Music Notes #2: Exploring the ‘Raja brought Tamils back from Hindi music’ urban myth

Posted on November 17, 2021


So this comes from a recent comment from a reader (as it keeps coming up) that in the 1970s, Tamils were under sway to Hindi film music until the arrival of Ilaiyaraaja brought them back to Tamil music. I have asked many people born in the 1950s and 60s about this — family and others. And as I began to explore non-MSV 60s/70s Tamil music, my doubts grew further.

I don’t doubt where and how this urban myth comes from: we like to deify our deities. So we want them to have performed superhuman acts not just in their field (music, in this case) but in the cultural space of the times. So here are some questions: Was Hindi music popular all over Tamil Nadu before Raja came? Or was it just Chennai?

Like most social/cultural phenomena, the answer is a little complex and involves several variables.

One fact is indisputable. Tamil hits were constantly being made (a ton of songs like V Kumar’s Vaazhvil sowbagiyam vandhadhu, GK Venkatesh’s Then sindhudhey vaanam, which is not including MSV’s hits like Yedho oru nadhiyil or Malligai en mannan mayangum or Malare kurinji malare….) Even I, in my childhood, have heard these songs repeatedly on the radio. (Audio cassettes landed in India only in the late 1970s.)

But there’s another fact, and it’s a bit of a googly: The superstardom of Rajesh Khanna (beginning with Aradhana, which ran for something like a year in Chennai, if not more).

Senior journalist Sushila Ravindranath said: “At that time, not too many Hindi movies were screened at Chennai’s theatres. We saw Aradhana and he was unlike any other actor we had seen. We knew all his songs by heart, even if we didn’t understand the lyrics. He became an instant heart throb.”

And most of Rajesh Khanna’s films had pretty good music. So people went to see the star and came away humming the songs, which were probably etched in their minds further by Vividh Bharti. So for probably the first time in Chennai (and I still doubt this was an allTamil Nadu phenomenon), Hindi music began to rival Tamil music.

Here’s another fact: the counterculture. Yes, it’s true that Bombay embraced hippie-dom more easily than Chennai but cafes in Chennai were playing Beatles music and — above all — RD Burman lobbed a ten-ton bomb into the city with Dum maaro dum. So “cool teens” (who, till then, only had rock ‘n’ roll Ravichandran and Jaishankar film songs) now had an anthem, along with the arrival of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi on the big screen, happy to pose in bikinis. Never before had a non-Hollywood heroine been seen in anything but a chaste one-piece swimsuit. (MSV’s brilliant one-off nod to the counterculture was Kaettukodi urumi melam, where he used Western beats for the villager played by Sivaji Ganesan and village beats for the foreign-returned Jayalalitha.) So Hindi movie-watching had a spike.

Even so, it wasn’t exactly like a tidal wave of Hindi movie music had washed away Tamil music. A few films every year would be celebrated (say, the Nasir Hussain productions scored by RDB) — because that kind of “hard-core” Western pop/rock music was rare in Tamil music. But our own composers were also giving melodic hits — with new singers like SPB. (Check out Vijayabhaskar’s Anbu megame ingu odi vaa, or Dakshinamurthy’s Nandha en nila.)

So what happens to Hindi music after the tornado named Raja makes a landing? RD Burman’s slow decline and the generally uninspiring quality of 1980s Hindi film music (even though I recall the songs of Ek Duuje Ke Liye were a megahit in Chennai), and above all, the matchless prolificity of Raja — I think all these pushed Hindi music aside.

Even so, the Hindi music-listening population — whether then or now — was/is always a small bunch of multilingual urbanites. The head of Saregama once told me that most people watch movies in their own language (and listen to songs in their own language). I don’t doubt him at all.