A conversation with ‘Madurai’ Chandran doubles up as a concert. In a 20-minute interview over the phone, he regales us with folk songs on the need for birth control, the evils of the caste system, the problems faced by farmers, and a few passages of the Kamba Ramayanam. And this is only a sample of his range.
The 50-year-old folk singer, who has been belting hit songs about the problems that riddle society, is a local superstar at cultural programmes, colloquially referred to as Aaadal Paadal Nigalzhchis across Tamil Nadu. Chandran is now all set to perform at the first leg of Margazhiyil Makkal Isai, a musical festival by director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Cultural Centre, in Madurai on December 18.
He says that he cannot wait to meet the diverse crowds of his hometown. “I am currently based out of Thanjavur and my troop of 30 members is from there too. But I always look forward to performing at my hometown,” he adds.
Chandran, who hails from Avaniyapuram in Madurai, which only recently became part of the city’s corporation limit, says he is used to the idea of his area being known as a village. “I was surrounded by song and dance performances from a young age. My father is a singer of folk songs too. It was only natural for me to begin performing as well.”
His first brush with fame, however, came when he was in Class 10. “I was regularly chosen by teachers in school for singing competitions. I would usually sing Bharathiyar songs. We were discouraged from singing film songs but to get inventive during these contests, I would compose socially-conscious songs to the beats of filmy music for better reach. Others in school appreciated the effort,” he says.
Chandran was always interested in education and wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Tamil. His folk music background helped him secure a seat at Gandhigram University in Dindigul, where he again partook in cultural events. “Students from the university, including me, worked with the government to stage various shows in different parts of Dindigul district, raising awareness about dowry, child marriage, birth control, and health. It was an eye-opening experience which helped me decide my future,” he says.
He went on to be recognised among members of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association. “I was invited by different members of this association and functionaries of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to perform at their events across the state. It became an exciting journey. I worked with troupes in both Tirunelveli and Thanjavur,” he adds.
During this time, he got the opportunity to record and release nearly 20 cassettes filled with songs on social change – some of which he had written. Does he fancy himself a poet and a writer? “I think it is only natural to begin writing when we travel and see so many social evils around us,” he says.
Several songs that Chandran sings at his events are about famine, the lives of farmers, and the evils of the caste system. These are the subjects he is passionate about as they are the ones that trouble him the most, he says.
At Madurai’s Margazhiyil Makkal Isai concert, Chandran tells us he is going to ask the audience to ponder over who Kannagi burnt when she engulfed the city in embers. Kannagi, the central character of the semi-legendary epic Silappadikaram, is said to have burnt Madurai after her philandering husband was unjustly accused of stealing and killed. “Kannagi only burnt the poor. She spared the rich. The epics don’t talk about this,” he says.
(This profile is part of an ongoing series of articles on various indigenous artists across Tamil Nadu who will be performing at Margazhiyil Makkal Isai starting December 18. Silverscreen India is a media partner for the event.)