Ilaiyaraaja – The Marathon Maestro!


This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on the 2nd Jun, 2021. It can be read here:

If you are active on social media discussions relating to the south, you wouldn’t have missed the teaser of the upcoming Divya Pasurams by Ilaiyaraaja. This is Ilaiyaraaja’s latest initiative outside of the cinema space and as per the announcement, it is going to be premiered worldwide on August 30, 2021. The short clip raises goosebumps, with Ilaiyaraaja setting the tune and tone for what’s in store. No wonder it is going viral. Think about it. This man has turned 78 today, has completed 45+ years in the industry and he is not done yet. With every passing year, he continues to put his stamp of relevance in an industry where young talent is bursting at the seams.

As an ardent fan of Raja, I have watched the progression in his music over the years right from the ‘80s till now. What amazes me is the way he continues to be at the top of the game even at this age as most would have retired and walked into the sunset. Raja continues to be busy with not just film music but other initiatives like Divya Pasurams.  At different phases of his career, he has continued to re-invent himself which is what has enabled him to stay not just relevant but remain a force to reckon with till now.

When he came into the Tamil film scene in the ‘70s, by his own admission, Raja was not trained in music at all. He however had a very gifted musical mind and brain because of which he could pick up things fast. With his music being influenced by the Tamil folk genre in the initial phase, Raja moved to bring in Western Classical influences in the late ‘70s after he mastered Western Classical music.  So, we got a wonderful song like ‘En Kanmani Kadhali’ from the film Chittukuruvi, a very native sounding melody where he brings in Western Classical techniques like counterpoint.

It is in the same time that Raja started using Carnatic influences in his songs without making it obvious. Raja was not new in this attempt. In Tamil film music, veteran composers like G Ramanathan and KV Mahadevan used Carnatic extensively in their compositions and invariably the songs were all based on Classical Carnatic ragas. The orchestration and the melodies in those compositions made no effort to conceal the Carnatic influence. However, in Raja’s compositions, Carnatic influence came about as being incidental without being overpowering. And that was a huge difference. The song ‘Chinna Kannan Azhaikiraan’ from the film Kavi Kuyil is a case in point. The song is set in the raga Reeti Gowla, and is sung by the revered Carnatic vocalist Late Dr Balamuralikrishna and it is as filmy as it can get.

And then I look at songs like Ananda ‘Ragam Kaetkum Kaalam’ from the film Panneer Pushpangal composed by Raja in 1981.  A beautiful song which follows a yo-yo pattern in terms of melody with very complex orchestration. The song is based on the Carnatic raga Simmendra Madhyamam in which Raja says he brought in Western Classical influences drawing inspiration from the works of ace composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Now this confluence of music forms which Raja brought is what I feel makes his compositions unique and appealing to all types of listeners – from just simple music lovers to music aficionados.

In the mid and late ‘80s, we saw Raja trying his hand in fusion with non-film albums like How To Name It and Nothing But Wind.  In How To Name It,   Raja tried his hand in bringing Western Classical and Carnatic forms closer. In fact, one of the tracks in that album is titled ‘Chamber Welcomes Thiagaraja’. The album is Raja’s ode to both Thiagaraja and Western Baroque music composer, JS Bach.  Nothing But Wind is again a fusion attempt where Raja collaborates with popular Hindustani flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia. All this was happening even while he was extremely busy in the film music circuit.  As the technology around music was seeing a rapid evolution with the introduction of electronics and later computers, Raja introduced the sequencer for the first time in K Balachander’s Punnagai Mannan way back in 1986. In spite of the invasion of technology in the music scene today, I must say that in Raja’s work, the soul of the music is still intact.

Just as we thought that Raja has explored music in every possible way, he didn’t think so himself. In 1993, he recorded his first Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, a first for an Asian composer. Later, he would regularly work with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra for films like Hey Ram, a masterpiece in background score. The quest to stay relevant is what led Raja to try a unique experiment in composing Thiruvasakam – a collection of Tamil poetry written on Lord Shiva by Manickavasagar with Symphony Orchestra in the background in 2005. The result was indeed path breaking.

Ask any director of this generation. It would be rare if she/he doesn’t nurse a dream to work with Raja at least in one film even now. In the ‘90s, the trend of young, upcoming filmmakers yearning to work with Raja was not surprising. That generation just grew up with Raja’s music. There was a Raja song or a choice of songs that popped up in the head for every situation, for every event, for every emotion and for every mood. Invariably, Raja was a fellow traveller for folks in that generation.  However, the current crop of directors who may be in their 30s now, had the music of Rahman or a Harris along with Raja as companions in their lives. Yet, Raja’s influence on them cannot be missed. Is there a Karthik Subbaraj film without an Ilaiyaraaja reference? And we hear that director Vetrimaaran’s next will have Raja as the music composer.

Not just among filmmakers. The kind of influence Raja wields even among young classical music exponents has been revealing.  During the pandemic induced lockdown last year, quite a few classical musicians took to YouTube to put out content on music that influenced them and so on. It was a pleasant surprise to see young classical musicians like Sikkil Gurucharan talking of how he was totally besotted with Raja’s music.  He had a couple of episodes of his show exploring the nuances of Raja’s music.

Similarly, speaking of upcoming, new faces in singing, Sid Sriram, who sang the superhit song ‘Unna Nenachu’ in the film Psycho for Raja was all in awe after his first singing experience with Raja.

In the very popular Quarantine from Reality series by Subasree Thanigachalam which gained huge following during the lockdown last year, though she covered many popular music composers of yore, one cannot miss her avowed fondness for Raja’s music. The current generation could get a backgrounder on many of old Raja’s gems through this programme.

These days, there are many music related reality shows on TV particularly involving young kids. In all these shows, Raja’s omnipresence is unmissable. This is also another pointer to the influence of Raja’s music on the Gen Next kids.

In a competitive industry such as the film industry, it is not easy to stay relevant and be counted even after 45 years in any field, leave alone music.  The fact that Ilaiyaraaja continues to be at the top of the game and is still sought after speaks volumes of his innate talent. Not just that, also of his urge to not be a sprint runner but a marathon runner. On his 78th birthday today, wishing the marathon maestro, Ilaiyaraaja the best of health and happiness so that he continues to rock.



2 thoughts on “Ilaiyaraaja – The Marathon Maestro!

Add yours

  1. Golden Words:
    “At different phases of his career, he has continued to re-invent himself which is what has enabled him to stay not just relevant but remain a force to reckon with till now.”

    Wonderful coverage of the various genres of Raja-Sir’s works.

    Sir, please write often

    Liked by 1 person

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