When he was born, he had the word 'Gnaana' (wisdom) in his name. None, including his parents, could've imagined that R. Gnanathesikan would one day become a musician, who could get the whole country melt to his melodies, dance to his peppy numbers and just get lost in the magic of his music. They never would have assumed that he would become a nation's pride and that he would transgress the boundaries of nations and cultures with his inimitable music. What a stellar journey it has been for the five-time National Award Winner for the best music direction and the best OST composer(and of course a bunch of film fares and Nandis), Padma Vibhushan Sri Ilayaraja or let us say Isaigyaani (Musical genius), maestro Ilayaraja.
Take a look at a movie catalogue online and try to spot a non-Ilayaraja musical in Tamil during the '80s or '90s or ask your elders to recall one non-Ilayaraja song from the '80s or '90s. I bet that it would a lot of browsing for you through the catalogue or for your elders through their memories. Such was the magnanimous presence of Ilayaraja in the Tamil Film industry. No, don't mistake me! I am not saying that there were no non-Ilayaraja compositions at that time. There were of course some other all-time great composers like K V Mahadevan, M S Viswanathan... but you sometimes need to think hard to get their songs onto your tongue because, for every other non-Ilayaraja song you remember, you also remember some ten Ilayaraja compositions. Difficult to manage right? Absolutely, I second you. This exercise demonstrates the kind of presence that Ilayaraja had in Tamil Film Music, or say south film music. To bring in some stats, he composed OST for about 1000 movies and composed over 7000 songs, and he is not done yet! Baffling as these stats might look, let me remind you that it is not the sheer number of songs that he has composed, but how much impact he had on all of us with each one of those 7000 songs! Simply put, he has a perfect composition for every occasion and every feeling that we come across in our life! If I start talking about it I can go on and on, but hey! I thought that today we will discuss few interesting facets of the maestro's ocean of music!
Instrumentation to a song is like dressing sense to a human. No matter how well-built/handsome/beautiful you may look, you need to complement it with proper dress to make an appeal to the onlookers. Similarly, however good the tunes and the lyrics are, proper orchestration is required for a song to make an appeal to the listeners. Well, in that case, Ilayaraja is one of the most skilled music directors when it comes to tailoring the right orchestration for any song (get the pun?). His grip on the art of orchestration is unparalleled(maybe ARR is the only one who can come close to that). His use of the Symphony, the traditional and the western rhythm instruments, the woodwind, the strings, and the synth in his songs are phenomenal. What appeals to me, even more, is his ability to take some natural sounds and weave them nicely into the instrumentation, giving it a very natural feel. Many of his songs have a cuckoos signature cooing in the background or just the sound of a gentle breeze here and there. If you listen to Tarali Raada Thane Vasantham song from Rudra Veena, you can't but appreciate the genius of Ilayaraja, who uses the sound of an axe cutting a tree for setting the initial beat, and then fills it with the sound of metal clinging and then takes you into the Vasantham (The beautiful spring garden) with an ethereal composition rendered even more elegantly by late SPB! (Yes! even I am unable to digest the 'late' part)
Talking about SPB, one can't but take a note of the wonderful bond that an ace composer and a great singer share! I can dare say that 70% of Ilayaraaja's compositions are sung by SPB, and I trust it not to be hyperbole. Yes, you can hear a bit of Yesudas, Janaki in there, but SPB was his first choice. I trust, that there is no other singer who could improvise on the already celestial composition of the maestro and take the song to a whole new level, if not for SPB! Let's talk about my personal favourite 'Raama Kanavemiraa' from 'Swati Mutyam'. SPB sang for the Bhagavataar and Kamal Hassan, whilst distinctly maintaining the tonal difference while singing for both the characters. He even managed to maintain a different diction while singing for different characters. As SPB would improvise on the celestial work of Ilayaraja, Ilayaraja himself took a liking to the work of Tyaagaraaja. For various occasions, he would pick up a Tyaagaraja Kriti, and subtly add his own flavour to it, without disturbing the natural beauty of the composition and make it even more wonderful. Citing the example of 'Baala Kanakamaya Chela' from 'Saagara Sangamam', rendered wonderfully by S. Janaki amma, you do notice the subtle improvisations done by Ilayaraja. He added additional Swara Kalpana and also showed that there are multiple ways of calling Lord Rama, all of which were captured by the singer beautifully.
