Disaster, Dystopia, and Disphony

Disaster, Dystopia, and Disphony

by Pranathi Diwakar

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

My last day of “fieldwork” was on March 14th, 2020. A chart-topping Gaana singer from the 1990s had agreed to meet with me, and what was supposed to be a casual chat ended up becoming an impromptu house concert for an audience of one—me. Gaana is a musical style that acquired prominence in 1980s Chennai with the cassette revolution, but it originated in the early 20th century as a funeral music popular in Chennai’s earliest informal settlements, when Dalit migrant laborers from around southern India began to work in the precarious conditions of the city’s burgeoning British mills and factories. Now, with YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok, and the introduction of the form into Tamil film music, Gaana has become wildly popular among Chennai’s youth as a form of north Chennai Dalit self-expression that explores heartbreak, friendships, death, and social issues hinging upon the exigencies of caste, class, and address. 

That March afternoon, we were in the living room of the singer’s house, and after some hours of music, the conversation turned to current events. On my train journey to north Chennai, I had been consumed by headlines about COVID-19, and I asked if he was worried about this virus at all. His reaction sparked a conversation that made clear to me the gulf between our vulnerabilities, past experiences, and future (un)certainties that would result in unequal and vastly different experiences of this pandemic. 

I am writing this now in May 2020, and eight weeks have passed since the Indian government enforced a lockdown across Indian cities to contain the virus. The city of Chennai is just beginning to slowly awaken from the months-long stupor of barren streets, closed liquor shops and grocery stores, and months of unemployment, hunger, and uncertainty for its residents whose stomachs and homes cannot afford to go eight weeks without work. Yet, the number of new cases seems to be on the rise.

When I spoke with the Gaana singer that final day that I was out “in the field,” I was struck by his nonchalance toward the pandemic. It would still be nearly ten days before the government would enforce the lockdown, so perhaps the fear was not as concretized at the time. But as I dithered and reeled from the uncertain future now staring us in the face, this elderly man gently mocked my panic and told me not to worry. He said, “We’ll be fine! We have the sea breeze and that’ll protect us from this virus. We’ll drink a neem concoction; we have our remedies. We are, after all, a strong people.” 

I was struck by this resigned response to my question, which urged me to unpack what it means to experience this pandemic through the lens of my social privilege by way of caste, class, and address in contrast with those for whom those very categories present a social disadvantage. When he reassured me that we are a strong people, was I included? I was, after all, the one spinning out while he explained calmly that in his years, he had seen so much worse. His seemingly sanguine acceptance of the hardship and risk came not from delusion, but rather, an awareness of the collective indifference of governments and elites from decades of being betrayed and senselessly sacrificed at the altar of one crisis after another. 

Urban living is predicated on unequal exposure to risk. The governance of these risks often follows existing fault lines within a city’s social dynamics. The city’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged residents are pushed to the frontlines of the city’s battleground in times of disaster, their lack of consent notwithstanding. This pandemic is laying the foundations for an extended experience of disaster and a disproportionate exposure to risk for the city’s most marginalized residents. 

The view of a South Chennai neighborhood from the rooftop of an interlocutor’s building. Some informal settlements are visible in the foreground, whereas the background consists of “middle-class” residential apartments, a temple, and commercial establishments. Photo by the author.

In western classical music, a symphony is a musical composition that proceeds in four parts—or movements—which are each distinct, but together form a coherent whole. I propose that the experience of Gaana musicians, who have been primary interlocutors in my research, shows a four-movement structure in the way disaster is experienced by marginal urban residents: disbelief; infection; death; and the experience of disaster. Together, these produce an unsettling and protracted period of hardship for urban marginal residents, generating what I term “disphony”: the extended, and severe experience of a disaster containing four enmeshed episodes of life-altering discordance. The four movements are often non-linear—sometimes occurring all at the same time—but they reflect the contradictory and complex responses to disasters whose beginning, middle, and end are thrown into disarray by the relentlessness and intensity of calamitous events for the urban poor. The severity and protracted experience of disaster reveals the chronic accommodation of risk that urban marginal residents are compelled to make. In ethnographic research that engages with marginalized groups, fieldwork inherently rests on discrete and unequal relationships with risk for the researcher and the interlocutors. Fieldwork not only calls for a reckoning with our privilege as researchers vis-à-vis our interlocutors, but also the chasm between our less and more fraught relationships with risk in the spaces we variously call “home” or “the field.” 

