Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article regarding songs and movies are based on the author’s personal preferences. He is aware that people have different opinions and preferences based on their own emotional and cultural backgrounds. The author does not believe people should conform to his preferences and does not believe that his preferences are superior to others.
There is an old adage that if the music is the food of the soul, then play on. Music is humankind’s greatest creation because it can elicit a strong emotion in a person. The songs we love can relate to moments in our lives and sometimes take us to that happy place.
Though there are a few Tamil songs that are really nice, many others leave me expressionless and sad because I lost five minutes of my life on something that was supposed to sound really good but floundered and sunk into the abyss.
There wasn't a Tamil song quite like Simple Plan's Welcome to My Life during my torrid teenage years. There isn’t a Tamil song that expresses feelings of love quite like Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud or as catchy as Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. And my preferences have nothing to do with my inability to understand Tamil properly since I do enjoy other songs in languages outside of English. I opt to listen to music from mainstream pop culture because I find most of it much more relatable and enjoyable than music from Tamil pop culture.
I am sometimes asked to listen to Tamil-English mashups, and I don’t find it entertaining or awesome. I don’t even find the Tamil versions of mainstream pop songs stupendous, I am just left holding my head thinking Oh god why? The irony I find among the “purists” is that they dislike mainstream pop culture but promote Tamil-English mashups in a bid to get “westernized” people like me to appreciate the language.
I don’t appreciate a mainstream pop song that I enjoy getting interrupted by another song (that I don’t know) sung in another language. I also find it absurd to say that Tamil is a great language but still allow it to piggyback of popular English songs in an attempt to make it look cool.
To be fair, not all forms of mashups are a bad thing. I do enjoy the hybridized dance forms of Bharatanatyam, and I take my hat off to the skilled dancers who sometimes dance to pop songs using Bharatanatyam.
I am not a shallow person who believes that dancing to or listening to Tamil music is beneath me. And I am aware that there are many self-hating brown people out there who put others down for being “too brown” and believe that any form of traditionalism is backward and archaic. I am not one of those people.
I am not ashamed of my ancestors or where they came from or how they expressed themselves. But I understand that I can never mimic their expression of culture because they lived in a different political climate from me. I understand that giving into any perceived semblance of the West is seen as a betrayal by some since we have extremely painful histories as a result of oppressive systems of Westernization, and are thus left with this dynamic of mainstream pop culture vs. Tamil culture.
But mainstream pop culture is not at war with Tamil culture. It is not the enemy of our heritage. And the fact that some of us treat it as such is worrisome. Tamil communities want to treat mainstream pop culture as some pandemic instead of constructively using it to build proper cohesion among its diaspora. And yes, at this point you probably think I’m talking hogwash. Let me explain.
It's fine to have platforms that promote the purest forms of Tamil in all its glory. It’s perfectly fine to have platforms where people of a particular diaspora meet and engage. But every community platform needs to represent the kinds of conversations that really happen between the Tamil diaspora where entertainment is concerned.
I am not having conversations with a large majority of Tamil people over Vijay's movie release; instead, I am asked about Infinity War or some mainstream television series. I have conversations about rock, pop, and hip-hop music genres with other Tamil people and not conversations about the latest Tamil music. I meet so many Tamil people who have unique personalities and forms of expression that don't align themselves with the status quo of what a "cultured" Tamil person should be.
There need to be platforms available in which people can speak about their own interests and not be ostracized for being too modern. We must create communities and forms of leadership that allow people to feel comfortable with themselves regardless of what their interests are.
Let’s make it such that people are accepted if they immerse themselves in Tamil pop culture. Let’s also accept them if they prefer mainstream pop culture over Tamil pop culture, and accept those who have an affinity for both. There is no right or wrong way to be a Tamil in present times.
I am not saying that people should sing Ed Sheeran songs or dance salsa or conga at Tamil heritage festivals. And yes, I do understand that many Tamil organizations around the world are funded primarily to support Tamil and Tamil only, and I am not saying that needs to change.
We need to understand that as a community, Tamil is not a measurable quantity determined by grand outward displays of our heritage or our immersion into its pop culture. We are a community made up of a plethora of people with different interests, talents, and ideas. When we think people have to engage with a certain thing a certain way in order to belong to a particular fold, that is just cultish and cliquish thinking – the real enemy of Tamil people.
We need to understand that we can never force-feed a person their heritage and then expect them to love it. Nobody needs to be taught how to be Tamil. And people who do this don’t understand how patronizing and repulsive they are.
Let’s create a community where it is okay to love something, it is okay to constructively criticize something, it is okay to love the traditions and immerse ourselves in them and it is okay to say that these traditions are not for us.
Let’s create a community where it is okay to be YOU.