“Listen to this song and tell me what you think,” my friend said as he tapped on his iPhone. We were driving through a highway at 5 in the evening, wondering how it could possibly be pitch dark all around us. And a minute later I was bobbing my head along, feeling that rare sensation you have when you realize you’re probably going to replay the song immediately.
“Wow, I love this song man!” I cried once it was over. I normally never listened to rap, let alone Malayalam rap. Yet I couldn’t wait to listen to this song again. “Who is this guy?”
My friend grinned and then immediately looked troubled. “Bro, there are so many amazing musicians in Kerala and other parts of India right now, you know? Like underground stuff that’s really …like …I don’t know how to put it…”
At that moment, I didn’t either. I couldn’t tell you why I loved this song. I couldn’t explain why it not only entertained me, but more importantly made me…proud?
The song was “Avastha” by EoC and ThirumaLi. And 48 hours later, I think I have an answer.
Andharaaya Aaradhakar (Blind Followers)
Let me tell you about one of the first pieces of constructive criticism I received when I began writing. Some kind stranger read my short story online and commented, “Hey, just a small suggestion. If your character’s name is Mark Johnson, you wouldn’t refer to him as Mr. Mark. He’d be Mr. Johnson, Mr. Mark Johnson, or just Mark.”
More than a decade later, why do you think I still remember that stray comment on my blog? Because that tells me a lot about the kind of artist I was.
Many of us grew up watching English movies, TV shows and cartoons, reading English novels and comics and listening to English music. It shaped the way we thought, acted and spoke. But only in retrospect do I realize just how damaging it could all be after a certain point.
What started off as inspiration turned into imitation. Sure, imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery. But sooner or later, our expressions of art became limited because we were utilizing the social, cultural, geographic and political stylings of the West. Nothing captures this better than an aspiring rapper friend of mine who rapped, “Started from the projects but now I’m here!”, to which the only reasonable reply is, “Bro, you were born and brought up in the posh part of Dubai! What the hell are you talking about?”
An entire generation of Malayali artists, both in Kerala and outside, were at risk of becoming blind aaradhakars (worshippers) of the West, completely disconnected from their environment and reality.
Puchikkunna Prekshakar (Snobbish Audience)
How many friends can you name who will complain that Malayalam movies don’t make thrillers like Hollywood or Korean Cinema does? Ten? Thirty?
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I’m guilty of this myself. I watch certain Malayalam movies (cough*Mayanadhi*cough) and grumble about how the plot holes and characterizations were terrible. About how Malayalam films don’t seem to know how to make realistic crime movies without getting bogged down due to the romance subplot….
But every once in a while I’m aware of the hypocrisy. I’m a Malayalee writer who’s dream is to publish a first-class crime novel. Thankfully, I’ve stopped being a blind artist so the novel is based on environments that I’m familiar with. But ask me how many English language novels written by Malayali authors I’ve read in the past year? It’s the same as the past decade. Zero.
You’ll see this among other artists as well. There are Malayali filmmakers who talk about Kubrick and Scorsese ten times a day but can’t be bothered to pay 120 rupees to watch an Alphonse Puthren movie. Sure, Puthren is no Kubrick, but if you were going to be the next Kubrick, you’d probably have to pass Puthren first, right?
Malayali artists like myself might hide behind the excuse of learning from the best in the business. And when it comes to the best, regional or cultural distinctions can’t possibly be considered. I can’t read a Malayali fantasy writer instead of J.K. Rowling simply because Kuttichattan is my homie and Dementors aren’t.
To an extent that is true, perhaps. But is every Hollywood movie you watch better than every Malayalam movie that is released? Are all the books by Western authors you read better than any written by their Desi counterparts?
Or does your pucham for homegrown art stop you from patiently exploring it and honestly judging it?
Nammude Nattilninnu (From Our Land)
And additionally, do you feel a responsibility to support your fellow Malayali?
When you hear that a guy from Kozhikode posted a dance on YouTube that went viral, do you feel proud? All throughout my school life I kept hearing the name Arundhati Roy. She brought so much pride not just to Malayalis, but Indians in general.
But she’s also the perfect example of the problematic way we support our “homegrown” talent. Have you noticed that we tend to laud fellow Malayalis once they’ve achieved acclaim in the West?
How many of us knew about Shashi Tharoor before news broke that he could perhaps be the next UN General Secretary? Sure, there are several factors responsible for this phenomenon. But I believe we have a tendency to valuing a fellow Malayali’s achievements more once he or she has been acknowledged by others.
I know of at least three people who watched Gangs of Wasseypur for the first time recently, simply because The Guardian newspaper announced it as one of the top 100 movies of this century. For years Indians and Indian media have been talking about how brilliant that movie was, but it took an established British newspaper to convince some to watch Kashyap’s masterpiece.
So think of how many Malayalam movies and songs we are currently ignoring, simply because a Western audience or media has not acknowledged it yet? And when they finally do highlight a particular piece of art, how shamelessly will we praise it without ever admitting we didn’t support it when it mattered?
Nammude Nadinu Vendi (For Our State)
And that’s why I loved the song “Avastha” by EoC and ThirumaLi. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t waiting to clap and cheer for any Malayalam rap song. I genuinely enjoyed the music. And then I adored it when I realized the rapper was from Kerala, that he’d been inspired by an art form that originated halfway across the world and then injected his own thoughts and style to create songs that were authentic.
“Avastha” is a great example of inspiration turning, not into imitation, but rather infusion. Infusion of Western styles with Malayali themes.
I wasn’t sure if I should quote the song I listened to. I’ve never done it before, so wondered if there were rules or etiquettes to follow. Should I contact the artist before writing about him? But I decided to mention “Avastha” because I realized I need to change my habits.
I need to stop being a selfish Malayali artist. I cannot watch David Fincher and read Lee Child while ignoring their Malayali counterparts, and then expect to succeed. This is not about supporting other artists so that they will support me. It’s about supporting other artists because that’s the only way forward. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent enough years complaining about Malayali art and how inferior it is compared to the West.
Complaining really doesn’t change much. Cheering does. Ignoring the best of Malayalam cinema and music because it’s not good enough is your right, but it won’t improve anything for you. But buying a ticket, attending a concert, such things might push the conversation forward. It might help artists put out better content, slowly but surely.
And think about who comes after you. You might not give a damn about guitars or rock music, but if twenty years from now your son or daughter asks you if they can be a rockstar when they grow up, would you want your answer to be:
“Haha, pinne! My child, we are Malayalis. We don’t become rock stars or rappers. We work in careers that have always existed and forget about the ones we dreamed of as kids. And then we spend our hard-earned money on art made by others all over the world. And mock anything made by our comrades. So that our children can grow up and repeat the cycle. Now, get ready for Chemistry tuition!”
Or would you want a different answer?
Then isn’t it time to share, like and subscribe…to the best our comrades are creating?