First Movement: Disbelief 

When the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown in the last week of March, a spate of “Coronavirus awareness” Gaana music videos were released on YouTube. One of the songs refers to nationwide protests that had challenged the government’s proposed amendments to a citizenship act and population registry which would adversely affect Muslims and other groups without documentation. The song starts off with the lines, “As-salamu alaykum, praise the Lord, Govinda / it won’t do to fear for your life anymore.” In a humorous but cautionary twist, the song goes on to say that unless people of all religions and castes are treated equally, those refusing to provide citizenship rights should be cursed with the virus. One of my interlocutors felt that the lockdown was the government’s attempt to curtail the protests that had gone on for months. I called him when the lockdown was announced, and he said, “This is a ploy to get us off the streets. This virus won’t affect us.”

In another music video, the singer tells his listeners that they won’t be affected by the coronavirus as long as they drink a neem leaf and ginger concoction prescribed in local folklore to ward off illness. The concoction is the legacy of public memory pertaining to another devastating disaster that affected Tamil Nadu: the plague. 

At the onset of the pandemic, some Gaana singers initially expressed disbelief in the scope of the disaster and their own personal vulnerability, claiming a conspiracy rooted in the fact of their victimization by a government that authorized police violence against protestors only months ago. In other words, this marginalized community viewed the government’s lockdown with suspicion because their exposure to risk has been normalized, and the urban poor are treated as expendable by a government that leaves them defenseless in the combat zone of a crisis.

A scene from the protests against the Indian government’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. Photo by the author.

Second Movement: Infection

Just a few short weeks after the lockdown was announced, the first few cases of infection were confirmed in North Chennai, where a significant proportion of Chennai’s designated “slum” areas are located. By late April, a news report showed that 65% of all cases in the city were in North Chennai, and the city’s police commissioner attributed this to the population density in those areas. In the month of May, a state opposition leader suggested that people in North Chennai be moved somewhere else because of the population density. A Gaana musician performed a song at an event in a public park in January 2020 about the 2015 monsoon floods that rocked North Chennai, pointing out that the monsoon was used an excuse for the mass eviction of residents in “slum” areas to relocation complexes outside of the city. 

From well before the pandemic, North Chennai residents have been resisting political pressure to evict them, and official statements advocating relocation “for their own good” have been received with fear and trepidation. After officials began intensifying testing in North Chennai in response to higher infection rates, reports emerged about people hiding from officials for fear of being separated from their families and facing social stigma if they tested positive. Infection is a stage in the process of an unfolding disaster in which the fact of disease can no longer be refuted, and in which being marked as “positive” carries stigma in the form of social and bodily repercussions.

Buildings constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board to relocate evicted families are visible from an arterial flyover in a North Chennai neighborhood. Photo by the author.

Third Movement: Death

Gaana musicians earn primarily through performances at funerals; they use this income to record songs at local studios for online circulation through YouTube. Other potential performance venues include local temple and community festivals, or competitions organized by local leaders, but Gaana funeral concerts have become an important social and community ritual in Chennai’s informal settlements, conferring dignity and respect to the person who has died. 

Some Gaana musicians refuse to accept payment from the families of the deceased if they are struggling financially. One of my interlocutors explained to me that he sometimes performs for free because he remembers his own family’s struggles with getting food and financial resources, and so he feels a responsibility to pass on this gift of being able to bid farewell to a beloved family member with dignity. Gaana musicians perform a crucial role in their communities by performing at the wake of a funeral, but their performances take place on makeshift stages on the street and require physical congregation, where community members cry, dance, and celebrate the life of their deceased relative or neighbor. 

