Boyish sat down with Tenma, co-founder and member of The Casteless Collective, a Chennai-based, genre-bending anti-caste indie band, to discuss masculinity, caste, and the restrictions of both. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boyish: Tell me a bit about yourself – where do you come from? What led you to music?
Tenma: I grew up in a very, very toxic male environment. I was clueless. I didn’t have a role model. If somebody asked me what I wanted to be, I didn’t have any answer.
I had the resources to buy a single guitar. I just picked it up and played with friends. Music was a light thing for me, as life was messed up. My school friends, they were from similar situations and areas. Most of us were trying to escape being upward to be an engineer. And we really didn’t have a plan. (Laughs.) We were just, like, homeless artists in the making.
Then, when I first performed in college, it changed everything. I started performing.
Boyish: You said a very toxic male environment. Can you describe that more?
Tenma: My dad and I had a really weird relationship. I’ve been in therapy for many years now, mostly because of that. He was a very toxic person, my dad. Domestic abuse used to happen. I came from a violent childhood. My mother didn’t leave my father, as much as I wanted her to leave.
Boyish: What effect did that have on you? On your idea of masculinity?
Tenma: It has coloured every relationship in life. It made me and broke me. I didn’t know shit [about what it means to be a man] from that situation.
When I make errors in my personal life, I always think, ‘Maybe I got this from my dad.’ But that’s just me making excuses. He did what he did; I need to change, to take accountability for myself.
The abuse was such a patriarch thing. So, I decided I wanted to fight against men and systems like him.
Boyish: Is that what led you to anti-caste advocacy?
Tenma: (Laughs.) It’s a bit more complicated.
Being deprived and underprivileged teaches you a lot of lessons. You see some people changing when they improve in the [socioeconomic] class structure. The sudden pride in certain things, the sudden obsession towards caste. I was observing a lot of that.
Later, I wanted to understand my name. [Ed. note: Tenma was born Tiburtius Vinodh Rubin.] In the process of understanding the meaning of my actual name, I learnt a lot about identity and the politics of it. I started reading a lot about Periyar. And, as a musician and a bass player, I was exposed to African-American jazz music and R&B. While I was learning about Black culture and music, I also learned about the politics and leaders like Malcolm X. When I read about it, I could find parallels between race and caste. This led to me seeing caste from a new lens.
Politics started coming into my conversations, my music. I started realising a lot of casteism and casteist behaviour within the structures of indie music. I decided I’m done with this. I’m going to fight against the system, call people out publicly.
Boyish: This was around the time you started Madras Medai? The indie music festival?
Tenma: Yes. That’s when I got a call from Pa. Ranjith. [Ed. note: co-founder of The Casteless Collective with Tenma.] By this time, I had a successful band, had done some songs on environmental politics, and I had made friends within those activist communities. Pa. Ranjith had this idea to form this [anti-caste] band. His team reached out to Nithyanand Jayaraman to find a composer who understood caste politics and who at the same time could train artists from the gaana scene. [Ed. note: gaana is a form of folk music.]
I could see what he wanted. It was a monumental task, right: It’s a tool to destroy patriarchy. I was thinking, "This is my purpose.”
Boyish: You keep referring to caste as patriarchy. Patriarchy is usually used to describe the rigid structure of gender roles – you know, ‘men are strong, unemotional providers and authorities,’ and ‘women are the weaker, nurturing caretakers.’ Do you see an intersection between gender inequality and caste oppression?
Tenma: Patriarchy is such a non-binary term. Caste is formed on patriarchal lines. But beyond the caste of a person, their gender comes into play. Just because someone is anti- caste doesn’t immediately make them non-patriarchal towards women. Only if we go into their houses, we can see how they treat the other person.
A man from an oppressed caste can sometimes be overpowered by a person, be it a cis-man or a cis-woman, from an oppressor caste. The privileges are completely different. I know from many personal examples.
Boyish: Caste is so at odds with traditional masculinity for men from oppressed castes. On the one hand, society is telling you that ‘being a man’ means being powerful, being in charge, protecting your family. But on the other hand, society is actively stripping you of dignity, rights, and agency. How do we reconcile that?
Tenma: What do we say? 'Please be sensitive to oppressed men, because they’ve gone through enough in their life?' Now, should we forgive him just because he’s from an oppressed caste?
People with power have this way of manipulating a story and becoming the saviour –
Boyish: Or the victim.
Tenma: – yeah, and saying what should be done. As I said earlier, some men do not have agency, but I think we need to discuss much deeper about gender, caste, and it's intersections. It’s too difficult to separate.
Boyish: Patriarchy – in the gender sense – clearly limits women. Does it limit men at all?
Tenma: Of course it limits men. If you don’t know how to speak well in English. If you don’t have a car, if you don’t have savings or money, the list goes on... There are a thousand ways to be asked if you’re a man or not. And by the time you answer all these questions a ‘traditional’ man asks himself, you’re dead. You have to constantly prove you’re a man, you can’t just BE a man.
Boyish: So traditional masculinity is all an act? An effort to prove something?
Tenma: Yeah. But wokeness is, too. I’ll be polite, I’ll be respectful – but am I doing this just so the other person feels better? Or have I actually changed? There's this Tamil sketch comedy channel, “Temple Monkeys,” that does this video about this woke man trying to convince this woke girl he's woke, just to flirt with her. Many men manipulate wokeness. In the same way, I've been bullied all my life – about caste, about being an introvert – by all the same people talking about woke politics.
(Laughs.) I’m sweating through my T-shirt. I’m open to having this conversation, but I don’t know whether everybody is ready for this conversation. I just want to make sure that people know men are also insecure and vulnerable and they need some sort of a second chance to grow. Because when you’re a conscious man, masculinity gets difficult. Sometimes the views that come out of your mouth might also be offensive to you. Because there’s so much unlearning and learning.
Boyish: If both traditional and ‘woke’ masculinity is all an act — where does that leave us? What does it mean to be a man to you now?
Tenma: (Laughs.) Oh, man… it baffles me.
It really doesn’t mean anything. I live alone, I take care of myself, I provide for myself. Recently, I started providing for others – not individuals, but families. It’s not a man thing, though, it’s a person thing.
Boyish: Would you say your activism is an expression of your masculinity?
Tenma: Maybe. I think it’s more about wanting to be part of the conversation. There needs to be a constant conversation within ourselves and with each other about what our actions are – what is equity in the system. Gender is part of it – caste is part of it, too.