Amidst the clamor of passing lorries honking their horns and the cacophonous interactions of daily life, another sound permeates the background of rural Tamil Nadu. Sometimes melodious and sometimes banging, Tamil music, though diverse in its forms, is omnipresent. Whether carried through the speakers of a racing bus or in the soundtrack of a Sun TV soap opera, these songs weave into the fabric of life in Tamil Nadu. But music has a way of being more than just melody and lyrics. Greater than the sum of its parts, music invokes feelings, memories, and connection.
I’ve only just begun to appreciate Tamil music in the few months I’ve spent living here. In fact, before, my only associations with these songs were memories of them seeping out of the speakers of our minivan on long car rides with my family. My mom and dad would sing along with nostalgia, but my sisters and I, we would beg them to switch to pop radio or escape by taking a nap. I never appreciated the way these movie songs implemented unique instruments, historical and cultural influences, or poetic lyrics. But in the past few months of hearing Tamil songs whenever I go out, I’ve discovered what makes them special (to me, at least!).
In a small village in the Trichy district, big speakers are set out for the day, huffing out beats of a Kollywood hit at high decibel levels. Each note streaks the atmosphere with festivity, as the community readies to celebrate a newly-betrothed couple, a milestone birthday, or a young girl who has reached puberty. Though going about their daily business, villagers bob their heads and sing along. Fingers tap out rhythms on peoples’ worktables and store counters. Hundreds of kilometers away, these same tunes set the mood at a wedding reception in the grandest of halls in the big city, Chennai. Friends and relatives reunite, wishing the new couple a married life as exciting as a Kuththu dance song, yet as sweet as an old honeyed love ballad.
There’s a certain unanimity about Tamil music in Tamil Nadu that no other music I’m aware of generates. Here, it seems almost everyone is familiar with and appreciates the hits. Old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural – they all appreciate (or at least tolerate) the same kinds of movie tunes. Of course, people have preferences, but whether a vintage hit or a new electronic-infused track, Tamilians can really rally around their songs. Though I still prefer the English songs I’m used to, music where I’m from is less unifying. In the West, music tastes are an expression of emphatic individuality – another thing that makes us different from one another. People who listen to electronic music are an entirely different genre of people than those who listen to country. It’s difficult for different people to find common ground through music – which may be why it’s rare to find music playing in certain public spaces (like on the bus, for example).
My interest in Tamil music began when I came here, and realized how ubiquitous it is. In general, everyone here knows and likes the Kollywood hits, and I wanted to blend in. Five months later, though lyrical meanings still evade me, I can truly appreciate Tamil music. But more than its rhythms, I welcome its power to unite people across time and space. I can make small talk with just about anyone about movies and favorite Tamil superstars when a familiar song plays. Older, more traditional songs transport me to an India of the past, and I wonder what life was like in more modest times. And Kollywood hits from the 80’s and 90’s make me think back to those road trips with my parents in the US. Through music, my parents connected to the people and places of their youth, and to the infinite web of musical creation and appreciation in their Tamil heritage. Like a strong faith, music transports its listeners to other worlds – past, present, or future. Now, I understand why their familiar songs made my parents so happy. Those songs now make me happy too.