Rettai Vaal Kuruvi

It is the easiest thing to recall in this world where you were when you first listened to a piece of music that continues to move you after more than twenty years.

The dark, musty room at the back of the house with its thick wooden pillars had the sole free power point. It was into this that my cousin sister and I plugged in the recently purchased National Panasonic cassette player and radio. It was a compact and beautiful thing. With its matte black plastic shell, a shining steel handle and a solitary speaker sheathed in a just dark enough grey that was bigger than anything I’d seen, it was love at first sight. I had probably listened to a couple of songs on it when my father presented me a recorded TDK cassette of Rettai Vaal Kuruvi.

There’s one in particular you’ll like, he said.

My love affair with Ilayaraja’s music began then. Raja Raja Cholan.

Throughout the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s, every visit to Madras would involve at least half a day’s visit to the record and music stores to scour and buy cassettes. We would buy all sorts — rock, pop, jazz, Elton John, Grateful Dead, Genesis, Richard Marx (a confessional moment if there ever was one). But the most anticipated purchase would be the latest score or compilation of Ilayaraja’s.

I had just begun to appreciate music, its tones, its nuances, its ferocity, its rapture. As much as western music gave all this to me, it was Ilayaraja’s tunes that gave me that most elusive of feelings — one of simpleness and gentleness. That the most complex of melodies can also be the most simplest.

I soon wore out the tape that I had of Rettai Vaal Kuruvi. Disappointment written all over my face, I went to my grandmother, who while mildly disapproving of my musical tastes, sent me off towards a shop she knew that sold music and occasionally fixed players and radios. I had walked down TP Kovil street dozens of times earlier and even bought tens of rupees worth of pencils, erasers, paper and other stationary at the Excellent Stores, but never noticed Bright Musicals a couple of shops down.

If there ever was a misnomer for a place, this was it. Bright Musicals was a rat hole of a shop. It was a few feet wide and a litte bit deeper with an almost blackened ceiling showing years of grime and cobwebs. There were wires of all sorts of colours strung across like garlands. At the back of the place was where Mr. Mohan the owner, usually sat and tinkered with broken tape players. The front of the shop had one small glass cabinet that had blank recording tapes and a shelf full of new and old releases of Tamil movie songs. His son, Murugan, usually handled this part of the operations.

The evening I walked in, Murugan was playing a song I had heard vaguely, but never paid too much attention. The slightly nasally but immensely sad tone caught my ear. I stood there the entire length of the song, not speaking a word to anyone, trying to gather the mood of the song. The deadbeat progression, the tortured voice of Kamal Haasan, the vague, yet fitting sounds of the synth. I had heard Thenpandi Cheemaiyile. I had a new song to love.

Not until this morning, after a brief conversation with Aishu did I realize how much I had missed listening to Ilayaraja. For the past five hours, with the old player dusted off and the BASF and Maxwell tapes respooled, I’ve reconnected. Back to the days of that musty old room. Back to the days of Bright Musicals. Back to days of joys of listening to Yesudas’ voice set to sublime melodies.

Raja Raja Chozhan Naan

The song that started it all.

Thenpandi Cheemaiyile

The song that defines sadness for me. Often, this song plays for hours on loop when I travel on the dusty, pothole ridden roads in the deep interiors of Tirunelveli and Ramnad. It is as if the song and surroundings become one. (There are two versions of this song. I prefer the one sung by the master himself. The halting, hesitant voice adds another dimension.)

Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu

Probably my favourite song of Ilayaraja. Just pure, unbridled joy and happiness.

Elangaathu Veesuthae

One of his later gems, this song captures so much meaning that it is impossible to qualify it in a few words. Like Thenpandi, I listen to it for hours when out traveling in the winding roads of Theni and the Cardamom Hills.