On being home-schooled in Tamil through the film song

Posted on March 15, 2018

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Read the full article on Film Companion, here: http://www.filmcompanion.in/southern-lights-home-schooled-tamil-film-song/

Paying attention to lyrics is a wonderful way to increase one’s proficiency in a language. (Added incentive: It’s fun too.)

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 Vaaliban, 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.

Continued at the link above.

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