi-fi stereo sound in Indian film songs. He was gifted at once with an understanding of the minutest nuances of natural sounds, the music of a genius and a total grasp of the subtleties of electronic technology. One can endlessly listen to even those compositions of his with below par musicality, churned out to suit the fast-changing taste of times for their sheer audio quality.

But there were very few such composers who wanted great sound quality in their songs in South India. The good sound quality that we experience in many of the songs here were entirely thanks to the efforts made by some of our great sound engineers and audio technicians, based on their personal taste and understanding. Koteswara Rao who worked with both Gemini and Bharani Recording studios of Chennai in the era of mono-sound is an important name among prominent audio technicians of South India. It was he who undertook the sound recording and sound mixing of most of the songs that had great sound during 1950-60 period.

S.P.Ramanathan is another important sound engineer who came from the mono age to the stereo age. He was the sound recordist for many Tamil films like Johnny, Thanikkattu Raja, Moondram Pirai and My Dear Kuttichhathan with music composed by Ilayaraja in the early eighties. The sound that softly envelopes you without being loud was his speciality. But the sound arrangement that I regard as fantastic was the creation of Emmy who worked with Ilayaraja during the period 1984-88. When I hear the over 250 records of Ilayaraja in my collection, again and again, my conviction that the best period for the audio quality of Ilayaraja’s music was the period when Emmy worked with him becomes firmer. These recordings by Emmy are brimming with the unique bass guitar patterns of Ilayaraja in one of the tightest bass sounds I have ever heard in Indian music. The sounds of every music instrument used in these songs resonate with a stunning liveliness without getting mixed up with one another.

A.R.Rahman’s first audio recording studio The Panchathan was designed by Emmy. He also had played his part in the audio recording of Rahman’s debut song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’. Later sound engineer H. Sridhar started working with A.R.Rahman. Sridhar, who was an expert in digital studio sound equipment and computerized audio recording, worked with A.R.Rahman till his untimely death in 2008. Sridhar’s recording genius helped A.R.Rahman till the film Slumdog Millionaire which had won him the Oscar Awards.

Without any doubt whatsoever, A.R.Rahman can be named as the first South Indian composer who worked to achieve high fidelity sound in music recording. It is said that once, many seasons before his debut film Roja happened, he had tried to play the tape of one of his music recordings on his car stereo. He was so disgusted to find the sound quality of his recording was so poor compared to a western music recording he had heard before it. He threw the tape out of his car in irritated by its below par sound! Probably his untiring search for achieving a world-class sound quality must have started from that point.

Rahman toils for weeks and sometimes even for months to carve every little sound bit in his music.  That is why, beginning with Roja, over the last twenty years he has been able to so consistently serve only the best musical sound. It is my abiding regret that till date I have not had the good fortune of fully enjoying the sound of the film Roja. Just because vinyl records of that film was never released! I am still nursing my big wish that I should hear the song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ at least once from a vinyl record! Vinyl records of A R Rahman’s Gentleman and Kizhakku Cheemaiyile were released. Their audio quality is something to write home about. Kizhakku Cheemaiyile remains the last released vinyl record in Tamil!

In recent years, vinyl records of A.R.Rahman’s Hindi albums like Jodha Akbar, Vande Mataram, Guru, Rang De Basanti and Lagaan have been released. Released at a hefty price, their sound quality is not particularly impressive. They sounds more like CDs! Originally recorded on the current digital audio formats, they must have run into conversion problems while preparing the Analogue Master needed to produce the vinyl records! But I just cannot imagine what could have gone wrong with the sound of the songs of the film Kadal. There is no way A.R.Rahman could have okayed this sound!

Among contemporary Tamil film music composers, sound of Harris Jayaraj is crystal clear and enjoyable. His sound has its own character. Sound arrangement of many of Karthik Raja (Ilayaraja’s son) songs is just great. You can see a unique approach to sound right from his songs of the film Alexander, released in mid-nineties to the latest songs of his recent release Rettai Chuzhi. There is great high fidelity in the sound of recently released albums of films like Engaeyum Eppodhum, Severkkodi and Ponmaalai Pozhudhu by the young composer, C.Satya.

One needs an array of high quality audio playback equipment capable of reproducing high fidelity sound to finely judge the true sound quality of a recording. Even the wires and cables connecting the array of equipment need to be the best in class. But it is indeed a fact that those with an ear for high quality sound and the will to look for it, those who evaluate the sound arrangement of music on a regular basis can recognize the audio quality of the original recording even when a song played over radio or a cell phone.

