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Published on: 02/13/13 12:14 PM

Feature: Ilaiyaraaja, Profiled

 Melody`s  Raaja : Ilaiyaraaja

Following a six-year hiatus, Ilaiyaraaja is composing for Hindi films again. And as Sheila Kumar discovers, the 63 year-old would rather let his music do the talking.

If you’ve forgotten how love, the sensual languor of it, feels like, listen to the music of Cheeni Kam. Three of the four song sequences form a seamless, musical dialogue, a throbbing blend of 1970s cabaret, jazz and symphony. Inimitable Ilaiyaraaja.

He’s scoring for Hindi films again after a hiatus following Hey Ram in 2000, for Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva in 2006, and ad filmmaker ‘Balki’ Balakrishnan’s Cheeni Kam. The film stars Amitabh Bachchan as a 60-something man who falls in love with a younger woman. Ask the 63 year-old Tamil composer how he feels about the concept, though, and all you get is a non-committal shrug. Nothing more.

You really can’t count on Ilaiyaraaja for tasty sound bytes. If you get through the front door of his spacious house in the Chennai suburb of T Nagar, you meet a monkish man who is courteous – but not in the least forthcoming.

Slight of frame, he is dressed in starched white kurta and veshti and sports a shaven head. The prasad he has just received from a temple evidently animates him much more than the interview, where he speaks in a quizzical manner which conceals more than it reveals. Listen to this: “You have to make people thirst. You don’t have to give them water.”

Perhaps words are superfluous to this austere man whose life is defined by music. In a career spanning 28 years, Ilaiyaraaja has composed over 4,500 songs and provided background music for more than 840 Indian films in various languages.

Music Director and Singer Ilayarja, performing at 50th Bengaluru Ganesha utsav in Bangalore on 23rd September 2012. DNA

He has won three National Awards for Best Composition (for Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi in 1986, and Telugu films Saagara Sangamam and Rudra Veena in 1984 and 1988). He was the first Asian to compose a full symphony for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1993, called Symphony No 1. Ilaiyaraaja has also composed three fusion albums blending Western classical music with Carnatic ragas – the most recent, Thiruvasakam in Symphony (released in 2005), presents verses from Thiruvasakam (ancient Tamil shloka by sage Manikavachagar) in musical form, synthesising Indian and Western classical traditions.

Quite a journey. Rasayya (Ilaiyaraaja’s real name) was born in Pannaipuram village in Theni district, Tamil Nadu. When he was just a child, he began making music on a talc box with strings, with his stepbrother Pavalar Varadarajan. After he finished class eight, he dropped out of school and continued singing with Varadarajan, a member of the Communist Party. Along with elder brother Bhaskar and younger brother Amaran, they would travel through villages, singing propagandist lyrics.

In 1968, at the age of 25, Rasayya (now calling himself Raaja) set off for Chennai to find work. There, he took lessons in Carnatic classical music, and was introduced to Western composers. Eventually, Raaja got his break with producer Panchu Arunachalam’s new film, Annakili. He also got a new name – Ilaiyaraaja (Youthful Raja) – as Arunachalam thought ‘Raaja’ was too old-fashioned.

The music of Annakili, released in 1976, was wildly successful, with Ilaiyaraaja melding Tamil folk with rich Western orchestration. ‘Bach’s influence is all pervasive in his music,” Bombay-based musicologist Sheryar Ookerjee once said. “Ilaiyaraaja so integrates Indian and western idioms that the seams can hardly be noticed.” He also started the practice of composing the tune first, and letting the lyrics come later.

Stories and themes were changed to fit his music. Though detractors claimed this process contributed to the downslide in the quality of lyrics, it didn’t stop filmmakers flocking to his door.For his part, despite insider talk about his ‘bluntness’, Ilaiyaraaja likes to steer clear of controversy.

He has nothing to say about filmmakers like Mani Ratnam (for whom he composed the landmark scores of Nayakan and Dalapathy), veering to the younger A R Rahman, who got his start in the music business playing keyboards in Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestra and has acknowledged Ilaiyaraaja as a ‘clean-living’ role model. But comparisons between Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja still abound. “He is very talented,’ Ilaiyaraaja says about Rahman. He adds, “Success or failure is not connected with discipline or sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there is no discipline or achievement. You have to spare time for practice every day.” A question about a typical day in his life is parried with, “What is a day? Sunrise and sunset? No one can live their life on their own routes; life is given to us and will take us on its own route.”

