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Ilaiyaraaja @ 75: Genius who is truly a monarch of the 7 notes

Ilaiyaraaja has been a prolific composer of music for more than 1,000 films in half a dozen languages over four decades, but that is not all there is to the maestro.

Video grab from Ilaiyaraaja's Facebook page

R Mahadevan

The storm created by Annakkili, throwing Ilaiyaraaja up to the world, struck in 1976. Unbelievable that it was 42 years ago, especially for those who experienced the music of the film Annakkili first hand at the time of its release.

By extension, it seems scarcely credible that the film's music director, Ilaiyaraaja, is turning 75. That seems like an age to kind of install people in hushed reverence and push them into the hazy background. And that also seems, again, unreal.

Ilaiyaraaja, born Gnanadesikan and fondly called Raasaiya, had been involved in music early on, touring with his brother, activist-poet Paavalar Varadarajan. Later, with his mastery over the keyboard and the guitar, he worked as a session artiste with many music directors, including Salil Chowdhury, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, was involved with quite a few Malayalam movies, including the National award-winning Chemmeen (1965).

It was surely his absorption of the folk idiom through his travels with his brother that made Ilaiyaraaja totally at ease with his first movie and the reason the music and its maker were welcomed so wholeheartedly. Ilaiyaraaja’s acceptance was instant and he was immediately thrust into the limelight on a stage ruled by the redoubtable MS Vishwanathan and the duo Shankar-Ganesh.

After Annakkili’s release halfway through 1976, Ilaiyaraaja did four more movies that year. The year 1977 saw him do 12 movies; and 1978 doubled that tally to 24. In those two years and a half, virtually every other song by him was a superhit. And the range of his musical expression was already breathtaking.

A random list of Ilaiyaraaja movies of the time — especially 16 Vayathinile (1977), Kavikkuil (1977), Chittu Kuruvi (1978), Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu (1978), Kizhakke Pogum Rayil (1978), Priya (1978), Mullum Malarum (1978) — had the composer displaying a range that extended from the modern to the rustic.

As people would say of director P Bharathiraja’s movies, Ilaiyaraaja’s music breathed the scents and rhythms of the earth in a way Tamil, or South Indian, film music had not till then. His ability to evoke the milieu through a simple rhythm or a short instrumental motif or a well-placed cadence was remarkable.

The next decade and a half (1979-93) saw Ilaiyaraaja do at least 25 movies every year, with a total of a mind-boggling 635 films! Crowning this period were the years 1984 and 1985, when he peaked at 54 and 55 movies, respectively — a ridiculous pace of more than a movie a week.

While he virtually swamped the Tamil film industry with his music, he was also active in the other South Indian languages, with more than 100 movies in Telugu and about 50 in Malayalam. Apart from this, he made a name in Kannada and Hindi — who can forget Sadma (1983) and 'Surmayi Akhiyon Se'?

Each year, hits numbered in the hundreds, hardly giving people time to sample his music, let alone absorb the nuances in its depth and range. At his peak, it was rumoured that Ilaiyaraaja was so busy that any moviemaker who was not an established name had to be content with choosing from a cassette of tunes that he was given!

It has become something of a trope that there is no genre in the world that cannot remind you of an Ilaiyaraaja song. It is also something of a trope that his music tends to work at multiple levels. These are, nevertheless, valid observations. Ilaiyaraaja’s music can be sliced and diced in various ways, with each cross-section bringing in new perspectives to the musical content. Sometimes the rush of musical ideas in some of his more intense compositions, following one another in rapid succession, can leave the listener breathless. In terms of sheer imaginative heft, Ilaiyaraaja’s work has been a mineral that is yet to be adequately mined.

At a time when the world was not quite close to becoming the village it is now, Ilaiyaraaja shaped the musical imagination of the South. His tunes, instrumentation, technical devices, mixing of generic elements, canny juxtapositions of tunes and rhythms, all pushed boundaries incessantly. At one end, can find stark, minimalistic instrumentation, as in 'Paruvame Puthiya Paadal' (Nenjathai Killathey, 1980) or 'Om Namaha' (Geethanjali, Telugu, 1989). At the other, you have full-blown orchestral flourishes like in 'Sundari Kannaal Oru Seidhi' (Thalapathi, 1991).

Ilaiyaraaja’s knowledge of the Carnatic classical idiom sees his use a wide variety of ragas in his compositions. His use, particularly, of raga Kalyani (Yaman in Hindustani classical), is comprehensive. Apart from this, with the freedom that film music allows him, he has played with ragas in overt and insidious ways, introduced technical devices and thought-provoking ideas, producing intriguing results and opening up myriad possibilities of dealing with notes and phrases.