During the pandemic, an already acute mortality rate in informal settlements is exacerbated by high residential density, but the virus prevents the possibility of community congregation for funerals. What happens to the livelihood, profession, and social significance of Gaana at a time when no more than five people are allowed to attend the funerals of people who died of other causes—and no one is allowed to witness the funerals of those who died from the virus? In late April, 300 local residents pelted stones and protested the burial of a doctor in the vicinity of their neighborhood, panicked about the spread of the virus in their area. 

While op-eds poured in about the disgrace of the doctor’s death, a Gaana singer called me to share a song he had written that day about manual scavengers and waste-pickers—also essential workers—largely forgotten by the government, and only provided a flimsy reusable mask once a month as protection against the virus. The fear of spread in areas with high residential density, coupled with extreme anxiety about pre-existing vulnerability, has left a void in coping mechanisms for dealing with death in the face of heightened concerns about mortality. 

A Gaana funeral concert takes place on a makeshift stage on the street outside the house of the bereaved family. Family members, children, and other community members gather around the stage. Photo by the author.

Fourth Movement: Post-Pandemic Disaster

As I contemplate the abrupt end of my fieldwork, I think about how this is only one point in a disaster that will extend for the rest of my interlocutors’ lives. In the hypothetical world in which all of this is “over” for the rest of us, the existing vulnerabilities of marginal urban residents like Gaana musicians and their listening public mean that this will never be “over” for them. Will Gaana musicians be able to continue their artistic practice and resume their career as professional musicians? Will marginalized communities be able to recover from months—maybe years—without employment, healthcare, or certainty about their post-pandemic futures? Most importantly, will communities of urban marginal residents, migrants, and homeless street dwellers be able to forgive a government and a middle/elite class that betrayed them and rendered their lives dispensable in the battle against the pandemic? 

The yawning gap between my version of this pandemic and those of my interlocutors in the Gaana musical world point to the protracted experience of disaster for urban marginal residents, which will continue well after the pandemic is over. In the face of all of this uncertainty, I have found it difficult to think about its consequences for my fieldwork when many of my interlocutors have confided in me their despondency about the rest of their lives. Maybe live concerts will be replaced by virtual events, and perhaps fieldworkers will devise new and cutting-edge ethnographic techniques for research. But at the moment, my thoughts are entirely trained on how we might mitigate this catastrophe of Sisyphean proportions for our societies’ most vulnerable.

In late March, 2020, a shopkeeper wearing a mask looks out onto the traffic from the shade of his store. Another person sits on the pavement outside the store which offers snacks, basic amenities, and the use of a telephone to place local calls. P.C.O., handwritten on the signs visible in the picture, stands for “Public Call Office.” Photo by the author.


Fieldworkers invariably encounter differences between our social positions and those of our interlocutors. We are faced with critiques of “savior” complexes, whose validity and importance cannot be overstated, and it is imperative that we desist from the impulse to believe that we can “salvage,” “save,” or appropriate narratives that are not ours to claim. At the same time, our work draws us into entanglements with those forced into the social margins, and we ought not to disengage or indulge in trite handwringing. We must instead reimagine how we engage not just with our research, but also in truly listening to our interlocutors and the ways in which we can act in solidarity with them as they bear the brunt of yet another disaster—one that promises to stay in one form or another.

Gaana songs and music videos are autobiographical records that articulate the experiences of disaster, risk, and community without any need for translation by external, elite spokespersons, and it is powerful to pay heed to representations of an experience of marginality that emerges through their own voices. Our fieldwork, our agendas, our research are only secondary to the thing that brought us to this profession in the first place, and the only thing that might deliver us from all of this—a radical empathy for lives that are not our own.

Pranathi Diwakar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on Carnatic and Gaana musical worlds in the city of Chennai, as they relate to caste, politics, and urban life.