Playlists vs borders: Music streaming brings South India closer

Something remarkable has been happening in South India over the last few decades. It was slow at first, almost imperceptible. But now, it is undeniable.

Music composers are becoming multilingual at an unprecedented pace. There is a visible shift in how music gets created, adopted, recreated, shared, consumed, the works. Composers, to row safely through this musical wave, have adapted by creating music across South Indian languages.

Creating the music

They launch in one language, say Tamil, then move to create music in another, say Malayalam, then test waters in a third, says Telugu. And the cycle continues. Let’s see how this progressed over time.

Tamil music composing giant, Ilayaraja, debuted with the Tamil film Annakili in 1976. His move to other south Indian languages started with the Telugu film Bhadrakali, also in 1977 (a remake of a Tamil film by the same name), and then with Kannada film Maathu Tappada Maga and Malayalam film Vyamoham, both in 1978. (His Hindi debut, Sadma, was in 1983, though he wasn’t as prolific up North.)

Another Tamil composer, Deva, debuted in 1989. He then flirted with other South Indian languages: Telugu – 1994, Malayalam – 1996 and Kannada – 1997.

Tamil composer Vidyasagar composed for six films in his debut year, 1988. Then, in 1989, he composed three Tamil and Telugu movies each. He eventually picked Telugu as his base. Vidyasagar went back to Tamil in 1994 with Jai Hind and to Malayalam in 1996 with Azhakiya Ravanan. Today, he’s known for his music across the three languages.

The world-renowned music composing giant, A R Rahman, debuted in 1992 with two films—Roja, in Tamil, and Yoddha, in Malayalam. In 1994, he worked on two Telugu films. By 1995, he had debuted in Hindi with Rangeela.

Joshua Sridhar debuted in Tamil in 2004, then quickly added Malayalam to his repertoire in 2006 and Kannada in 2007, before eventually picking up steam in Kannada with a steady stream of successes.

Has it accelerated?

In the last few years, this trend has accelerated tremendously. Now, the gap between multilingual projects for composers is a few months.

After his debut in 2014, Jakes Bejoy already has, to his credit, five Tamil films, six Malayalam films, and an upcoming Telugu film.

Govind Menon, the Thaikkudam Bridge band lead, also debuted as a composer in 2014 and has six Malayalam films and four Tamil films to his credit.

Kannada composer B Ajaneesh Loknath debuted in 2009 but became active around 2014. He has a string of hits in Kannada and recently debuted in Tamil, with Kurangu Bommai, and then Richie, the Tamil remake of his own Kannada hit, Ulidavaru Kandanthe (starring Malayalam actor Nivin Pauly) and more recently, Nimir, the Tamil remake of the Malayalam arthouse hit Maheshinte Prathikaaram. That’s two instances of a Kannada-Tamil-Malayalam transition.

That India’s southern states are more prosperous, developed and liberal compared to their northern counterparts has been well-documented. In fact, in some human development indices, South India is closer to Europe. The rise of digital music streaming platforms is making apparent another comparison between South India and Europe: they’re both significantly multilingual. One in four Europeans is trilingual. Nearly 20% speak two languages.

Impact of the powerful algorithms

South India has always been multilingual. But now, thanks to the rise of music streaming services backed by mobile platforms, affordable 4G and powerful discovery algorithms, South India’s multilingualism is changing the way its citizens listen to music.

Traditionally, Indians have stuck to listening to songs in their mother tongue, and perhaps, Hindi, due to Bollywood’s outsized influence. Even when given viable options to seek music in multiple languages, we shun ‘alien’ languages even if they are from our neighboring states and stick to the familiar. Or so has been the trend.

For over two decades though, I have been doing the extreme opposite. Though I know “only” three languages—Tamil, Hindi, and English—I’ve been seeking new film music in every possible language. I channel the results of my multilingual music listening into Milliblog, my 13-year-old website, where I seek to convince others to expand the boundaries of their music listening. In the time, I’ve reviewed over 3,000 film music albums in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, primarily, and a smattering of Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Bengali.