Southern Lights: On Being Home-schooled In Tamil Through The Film Song, Film Companion

These days, a lot of the music I listen to comes from the phone. I just type in the name of a song I feel like listening to. Some days, it’s 1960s music, so I’ll type in, say, Kaatru vaanga ponen. And the clever little YouTube elves take care of the rest, suggesting songs from the same period. Thus it happened that, on a seventies kind of day, I heard this Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu beauty, Ilakkanam maarudho. The film is from 1978, so we’re looking at the last gasp of the MS Viswanathan-Kannadasan era. (The Ilayaraja era was already underway, with 16 Vayadhinile having been released the previous year.) But the song is so fresh, such an exquisite coupling of tune and lyric. (The composer and lyricist would scale another peak in the subsequent year, with their breathtaking soundtrack for Ninaithale Inikkum.)

Anyway, this isn’t about composers and eras. I wanted to talk about the song itself, which is about the gradual mellowing of the disciplinarian heroine. The metaphor used is that of grammar (ilakkanam) turning into literature (ilakkiyam). The first time I heard this song – sometime in school – was the first time I’d encountered these two words, and I must have been humming the song for a while before stumbling on the meanings (maybe my grandfather told me!). And once that happened, the song was never the same again. I could never (and still cannot) listen to a song without listening to the words. Now that I write for a living, I guess the love for beauty and meaning in language (any language) must have always been lurking under my science and maths textbooks – and listening to Ilakkanam maarudho, the other day, made me want to convey my gratitude to the Tamil film song for expanding the scope of the language far more than the teachers at school did.

Let me explain with another gorgeous song from the same film: Kamban yemaandhaan. It’s a second-hand glimpse at some of the things Kambar, the 12th/13th-century poet, said – the fact that he likened women to flowers, that he called them arrow-eyed (ambu vizhi), that he compared them to milk (arunchuvai paal; Kannadasan employed this comparison himself a few years earlier, in Aval oru navarasa naadagam, from Ulagam Suttrum Valiban, where a line went “arusuvai nirambiya paal kudam”). I went to an English-medium school. I may have been speaking Tamil at home, but it was casual usage. I might have been reading Tamil newspapers and magazines, but again, this was the time writers like Sujatha and Pattukottai Prabhakar were “cool,” and at least part of this coolness was from the way they de-formalised the language. Film songs were my gateway to a different, more involved kind of Tamil appreciation.


This kind of education-through-song is possible only in Indian cinema. Listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, much later in life, made me aware of the tradition of protest music – so there’s still the element of learning. But you can’t pick up a few things about Shakespearean English, say, through an English pop song – because the words, the usage is still contemporary. But because the Indian film song exists in a heightened zone, above the spoken dialogue, it is allowed many liberties with language. In Rajaparvai, the hero and heroine were very much people from our time, not Sangam-era kings and queens. And yet, in the Andhi mazhai song, Vairamuthu (another great long-distance teacher of mine) employs the word nithilam (for pearl) instead of the more casual muthu. What’s the use, you ask? It’s not that I walk into GRT jewellery store and ask for a nithilam-studded minor chain. (Don’t judge me. I’ve always felt minor chains are cool!) It’s just an extra bit of beauty in your life, like an unexpected rainbow on the way home from work.

Also, Vairamuthu rhymes nithilam with puthagam. In English, we call it an “end rhyme.” Discussing these lines with a friend who studied Tamil formally, I learnt that this kind of rhyme was called iyaibu in Tamil. Monai, on the other hand is alliteration, again something I’d encountered not so much in Tamil poetry as the Tamil film song: say, from Karpagam, Vaali’s gloriously playful Pakkathu-veetu paruva-machaan, paarvayile padam pudichaan. Much, much later, through Kannodu kaanbadhellaam in Jeans, I got to know about the Tamil equivalent of onomatopoeia: irattai kilavi. I think I’m saying I was home-schooled in Advanced Tamil 101 through the film song. I’m no expert in the intricacies, but tell me another way I would have known what yaakkai is. What narumugai is. What nallai allai is.

And from Hindi film songs, I got another crash course. If Gulzar taught me bits of Urdu and Persian (say, aab-o-daana, from Do deewane sheher mein in Gharonda), Sahir Ludhianvi helped me find out what a takht was, what rooh was (Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, from Pyaasa). As recently as in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, I got something new: sandook (from Chana mereya). And last year, when Ittefaq was released, I knew what the title meant because of the bouncy Zindagi ittefaq hai, shown on Doordarshan many decades ago.  I look at words like coins in a piggy bank. One at a time, they begin to add up – even if I’ll never be as proficient in Hindi as a native speaker.


Sometimes, you’ll hear a word and place it roughly (as in, guess an approximate meaning), and then when you hear the same word in a different lyric, the meaning gets refined. Thamarai’s phrase “kalaaba kaadhala” in Ondra renda aasaigal (Kaakha Kaakha) takes you back to Vaa kalaaba mayile from Kaathavaraayan, and… bingo! School, I swear, was never such fun! I’d love to hear from people born in the nineties onwards. Of course, you have to be interested in lyrics, in the first place, to seek out meanings, clarifications. But do the words even register, given that songs are almost always something in the background these days? Speaking of days, I’m going to end with the song, Gnayiru enbadhu kannaaga, from Kaakkum Karangal. Of course, from the colloquial Tamil, you know Gnayiru is Sunday – but the song taught me it’s also the sun, which we knew by the more casual sooriyan. Language is like the cosmos. You’ll never experience it all, but every little bit adds to the wonder.


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