Readers Write In #288: The OTHER soundtrack of 1992

Posted on October 24, 2020

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(by Madan Mohan)

A Tamil film soundtrack of 1992 deeply influenced my tastes in music.  But it’s not the one you’re thinking of!

I know Roja is supposed to be the earth-shattering album of 1992, the one that caused a seismic upheaval and paved the way for a new direction.  I would even agree that it is in fact earth-shattering…today.

But I did not know this in 1992. In 1992, I was just seven years old.  I had, I would later realize, a musical ear and certainly an inordinate (?) fondness for the activity of listening to music.  But I wasn’t yet reading reviews or other views of music and formulating my own opinions about the music I listened to.  I just liked something I heard and then heard it again and again and again.

In 1992, then, the album I was listening to again and again was…Singaravelan.  And though I probably watched Bharatan too the same year, the Kamal-starrer is the earliest movie that I vividly remember watching in theatre.  Specifically, Udhayam theatre.  By some quirk of fate, I also watched Kadhalukku Mariyadhai and Friends at Udhayam.  After coming out of Friends, my uncle remarked that it was hard to believe the music was composed by Ilayaraja as he couldn’t hum even a single tune (perhaps a harsh assessment but his view nevertheless).

This was assuredly not the case with Singaravelan.  Sonnapadi Kellu with its animal-sounds was seen as a somewhat silly song by the adults but delighted little me.  Years later, I would reflect on this song while listening to the Pink Floyd track Seamus. Similarly, if the Bum-chika-bum chorus of Pudhucheri Kacheri caught my attention then, it was the slightly tricky time signature between the melody lines in the pallavi that wowed me as an adult.  The melodies of Innum Ennai Enna and Thoodhu Selva were gorgeous then and still are now. I probably wouldn’t say I find the arrangements (a word I will return to) of either too interesting now

My opinion of the other two tracks hasn’t changed much since then. Oranga Sriranga was a keeper then and is now.  It’s not one particular thing.  The groove is infectious, the music is fun with Raja rolling out musical comedy par excellence and SPB too revels in the mischief. I didn’t like Pottu Vaitha Kadhal as much as the other songs then.  I do not now.  Actually, learning about and deeply appreciating rock has only showed more clearly to me how cliched Raja’s choices are in this song.  A trend that would continue unfortunately in some of his other work in this period (Kalaignan for example), but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that the only way you could possibly regard the music of this song as unbelievable, earth shattering or innovative would be if you don’t listen to Western music at all and project opinions about the latter based off what you hear in our film music.

I didn’t know then that Singaravelan, while regarded as a solid soundtrack, wasn’t exactly one of Raja’s classics even in that decade, let alone overall. I didn’t know because I had yet to compile and curate my favourites from the Raja ocean.  You get to have this kind of instinctive experience only once in a lifetime, when you like something just because and not on account of reviews, recommendations or canonical compilations to help you navigate an artist’s back catalogue.  Perhaps, given what was playing over in the tinseltown that starts with a B, I should be thankful the one I lapped up no questions asked wasn’t something like, um, Khiladi.

I also didn’t know this then, but this falling-in-love-with-Singaravelan was going to influence my tastes, my views about music in a big way.  Throw in the music of Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast or the Tom & Jerry cartoon Hollywood Bowl and I became fascinated in general with lots of instruments playing (or just lots of layers played with a smaller ensemble).  The more technically appropriate word for what I was interested in would be the ‘arrangements’.

And, here I go again, I didn’t know then how much this was going to make me a misfit in terms of the direction the music scene was evolving towards.  In today’s times, arrangements are seen as getting in the way of the music and people would much rather the recording had just the singer and his/her instrument of choice (be it keyboard or guitar). I am like, yeah sure, if you dress up a song for the sake of it, that’s both boring and too dense to get to grips with the melody.  But are you saying there are no or there haven’t been skilled arrangers who can embellish a song without overwhelming it and can instead raise it to another level?

It was why I was so elated to hear Rahman do a lot of arranging on Taare Ginn.  It seemingly came out of nowhere.

In a way, Taare Ginn completes the circle.  Back in the 90s when the adults who presumably knew better were gently throwing shade at Raja by talking about how ‘uncluttered’ Roja was, ignorant, uninformed me embraced the ‘clutter’ wholeheartedly.  I cannot say whether I liked the songs of Singaravelan because of the, er, clutter or Singaravelan got me hooked onto music that has a lot of arranging. But if today, I find myself unwittingly in touch with the zeitgeist as Taare Ginn broke the clutter of ‘intimate’ music with beautiful arrangements, it is, ironically, because in 1992 I was listening to Singaravelan.