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Gaana (or Gana) is a style of Tamil music from Chennai, India.[1][2] It is rap-like "collection of rhythms, beats and sensibilities native to the Chennai people."[2] It evolved over the past two centuries, with influences ranging from the siddhars (tantric adepts) of ancient Tamilakam to rural Tamil folk music to Tamil sufi mystics.[2] It's popularity rose when it was brought to the music of the mainstream Tamil film industry.[2] Contemporary gaana bands are bringing the genre to new audiences while using it for social activism, especially against caste discrimination.[3]


The etymology of the term "gaana" is unclear, though it may have come from Tamil word Kaanam - கானம் - which means “tune”, or Hindi, where the word means "song".[2]

The genre arose in the slums and burial grounds of Chennai.[2] Gaana singers have performed in the city for the past two centuries.[2] The art form can trace its descent from the siddhars (tantric adepts) of ancient Tamilakam, to the compositions of early nineteenth-century Tamil Muslim Sufi mystic Kunangudi Masthan Sahib, to Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, popularly known as the first Tamil novelist.[2][4] Kunangudi Masthan Sahib's songs are still sung by gaana singers today.[2] Other strands of influence come from migrants from rural Tamil Nadu.[2]

With the arrival of recording technology, gaana artists have been able to record their songs for posterity and earn income from them.[2] In the 1990s, Tamil film composers brought gaana-inspired songs to movies.[2] Composer Deva was instrumental in bringing gaana to blockbusters like Kadhal Kottai; his songs are still popular today.[5][6][7] This newfound exposure led to the genre's popularity in college campuses.[2] The genre's spread to campuses has led to criticism from gaana singers that its essence, "angst and melancholy" based in life's struggles, had been replaced by "themes of fun and romance."[2]

Types of gaana songs include:

  • attu gaana - popular film tunes adapted with original lyrics[2]
  • all gaana - songs with the major elements - tune, beats, lyrics - all created by the same artist[2]
  • jigil gaana - songs focused on intoxication and intoxicants[2]
  • deepa gaana - compositions from the past, some of which are ballads that run for hours[2]
  • marana gaana - an elegy exploring the philosophy of death[2]

Scholars like V. Ramakrishnan of the Government Arts College, Ponneri, map twenty types of gaana songs.[8] Other song types include those that glorify local heroes.[8] The most famous of those is about Alththota Bhupathi, a poor worker.[8] At times, the genre has been known to have sexual innuendo and misogyny, but many popular gaana singers reject these themes.[2][7]

In gaana competitions, one singer questions another with a lyric, and the other answers with a lyric of their own.[4] Participants aim to creatively "insist on life's instability".[4]

Gaana songs are performed at weddings, stage shows, political rallies, and funerals.[8][9] There are more than 500 performers in Chennai who earn their living from these events.[8] In 2016, around one hundred gaana performers formed the South Indian Gana Singers Association to promote the art form, earn respect for their art, and prevent their work from being stolen.[2][7] An earlier association, the Tamil Nadu Gana Artists Association was formed in 2007 and had 750 members as of 2012.[8]

Gaana has been a vehicle for social activism. In 2018, a band of gaana artists was brought together by Pa. Rajinth, an Ambedkarite film-maker, to form The Casteless Collective.[2] They sing against caste discrimination, about Ambedkar, the small joys of living in poverty in Chennai, and even have a lesbian song in their repertoire.[2] Artists have also used gaana songs to transmit information like COVID-19 health guidelines in an easily-accessible form.[10]

Though the major gaana artists are men, and gaana songs are usually written from a male viewpoint, women gaana artists are seeing increasing recognition.[8] Isaivani, a member of The Casteless Collective, was recognised for her pioneering women's involvement in the genre with one of the BBC 100 Women Awards.[11]

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ "`Gaana' Ulaganathan bags 3 more film offers". The Hindu. 2 April 2006. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Valan, Antony Arul (2020). "Gana (Gānā)". Keywords for India : A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1-350-03927-8. OCLC 1134074309.
  3. ^ Valan, Antony Arul (2020). "Gana (Gānā)". Keywords for India : A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1-350-03927-8. OCLC 1134074309.
  4. ^ a b c Kumari, J. Vijay Ratna (2018). "The Influence of Sufism in Gaana Songs". International Journal of Current Humanities and Social Science Researches. 2 (4): 22–26. ISSN 2456-7205.
  5. ^ Saravanan, T. (20 July 2017). "Composer Deva: the monarch of Gaana music". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  6. ^ Ramanujam, Srinivasa (18 May 2020). "Deva interview: 'Kushi' proved that I could do more than just 'gaana'". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  7. ^ a b c "Association for Gaana singers in South India". The Hindu. 4 August 2016. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Srivathsan, A. (25 August 2012). "A struggle to elevate the subaltern Chennai Gana". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  9. ^ Ratna Kumar J, Vijay (2016). A Culture in Transition: A Study of Gaana Singers in Chennai (PhD thesis). Manonmaniam Sundaranar University.
  10. ^ Ramanujam, Srinivasa (8 August 2020). "Corona crooners: Tamil 'gaana' and folk performers spread COVID-19 awareness with music". The Hindu. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  11. ^ "BBC 100 Women 2020: Who is on the list this year?". BBC News. 23 November 2020. Retrieved 19 December 2020.