In Tamil, Arivu means intelligence. In the 1950s, a decent number of Dalit households in Tamil Nadu named their kids Arivu, Arizvazhagan, Arivumathi, Arivarasan, and more.
As per the Varna or the Indian caste system, the Dalits were the outcastes who were known for physical labour; designated to do menial jobs. Dalits were made to do dehumanising work for centuries.
Dalits – the indigenous people of this country – were made to live on the outskirts of villages, far from resources, and were denied education. On the other end of the caste spectrum, the Brahmins were considered intelligent, superior beings by the virtue of their birth.
Of Hidden Stories and Appropriated Content
While growing up, I would often listen to my mom saying, “Only Brahmins can write literature, they are born that way."
She would say, “He is an Iyer, imagine how brainy he would be!”
”Only Iyengars become good lawyers because of their brain.“
Imagine hearing something like this in a Dalit household!
How disheartening! Imagine not knowing the fact that a Dalit, Babasaheb Ambedkar, was the first law minister of this country. The same man who drafted the Constitution of India. The one who is known for his intelligence.
I remember one day when a teacher said in class, "History was written by the oppressors."
Facts were hidden, truth was hidden. Hundreds of Dalit icons, Dalit intellectuals, Dalit artists and Dalit creators were never written about. They were not credited for their work. Their work was appropriated.
Today when I read the Instagram post by singer and lyricist Arivu on his “Enjoy Enjaami” song, it evoked in me the horror stories of Dalits who were subjugated to humiliation and appropriation throughout history. This angers me.
Do You Know What It Is To Be Oppressed?
Exactly a year ago, Rolling Stone, India, courted controversy when the magazine published a cover featuring rapper Sean Vincent de Paul and singer Dhee. Here Arivu was erased. Director Pa Ranjith tweeted, calling out "invisibilising" Arivu.
After the furore on social media, musician AR Rahman's team Maaja approached Arivu and fixed up a date to discuss payment, I was told by his team. His team also told me that Arivu was not paid for the project.
While Santhosh Narayanan has claimed that Dhee, Arivu and he, had received three equal shares of profits from the song, Arivu's team refuted this claim. According to the team, Arivu had also not refused to perform at the Chess Olympiad-2022, that is being held in Chennai.
Arivu is currently in the US but had never rejected any performance invitation at Chennai, the team vouched. At the Olympiad, Dhee performed the song without Arivu's presence.
The original song was composed, written, and performed by Arivu. He was the brain behind the song. He poured his heart and soul into it. It was his music of liberation.
The song resonates with the pain of the black slaves of Africa. It resonates with the pain of the exploited indigenous people of South America. It resonates with the cries of the native Americans who lost their lands in North America.
How is Dhee connected to it? Does she know what it is to be oppressed for generations? How can she call this her song? How can she perform this song in front of a global audience without Arivu?
Being Ilayaraja and Arivu
Dalits should never ask for what is rightfully theirs is what is prescribed by the caste system. Music maestro Ilayaraja, too, had to fight, perhaps even more than Arivu has had to so far.
A few years ago, Ilayaraja had to approach the Madras High Court against two music companies to make them pay royalties for the songs composed by him. The court ruled in his favour, but he was criticised for demanding rightful royalty.
Yes, Ilayaraja was humiliated and opposed on social media for staking his claim on the money that was rightfully his. He was shamed for doing what musicians across the globe have been doing for years.
If a musical genius like Ilayaraja, who has established himself as one of the very best in the world, and whom the world watches in awe, was treated so poorly, imagine what a newcomer like Arivu could go through.
There was a time when I used to be very critical of Ilayaraja’s behaviour. It always puzzled me why he had to be short-tempered and headstrong while other musicians were quite nice to everyone around.
Then I came to know about his caste identity. A Dalit. I was shocked as I had heard people around me till then say that Ilayaraja was upper caste. ”A genius musician must be upper caste, you know!“
“Also he is so spiritual and all. So he must be from this particular upper caste,“ they said.
When the age of internet revealed Ilayaraja's caste identity, he was targeted for it. That's when I understood Ilayaraja. How much of the betrayal, appropriation, and shame would he have gone through in his early years in the Tamil film industry?
I remember an interview where lyricist Vaali talks about a director, who was blown away by his music, signing up Ilayaraja but later dropping him when they came to know about his "background.” According to this interview, he was replaced by Ramana Sridhar, a Brahmin artist.
It took Ilayaraja five years after this debacle to sign his first movie Annakili. No wonder he is so angry. This is what cinema has made him be. I really wonder how he maintains his sanity in this caste land.
Surviving the Odds
At the same time we also should consider the mental health of Dalit artists like Arivu who go through erasures and betrayals. The crowd questions him and his integrity while blindly trusting Santosh and Dhee. People have been asking why Arivu is not aggressive in sorting out his issues with Santosh and Dhee, while not taking into account his socio-political status. He is a Dalit artist in an industry dominated by upper castes where the show is theirs.
From music labels to production houses, an incredible number of entertainment companies are owned or run by the upper caste people. No matter what type of art we produce, it has to go through these labels.
Our art is diverse and rich as our lived experience. Across the world, oppressed communities have produced the best of arts. It is their capability to convert pain and liberation into artistic expressions that has a global appeal. But this could be appropriated and the artists could be exploited.
This is where artists like Arivu have a lesson or two to learn from veterans like Ilayaraja on how to tread carefully through the rough waters of Indian cinema.
Arivu is the wildest dream of his ancestors. He is the voice of the unheard. He is the sweat and blood of his ancestors personified.
As Arivu has stated in his Instagram post, he has a thousand songs in his heart which would be more powerful than Enjoy Enjaami. His music cannot be stopped. At the same time, I hope that Arivu gets justice for the amount of turmoil he has gone through.
(Shalin Maria Lawrence is a writer, social activist and columnist based in Chennai. She is an intersectional feminist and anti-caste activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)