“We Sing Our Life”

The band is called Karinthalakkoottam. It is based in Vadama, Thrissur district, Kerala. They sing songs that have been passed down from generation to generation in their communities, the Pariah and the Pulaya. These are Dalit communities, and their songs are about life, love, Nature, harmony. “Falcon in the sky, bring my baby a wink of sleep,” they sing. “For three months we eat this leaf and that leaf / For three months we eat this fruit and that fruit. / For three months we eat this tuber and that tuber. / For three months we eat this and that.” A meager, yearlong diet goes into this high energy, exuberant song. Then there’s the cheeky question-and-answer song between a Dalit and an upper caste man who tells him to keep his distance and not pollute him. The melodies are catchy, the instruments indigenous, the beat compelling.

The documentary film 18 Feet introduced us to Karinthalakoottam, its songs, its musicians and their personal stories at a Vikalp screening at Jnanapravaha last Friday. Scripted, directed and edited by Renjith Kuzhur, an alumnus of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, the film was premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival earlier this year, where it won Renjith the best editor award.

In approach and overall tone, 18 Feet is quite the opposite of the documentaries we generally see, where the camera keeps an observational distance from its subjects. Here, the camera is like a band member, mingling with its musicians on stage, at home and during rituals, on terms of unforced equality and deep affection. In the process, it tells a counter-story to the one told by the title of the film. 18 feet was the non-polluting distance that Dalits were expected to keep between themselves and high-caste Hindus during feudal times. Although caste gets brushed under the carpet today, it has shown up nonetheless, in the band members’ lives at some point or the other.

Remesh, a bus conductor with the KSRTC, and the co-founder and leader of the band is, along with his family, the chief focus of 18 Feet. He has a ringing voice, an infectious laugh and serene eyes. Where does the serenity come from one wonders, considering that he lives with his parents, wife and two children on encroached land in an accretive hovel of brick, mud and thatch that requires covering in plastic sheets during the rains to stop the leaks. It is only now, at age 43, that this holder of a Masters degree has found the means to build a pucca house in a neighbourhood blessed with electricity. But, as he laughingly confesses to a friend, he doesn’t have money to buy a meter.        

What holds you in this 77-minute long film is its unhurried flow between music, silence, light and darkness. It glides from the dynamic performances of the band where audiences break into spontaneous dance, to the humdrum rhythms of the band members’ daily work, to their personal stories told with dignified economy, to the dingy interiors of Remesh’s home, and out to the verdant expanses of the Kerala countryside, cooled by the generous waters of a river. We are at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, where the band performs before an international crowd that sways to its rhythms; then back in Vadama, attending traditional ceremonies. Remesh is felicitated for the Folklore Academy award he has won. A band member marries a Nair woman in a simple ritual. Remesh’s house is “warmed” with a puja and dinner for the entire village. 

The iniquities and injustices that attend caste relations are never too far from conversations. Remesh asks his father, once one of many Dalits bought by a local landlord, “How can anybody buy human beings as if they were inanimate objects?” The father has a simple explanation. “A landlord needs serfs to work on his land. He has the money. So he buys them.”  He belongs to a generation that didn’t ask questions. Remesh asks many. Out of that questioning comes confidence. He tells the younger members of his band, “Black is strength. Don’t deny who you are. Hold your head high and say you are a Pariah.”

“We are those who grew up / Listening to our fathers sing. / We are those who grew up / Seeing our mothers dance.” The soul in the Karinthalakkoottam songs comes from this, from being connected with community history and traditions. “We don’t perform,” says Remesh. “We sing our life.”   

Published On : 27-04-2016