Satire For Our Times

Satire calls out the turbulent, disturbing ugliness around us and with its peculiar form of humour allows us to cope with that. Unfortunately humour in all its forms seems critically endangered in our times, which makes ‘Baemaani’ a treasure.

These days of extreme thin-skinned/politically motivated reactions fuelled by mindless entitled outrage riding on the runaway train of social media have mowed down criticism so much that satire has become a rarity on the verge of extinction. In that context, ‘Baemaani’ by Amrit Rao & The Madrascals (a play on Madras, the earlier name of the city of Chennai in India) came through as a fresh, unusual and risky pleasure. Calling out politics, religion, superstition, vapid trends, societal norms, all often in the space of the few minutes of a single song, this album is frenetic at the very least. Unlike most Indian independent musicians who use either English or Hindi to voice their ideas, Amrit and his feisty bunch insist on using the South Indian language Thamizh that in a multilingual country like India runs the risk of restricting their audience. It’s a risk that they have willingly taken, a choice not bereft of loads of wry humour.

There is an excessive weightage given in music to lyrics I think. If I bothered so much with words in music, I wouldn’t enjoy folk music from around the world, much of jazz and classical (Indian, Western), instrumental music, or…Death Metal. I think that’s true for many listeners. Words are a nice-to-have but not a must-have of the art. We often discount the fact that music has its own expression and phrasing. I understand and speak Thamizh even if the language on this album is more evolved than my lay use of it. The listening pleasure that ‘Baemaani’ offers therefore is definitely more intense for me but the band makes sure that even for those not conversant with the language there’s much to enjoy with the intelligence and involving nature of the music itself. I’m biased by my understanding of the language, of course, which makes it hard for me to gauge this but I’m basing my belief on the positive reactions of members of live audiences who do not comprehend the words. For those conversant with the language the songs here are exceptionally well-written lyrically. The play of words on this album teeters at times on the edge of excessive cleverness – allegory, pun, alliteration, one could go on – but is never out of control or gets reduced to hollow pretentiousness. Thamizh is an unusual language with its phonetically limited and basic alphabet in diametric contrast to the richness of its extremely nuanced expression bearing interpretations that tease the mind. That is a characteristic that the band has utilised very well without degenerating to abuse of the lexicon.

This stellar set of 7 songs covers a range of contemporary topics – from despotic government rule to the rise of right wing extreme jingoism to the self-absorption of the selfie culture, from conservative middle class mores to the abuse of natural resources, from blind faith in scamsters to the politics of language, all with changes and transitions at a pace so manic, sometimes many of them in the same song, that one fears that this crazy train might go off the track spectacularly. But it is a tribute to the writing – musical and lyrical – and the playing by a gifted set of musicians that at no point does it get derailed. It is extremely difficult to bring to light the nuances of the words on these songs to those who do not follow the language but the listener will still be able to enjoy the music that is diverse and dynamic. The foreboding and quite dramatic “Paamaran” (could mean layman, ignorant) gives way to the easy lightness of “Buddhiketta Manidhar” (mindless people) which is a musical facepalm slapped on the incredulity of the masses taken in by self-proclaimed ‘gurus’. The mood shifts back to a dark heaviness in “Thanni” (water) that indicts us as a race on our abuse and senseless commoditisation of our natural resources. “Kaattukkulla” (inside the forest) highlights the fact that politics has no faith that it adheres to, shifting as it does to the path of whatever leads to power. Our increasing insecurity that has led to numbing self-absorption and the desperate seeking of validation takes centrestage on “Thannai Thaane”. In what I think is the best bit of songwriting in an album that already excels in it, “Kaasimedu” moves with ridiculous smoothness from the simple delight that a supposed vegetarian takes in eating fish surreptitiously away from the eyes of his family to the disastrous suffering of sudden demonetisation that PM Modi slammed on the Indian populace while also calling attention to corporate crookery. In a wry twist on the language theme, the album closes with “Hindi” and takes apart the notion of a single ‘national’ language being imposed in a country whose people speak in so many tongues. In a way that multiplicity is mirrored in the diverse genres that the music embraces with felicity, often in the same song making it all come together cogently. Rock, jazz, calypso, metal, folk, all are woven in skilfully without it seeming jarring; it’s all so smoothly natural that the much abused word in art, ‘experimental’, doesn’t even leap into one’s consciousness.

‘Baemaani’ is a grossly under-rated album even in the niche Indian independent music ‘scene’ when it should really be hailed as a landmark and an astonishing act of independence, breaking away from the par for course. The tragedy of our world is such that years after its release – it came out in 2018 – its themes continue to be relevant and will do so, I’m afraid, for a long time to come.

You can listen to or buy ‘Baemaani’ on Bandcamp and you can stream it on:

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