The hoot of a flute drifts by, carried by a summer breeze. A female two-part harmony follows. Before I can take in those sounds, I hear a sparkling sitar. Was there a hint of a Western drum in the mix as well? A faint but enchanting tune beckons to me now. My ears raise their hoods and snake out to meet the melody.
I am taking a train from Ottapalam to Palakkad because I would rather wait for a ride here – under the towering tree on Platform 1 – than anywhere else in town. From this corner, I can hum and beatbox without drawing attention; the ruffling of the tree’s leaves and a caw club run by the local crows conspire to drown my adolescent voice. I could also gaze from here, beyond Platform 2 through a thicket, at the expanse over river Nila and perhaps peel a childhood memory or two – maybe the one about gliding along a countryside stream and trying to sing I am a Disco Dancer underwater. From where I stand, I pan right and my eyes follow a railroad all the way up to that mysterious place where parallel lines meet. A grey cloud of smoke emerges there; my train is almost here. Before the train arrives, with a little luck I should be able to find the song that has captured my interest if I walk fast enough towards its source.
A swarm of sounds draws me away from my quest: I hear a group of fellow travelers argue the outcome of a football match; a scooter’s two-stroke engine fleets across the aural scene; the ever-optimistic fortune-teller (a.k.a lottery-seller) calls out the moment of change, “Naale, naale, naale” (tomorrow, the day that does come, the day that will transform your life). Amid these distractions, I nearly deduce the key of the song but a gust of wind snatches it away. Determined, I close my eyes to focus all sensory energy on the divine sound that wafts out from a nearby shop. This focus helps – I catch a Tamil phrase, vaasam illaamale (without fragrance), and a vibrant string section that skitters up and down the musical scale in the background.
As the music draws me into its spell, my train chugs onto the platform and I indulge my craving for the song by letting the train leave without me. Tranquility is restored soon, but the song has disappeared with a near sleight of hand as Eleanor Farjeon alluded to, “The night will slip away / Like sorrow or a tune.” I stand on the platform, lonely, with the foolishness of infatuation inscribed on my face.
For many days after that, I grow wistful whenever I think about that song. I had once fallen in love with a guava-flavored drink that began with the letter ‘G.’ That is all I ever discovered about it. I fear if that will be the destiny of this song too, until one day I stumble upon a familiar strain on a friend’s cassette tape. The musical arrangement evokes two contrasting images: a philharmonic orchestra playing allegro and Ravi Shankar striking the sympathetic strings of his sitar before beginning an alaap. I transfer the tape to my Walkman, rewind to the beginning of the song, put on headphones, and listen to Netru Illada Maatram (a change that wasn’t there yesterday) from the Tamil movie Pudhiya Mugam. The lottery man is a seer – tomorrow is here. It is here in AR Rahman’s avatar and it will change my worldview of music forever – beat by beat, note by note, rest by rest.
When beauty permeates space the artist withdraws from, art moves us. In Netru Illada Maatram were the seeds of an avant-garde composer. Yet, Rahman was rarely in my thoughts when I listened to the song. Instead, I would lose myself in the depths of the bass line. I would eavesdrop on the tête-à-tête between sitar and veena in the first interlude. I would get curious about the surreal synth effect in the second interlude, tugging at my left ear first then right. After an iconoclastic third interlude, where the song concludes without closure, I would imagine the twists and turns it may have taken in its afterlife.
In a Times article, Zatorre and Salimpoor posit that our brains save sound patterns – starting from our earliest musical influences – and that when we listen to a new piece we subconsciously extrapolate from those patterns and anticipate certain aspects of the music. You could get a musical high when such predictions seem correct, occasionally also when they don’t because the music is even better, and strangely enough, you may feel euphoric at the moment of prediction. They summarize these findings thus: “So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future.” Was Netru Illada Maatram translating a notion here, or completing a feeling there, that I had most certainly experienced before but could never intuit or give expression to?
John O’Donahue suggests in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace how a creator may rouse a sense of wonder, “The poet wants to drink from the well of origin…In order to enter this level of originality, [he] must reach beyond the chorus of chattering voices that people the surface of a culture.” If you see yourself miss a train, pray for a red light in traffic, or wait without a blink or a bio-break, simply to remain with a work of art, you may be hearing a refrain that stands out from the chatter. O’Donahue braves a definition for this indefinable feeling, “This is the sense you have when you read a true poem. You know it could not be other than it is. Its self and its form are one.” He says ‘“true.” Not “good.” Not “beautiful.” Just “true.”
It must have been truth that beckoned to me in the railway station that summer afternoon.
Dinesh lives and works in the Bay Area. He considers himself fortunate to share the planet with AR Rahman and to have an auditory range that allows him to listen to music. Dinesh can be reached at hazel.sundial[at]gmail.com.