One of the ideas that Ilaiyaraaja has more or less pioneered, and keeps returning to every now and then, is the use of the chorus, not just as a backing device but as a form of instrumentation. This “obsession” has culminated spectacularly in the non-film album Swappnam (2015), where he uses choruses to striking effect. In 1986, in the movie Punnagai Mannan, he turned to the synthesizer, using it to produce an entire song.

Among the various things that are talked about in the context of Ilaiyaraaja is his use of strings and bass guitar. Though the bass guitar had been used occasionally to good effect before him, it was with Ilaiyaraaja that the instrument came into its own, with his creative and enriching counterpoint.

Ilaiyaraaja also broke new ground with his use of rhythm. Generally used to mark the beat or to repeat simple patterns, the rhythm section came to the forefront with Raaja. Complex patterns, broken rhythms, syncopation, simple patterns being broken into odd combinations, unusual beat cycles — he used all these devices to get the rhythm to speak its own important language. An important element of his treatment of rhythm was also the lack of it — using silences or fluid rhythm-less sections to throw in contrasts and to indicate a change in mood.

That is about his film songs. Another area Raaja has been celebrated in is that of background score. He brought in the use of motifs and variations to represent characters and situations. In many instances, his score has become more or less a character in the movies, and numerous discussions can be found on the topic on online forums. The best possible example of his background score can be seen in the silent movie, Pushpak (1987), where it performs the role of providing the emotional and contextual connections.

Interestingly, while he was doing all this hectic filmwork, Ilaiyaraaja also did some seminal work quietly in the background. Over the years, he has come out with more than 25 non-film albums, including instrumental and devotional work. A staunch believer in and a devotee of Ramana Maharshi, Ilaiyaraaja brought out six devotional albums on the sage, with many of the songs written by Raaja himself.

In 1986, his album, How To Name It, was released. A highly layered work based primarily on violins, it brought together the Western and Carnatic classical worlds, creating dialogues with composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on one side and Thyagaraja on the other.

Two years later came Nothing But Wind, another fusion album, with the flute (played by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia) holding centrestage. The year 2005 saw Thiruvasagam, an oratorio based on the ancient Tamil Shaivite poems of Manikkavasagar. These three albums, on their own, make a persuasive argument for Ilaiyaraaja to be seen as a composer and not be hyphenated with a reference to cinema.

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

Ilaiyaraaja is reputed to be a fast, even intuitive, composer. Many of his background scores have been composed — and some even recorded — while he was watching the film rushes for the first time. At various times, different people have referred to the extraordinary ability of Ilaiyaraaja to compose an entire song in his head; his colleagues have talked about how he conceives of not just the melodic line but the musical piece as a whole, with its multiple melodic threads and the instruments in their place.

Violinist VS Narasimhan once mentioned how Raaja would sit at the harmonium, surrounded by members of the orchestra, and breeze through the various sections one after the other. Sai Shravanam, who has worked as a sound engineer with various composers, narrated how Ilaiyaraaja, during the production of his album Swappnam, sat down and wrote out the notations for the whole orchestra in a matter of minutes.

Ilaiyaraaja @ 75: The maestro seen through the eyes of Nassar

If Ilaiyaraaja had just retired at the end of the monster 15 years, in 1992 (which, incidentally, was the year AR Rahman made his appearance), his reputation would have been cemented. But Ilaiyaraaja has continued to forge ahead. In spite of a host of younger composers/music directors coming up over the past decade and a half, the Ilaiyaraaja ideal has remained.

In 2009, Raaja helmed the music for 17 films, making him the leading music director in Tamil movies that year. In 2011, Ilaiyaraaja scored the music for the movie, Azhagarsamiyin Kuthirai, a charming rural tale, in the process showing that where it concerns sounds of the soil, Ilaiyaraaja, despite his name, remains the Raaja.

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As recently as 2016, he made music for as many as 13 films across six languages. It was also the year in which Ilaiyaraaja reached the milestone of 1000 films as music director. Incidentally, the movie, Thaarai Thappattai (Tamil), won the National award for Best Background Score. At present, he is working on more than 15 movies.

Earlier this year, Ilaiyaraaja was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. Ilaiyaraaja himself might have taken it in his philosophical stride, saying he is just an instrument of the divine, but there is a world of fans out there that knows it is a fitting honour for a creative artiste who deserves every bit of it.

R Mahadevan is a journalist and music aficionado. He was with WorldSpace Satellite Radio and now runs the online music service RadioWeb (