As you enter 26-year-old Arivarasu Kalainesan’s modest two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Chennai, you are greeted by a musical keyboard on an old table. It is flanked by books—Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and one on the Buddha by B.R. Ambedkar. Also, on the table is Neelam, a monthly magazine on art, literature and politics.
There are a few more books in the adjacent shelf; the topics include Panchami land rights, the Thamirabarani massacre and the oppression of dalits. A microphone on a tall stand stands near the wall, which is adorned by a colourful poster that proclaims Sanda seivom (We shall fight). For people who were introduced to Arivarasu—or Arivu as he is professionally known—through the recent YouTube phenomenon ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, a peek into his apartment can offer an insight into the artist’s interests and core beliefs.
Fans, of course, would know. In January 2020, Arivu (meaning knowledge) lashed out against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act through his single, ‘Sanda seivom’. Translated excerpts from the Tamil track reads: “CAA is here to divide us.... Do not subscribe to religious divisions; all of us are immigrants on this earth; whoever runs this war is a businessman.”
In another notable track—’Anti Indian’—he sings about the division on the basis of caste and religion, about jingoism and the imposition of Hindi. He also calls out the political leadership: “Nee kattum vari thaan vendum, nee sindhum kanneer vendam/Nee yenbadhu vote-u mattume, naadu yenbadhu rate-u mattume (Only your taxes are needed, your tears are not needed/You are just a vote, this country has a price).”
The track was part of his 2019 EP (extended play: a musical recording with fewer tracks than an album) titled Therukural. The highly acclaimed EP was a collaboration with record producer and songwriter ofRO (Rohith Abraham). Its name, meaning voice on the street, is a play on the Tamil classic Thirukural. Post the success of the EP, fans started calling him Therukural Arivu. It is perhaps fitting as he is indeed a representative of the many muffled voices on our streets. “I did not learn music,” he says. “It is only my [life’s learnings] that turn into lyrics.”
Arivu was born and raised in Arakkonam, around 70km from Chennai. His father was a college professor and mother a government school teacher. Both were part of the Arivoli Iyakkam, a movement in Tamil Nadu in which teachers worked to increase the state’s literacy rate. Growing up, his house, which he says did not have “a TV or other amenities”, was filled with students and academics who spoke about social reformer Periyar, politics and the importance of education. The Ambedkar statue close to his house was also a key venue for these discussions.
“Amma and Appa always used to sing the Arivoli songs (about education),” he says. “I have heard them throughout my life.” This helped him with rhyming, he says. He spent his free time with his grandmother Valliamma, who told him stories about her time as a plantation worker in Sri Lanka. He also had access to books and magazines that his parents brought home. Among them were monthlies like the Dalit Murasu and Puthiya Kodangi. He also read his father’s research papers on dalit leaders, but says he did not realise the depth of the subject then.
When he went to Coimbatore to study mechanical engineering, he did not think music would be his profession. In his second year, he rapped in Tamil during a drama at the college’s cultural event. It earned him a spot in the college band, and thereafter the poetry in his rap impressed friends and professors alike.
On the day of his final viva voce, the principal told the panellists, “Leave him, he is a singer, not an engineer.” On graduation day, his friends and professors wished him a successful career as a rapper. They all believed he would become a celebrated artist. But, Arivu soon found out that opportunities were hard to come by. He did his MBA through distance education. After that, it was “IAS time”, he jokes in reference to preparations for the civil services examination.
Meanwhile, he had recorded many tracks. He would pen the lyrics, go to Coimbatore and record the songs. The money he earned would be reinvested into the next song. This went on for two years. Then he learned about The Casteless Collective, a band/label formed with support from director Pa Ranjith. Arivu heard that Ranjith was visiting nearby Vellore and got on a train.
On the train, a person reading a book on activist C. Iyothee Thass caught his eye. Keen to learn about the book, he struck up a conversation with the man, who turned out to be an associate of Ranjith. Fortune had finally smiled on Arivu and he got an audition. He impressed the director, who gave him his first big opportunity, in Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala (2018). His lyrics for ‘Urimayai meetpom’ (We shall reclaim our right) captured the Ambedkarite notions he had picked up throughout his life. It was a super hit. Arivu had arrived.
His rise continued with work in Suriya’s Soorari Potru (2020) and Vijay’s Master (2021). He got the call from A.R. Rahman’s majja, a platform for independent musicians, while he was on a pandemic-induced break from work. “Then the work for ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ started,” he says. “I got the opportunity to pen the lyrics also.” Arivu cherishes the experience of working with composer Santhosh Narayanan and his step-daughter, playback singer Dhee.
Despite the song inching close to 200 million views on YouTube, Arivu says: “Life is the same, you know.” He adds he will never give up writing and singing as he feels that he can influence the lives of people around him.