Music, Masculinity and Desire: Why this Kolaveri Di?
SITA VENKATESHWAR, Massey University, Aotearoa, New Zealand
My family in India sent me a link to the YouTube video. I watched the video, smiled and thought no more of it. When I arrived in India in December 2011, I discovered that the song was everywhere: on radio, television and mobile phone ringtones; all kinds of people across the country were humming a line from the song or joining in with others to complete the rest of the song in unison. On New Year’s Eve at a hotel in Thirunelli, a remote location in the Wayanad region of northern Kerala, I found myself dancing around a bonfire with many other guests there and singing the song with gusto. Not just once but at least half a dozen times! I realised that this phenomenon demanded greater attention. Mapped by the prevalence of flashmobs in locations as disparate as the Netherlands and Japan, I learned that the song had gone viral across the world!
What does that phrase “Kolaveri di” mean? ‘Kola’ means to kill, and ‘veri’ is rage, so ‘kolaveri’ translates to ‘killer rage or murderous rage.” As explained by the BBC Radio commentators, the song is “all about the common man, singing in the bathroom, saying, look, you have broken my heart, you’ve imposed your rage on me and I am dying.”
There is a feminist counter-part which presents a rejoinder to the question of ‘Why this Kolaveri Di?’ while simultaneously mobilising the much better-known Bollywood-Bhangra repertoire of movements to their performance within the confined space of a car.
The extended vowels that follow the enunciation of every utterance in English in the song, characterises both the Indian accent and marks the wider region of South Asia. In India, such an enunciation positions the speaker in terms of their schooling and educational background and therefore their socio-economic location. The intonation distinguishes the vast majority of the inhabitants of India as they navigate the English language and render it in their own idiom.
I want to focus now on one word on which to my mind, the entire song hinges, the word ‘Love.’ The usual palato-dental delivery of that sound in English transforms into a deep, guttural yowl in its usage here, uttered straight from the belly. It embodies a world of yearning for the white girl who becomes the index for a form of imagined modernity, desired but elusive and always out of reach.
The performance of masculinity as rendered visible in this song can be considered characteristic of the South Indian male, bears the traces of the colonised subject who has been denigrated as weak and effeminate, unlike the other valorised ‘martial warrior types’ found elsewhere in India.
However, I want to posit more provocatively that there is also a darker side to such a persona, where the desire, yearning and the lack of opportunities to fulfil them can channel anger, then rage accompanied by violence. “The ‘we don’t have choice,’ that Dhanush bemoans, can become the fuel that has on occasion triggered performances of violence by a populace in India who have embraced this song because it sings in their voice. The greater the distance from all the elements that constitute desire, the six packs, the Goldman Sachs accounts or the Shruti Hasans and Kardashians, the greater the simmering anger that is available for mobilization to the ends of electoral politics or other triggers.
In a testament to the song’s plasticity is a final clip, an irreverent and clever Pakistani version that skilfully hones in on the political dilemmas of that besieged nation, while also demonstrating that the political lies lurking just below the lyric and melodic:
This brief essay offers a perspective on a Youtube video from Chennai that swept the world. It addresses the ways in which the performance of masculinity in the video and the articulation of desire embeds it within the South Indian milieu, but also enable it to speak to a multiplicity of contexts. The essay also suggests that such a performance masks a darker, more troubling vein in relation to gendered politics in the subcontinent.
SITA VENKATESWAR is Director, International, in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Senior Lecturer in the Social Anthropology program at Massey University, New Zealand. She is also Associate Director of the Massey chapter of the recently established New Zealand India Research Institute (NZIRI). Her ethnography Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands (2004) is based on her Ph.D. fieldwork in the Andaman Islands from 1989 to 1992 funded by the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. Her recent co-edited book, The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism (2011) is published by Zed Books. Sita's research interests include cultural analysis and the relationship between gender and power.