There still remains the question:  what is truly meant by sound quality of music? I am sorry to say that that one cannot define sound quality in words. It has to be felt!  However, if I were to make an attempt to define good sound which is not amenable to a wordy definition, then it will be something like this. The sound of music should be natural without frills or additional colours. It should have depth and punch but should never boom. The music bits should not get mixed up and they must have total clarity and separation. Frequencies of different sounds should not clash but travel in different layers with pristine transparency. The sound should have hold, precision and it should be absolutely enjoyable.

It is possible to enjoy a below par song of Bappi Lahiri on the strength of its sound quality! But even the best of music from Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart becomes a cacophony in the absence of well recorded audio quality. Even the marvels of music are difficult to appreciate if their sound gives a thumbs down. Great sound is the heart beat of great music. Very definitely it has its own expression of emotions beyond that of music. We must not forget that music is nothing but properly arranged and groomed sound. 


Thiagarajan Kumararaja – A Lone Traveler in the Filmy Forest

It was a film awards function of a Tamil television channel. The auditorium was brimming with popular Tamil film personalities. There were show hosts speaking without pausing to take a breath. There were singers who were only lending lip movements to the audio CDs being played. Glamorous screen actresses were dancing to catcalls. Some of the award winners went into great details of their achievements as an elaborate post-awards speech. Some award winners were humility personified while thanking and bowing to everyone from god to the gatekeeper. Then comes the announcement of award for screenplay to the writer director of the film Aranya Kaandam, Thiagarajan Kumararaja! He comes to the stage.

One show host asks him as to how he felt on receiving this valued award. Thiagarajan Kumararaja smiles as if to ask, “What answer do you expect?” He mutters something like, “What shall I say!” He moves to leave the stage saying, “I am happy as ever. That is all.” But the host is persistent. “Many important screenplay writers and directors present here have praised you! What have you got to tell them?” He smiles disarmingly as he says, “What is there to be said! I should thank them!” and walks off the stage. That is Thiagarajan Kumararaja for you! He is a man entirely different from all the film personalities that I have met so far.

He does not have much to tell us about himself. “I am not an intellectual, not a genius nor anybody extraordinary. I have none of the listed good qualities like a deep reading, regular travels, continuous viewing of films or a deep love for the world cinema or art cinema. I am middle class family boy born in Porur area of Chennai, growing up roaming around mostly Chennai. Even today, I do not have at home either an internet connection or DTH TV. I am not particularly interested in them either”.

He says that he is in no way connected to the Face book or Twitter accounts that are operated in his name. It has been many years since he left watching television. He has not seen many Tamil films. And, he says, he has seen none of the recent Tamil movies! This is how Thiagarajan Kumararaja, rated by many as a Director who can take Tamil movies to the next level of excellence, introduces himself to anyone who insists on knowing about him!

His Aranya Kaandam had its maiden screening at the World Film Festival held at New York. But the film had not been completed at that time. It was a raw first print where colour and light balancing had not been done, the background score was yet to be done. Yet Aranya Kaandam won the Jury’s Award for the Best Film!

But Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s simple take on the film is that “It is not a realistic film or an art film, not an experimental film nor a parallel film. I am frightened by its categorization as a ‘Noir’ or ‘Neo Noir’ film. It is just a commercial film with quite a few flaws and compromises. I might say it is a ‘masala’ movie. It has every ingredient of such a film like fight scenes, murders, bedroom scenes and comedy scenes.” That may be true. But we have not seen these things written in this fashion or filmed like this before in Tamil cinema! The raw and very evident fact is that Aranya Kaandam shook all traditions of Tamil commercial films and false dramas of novelty like ‘novel and nothing like anything before’.

Thiagarajan Kumararaja picturises the macho symbol of Hindi films, Jackie Shroff, as a sexually weakened man yet a terrorizing villain. No effort has been made to artificially prop up the character of Jackie Shroff and he has been portrayed as one among many other artistes! Jackie Shroff, as a matter of fact, lacks a ‘Tamil’ face. One could say he has a Gujarati face with some Nepali features. But it does not strain our thoughts to view him as a Tamilian featured parading as the king of crime-ridden lanes of Chennai’s under world! Thiagarajan Kumararaja, thus, smashes the worn-out cliché of reality Tamil cinema that you need faces with characteristic racial features to establish the reality of the screen characters.

