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Ilaiyaraaja @ 75: Four superhit numbers that speak of music genius

Did you know that the maestro, who was born on 2 June 1943, composed one of his greatest hits while lying in a hospital bed? Or that elephants would troop across the Kerala border to hear his song? Read on...

Manigandan KR

Picking the 'best' of the creations of a musical genius like Ilaiyaraaja is a nightmare for any critic, like trying to contain an ocean in a water bottle. Almost every track of the over 6,000 songs for which the maestro has scored music is brilliant in its own way.

Be it any form of music, Ilaiyaaraja has aced it. The man has delivered hits for over six decades in not just one genre but in every single genre that one can think of.

Want a superhit that is revolutionary? Try listening to Raja's 'Manidha Manidha Ini Unn Vizhigal' from Keezh Vaanam Sivakkum (1981). Looking for an inspirational number to keep you motivated? Try 'Tholvi Nilayena Ninaithaal' from Oomai Vizhigal (1986), or 'Unnal Mudiyum Thambi' from the same film. Interested in devotional numbers? There is 'Janani Janani Jagam Nee Agam Nee' from Thayi Moogambikai (1982) or 'Om Shivoham' from Naan Kadavul (2009). If your heart lies in folk, anything and everything in the superhit Muthal Mariyathai (1985) will delight you.

For the romantic, there are numbers in varying styles. If you are into slow romantic numbers, listen to 'Pottu Vaitha Oru Vatta Nila' from Idhayam (1991) and your day will be made. Want a romantic number that is neither fast nor slow? Then, Ilaiyaraaja has 'Ilaiyanila Pozhigiradhe' from Payanangal Mudivathillai (1982) or 'Sundari Neeyum' from Micheal Madhana Kamarajan (1982).

If you are the kind who desires a sad romantic number then Ilaiyaraaja has 'Nilave Vaa' from Mouna Ragam (1986) for you. If you seek a racy romantic number, then enjoy 'Vazhaiyosai Galla Galla Venna' from Sathya (2017). Craving a lullaby? You have 'Kanne Kalaimaane' from Moondram Pirai (1982). 
Looking to celebrate an occasion? There is 'Raakkamma Kaiya Thattu' from Thalapathi (1991). Want a song that celebrates nature? There is 'Idhu Oru Pon Malai Pozhudhu' from Nizhalgal (1980).

Any genre you can think of, Ilaiyaraaja has not one song but scores that can delight you. No wonder, then, that the man is considered a legend.

For every song in any Ilaiyaraaja list, there are hundreds that are just as spectacular, if not more brilliant. Therefore, picking 10 or 20 numbers as his best is an injustice not just to the man but to his music.

Instead, what we have done is picked four numbers with interesting anecdotes attached to them that speak volumes about the person that Ilaiyaraaja is. Enjoy!

1. 'Kaadhalin Deepam Ondru' — Thambikku Entha Ooru (1984)

This heart-melting romantic number from the Rajinikanth-starrer continues to be one of the most enjoyed and loved songs of Ilaiyaraaja to this day. The song was so popular when it was released in 1984 that it was deemed the most romantic song by any hero in its period. Interestingly, not many know that this song owes its existence to Ilaiyaraaja's foresight and sincerity and director Rajashekar's faith in the master musician's vision.

The original idea was to create a song in which Rajinikanth would be seen walking all through the number. The superstar was not keen on doing such a song and is believed to have told director Rajashekar that it would be better if they avoided it.

However, Ilaiyaraaja assured Rajashekar that this song would work big time and they must include it. Rajashekar convinced Rajinikanth and the song became part of the film.

One other interesting bit of trivia about this song is that Ilaiyaraaja composed this song while in hospital. The music director was so ill that he could not even sit up in his hospital bed. Sources in the industry say Ilaiyaraaja actually whistled the tune of this evergreen romantic number while lying in bed to his assistants and then dictated the notes. They then taught the song to the singer, SP Balasubrahmanyam, and gave the notes to the musicians. The number that was created by such an effort continues to charm millions to this day!

