The stories of oppression, murder and activism behind this viral Indian song

Music artists Dhee (centre) and Arivu (right) in a still from the video for the viral South Indian hit Enjoy Enjaami

A slickly-produced song from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has reached more than 140 million views on YouTube in just over a month since its release. Phoenix Media Co-op unearths the untold stories between its powerful lines.

“Cuckoo… cuckoo…” start the lines of Enjoy Enjaami, which is panning out to be one of the most talked-about songs of 2021. Singer Dhee, donning a multi-coloured suit with shorts, coos to the backdrop of silky percussion and rhythm reminiscent of Afrobeat, mixed with a little something else. This is how stories are narrated to children in the Tamil language, except that in the context of this trending YouTube song, the content that follows is meant for adults.

“This song made all my senses awakened, all kinds of emotions. All because it was so real,” Turkish YouTuber Cansu Dorkose exclaimed. She listened to the tune, sung by both Dhee and Arivu and produced by Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman’s independent Maajja platform, after a month of receiving an overwhelming number of requests for her to react to it. She now understands the hype.

“Cuckoo… Cuckoo… it’s the perfect word to wake everyone up, figuratively,” she tells her 552k subscribers. The peppy beat contains layers of musical complexity, both from Western and little-known Tamil folk genres.

The song takes a sharp, poignant turn when rapper and singer Arivu’s voice transforms from a previously rap-like tone to a raspy wail. He laments:

I planted five trees
Created a beautiful garden
Even though my garden flourished
My throat remains dry
Oooooh… [lamenting cry]

Enjoy Enjaami
Enjoy Enjaami’s singer, lyricist and rapper Arivu (pictured, centre), who is also part of The Casteless Collective band. Credit maajja @YouTube

“That part hit me hard. That was really heavy,” Dorkose concludes with a pained expression. This is one of the very rare moments in musical history where a non-Bollywood Indian song, presented in the less familiar language of Tamil, has crossed cultural borders with such critical acclaim, even if there are many who haven’t even turned on its English subtitles.  From contemporary beats and steps reminiscent of a Beyoncé video to exotic folk percussion to close-ups of real farmers and a clip of a saree-clad grandma doing an Indian jig, this video has shocked, confused, delighted and mesmerised its non-Tamil audience – sometimes all at once. Its background melancholy adds a bittersweet effect.

Many of the YouTubers who reacted from countries such as South Korea, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, the US, and the UK did not understand the language and yet were similarly hypnotised by the musical twist this verse presented and the message of unity it ultimately conveyed.

The debut of oppari

This is the genius of Arivu’s lyrics. He mixed the dance tune with a subtle yet significant dose of oppari – an ancient genre of music associated with loss and funerals in Tamil culture. This is its official debut in world music. Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to Divya Chandru, a Netherlands-based physiotherapist from the Dalit Bahujan Adivasi community, whose grandmother is an oppari singer.

She finds this particular stanza especially familiar. “It’s a norm [in my culture] to plant as many trees as you have children… it would be like a mango tree or a coconut tree,” she says, a fact which is often used when lamenting the loved ones left behind in oppari form.

One of my uncles had passed away, he was grandma’s second born. She sang about how that tree never grew well; it was very moving for me. I’ve never seen… anything on the mainstream that connects with me so much. That is my story. Her story, rather.

It also represents singer, rapper and lyricist Arivu’s personal story. Oppari is an art form commonly associated with Tamil Dalits, a community Arivu himself is part of. They form the majority of the castes of communities deemed to be ‘untouchable’ at the bottom of India’s social stratification system. Even today, Dalits are among those suffering extreme poverty and exclusion and are usually those who work as funeral singers, grave diggers and manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India. The sounds of oppari remind Tamil society of death, and its portrayal as an exotic effect in a fusion music video is far-flung from the discrimination its singers face in reality. Some have even discontinued the art form in fear of further oppression and social exclusion.

