On a warm October evening in Chennai, the founding members of Tamil pop-rock band Kurangan were getting ready to perform live for a video shoot. Barefoot, casually dressed, singer-songwriter Kaber Vasuki and music producer Tenma were seated amidst a cluster of microphones on the terrace of an apartment building in South Chennai.
It was well past 4 pm when Kaber and Tenma finally began to make music. Kaber hummed a stirring melody along with the chords strummed on Tenma’s guitar.
In a matter of minutes, they had transformed from two slightly bored artists, lost in the bustle of camera set-ups and other technical matters, to the locus of undeniable intensity. Infused with the earthy timbre of Kaber’s voice, Kurangan’s latest single, Mugamoodi, came alive.
“Mugamoodi means mask,” Kaber said, once the glow of the evening had faded. “The song is essentially about how we are all stupid and act foolishly depending on circumstances, and each of these kinds of stupidity is also a mask that we wear at our convenience.”
This level of abstraction is rare in mainstream Tamil entertainment, but not for the four-member band. Right from their first live performance about a year ago, at the Covelong Madras Week Festival, Kurangan’s music has captured an unexplored space in the Tamil music scene.
Their occasionally angst-filled lyrics and unique genre-breaking style has drawn crowds to their live shows, bringing them popularity on social media. Unwilling to fit into any mould, the band has dived into pop, hard rock, rock & blues – any genre that they feel inspired to explore.
Watch this clip of Kurangan’s funk song Rockstar, a crowd favourite.
A part of the story of Kurangan’s origin draws from a single iPod shared between five hostel roommates, including Kaber, at a conservative engineering college in Thanjavur. Until he joined college, the only English music Kaber had heard featured in Michael Jackson’s albums. Through his friend’s iPod at college, Kaber discovered bands like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Greenday and Coldplay.
“Even when they were writing love songs, there were so many different kinds of love songs,” said Kaber. “It was extremely new to me. They were not just catering to the emotionally unstable adolescents in us. I felt like if I could connect with their songs even when it is in English then if it was in my language and rooted in my culture, I would be able to identify with it much more.”
Kaber had lived in Coimbatore all his life. On the hunt for alternatives to Tamil cinema music, which Kaber felt dealt with fairly frivolous themes, he found that apart from the hip-hop artist Yogi B, options were rare.
By then, Kaber had begun composing songs, despite his lack of any formal training in music. When he moved to Chennai in 2010, in the hope of making it as a well-known artist (ambitiously, he set himself a deadline of one year), the first few months consisted mainly of a string of odd jobs, to feed himself.
In 2013, with the help of a friend, Kaber began to crowd-fund his first album. A simple, yet vividly descriptive, song about Chennai on a warm day, Kodai Padal served as the sampler.
The other part of Kurangan’s story begins in a studio room in London where Tenma first began to produce music.
After several years of playing the bass guitar for a number of Chennai’s English music bands, Tenma had grown frustrated with the scene and decided to study music production.
“Most of the promoters in Chennai are not open to anything new,” said Tenma. “They stopped encouraging anything new. Everybody was peddling the same old stuff. At one point, everybody would listen to the same artists over and over again for years, and only a very small minority would evolve.”
Once Tenma returned to Chennai, things became tough. Trying to build a career as a music producer, Tenma refused several offers to play bass guitar at gigs – causing him to sink into debt. It was around this time that he saw Kaber perform at a crowd-funding event, for his first album Azhagu Puratchi or A Beautiful Revolution.
“I was going through a kind of a crisis then,” said Tenma. “And I really liked one line in his song which said: ‘Why are you acting brave in order to hide the fact that you are shy? Why is it that you are so fond of the whole act of bravery?’”
Strumming new chords
Kaber and Tenma said that when they first met, they were so different that it took them a while to even find common subjects to talk about.
Kaber is from Coimbatore and Tenma from Chennai.
“Even the kind of English we spoke was different,” said Tenma.
They soon formed a rapport which enabled them to work together on Kaber’s crowdfunded album Azhagu Puratchi.
“We locked ourselves up for four months while recording our first album,” said Kaber. “We didn’t give a shit about the world... and when the album was released, the world didn’t give a shit about us.”
But even though that first album failed, the duo managed to rope in drummer Krishna, and guitarist Sahib, to form the band Kurangan.
“We were trying to create something that the existing Tamil entertainment industry didn’t think it needed,” said Kaber. Pointing out that filmmakers hardly employed scriptwriters anymore, he said everyone was looking to convey thoughts or emotions in the cheapest and easiest way.
To address what he describes as “the inferiority complex that lies at the bottom of many young Tamil people’s hearts”, Kaber penned a song called Vasanam. He said that while mainstream cinema exploited those insecurities, he wished to give young Tamil people reassurance and comfort.
Kaber links this feeling of inferiority with the identity crisis young Tamilians experience, with respect to their language.
“When I was growing up, if you spoke in English, if you were well read in it, people would think you are educated,” he said. “Whereas if you were really articulate and educated in Tamil, people still wonder if you are a Communist. They think you want to be a politician. This is really stupid, because you are creating an image around the language itself, which is not entirely true. The language has so much more potential.”
Loud and close
Even though opportunities to perform live are still few, Kurangan receives an overwhelming response from fans every time they do, and even receive donations.
“These are all people who are extremely comfortable thinking in Tamil, and just don’t have anything challenging enough for them in mainstream entertainment,” said Kaber. “They are looking for something new.”
Vivek Raju, a filmmaker who also worked with Kaber for the video of Kodai Padal, said that Kurangan’s music is unique because unlike other independent Tamil songwriters, Kurangan writes about various aspects of modern life and finds humour in the follies of everyday life.
“Kurangan’s songs keep it real,” said Raju. “The directness and honesty in their songs are something I really love. At times, their tone may sound arrogant. But after a point, the songs actually are comforting and humbling.”
For Radhika Prasidhha, a long-time fan and follower of Kurangan’s music, the band’s hit song Rasathi is her current favourite.
“It is about a guy pondering about a woman whom he cannot figure out, there’s almost a sense of helplessness about it,” said Prasidhha. “I really like the way it is written, it is very different.”
Men and women across age groups are drawn to Kurangan’s performances, perhaps due to the sheer honesty of their songs and approach.
“For almost every performance of ours, a small girl with braces comes with her friend – both look like they’re 15,” said Tenma. “Once they even brought their mothers.”
Kaber added: “They sing along for all songs, standing in front of the crowd. They never make eye contact. And they leave immediately after the show. We have never spoken to them.”
“Maybe we should,” said Tenma.
“No no,” said Kaber, laughing, “If you do that, then the bubble will burst.”