The committee of Film Censors in Chennai had decreed that Aranya Kaandam cannot be released without the 52 cuts of portions that offended it. The Appeals Committee of Film Censors in New Delhi overruled the order and passed it for exhibition without any cuts. But the dialogues had to be muted at countless places! The bleep sounds of this muting exercise harass the viewers from following the narration of the story easily. In this age where violent scenes that freeze our minds parade before us on the drawing room television screens and every conceivable kind of sexual perversions are on ‘free’ play through the Internet, it is difficult to see for whose benefit the Censors are exercising with such vengeance on a film meant for adult audience!

Aranya Kaandam was not a commercial success. I think it failed as it was not properly publicised or widely released. There is no doubt in my mind, that Aranya Kaandam was a film that had all the ingredients of a great commercial success. There are production house heads here who had invited this ‘commercially unsuccessful’ director told him condescendingly, “I do not like your film at all. However, as it has something of appeal here and there, I am quite willing to offer you another chance at remaking one of our Hindi films into Tamil.” But I do not blame them. After all their daily dealings are with the kind who are ever ready and willing to compromise on everything for the sake of opportunities, money and fame!

Aranya Kaandam won two National Awards for The Best Debutant Director and The Best Editing. Even at that stage not many in Tamilnadu had seen the film. In a land where the illicit DVDs of even the best guarded films of Top Stars are sold from day one, neither the licit nor the illicit DVD of Aranya Kaandam was available anywhere. It is a miracle that DVDs of Aranya Kaandam of any kind was and is unavailable! It would appear that somebody has taken great care and gone to all kinds of lengths to ensure that the film is not seen by the public! People all over the world have seen and continue to see this film by downloading it from Internet, even though the dim print makes for a dismal viewing experience.

Aranyam refers to forest. That part of Ramayana where Rama and Sita are portrayed living in the forest is called Aranya Kaandam. Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aranya Kaandam is the story of human beasts that prey and play without let or hindrance in the terrible forest that is Chennai metropolis. The central theme of the film is that men are often terrible beasts that roam the forest called life. They live with names indicative of beasts like Singaperumal, Kaalaiyan, Pasupati, Gajendran and Gajapati.

Singaperumal is the king of forests, the Lion. Gajendran and Gajapati are wild elephants. Pasupati is the cow. He is the sacrificial animal. Kaalaiyan who arranges the cockfight is the old bull and a candidate for slaughter! ‘Sappai’ and ‘Subbu’, the characters that play the love theme in the film, are not beasts. They may even be humans! In this film one does not see love scenes that are melodramatic or outbursts of artificial emotions nor do we see the usual display of navels or cleavages.

There are four stories proceeding on different platforms. There are six central characters of equal importance. There are three different climaxes. Thus Aranya Kaandam avoids all clichés of Tamil cinema. In the end we are presented with a woman as the most important character. Here it becomes a film with a feministic view. Thiagarajan Kumararaja says: “It is a totally imaginary world. In all my life, I have not seen the men of the underworld or criminals, not even a petty thief. But I believe that I have succeeded in creating, with a degree of credibility, the world that I wanted to tell everyone about.”

The language used in this film is the local dialect of today’s Chennai, especially the North Chennai. There is a clever use of the new raft of words spawned by the cell phone and cricket culture. Picturisation and the camera angles that broke the grammar of Cinema have taken the film to an entirely different level. Lightings that remind us of 16th Century Renaissance paintings impart a poetic touch to the scenes of the film. It conveys the reality of seeing the events unfold in the dim lights of the real world narrow lanes and sparely illuminated rooms that blush unseen with fluctuations of voltage.

Thiagarajan Kumararaja might have been aided by the influence cast by many films from Godfather to Pulp Fiction that stand to the names of illustrious film makers like Quentin Tarantino, Bryan De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He might even have borrowed the technique of multiple stories unfolding simultaneously on parallel stages from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in conceiving his screenplay. But no one can call Aranya Kaandam as a film that is based on or mimicking of another film.

The background score in the film is not that of a jaded melodrama. Yuvan Shankar Raja's Aranya Kaandam the background score is, I must say, impossibly good. And he has won many awards and much fame for his background score in the film. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has an in-depth knowledge of popular music. Rock is his favourite genre of music. At one stage of his life, he was particularly fond of Heavy Metal, a form of Rock. He had a big repertoire of western songs for listening like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi and Chemical Brothers. He was an ardent fan of R.D.Burman’s Hindi compositions. In Tamil he likes most of the songs of M.S.Viswanathan but above all, as far as Tamil songs go, he is a great fan of Ilaiyaraja. He has magically woven into the background score of Aranya Kaandam, a movie without any song, many Ilaiyaraja songs as a part of the atmospherics. Thiagarajan Kumararaja says that when he listens to his favourite music, they keep running in his mind as countless visuals.