But the oppari in Enjoy Enjaami is a lament for the loss of lands. The song was inspired by the stories Arivu’s grandmother Valliammal told him about her experience as an indentured labourer who toiled under arduous conditions in the tea plantations of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. This was a form of slave labour the British colonial administration introduced, disguised as legitimate employment, to continue to profit from its plantations worldwide after slavery was abolished in 1834. When Valliammal and others returned to their homeland in Tamil Nadu, they usually had no land and suffered again in poverty.

Enjoy Enjaami
Arivu with his grandma Valliammal, who features in the viral song. Photo credit: therukural @Instagram

Land grab

This ties in with the issue of Panchami (a Sanskrit word referring to those who are considered to be untouchable or outcasts) lands which were initially reserved for marginalised groups, including Dalit people, under the British Empire in India. Hugo Gorringe is a British academic researching Dalit activism at the University of Edinburgh, who grew up in Chennai (the capital of Tamil Nadu). He told Phoenix Media Co-op that communities on the bottom rung of India’s caste system have traditionally been barred from owning lands and operated instead as labourers under the mercy of wealthy landowners, who often belonged to higher castes. It’s not dissimilar to the English feudal system.

[There was] endemic poverty amongst the lowest castes. In the 19th century, collector JHA Tremenheere wrote a report on the deplorable condition of the lowest castes, on the basis of which he argued that there should be some distribution of lands to the landless and these were implemented as Panchami lands… But much like the land reform bills that have been passed in post-independence India – they exist on paper, but not in practice.

A classic method of Panchami land grab is in the form of oppression instigated by some communities from higher castes to deny Dalit people access to resources. In many cases, this factor can be linked directly to acts of violence against Dalit women to reinforce another caste’s supremacy. The story of Veerammal in the Kodangipatti village in Tamil Nadu, as reported by Dalit activism NGO Evidence, is quite telling. The elderly woman belongs to the Arunthathiyar community, listed under the Dalit caste. She originally owned more than two acres of dry land issued under the government’s Panchami scheme. But after the death of her husband in 1984, a man from a dominant caste began harassing her and eventually took control over her land. It then took her 25 years with countless instances of abuse (one incident culminated in an assault with a cane), intimidation, anguish and court hearings before Evidence helped her win back her land.

Enjoy Enjaami
The Casteless Collective was founded in 2017 by directors Pa Ranjith and Tenma to give marginalised communities a musical platform to protest against caste oppression. Picture credit: The Casteless Collective

Music as protest

These are among the vast but lesser-known issues faced by oppressed minorities that Enjoy Enjaami’s lyricist wants to bring attention to. Arivu sees song as a medium for protest, and is refreshingly, unapologetically, political. Before the unexpected success of Enjoy Enjaami, the singer was best known for his work with The Casteless Collective. The indie band, made up of artists from marginalised backgrounds, came to India’s political forefront in 2017 for daring to question the systemic nature of its caste oppression, which affects everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear. Every recognisable human activity is tainted by caste distinction and discrimination – so much so that, in some cases, merely being seen by a member of a higher caste can result in gruesome violence. The band stoked national fury with Arivu’s songs such as Quota, which defiantly addresses those who question the ‘quota’ reservation system which allows for affirmative action in education and employment for the most disadvantaged communities. He raps:

For the people who do back-breaking work and get paid peanuts
Do you think they can afford exorbitant university fees?
If [they] give them back their Panchami lands
Do you think they’d suffer this cruel fate?

The band’s only woman, Isaivani, rocked the boat with numbers such as Vaiyulla Pulla, which tackles oppression against women. She is one of the few gaana (a genre of melancholic Tamil folk music similar to blues, also connected with the Dalit community) singers in the country. The rapturous defiance of her voice awarded her a place in the BBC’s 100 Women list for 2020.