2. 'En Kanmani Un Kaadhali' — Chittu Kuruvi (1978)

Ilaiyaraaja is someone who is a constant learner. That is one thing that has kept him ahead of all other musicians. He is also someone who tries to implement what he has learnt in his music. For instance, there is this Western music concept called counterpoint and Ilaiyaraaja was the first, if not the only one, to try and use it in Tamil music.

So, what is counterpoint? The great man explained the concept several years ago during a stage show. He said, ''Harmony is having more than one note sounding together. If more than one melody sounds together, then that is counterpoint."

In other words, a counterpoint will have two melodies used in such a way that each works on its own and also in tandem with its counterpart. Ilaiyaraaja used this difficult concept of Western music in a film called Chittu Kuruvi to create a song called 'En Kanmani Un Kaadhali' which went on to become a superhit.

The situation for the song is that a guy and his lady love are travelling in a bus together. While he is seated among the men, she is seated among the women. They look at each other and the song begins.

The song is designed in such a way that it appears the man's soul is having a conversation with him while his lady love's soul is simultaneously having a conversation with her. The song is one of a kind, for it has four singers — two male singers and two female singers — singing it. Each singer utters only phrases. When one joins the phrases sung by a singer, it makes sense. When their phrases are considered together, too, the song makes sense. Interestingly, they all drive home the same point.

This masterpiece of a song shows the class of the man. To this day, in all probability, no other music director in India has managed to compose a number as complicated as this one using this concept!

3. 'Rasathi Unna Kaanadha Nenju' — Vaidehi Kathirunthal (1984)

Ilaiyaraaja's music has such a profound impact on anyone who listens to it that they immediately fall in love with it. That is one of the reasons why the man has fans cutting across languages and regions. But forget human beings, even animals love Raaja's music.

Vaidehi Kathirunthal, which featured Vijayakanth and Revathi in the lead, had six superhit songs which ensured that the film went on to become a blockbuster. Each of those numbers had class stamped all over it.

But there is an interesting tale about this particular song. It was reported at the time that a herd of elephants would cross a river and head into Tamil Nadu from Kerala to wait outside a touring talkies in a remote village in Udumalaipettai. Locals claimed that they would see the herd visiting the talkies at a particular time every day. The herd would silently reach the theatre and stay outside till a particular point. Then, it would leave just as silently.

The locals claimed that the elephants were coming to listen to a song and would leave as soon as it got over. The number they were turning up to hear was this one, 'Rasathi Unna Kaanadha Nenju' from Vaidehi Kathirunthal!

4. 'Annakkili' — Annakkili (1976)

This was the first film to be released with Ilaiyaraaja as the music director. Although the maestro had scored music for other films before Annakkili, they had not yet been released. So, this became Ilaiyaraaja's first film.

Veteran lyricist and producer Panchu Arunachalam had given Ilaiyaraaja the opportunity. However, it was Arunachalam's brother who was producing the film and he did not share Arunachalam's faith in Ilaiyaraaja before the composing began.

Yet, Ilaiyaraaja was thorough in his work. He had written three different orchestrations for the film's title song. The one that has gone on to become a hit is the one that he liked best.

Getting back to the point, the young music director was tense and eager to prove his mettle. He was even more particular about not losing the hard-earned opportunity. Just as everything was checked and they were ready to go for a take, there was a power cut. Almost immediately, a musician present on the occasion made a sarcastic comment, that the man's career appears to be doomed.

To add to Ilaiyaraaja's misery, after the power came back on and the recordings were done, it was found that the recordings had got erased. Unmindful of all such comments and setbacks, Ilaiyaraaja went on to score music for the film which shattered box office records. The man made his mark. Today, he is hailed as one of the greatest!

Happy birthday, Isaignani!