Though the movie is replete with brilliant portrayals by all the important artistes like Jackie Shroff, Yasmin Ponnappa, Ravi Krishna and Sampat Raj, I have never seen in any film before, anything like the role of Kaalaiyan portrayed by ‘Koothu Pattarai’ Somasundaram! Every thing about the character like its concept, direction and dialogues is absolutely scintillating! Nothing in my memory of any portrayal in any film can hold a candle to Somasundaram’s class act that is quite simply the most brilliant one! Thiagarajan Kumararaja has been able to wring the best out of all his actors, natural yet creative, without the device of anything like novelty for the sake of novelty or a differentiation for the sake of difference.

The film places before us the important question: “Do you like Kamal Haasan or Rajnikant?” The character ‘Sappai’ loves only Kamal. In his films, he is the ‘King of Love’. He kisses the girls, fully on their lips! But, from the point of view of ‘Subbu’, Sappai’s girl friend, Rajini is more important than Kamal. He may look ordinary, but he is the ‘Baasha’, the emperor! She loves another hero of Tamil Vijaykant even more as he keeps saving India from Pakistan!

This is merely Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s way of satirizing the Tamil commercial cinema. He shows up the absurdities of conception and picturisation in our films. The Censor Board was said to have been very adamant that Thiagarajan Kumararaja should bring permission letters from Rajni and Kamal before they allow the dialogues of ‘Sappai’ and ‘Subbu’! Look at the generosity of our Censors towards Directors who are true to their calling!

Thiagarajan Kumararaja left his budding college education within months of starting it to pamper his whim to direct a film. He did not work as an Assistant with any Director. He is very emphatic when he says that he is the creation of Doordarshan, the television channel that is a joke for many in the film world! The little that he reads, he reads carefully. The few films that he watches, he evaluates with utmost attention.

“I was never an assistant to anybody. But many youngsters call on me to become my assistants. I am happy about it. I do not believe in moralizing through my films. I only want to depict natural human instincts. Crime is a natural human instinct! I have not done anything after Aranya Kaandam. But, now I am writing a screenplay. I will shoot it if it turns out to my satisfaction. Writing alone is very important to me. If that comes out fine, I need only a month or two to finish a film! I am a restless person and do not like sitting in one place. I keep wandering at all times. That is when I watch people with great care. That and that alone is my cinema education.”

Thiagarajan Kumararaja, with his dangerous honesty, dominance with a difference, refreshingly novel takes and a unique evaluation of cinema’s place in society, is a lone traveler in our film world. Aranya Kaandam ran for four weeks in just one cinema theatre in Chennai. I saw its last show on the last day of its screening. Thiagarajan Kumararaja was there, as a person who bought his ticket, seated quietly, anonymous to all! 

(December 2011)


Your Caste, Please?

Ninety per cent of Indians are idiots who can easily be taken for a ride in the name of caste and religion.
Just about anyone can set off a caste or religious riot here.
 – Markandeya Katju (Former Supreme Court Judge and current Chairman, Press Council of India)

‘Caste comes with birth; it can never be abolished’, ‘Caste is a concept that is accepted by everyone in our society’,  ‘Caste is very important, it tells everyone his true place in society and what he should do in this life’ are among quite a few pronouncements on caste in India . More than the caste fanatics, it is the so-called intellectuals who put forward such justifications for caste. It is these people who have no doubt that, particular castes have particular characteristics from which they cannot free themselves even many generations later!

If you suggest that caste fanaticism is a phenomenon only among people of Indian subcontinent and those nations where migrants from Indian subcontinent are dominant, they will tell you that there are castes even among nations of Europe like France and Spain. They will tell you that even among white men there are castes like Anglo-Saxons and Hispanics. None of these can be compared to the caste fanaticism that is prevalent in India.