And then there’s Kaka Bala, also a gaana singer, who sings lyrics which embrace and celebrate the everyday sacrifices made by members of the most oppressed communities. According to one band member, his song Kaalu Ruba Dhuttu is a hit among many of Tamil Nadu’s sanitation workers. It is very rare that one hears mainstream lyrics which translate as: “I get paid peanuts but it’s still a government job. I’m going all around town shovelling up faeces. Even when the trash is rotten, I pick it up quickly so that you will be able to call it a city”. Cleaning out raw sewage, a profession mostly associated with the Dalit community, is a particularly hazardous job. The year 2019 saw 110 workers’ deaths nationwide – the highest number over a five-year period – according to India’s Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry (SJE).

Violence and murder

Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to Tenma, the co-founder and leader of The Casteless Collective and a successful Tamil film director in his own right, about the everyday culmination of caste oppression that the band captures in its lyrics. “I grew up around bloodshed,” he says. He recognises the power his band carries by being able to communicate caste atrocities and giving a platform for members of oppressed communities, but he states that the musical activism alone doesn’t eradicate the harsh realities oppressed communities face. “What is happening in reality? Nothing big has changed, right? Even today, a murder happened, as we speak. Caste murder.”

It was in fact a double murder. Two Dalit youths, Arjunan and Suriya, were “stabbed to death with knives and bottles” in the railway town of Arakkonam, where singer Arivu is coincidentally from. Members of a higher caste were allegedly the perpetrators, with newspapers speculating that issues such as caste enmity and political motivation were involved. This happened just days after Tamil Nadu’s citizens started voting for representatives of 234 constituencies in India.

Gorringe is wary of the fact that the caste element of violence against Dalits is often downplayed by government authorities; especially the police, which he says is largely made up of members of dominant caste communities. “Notice how the two who were killed were campaigning on behalf of the VCK [a Dalit opposition party]. So, in that sense, there’s definitely a political connection there, even though the police are trying to gloss over it.” The News Minute, a Bangalore-based digital news outlet, stated that investigators found one of the six arrested suspects was identified as the son of an AIADMK (ruling party) district officer.

Arivu shared distressing images from one of the funerals on social media. One tweet translates as:

Caste is even deadlier than Covid-19. For how many more generations will we have to fight this social disease? In Tamil Nadu, the so-called land of sunrise, how is it fair for people to remain silent without acknowledging these racist killings?

There is a real sense that Arivu and The Casteless Collective are creating a “virtual revolution” like never before, one member of the Dalit community told Phoenix Media Co-op. They argued that art can change the realities of oppressed communities. Jeevanantham is an artist who communicates anti-caste system messaging through his Instagram account @dance_jeeva. He admires the band’s Quota song. “When [people] get to know there are people fighting for quota, and the people fighting for reservation, [they] will start searching for the politics or the ground level movement that is happening for this.”

Grassroots activism

Tenma, meanwhile, is inspired by the “amazing work” done by grassroots activist Grace Banu, a Dalit feminist who became Tamil Nadu’s first transgender woman engineer despite facing untold hurdles in societal and governmental structures (she was forced to attend school an hour earlier and leave an hour later to avoid mixing with pupils from dominant castes, for example). Surviving oppression both from the caste and gender axes, Banu is tirelessly fighting for reservation rights for the transgender community, mainly in the areas of education and employment, and has recently submitted a writ to the Indian Supreme Court. She enthused about the global success of Enjoy Enjaami over a Zoom call with Phoenix Media Co-op, comparing its significance to how Zambian-born singer Sampa the Great elevated Black feminism worldwide. To give non-Indian audiences more context, she likens caste discrimination to the oppression caused by gender inequality.

“People like Arivu and Tenma are [using] music as a weapon to fight against a patriarchal society,” she explains. “In India, Dalit histories are completely erased,” she says, drawing attention to the fact that April is actually Dalit History Month, which is inspired by the US’s Black History Month (celebrated every February). “All the digital spaces, the public spaces and the mainstream spaces, they are all occupied by the upper caste, upper class, savarna, cis-male and cis-female people. They are eagerly waiting to erase all these [Dalit histories]. So that’s why we Dalit people and Adivasi people of Tamil Nadu are coming forward to narrate our stories.” She also mentions the power the song’s success is bringing to expose the discrimination her community faces almost on a daily basis. “International forums and movements don’t know about caste oppression.”

