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T. Dharmaraj’s portrait of Ilaiyaraja - by J. Violet

In her Nobel Acceptance Olga Tokarczuk says, Nowadays we writers are having to confront ever more improbable challenges, and yet literature is a slow-moving art — the lengthy process of writing makes it difficult to catch the world in the act. I often wonder if it’s still possible to describe the world at all...Writer T Dharmaraj tackles this challenge in most of his writings, from Facebook posts to his books. Capturing the world in action! Pushing us to see things as if we’re seeing them in retrospect, but while we have options and responsibilities to rethink them. And Dharmaraj is a writer of narratives, he builds them so beautifully, even when he is mostly writing non-fiction.

In his new book, Ilayaraajavai Varaithal or Drawing Ilaiyaraja. Dharmaraj draws a portrait of Ilaiyaraja without trying to explain his music. Ilaiyaraja and his cinema music has been part of Tamil lives for the past few decades. Dharmaraj helps us understand this phenomenon, by giving their historical, social context. It is not the usual tidbits about Raja songs, the glamorous stories and the truth. Nor is it a musical analysis. It doesn’t really talk about any specific song at all. It is a story of what Tamil society was going through in the decades before Ilaiyaraja, and what really happens through this art from called ‘Raja songs’ which shatter the films for which they are created for.

Every Tamil person has a story about Ilaiyaraja I believe. So do I. Once I used to tell people that I don’t like Ilaiyaraja. Then I fell in love many times, and no I didn’t still miraculously accept Raja’s music. But many of the lovers did make me listen to one song or the another repeatedly, and I had but no choice to accept the feelings. Then I grew tired of conversations and I would tell I haven’t really heard Raja’s songs. Which is indeed a lie and many people could see that! Especially anyone who has traveled by bus, or with another person by car, or by any other modes have listened to Raja’s songs. Then it was easier to tell It’s not that I dislike Raja, it is just his fans that I hate.

Of course the fans would often say I am disrespecting God! In one of his earlier articles, Dharmaraj lashes out at the politics of calling someone god, when they say you disrespected me, but I gave you music! But, Yes! I did it just to give myself an air of intellectualness. Remember the Murakami quote with beautiful backgrounds, You will be just like everybody, if you read only the books everybody reads. To rethink, I have never for a moment have tried to tell I don’t like Yuvan. Many of my generation did celebrate Yuvan and I had no problem identifying with them. So what was it about Raja?

Once Dharmaraj wrote in a Facebook note about Ilaiyaraja which can be roughly translated as ‘… I love Ilaiyaraja’s film songs. I am trying to create an attitude of hate towards them, just because of the emotions they create in me. That is, looking for ways to get out of Ilaiyaraja’s music. So, I am searching only for reasons against Ilaiyaraja’s music. But it is my personal problem.’ Does this bit taken somewhat out of context tells us something about this book? I am still not sure, But I try to gather my notes reading the books, in to a readable form below.

Have you ever put together poems, writings, full ones, bits and pieces. Then maybe read it aloud. To a listener, or more! Ofcourse, Curation is nothing new. It is just that not every curation is treated with equal respect. Not every curator is considered as creating something new, depending on their social location and the means they posses. Every listener who puts together a new Raja collection is a curator creating something. Dharmaraj says that this curation forms the base of this art-form called Raja songs, which is not created by Raja, but his fans.

As we know, There are now social media platforms that rely so much of recreating small bits taken out of pop culture, mostly cinema. They take the bits out of context and give them a new life. Or these bits already have a life out of their context, if we consider the films that they were part of as context. But is this phenomenon new? Dharmaraj says that is what Ilaiyaraja’s songs has been doing all along, they never were just a part of those movies. Raja’s music just refuses to be restrained within the limits of the movies they were originally part of, or the movies just didn’t have enough in them to contain it. Raja’s music has filled the void created by the absence of popular music, independent of other art forms in Tamil.

Do you remember when, the small books with lyrics of a movie’s songs printed and sold for a rupee were a craze, before internet boomed and took its place with so many websites. But what were we trying to memorize, was those lyrics just a shortcut to remember the tune? Dharmaraj argues there is not much place for poetry in our Tamil cinema music. There is definitely a lot to think about this.

Have you read the poem where ND Rajkumar tells the wife in a poem to give him a clue, and he will poison his mother’s food. There is a shock factor involved. But reading Dharmaraj’s book one is bound to question, how natural is the shock. Or how long has it been a part of our culture. Through the songs of Ilaiyaraja, Dharmaraj explains the phenomenon of Thaai Paasam or the Love towards one’s mother cultivated by Tamil Cinema! And the different mothers involved. Next time we should ask Poet Veyyil to question Comrade Freud about this as well, though we know what Doctor Freud would say. Dharmaraj tells us different answers.

The decades before Raja’s arrival was filled with sounds in every aspect of Tamil culture. Raja gave the society a space to be silent. Raja’s music is essentially about silence is what Dharmaraj says. They filled the vaccum that required silence in our society.

You could have seen TED Talks or articles about the infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, often exorcized in relation to Non-European languages or ‘Tribal’ languages. It states that the way people think is strongly affected by their native languages. Time is often taken as the example, Time as much as a matter of physics and other science, is also of linguistics. We understand and feel time through languages. Dharmaraj brings back a particular form of tense from Tamil Sangam literature and uses it to explain the emotional state created by Raja’s music. It is perhaps the most delightful part of the book to me! And it simply can’t be easily explained in English.

Dharmaraj considers the music of Ilaiyaraja more powerful than other things that came out of Tamil cinema and gathered a life of their own, like Vadivelu dialogues. And he explains how this happened right along with the means of listening music becoming democratized, and music stopped being an aristocratic performance/text to simple records that can be mass reproduced. In the time of TikTok and other viral mediums, which in a way are making visual content production more accessible to wider mass of people everyday. The sound becomes something that is in the back, that aids the visuals, music doesn’t really play an important role in this, except as lyrics to which people can lipsync/act to. So, where are we heading? What space are these filling?

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