Here, when a young man and a woman hailing from different castes fall in love, an entire village is set on fire! Some members of both the families are either killed or ‘commit’ suicide or are maimed for life! If the lovers run away to live elsewhere, they are ostracized and banned for life from the community. The community’s consuming goal, abetted by powers that be, is to hunt and haunt the lovers, till their death. Think for a moment. Does love and sexual attraction between a young man and woman happen after verifying their caste or religion? A smile and a wink, and a man falls hopelessly in love with a woman he had not known before. Men and women get attracted to each other by the way a gesture is made and by the way a look beckons them! Even the guardians of caste virtues will go to anyone to fulfill their sexual desires, if they are sure of making it a secret affair! It is the biological instinct that guides here. The caste and religious distinctions created by man entirely for selfish reasons cannot stand in the way of a biological instinct.

Divisive factors like race, language, regionalism and nationalism work virulently and efficiently to divide man from man, to dominate men and to work their ways to achieve nefarious political goals. You can see in them a fanaticism that is in no way less than casteism. My intention is to narrate here how these things confronted me in my forty years of life and how I made the effort to face them. These are all my personal evaluations and opinions. You might even say that these are a kind of personal memoirs.

It is said that castes arose and were then followed from one’s calling or trade. But in my childhood, spent in the hill villages of Idukki district in Kerala, the experience was totally different. There, people of all castes and religions whether Brahmins, Nairs, Muslims, Higher caste Christians or Dalits had agriculture as their calling. Traders in the village markets were people belonging to different castes. Some of them were traders as well as farmers.

Bhaskaran, a barber by caste’s trade, worked on his field till lunch and opened his saloon only in the afternoon. His eldest son ran a provisions shop. Bhaskaran’s wife, Savitri, was the dance teacher to our village children. She taught dancing to the girls of all castes, high or low. No function at our school will be complete without the dance of her younger son, Salim Kumar, who was my childhood friend. Savitri was the only celebrity and fine arts centre of those villages!

Oanachan, who sold both vegetables and dry fish in his shop, was a Dalit. Mynakunjootti, who sold household goods on installment payment basis, was a Dalit, too. The Brahmins and Nairs of our place cooked their food on the vessels bought from him! I have seen daily wage labourers from all castes in our place. Our place was full of people of all castes doing all kinds of jobs.  Jose and Thangachan, higher caste Christians climbed coconut trees and betel nut trees. Ramanan Nair, the head load carrier in the village junction or Vasu Namboodiri who watered our paddy fields.

Chenda, the traditional drum of Kerala, is played by a caste called Marar. But in our villages and towns, Karappattu Kutty Asan and his relatives have been playing Chenda for generations. They are from the Dalit caste s called Sambava. There are no temples in our area where their Chenda had not resounded. That tradition still continues. I still remember the grand function to honour Karappattu Kutty Asan organized by the villagers when he returned after winning the Special Award of Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy. He is not alive today. But his relations and children play Chenda not only in Kerala but are also in the temples of Tamilnadu.

I do not recollect Brahmins being either the priests or administrators of temples in our area. A few Nairs knowing the rudiments of rituals and even some Ezhavas, considered low caste, had officiated as Priests! They were called ‘Santhis’ in Malayalam. There was one ‘Santhi’ in our neighbouring village. He officiated as priest in many temples and was known as extremely devoted. But one day when he attempted to rape his teenage daughter, she had cut off his penis with a sickle. He escaped somehow and ran away from the village. He must still be working as a temple priest wherever he is, since he knows no other trade!

As a child and as a teenager, I had close friends across all castes. I used to congregate with friends like Salim Kumar, Kaniappan, Achan Kunju, Priyan and Sunny in our friend Srinivasan Nair’s house to play and pass time. When Srinivasan Nair’s parents were not at home, we used to get into their kitchen to cook and eat whatever caught our fancy. It, then, never occurred to us to regard a Barber, a Muslim, a Dalit, a Christian, an Ezhava or a Nair as persons belonging to different castes. It is only now; when I sit down to write this article, I remember that we were supposedly born into different castes! I do not think that the Nair household came to any harm because of the ‘low caste brats’ entering their house! Today, Srinivasan Nair is a happy man, settled in Dubai as a top executive of a huge corporate.

Religions play a big role in controlling and institutionalizing caste. I have always seen religion as far more complex than caste and quite active in creating confusions. As an example, let us suppose somebody wants to know my religion and I respond to them saying that I am a Muslim, it does not end there. I have to say whether I am a Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiya, Ibadi, Qurani, Sufi or belong to Nation of Islam! Alright, take me as a Sunni. Then am I confessing to Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Humblee, Tauheed or Wahabi! If I am, on the other hand a Shia, then do I belong to Twelvers or Ismaili or Zaidiyya or Bohra? Let us look at what the Islamic web site ‘Fundamentals of Islam’ has to say: “Muslim world remains divided into countless sects and sub sects. Every sect has its own laws and disciplinary rules.”

