I never thought that my indiscipline with respect to uploading songs to my iPod would lead me to a thought that I would be unable to shake off for a few weeks. I have this seemingly bad habit of creating playlists titled “Assorted #” and including all my recently downloaded songs in there. And, a month ago, en route to work, I happened to listen to two songs that were not just from different eras but they sounded like they were from two different civilizations.
The first one is “Mouname Paarvaiyal,” that exquisite MSV composition from “Kodi Malar.” I looked up wikipedia to see that it was released in 1966, that is a half a century ago. It's a scintillating melody with some beautiful lyrics. No surprises there – it was written by Kannadasan and composed by MSV for a Sridhar film. But what struck me was the sheer respect shown towards the female character in the song. The kind of terms - “alli kodiye” and “muthu charame” - that the lyricist uses to address the woman in the song (who I presume is mute, from the lyrics; I have not seen this film) are par for the course for a Tamil song from 50 years ago. But what makes this song truly special even beyond the beauty of the thamizh is the kind of decency and genteel attitude that a male has towards a woman. This was the kind of sensibility that an urbane director like Sridhar had at that time that enabled him to work with his music director and lyricist duo to create such a breathtaking expression of tender feelings towards a loved one.
Now, the song that I listened to right after this made me feel like I was not driving a car but a time machine. That song was “Clubbula Mubbula” by Hip Hop Aadhi. Trust me, I am not going to launch into a 'pazhaya paadala vs. pudhiya paadala' debate. Of course, “Mouname...” sounds sweet and “Clubbula...” sounds crude and crass. Of course, “Clubbula...” has an irresistibly catchy tune and is probably the kind of song that a teenager listens to on his way to college. (Hey, a 34-year old that you know listened to it en route to work!) What I want to capture here is the germ of a thought and a question that these songs (when played back to back) planted in my mind. And that is, what does it mean to be truly modern? It is a question that has kept gnawing at me for some reason.
After much rumination, here's the thought that gave me closure to this nagging question. What modern is not is an excuse to do something that doesn't look or sound better than the status quo of a previous generation. For instance, go ahead and get sozzled to your heart's content. Just don't tell your teetotaler Dad that he is 'old fashioned' and cite globalization and westernization as an excuse. Go ahead and sing songs like “Clubbula Mubbula,” making fun of girls. Even back it up with arguments like, 'If girls have the freedom to drink in real life, we have the freedom to make fun of that on screen.' Just stop dismissing old songs because the dance movements look stilted now. That was the kind of grammar that existed in the 60s. At the very least, the songs were by and large tasteful in thought and their use of thamizh. Instead of using 'modern' as a throwaway term, let's really pressure test our notions of modern to see whether we are really a better evolved society, treating our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.
I recently witnessed a series of distasteful comments against women in an online forum. I tried in vain to offer some unsolicited advice but was admonished by an anonymous commenter for not understanding that this is how the internet is. Fair enough. But what was like a blow to the head with a polo mallet* was a comment (in that forum) by a 76-year old who said that the comments brought her unpleasant memories of a train journey from several decades ago when she was trying to discreetly nurse her child and was subject to some nasty comments by perverted onlookers. That's a real shame. A disgrace. When I read that comment, I was just ashamed at the ways in which we use things that are modern (like technology) to do something that makes a person go back four to five decades in time to tap into some dormant, unpleasant memories.
Of course, this is not to say that people in the 60s that listened to MSV's songs were saintly. And that we in 2016 are disreputable villains. After all, the train journey that the septuagenarian was talking about was from an earlier generation. After all, it was in 2015 that people in Tamil Nadu used social media and other means to lend a helping hand to those in need when floods ravaged the state. Now, that is taking something – technology – that was not available to this extent to a previous generation and using that to spread awareness and generosity of spirit. These are the kind of things that could entitle this generation to say, 'This is the kind of stuff that we youngsters are all about.' See the difference between these relief workers and those unsavory online comments that I referenced above? Something truly modern requires someone working hard to shake the status quo. Modern is a way of thinking and a way of acting that makes an earlier generation ask questions of themselves, about how they could have done certain things differently at that time. It is not something that makes us hang our heads in shame in front of a 76-year old.
PS: * - I finally get to use my favorite Woody Allen's patented term in a blog post!