It’s an understatement to say that retired teacher K. Selvaraja is a fan of the film soundtrack. Step into his house in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur and you'll be struck by the large collection of movie memorabilia he's amassed over 50 years.
The 69-year-old former examinations secretary at Wesley Methodist School in Sentul has a staggering collection of more than 4,000 original soundtracks and film music publications dating back to 1963.
In the first room, there are bookshelves displaying an accumulation of movie soundtracks, record players and audio cassettes. There are also tons of books including biographies, journals on film production, “making of” tomes, and novels that have been adapted into feature films. All the books are wrapped in plastic to protect them from dust, mould and silverfish.
“All items are kept neatly and dusted often. Due to humid weather conditions here, the records must be aired regularly to avoid mould build up. I spend about two to three hours daily to maintain the collection,” Selvaraja says, as he wipes off tiny specks of dust from one vinyl record.
Selvaraja’s soundtrack collection isn't confined to films. It covers a spectrum of music from entertainment as a whole. And he has them in various formats including vinyl records, audio cassettes, compact discs, cartridges, open reel tapes and mini discs. Among his prized possessions are a Thomas Edison 1899 cylinder soundtrack and 1913 diamond discs.
With such a large collection of soundtracks, it’s no surprise his name is etched in the Malaysian Book Of Records as owning “the largest soundtrack collection”. Selvaraja’s interest in soundtracks began after corresponding letters with a British pen pal in the late 1950s.
“When I was 17, my teachers at Bukit Mertajam High School in Penang made it compulsory for students to have pen pals overseas. My pen pal introduced me to the world of soundtracks when he sent over the soundtrack of Colonel Bogey March from the movie The Bridge On The River Kwai. I was truly fascinated by the tune and this sparked off my love for film records,” he explains, citing the soundtracks from Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and the original King Kong as his favourites.
Selvaraja’s collection spans a gamut of genres including Westerns, Broadway, James Bond, science fiction, biblical epics and the classics. Soundtracks from Walt Disney, trilogies, international events like the Olympics and the World Cup, as well as Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Hindi movies make up a large portion of his archival material.
Selvaraj is like an entertainment encyclopaedia. Facts roll off his lips as he talks about Thomas Edison’s flat records that were released in 1913, how movies with sound replaced silent pictures in 1927, and when the world first film’s score – a recording made directly from the Jungle Book – was released 1942.
“The hobby requires a lot of research, reading and writing in this field. To keep my mind active, I continue to browse the Internet and read magazines related to films,” says Selva, a member of 15 international film organisations including New Zealand Film Music Bulletin, Belgian Soundtrack Club and British Film Music Society.
It would cost a fortune to accumulate this large a collection of music memorabilia, so how did the former government servant do it?
“You cannot survive in this hobby without reliable connections overseas. Luckily, my friends and relatives have helped me over the years. My friends from various film music organisations and I worked on a barter system. For each item that they sent over, I would send out South East Asian souvenirs ranging from coins, stamps to antiques, watches. I have been really fortunate that I did not strain my pockets keeping up with this hobby.”
In his free time, Selvaraj contribute articles to societies like Film Score Monthly, Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Club, and journal of the Miklos Rozsa Society in the US. He's written articles on piracy problems like Soundtrack Piracy in Malaysia, Piracy Under Assault and Piracy Sinks Atlantis. He's now working on the final chapter of a seven-part story The Malaysian Soundtrack History. His articles are sent overseas for publication in international film music bulletins.
“I recently wrote a 13-page article, English Film Music Scores Are Popular Everywhere. Why? and submitted it to the head of the Film Music Department at University of California, Los Angeles. I’m awaiting a reply from them. Hopefully it will be published in one of their bulletins,” Selvaraj says.
He adds how important it is for senior citizens to keep their minds active by reading, writing articles and working on brain exercises like sudoku and crossword puzzles. He also spends two to three hours a day listening to his soundtrack collection.
“Writing articles is a good way to stay focussed. Senior citizens can also try to write down their thoughts and memories in a journal. Exercises helps too,” Selvaraj says.
With priceless gems likes the Miklos Roza Society’s special score for King Of Kings and Kings Of The Round Table, and Max Steiner Music Society’s LP for Gone With The Wind and Helen Of Troy in his hands, it's no surprise that Selvaraj doesn't lend his records out to anyone.
“It is impossible to loan out these expensive recordings unless you know how to handle them. Once a vinyl record is scratched, it is impossible to repair it. If a CD is exposed to heat inadvertently, it will affect the sound system. Moreover I have many limited edition soundtracks specially released by the various International Film Music organisations overseas. These are treasures we must take care,” says Selvaraj.
And while his three kids – aged 27 to 35 – are impressed with their dad, he's not sure if they have the time to carry on his hobby.
“My children are busy with work and have other interests. To continue this collection, one must have deep-rooted knowledge and keep abreast with the latest development in this field. I have already sent out feelers about my treasured gems and have received many offers from various bodies including foreign music institutions, soundtrack speciality stores and libraries. But I haven’t given anyone the green light yet,” Selvaraj says.
Until then, we can only imagine him adding more and more movie music to his life.