It may require many articles like this to write about the divisions, sects and sub sects of Christianity. Christianity has thousands of sects and sub sects in its many important versions like Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Non Trinity, New Thought, Jewish Christianity, Esoteric and Syncretistic. You might have heard of Catholic churches like Roman Catholic, Latin Catholic and Syrian Catholic and Protestant churches like Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Brethren, Baptist and Pentecost. There are ‘Orthodox’ Christian Churches native only to Kerala like Jacobites, Catholicate and Marthoma. Like this there are endless numbers of churches counting as sub sects in each and every part of the world that follows Christianity!

In Hinduism they say that the four varnas of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras said to have been born from different parts of the creator god Brahma. Chandalas are said to have been born from the dust of Brahma’s feet. But under the sects like Vaishnava, Saiva, Shaktha, Saura, Smartha, etc., there are thousands of divisions and subdivisions in Hinduism. Many know that Iyers are Smartha Brahmins following the line prescribed by Adi Shankara. But how many know of Smartha Brahmin sects like Kanyakubja, Sarayubarene, Saraswat, Utkala, Maithili, Gauda, Garhade, Deshastha, Konkanastha, Devarukke, Gauda Saraswat, Chitrapur, Rajapur, Havyaka, Vaidiki Mulakanadu, Vaidiki Velanadu, Vaidiki Veginadu, Badaganadu, Hoysala Kannada, Koda, Babbur Kamme, Arvel Neogi, Vaishya Vani, etc….etc…

Among Brahmins of Kerala there are many sub sects like Pushpaka, Nambisan, Unni, Brahmani, Daivampati, Pilappalli and so on. There are countless Gotras and Pravaras as well. Brahmins are only a small percentage of Hindus. Just imagine the mind-boggling number of sects and sub sects in the other castes of Hindus. Chettiars, who are another of smaller castes alone are supposed to have 24 sub sects! All these countless divisions among different religions and castes seek to prop up differences, deviations and contradictions. Even among the people of the outwardly same caste there is hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. They prescribe different levels of untouchability among themselves!
Does human life that lasts a short span of 70, 80 years need these countless castes and religions and the contradictions of their separate laws and rules that create most of the social frictions, sorrows and losses? Many still believe that caste is being preserved to maintain racial purity and sacredness! What importance can be accorded to such remnants of superstitions that bedeviled man during his cave dwelling days? Have not we heard that ‘Mother is truth but father is faith’? Is it possible all such faiths of us are true? Do we realize that only a mother knows about the degree of ‘racial purity’ of her children?

What will happen when two persons hailing from different castes inter-marry? Will the sky fall down? I have only one sister. In the gap between her graduation and preparations for her wedding, she temporarily joined an organisation for work. There she happened to fall in love. The boy was a Dalit Christian! He came home and asked for the hand of my sister. My father, who was into social service and was regarded as one who ignored caste and religion, was beside himself with anger. He exploded in rage. When it came home, his social inclusiveness and social responsibility went out of the window! The news reached me in Karnataka where I was working. My father and my maternal uncles were preparing to create a real ruckus. My sister remained silent.

She made one thing plain to me when I talked to her. “If you say no, I will stay away from this love. But I can never break away from it in my heart. I will spend my entire life in this house. But please do not ever run away with the impression that I will change with time and that you can thrust on me a marriage of your choice.” The suggestions that I could have made vanished before her determination. I stood by her in that wedding. I had a tough time getting my father to agree to the wedding which took place braving the opposition of our relatives and family friends. My brothers and I bade our sister a tearful send-off.

Her husband rose from ranks in his job. Till my father’s death, he maintained a very close relation with him. I felt that my father, who had more or less disowned me, accepted him as his own son! My sister is now mother of two children. Her daughter is seventeen and studying well, standing first in the district. She has even won a few state-level prizes for her poems. My 13 years old nephew reads a lot and writing short stories. My sister is happy. And as I write this, the new house she is constructing is taking shape in our home town.

A young boy and a girl from two permanently warring castes fell in love. The girl got pregnant. When she became aware of the pregnancy, it was too late. Frightened of the threat to her life if it became known, she took some potentially harmful medicines to abort her pregnancy. But the foetus refused to abort. The girl child saw the light of the day hurdling over all the death traps set for her. She was born with physical handicaps and many brain deficiencies. My caste is the same caste of that child, condemned to live her entire life in tears.