On the banks of Ennore Creek in Chennai, a breeze wafts in as Carnatic classical powerhouse TM Krishna, violinist HN Bhaskar, mridangam player Praveen Sparsh and BS Purushotham on the kanjira, look on with masks strapped to their faces. Just as the drone of the tanpura swirls and merges with their musical mindspaces, Krishna begins to sing Chennai Poromboke Paadal. Poromboke is a colloquial Tamil word and a pejorative intended to demean a person or place but classically, it also refers to the land that belongs to communities. “It’s our marshlands, our wetlands, grazing spaces, our lakes. Unfortunately, the former meaning is what we identify with,” says Krishna, who, in the song, directly links last year’s Chennai floods with poromboke lakes.
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As Krishna sings, Poromboke is not for you, not for me/ It is for the community, it is for the earth, industrial smoke blackens the skies, and toxic fly ash flows into the water from thermal power plants. The video, running over nine minutes, is a song that turns a common Tamil slur into a bold environmental, social, political and artistic statement, which takes on the unconcerned government and corporate hunger.
Musically, the piece is a regular krithi, sung in Krishna’s mellifluous voice. Penned by musician and lyricist Kaber Vasuki, who did a rock version of the piece in September last year, the song highlights the areas encroached by Kamarajar Port Limited and TANGEDCO (Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited). The video implicates the latter in using the creek to dump their waste. “I had not been to that side of Chennai because I have been born and raised in the upper-caste southern part of the city. We don’t really visit north Chennai, where acres of land and river are being dumped with fly ash. People fish there, they consume that fish. That dumpyard is a horrendous sight,” says Krishna, who adds that in the name of giving people employment, these corporations have destroyed health and life. “People are constantly facing lung and skin issues. Who is checking this?,” says Krishna, about the song that was launched by author Perumal Murugan and published by Vettiver Collective, a Chennai-based voluntary space for social and environmental
issues that is run by environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. The piece is the brainchild of Jayaraman, who was also behind Sofia Ashraf’s Kodaikanal Won’t, which took to task corporate giant Unilever for dumping toxic mercury waste in Kodaikanal.
The video, also features Krishna at various spots along the East Coast Road in Chennai, which has seen rapid development over the years. It asks people to sign a petition so that National Green Tribunal can look into the matter and “treat the disease”.
Krishna says everyone is a participant in this disaster. “We don’t care because these people live beyond our eyeline. Our power comes from there, petroleum comes from there. The project is important at so many levels, from the perspective of humanity, of politics that plays out when these decisions are made,” he says.
The idea for the project, says Krishna, came almost eight months ago, from a film titled One, in which Krishna sang in the beautiful Nilgiris. “Niti (Jayaraman) said, he’ll do Two with this,” says Krishna. This was also the time when Krishna was addressing the idea of Carnatic classical music and highlighting what was wrong with it. He was wondering why he should sing of the gods alone. “I realised that it isn’t just about the subject but also a dialect that decides the class. It raised concepts of what’s pure, what’s polluted. There’s something called Chennai Tamil, which is not even respected as language because it is considered low class. So someone suggested, what will happen if we sang Carnatic classical in Chennai Tamil. I said, why not? I had no clue how it would work because every dialect has its own intonation,” says Krishna, who altered musician and lyricist Vasuki’s lyrics, to create his version of Poromboke.
“I never thought the song could sound like this. It’s an important issue that needs attention from all quarters,” says Vasuki, whose lyrics also take a dig at the “Make in India” campaign and calls out the government for harming the environment in the name of growth. From an artistic perspective, says Krishna, it’s been a learning curve. “It raises more questions about my art, my life. It’s time art engaged with the environment,” he says.