India’s deadly second Covid-19 peak is currently worsening what is already one of the world’s highest death tolls from the pandemic. And Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, a movement championing caste system eradication, wrote in a recent statement that the extent of discrimination and violence on Dalits and other marginalised communities “increased exponentially” during India’s lockdowns. Dalit LGBTQIA+ communities were among the worst hit, and suffered severe income losses. At this critical juncture, Banu helped bring about an important change to the community.

Enjoy Enjaami
Grace Banu is a Dalit transgender activist who became Tamil Nadu’s first transgender woman engineer. Photo credit: gracebanu @Instagram

She collaborated with Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukodi district collector Sandeep Nanduri to launch Sandeep Nagar, India’s first transgender-run dairy farm co-operative, which provides 30 trans women each with an individual home, a shared business venture and a cow. The project is a safe space for its new residents, including Banu. It enables them to earn a living by selling approximately 180 litres of milk a day while also receiving training, support and mentoring services. Banu hopes to welcome more residents in the near future, and her positivity is infectious. Her next goal? “Reservation rights.” But she stressed that this will be “when we get the power”, because “only we will sort out our problems”. She added:

Without trans rights, the feminist movement is not fulfilled, women’s rights are not fulfilled. And without Dalit rights, human rights are not fulfilled.

Enjoy Enjaami
The first Indian indentured labourers reaching the shores of Mauritius. Photo credit: Oderuth @Wikimedia Commons

A British issue

The UK in particular should ask itself what it can do to support caste system eradication, if it is indeed committed to fighting for anti-racism and equality worldwide. India’s caste system may have existed for thousands of years, but its current form which is rigidly oppressive against transgender rights and Dalit communities is actually a post-colonial relic of the British Empire’s census system in 1865 – part of the administration’s “divide and rule” strategy it implemented across the colonies it ruled. “[Officials] reinforced and rigidified caste identities,” Gorringe says. “Caste mobility has never been easy, but it was not impossible. The Nadars were once considered to be very lowly but collectively renegotiated their position. It wasn’t as fluid as class for example, but it was based on communities. But where you gained [political or economic] power, you tended to be able to change.”

However, upward mobility among Dalits had proved to be even less possible due to ancient Indian beliefs around the concept of “untouchability”, which cast them out of the mainstream caste classifications first outlined in the Rig Veda. This resulted in them being deemed too lowly to be “touched”, which meant that the stigma around their existence endured through Indian societies and made any meaningful actions towards social mobility impossible.

The British census, in some ways, made things worse. “They were trying to order and classify and categorise people into neat boxes that locked people into an identity category in a way that never happened before. This codification of caste identities and positions set things out in black and white in a way that had not occurred before,” Gorringe says. This social stratification awarded wealth and power to dominant caste communities for such a long time that even affirmative action policies, such as the ones championed by Tremenheere, have not eradicated oppression against the Dalit communities. “None of these were done with the interests of Dalits at heart – some few individuals may have had that, but the British government certainly didn’t.”

Malaysian academic Indrani Ramachandran, an expert on post-colonial Dalit literature, told Phoenix Media Co-op that while it’s reassuring that the plight of marginalised communities is addressed in Enjoy Enjaami and is gaining traction both inside and outside India, she questions its ability to sustain the hype enough to create lasting change. “In the case of songs written for a cause, despite its need for popular culture to gain traction, the cause must always be the ‘hero’; with the songwriter and singer acting merely as tools. But in what way will the song play a realistic role in improving the lives of the marginalised? Will it be a spur to an even greater effort towards the cause or will it be content knowing that it has created yet another musical sensation?”

“‘What next?’ is the question people should be asking, if they were indeed moved by the message behind the song.”

Cuckoo… Cuckoo… is just the wake-up call we need.

Main article image via screenshot