Maybe due to my limited listening to classics, I might not have covered a lot of other wonderful aspects of maestro's music but, the more I hear his songs, the more I feel that all I could perceive was just a drop in the vast ocean. I wish him a happy 78th and am looking forward to hearing more from him. My friends Ganapathy and Nikhil have prepared two other literary treats for you. Continue reading.
I can’t think of a composer in Tamil cinema who has been ageing like fine wine, as well as the Maestro. Part of this gaining prominence and relevance is mainly due to his pioneering vision which he also knew would stand the test of times - the only test that any art form should endure to prove its importance. I am a 90s kid and unlike many other 90s kids, I prefer listening to Raja to ARR or Yuvan or Harris Jayaraj. No offence, I respect these composers and am even a fan of a lot of their compositions. Each one of these composers has a lot of uniqueness in his songs and background scores. I don’t deny that. But if I want to listen to songs I immediately and very unconsciously move towards Raja’s songs. I can just click on any of Raja’s songs collection on YouTube or even on any music streaming platform and don’t worry about what’s next.
I have crooned to a lot of his songs growing up and these are songs that released way before I began to exist in this world. I have a Raja song for every mood of mine. Pani Vizhum Malarvanam from the film Ninaivellam Nithya was the song that ran in my head whenever I saw my crush in my school. The “heartbreak” when I knew that she was committed got me singing “Vaanuyarntha Solaiyile” and “Nilave Vaa”. When I was jubilant after a wonderful assist at the football ground I hummed “Raja Rajathi Rajan intha Raja” on the way back to the class.
As I grew up, my interest and knowledge about the technicalities of music also started to grow. With that knowledge as I revisited some of the songs, I was blown away. Almost every song of his has stayed relevant and fresh despite being around for about 30-40 years and more! This is in stark contrast to the current list of songs which, with a few exceptions in between, are largely fads and don’t have a shelf-life of more than a year at the most!
Another important aspect of Raja’s music is the unassuming nature, that makes the songs so easy to sing along. Songs like Chinna Chinna Vannakuyil, Vaan Megam, Kaatukuyilu are such catchy numbers that you can identify the song even if a child sings it off-key! It’s not that the Maestro has only come up with simple songs. There have been songs with technical brilliance all over too! For instance, he has composed a song with ascending notes alone (Kalaivaaniye from Sindhu Bhairavi). He also composed the songs and the background score for Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram by watching the whole film run in mute! If that’s not brilliance, what is?
His sonic understanding of the different instruments, be it Indian or western, combined with a brilliant grasp of the sensibilities of both these worlds have always brought a unique amalgamation where these two worlds are married with utmost finesse. The changes in the phrases are seamless and always a treat to the ears! He, in my opinion, is the pioneer of fusion music in Tamil Cinema. Just listen to songs like Raja Rajathi Raja, Vikram (title song) and you would know what I mean. If you are a fusion puritan (if such a thing exists), listen to the album How to Name It. An album that marries the western classical style of the legendary composer JS Bach and Indian classical sensibilities.
So you see, Raja is indeed a legend. No amount of writing can truly capture his greatness and hold over his craft in its entirety. Dear Raja, I haven’t listened to all of your gems. I just can’t get enough of the ones that I listen to on repeat! Thank you for the lovely music!
Happy Birthday, Maestro!
His songs changed the perception towards listening to music says Tamil film industry. He is well known for his mastery over orchestration by paying close to the sonic spaces between lyrics. His tunes are more focused on lyrics than music. One of my all-time favourites is Priya priyatama ragalu from Killer. This is romantic yet timeless music. This song always deviates me and takes me to a fantasy world with a crunchy decoration of lyrics that are soothing to the heart. The use of Violin and flute in his songs make it even more grandeur. The chorus and melodies create a sensual mood and pull me out of all pressures. He is also known for creating complex compositions and delivers tunes that mark his stamp in the Indian music industry. The use of phrases in his songs are very natural and near to any common man thoughts and he is capable of internalising techno elements and western orchestration into his music. I wish him a very happy birthday!