Such observations are found aplenty in Ilaiyaraaja’s eight books – Sangeetha Kanavugal (Musical Dreams), Vetta Velythanil Koti Kidakkuthu (Thrown in Bright Sunlight) and Vazhiththunai (Wayfarer’s Companion) are the most popular. Spiritual in tone, they are a guide to living using venba, couplets in the old style of Tamil poetry.

A disciple of 20th century sage Ramana Maharishi of Thiruvannamalai (where the Sri Arunachaleswarar temple is located), he nevertheless says: “God or Guru, world or nature, all these matter only in a superficial sense. Inspiration is inside everyone; it just needs to be tapped.”

Photography was an inspiration – once. Owner of five Leicas, Ilaiyaraaja has an impressive collection of still-life, portrait and landscape photographs. But he put away his cameras with the advent of digital photography. He’s also stopped reading newspapers as they have “nothing new to say, except violence and more violence”. Ask him about other interests and you get a terse “I really don’t need to seek hobbies.”


It’s not like he has the time. Ilaiyaraaja is in his studio every morning at 7:30 am and doesn’t leave before 9:30 pm, sometimes working till midnight. A non-smoking, vegetarian teetotaller who likes simple, non-spicy food, his meals come from home; his only vice, glucose biscuits! At the studio, he works at a blistering pace – writing music, working with his orchestra, recording and mixing lyrics.

After each assignment, Ilaiyaraaja likes to take off to the Thiruvannamalai temple to recharge his spiritual batteries. Another favourite destination is Tirupati. But even when he’s travelling, music is never far away. Once, when he was on the road, inspiration struck. Ilaiyaraaja got down from his car and sat under a tree to write music – the result was the score of Chinna Thambi (1991), which went on to become the highest grosser in Tamil cinema.

“In the end, it always comes back to music,” says the composer, sitting staidly in an antique chair in his living room. A large swathe of studded cloth, a traditional decoration for elephants during festivals, hangs high on a wall; a statue of Devi draped in a silk sari sits in a corner. Pride of place goes to the grand piano that gleams ebony and ivory; an altar where the family can worship.

Indeed, the music has become a legacy. Wife Jeeva, a simple, shy woman, and Ilaiyaraaja have three children – all have made music their career. Sons Karthik Raja and Yuvan Shankar Raja, who live with him, compose for Tamil films and daughter Bhavatharini, who just got married last year, is a singer and composer.

“My father is the one who made Tamil music famous worldwide,” says a proud Yuvan Shankar. “Such a man is an inspiration to any new composer.” Ilaiyaraaja couldn’t be happier. “God has put my children in the saagara of Sapthaswaraas [the ocean of music],” he says. “They are blessed.”

Another blessing is five year-old grandson Yatheeswar (Karthik’s son), “a wonderful gift from God”. Ilaiyaraaja is an indulgent grandfather, playing the Harry Potter theme patiently for Yatheeswar on his piano.Harry Potter? Yes. From contemporary Western music to Eastern melodies, Hindustani classical to techno, all kind of music moves him – but he can’t abide remixes. “I liken remix to a test-tube baby,” he says, uncharacteristically scathing. “Who does the music really belong to?” He’s also unimpressed with most ‘modern songs’. “If a song cannot remain in your head and in your heart, what kind of song is it?”

You can’t say that about Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions. “He has achieved a hundred times more than any of us,” late composer Naushad once said. Despite such praise, Ilaiyaraaja claims he feels no joy when he listens to his own work. “I find mistakes I have inadvertently made,” he confesses. “If I was satisfied with my work, I would be sitting at home.”

-with Arati Rajan Menon and Amita Amin-Shinde.

This appeared in HARMONY magazine sometime early 2008. 

FeatureFeaturesIlayaraajamusicTamil music

Sheila Kumar • February 13, 2013

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