Ilaiyaraaja: An enduring legend
A day after the composer was conferred the Padma Vibhushan, cinema personalities look back at his prolific career
It seems just like yesterday, but it’s already been more than 40 years since legendary composer Ilaiyaraaja made his debut with Annakili (1976). Brace for some monumental figures. During this time, he’s worked on more than 1,000 films and composed more than 6,500 songs in various languages including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi. Take a deep breath and let those figures sink, for, we may never see another composer be as prolific again. During this illustrious career, he has collaborated with legendary directors like Bharathiraaja, Balachander, Balu Mahendra, and Mani Ratnam, and the union has resulted in enduring musicals like Sindhu Bhairavi, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, Punnagai Mannan, Mouna Raagam… This space wouldn’t suffice to list the historical films he’s helped make. He’s won five National awards, received the Padma Bhushan, and now, won the Padma Vibhushan too. He’s come to be called the Isaignani, and while such sobriquets are often misplaced in the case of cinema personalities, only a fool would argue against Ilaiyaraaja’s. And here’s the most astounding, remarkable aspect of his career: he continues to be active. He worked on more than five films just last year, and looks set to repeat the feat this year too.
His arrival into the Tamil music scene of the 70s came as a breath of fresh air, like the arrival of great artists often do. Lyricist Snehan notes that it marked an experimental phase in Tamil cinema, which had till then remained cautious with classical and semi-classical tunes. “It’s not that he didn’t demonstrate those skills, but he was also able to bring his own flavour into his music — a rooted aesthetic that got through to the common man,” he says. Snehan considers himself fortunate for having had the opportunity to write lines for a Bharathiraaja teleserial, Thekkathi Ponnu, that Ilaiyaraaja composed music for. From having known the composer a bit, Snehan says, “He’s a child at heart. He’s straightforward and sometimes, that’s why he gets misunderstood. There are very few people who truly know him well.” The lyricist believes he’s one. “I know of cases where despite his stature, he has composed music for free, because he liked the script. Padma Vibhushan should have been given to him at least twenty years ago,” he says.
Actor-director Parthiepan still remembers how desperate he was to get Ilaiyaraaja to compose music for his debut film, Pudheya Paathai (1989). “But I managed to work with him for my second film, Pondaati Thevai,” he smiles. It’s an aspect that the composer has always been noted for: his eagerness to work with new talent. “He has never failed to recognise fresh talent,” Parthiepan says. “I think his biggest plus is that he gives music that people like and connect with.” In an age when composers are often accused of coming up with repetitive tunes, Parthiepan notes that no two tunes of Ilaiyaraaja are ever the same. “He makes music that people instantly connect with. When I listen to his music, everything in life seems serene. That’s what good music does. It comforts you even when you feel lonely,” he says.
Even by the late 80s — barely ten years since he had made his debut — Ilaiyaraaja had cemented his reputation as a great. “At that time, if a director had managed to get Raaja sir on board, producers would queue up to fund the project,” he says. “He also changed how music was written and consumed. Tunes always came first for him, and then the lyrics.”
Veteran director Priyadarshan, for whose first film, Gopura Vasalile, Ilaiyaraaja composed music for, urges us to note that the composer’s music was made a time when there was little technological assistance. “His music transcended social barriers. A man who had no idea about music could get his songs,” he says. The maestro also made music for Priyardarshan’s 2016 film, Sila Samayangalil, which was among the last ten shortlisted films of the 74th Golden Globe Awards. “I learned the importance of silence in music from him. He doesn’t just make music. He always tries to understand characters, their emotions and motivations before composing,” he says.
The composer’s music has been instrumental in films bagging notable awards. The 2000 film, Bharathi, for instance, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil, was highly appreciated for its music. The film’s director, Gnana Rajasekaran, thinks himself ‘blessed’ that he agreed to make music for his debut, Mogamul. “Initially, he wasn’t interested, and in fact, he had suggested another musician. But I insisted that I only wanted to work with him,” he says. “He is a genius and a man with a golden heart. In any discussion about the history of Indian film music, his name should always come right at the top.”
It’s astounding that the composer has still remained relevant and churned out chartbusters well into an age of technology. “Even today, when I hear his songs, they all feel so fresh — like they are from a recent film. That’s his magic. Songs that touch one’s soul will always remain relevant,” he says.
Among new-age directors that he has struck a terrific partnership is director Bala, with whom Ilaiyaraaja has done a number of films. Bala’s Tharai Thappattai incidentally marked the composer’s 1000th film. Singer VV Prasanna was among those who contributed to the film. “In his music lies his stardom, not in his words,” he says. “He’s like god to me.” A day after the composer has been conferred the Padma Vibhushan, Prasanna couldn’t have summarised the feelings of countless other fans any better.