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10 evergreen romantic melodies by Ilayaraja – birthday special


The Black Eyed Peas have ripped off his music. So has MIA. Time magazine selected his soundtrack as one of the All-Time Best compositions. Five-time National award-winner. Padma Bhushan. Isai Gnani (Musical Genius). Ilayaraja is all this and more. On his 74th birthday (2 June), we revisit 10 tracks that are fresh even today.

Shriram Iyengar

In the world of film music in Tamil Nadu, few composers enjoy the longevity, praise, or criticism that Ilayaraja receives. For someone who began his career at the tender age of 14, when he joined a travelling music troupe, Raja, as he is fondly known, crafted operatic gems that belie his initial instruction.

From the classical to Western pop and disco, the composer has experimented, crafted, and pushed the boundaries of background and film music in Tamil cinema. It was his pioneering experiments that gave birth to a new generation of music directors unafraid to look outward for inspiration. From AR Rahman to Harris Jayaraj and Anirudh Ravichander, everyone claims the 'Maestro' to be the greatest. No small praise that!

On his 74th birthday (he was born on 2 June 1943), we take a look at 10 unforgettable tracks that define Ilayaraja's work as a musician.

1. 'Senthoora Poove' – 16 Vayathinile (1977)

This was the film that established the future of 1980s Tamil cinema. Bharathiraja's first film about life and love in a tiny hamlet in Tamil Nadu had three names that would go on to become screen legends — Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, and Sridevi. Ilayaraja's compositions did the rest of the magic.

2. 'Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu' – Raja Paarvai (1981)

For Kamal Haasan's 100th film, which the actor also wrote, maestro Ilayaraja produced some of his best compositions. Still considered by many to be among his finest works in background music, it also had this beautiful melody that highlighted the romance and magic of the rains.

3. 'Kanne Kalaimane' – Moondram Pirai (1982)

The film was heartbreaking, but the music was as soothing as it comes. No one born in the early 1980s can forget this gentle lullaby. Sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, for Kamal Haasan again, it proved to be the surprise chartbuster of the year. Hindi film lovers would remember it in the voice of the elegant Suresh Wadkar from Sadma (1983). Don't bother checking which version is better, it is futile.

4. 'Kaadhalin Dheepam Ondru' – Thambikku Entha Ooru (1984)

If you thought Kamal Haasan enjoyed the best of Raja, you could not be more wrong. This wonderful song has earned a high position among superstar Rajinikanth's fans for its ability to portray the superstar as the romantic. In fact, on the 72nd birthday of the maestro, radio stations found themselves swamped with requests for this particular song. If you remember Dilip Kumar walking through the woods singing 'Suhana Safar' in Madhumati (1958), you wouldn't be far off the mark. It is one of the maestro's own favourite songs.

One of the better known romantic heroes of Tamil cinema, Karthik, once said, "It’s my all-time favourite. A solo number, it’s about love, the most beautiful emotion. Dancing to a song is all right, but relishing a song and singing along... it’s beautiful."

5. 'Mandral Vantha' – Mouna Ragam (1986)

There are few songs that have retained their refreshing quality like this brilliant melody from Ilayaraja. For Mani Ratnam's classic Mouna Ragam, his first musical partner composed a wonderful little ode whose upbeat flow is in direct contrast to the conflicting emotions the lyrics express. The song was remade in Hindi for R Balki's Cheeni Kum (2007) at the director's insistence to replay one of his favourite songs for his first film.

6. 'Enna Sattham Indha Neram' – Punnagai Mannan (1986)

Sindhu Bhairavi seems to be the maestro's favourite raga. He uses it again here in Kamal Haasan's wonderful Chaplinesque tragedy, Punnagai Mannan. The song is a unique one for its sudden beginning without a prelude, and the fact that it is the backdrop to a suicide in the film.

7. 'Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham' – Nayakan (1987)

While the soundtrack of Nayakan has become the stuff of legend, this wonderful number is often relegated to the background. Set to the raga Shyam Kalyan, the composition segues through Mani Ratnam's picturesque visuals of Bombay in the 1960s. The beauty of the lyrics, and Ratnam's simple depiction of romance, make this an unlikely song for a gangster epic.

8. 'Ninnukori Varanum' – Agni Natchathiram (1988)

While cinematographers continue to 'ooh' and 'aah' over PC Sriram and Mani Ratnam's cong picturization, Ilayaraja's music continues to rock into the second decade of the third millennium. Based on Mohana ragam, the maestro remixed one of Carnatic music's most popular songs into something fitting for a seductive number.

9. 'Valaiyosai Kala Kalavenu' – Sathyaa (1988)

Filmed on the beautiful Amala Akkineni and Kamal Haasan, this song is a tribute to the eternal romance in Ilayaraja's music. Written by the inimitable Vaali, who was a long-time partner of the maestro, the song's lyrics match the flowing speed and rhythm of a rivulet. Ilayaraja modifies the Sindhu Bhairavi raga to match this flow to create a wonderful composition.

10. 'Sundari Kannal Oru Sethi' – Thalapathi (1991)

This is one of Mani Ratnam's finest works as a filmmaker, and is backed by a score that soars on the wings of emotions. For this touching expression of unrequited love sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam and KS Chithra, the maestro used Kalyani raga. Mani Ratnam, for his part, filmed the song with a Kurosawa touch, adding to the mystique of Rajinikanth's character. Ilayaraja used the song's first stanza as a refrain throughout the film for the two characters, creating a whole new subtext for the story.