The Story of India’s ‘Musical Sage’


The title Ilaiyaraaja evokes a sure magic for his followers, who span throughout generations and nations. Everybody in my household has a favorite track, and a reminiscence related to the musician. Late nights and lengthy drives are incomplete with out his music enjoying within the background. 

Someday in 2021, I used to be travelling in Tamil Nadu by bus for work. I used to be not in an incredible temper and was nearly to take out my headphones to hearken to some music, when the motive force began the bus. The buoyant ‘Rakkamma kaiya thattu’ began enjoying, transporting me to a different world. I may immediately visualise Rajinikanth sashaying his hips and dancing in the way in which solely he can. This track from the 1991 movie Thalapathi had ranked fourth within the BBC World Service Prime 10 songs in 2002. 

A smile appeared on my face, and I noticed that the woman sitting subsequent to me was additionally buzzing alongside to the track. As we journeyed on the green-lined freeway listening to different songs from the film Thalapathi composed by Ilaiyaraaja, I may really feel my troubles melting away. 

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Isn’t that one of the stunning issues about music? 

It’s additionally the spell that Raaja, as he’s fondly known as, casts on you. The composer, who turned 80 this June, has composed a track for each temper. Whether or not you’re feeling nostalgic, lacking a cherished one, pondering of your mother and father, or wish to sing alongside at dwelling with associates, there’s a Raaja track. 

As I returned to my previous workplace that day, I bear in mind spending all the night discussing this phenomenon with my former colleague and pal, Ashok Kumar. He stated that each individual in Tamil Nadu can have a narrative related to a Raaja track. 

“There are a lot of composers who’ve produced good music. However whether or not you’re travelling or going by means of a tough patch, or if it’s after 10 PM, solely Ilaiyaraaja’s songs will assist,” he says. 

For Ashok Sir, as I fondly name him, Raaja’s music is a soothing balm. Proper from when his child boy was within the hospital, or he was unwell throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the maestro’s music got here to his rescue. 

In truth, he shares that he has a special track denoted for particular conditions. If there’s a household downside, he listens to ‘Appan endrum Ammai endrum’ from Guna and through different difficult moments, he listens to the devotional album ‘Ramana Maalai’.

“I used to play the cassette of Ramana Maalai each time I wanted some energy. By the point the eight songs from Facet A and B had been performed, I might be okay. The songs discuss how we have now to beat issues. They’re merely a degree above something you’ll ever hear,” he provides.

Like Ashok Sir, there are various people who flip to Ilaiyaraaja’s music to sail by means of their life. And now, his spectacular life will come alive on the large display by means of a biopic in 2025. Dhanush will reportedly essay the position. With movie commerce analyst, Manobala Vijayabalan, confirming the information on X, Raaja’s followers can not look ahead to this deal with. Right here’s a have a look at this legend’s musical journey and life, which began on the age of 14 in Pannaipuram, Theni, Tamil Nadu.

The making of a legend

Ilaiyaraaja with his brothers
Ilaiyaraaja along with his brothers

From being known as because the ‘Maestro’ by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London — and being the primary Asian composer to file for them in 1993 — and ‘Isaignani‘ (the musical sage) by the late Tamil Nadu chief minister, Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, Ilaiyaraaja rose by means of a number of challenges to grow to be the beloved artist that everybody loves him for. 

Named Gnanathesigan at delivery in 1943, he was significantly influenced by the wealthy folks songs he heard rising up. Although he needed to drop out of college at 14, he accompanied his brother, Pavalar Varadarajan, on live shows throughout the state. 

Varadarajan was a musician for the undivided Communist Social gathering of India and sang songs with political themes. Raaja’s mom requested him to accompany his brother when he was sick and his musical tutelage started beneath him. 

After accompanying Varadarajan for over a decade, he moved to Madras alongside along with his different brothers, Bhaskar and Gangai Amaran (additionally a music director and lyricist) in 1968. With little cash, the brothers had been compelled to vacate the lodge they had been residing in, however one other singer organized for his or her keep then.

Whereas his expertise was recognised and honed, Ilaiyaraaja didn’t even have bus fare on most days, and would stroll lengthy distances to study music. He was studying western classical music beneath Dhanraj Grasp who then waived off his charges.

Raaja with Dhanraj master
Raaja with Dhanraj grasp

In an interview with The Hindu, the musician recalled that Dhanraj Grasp requested him to show different college students. “With a hungry abdomen, I might do it. Intuitively, I learnt the notes. As soon as, overcome by starvation, I requested one of many college students, Raja, to purchase me a cup of tea and he instantly obliged,” Ilaiyaraaja defined then.

It was right here that the then 25-year-old was launched to the nice stalwarts of classical music like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and extra. Put up this, he learnt classical guitar from the Trinity School of Music, London, the place he was a gold medallist.

Within the early Nineteen Seventies, the maestro began working as a contract musician and have become the lead guitarist in music director Salil Chowdhury’s Chennai orchestra. Chowdhury had as soon as famously stated, “Our predominant guitarist in Chennai is the most effective composer in India.”

He was then noticed by Kannada movie composer GK Venkatesh and assisted him in over 200 movies. Right here, he learnt composing and began writing his personal compositions. He bought his first break with movie producer Panchu Arunachalam who requested him to compose six songs for his movie Annakili in 1976. The music, which was folksy, was successful and thus started the composer’s tryst with Tamil cinema. 

When Ilaiyaraaja entered the music trade, Tamil cinema was dominated by the likes of MS Viswanathan and KV Mahadevan. With roots in folks, carnatic music and an schooling in western classical music, he ushered in a brand new musical period.

Initially although, his sensibilities didn’t match the favored hits. After attempting to make music the way in which it was being composed on the time, he began experimenting and launched new strategies and types. He’s credited with altering the way in which music is made in Tamil movies. He was additionally one of many first Indian composers to make use of Western classical music and preparations in his music.

Revolutionising the Tamil music trade

Ilayaraaja has composed over 8000 songs
Ilayaraaja has composed over 8000 songs

What units Isaignani aside begins proper from the way in which he composes his music. He reaches the studio early within the morning and writes the tune within the type of notations. He is likely one of the few composers who first write the notes after which play them. He’s additionally identified to write down down the orchestrations in nice element. 

He then begins composing at 7am and is thought for being fast at it. Within the 1985 drama movie Uyarndha Ullam, he acquired a standing ovation from the 90 musicians within the orchestra after the recording was carried out.

“For a track within the film, I deliberate to make use of a 90-piece orchestra. RD Burman’s assistants had been coordinating the orchestra and after I stated the musicians needed to flip up at 7 am, they had been bowled over. They had been not sure of who’d flip up, contemplating they had been used to working later within the day, however the subsequent day, everyone was there. In half an hour, the orchestra was written, and as soon as all the track was carried out, each one of many 90 musicians gave me a standing ovation. That was particular,” he instructed The Hindu.

He additionally as soon as talked about how he doesn’t just like the classification of music as “music in all places relies on the seven notes (sapta swaram).”

“My notion is that there isn’t any distinction in music as many individuals understand. The distinction lies in the way in which you hear the music. Your understanding of music is dependent upon your capability to understand it,” he stated in a perform in Kerala in June 2005. 

His music was for everybody and shunned the thought of Carnatic music purists who imagine that it may be loved solely “by a number of”. Ilaiyaraaja confirmed us why music must be inclusive by means of the attractive ‘Paadariyen Padippariyen’ in Ok Balachander’s ‘Sindhu Bhairavi’ (1985).

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Within the film, Carnatic musician JK Balaganapathi (Sivakumar) sings a composition by Tyagaraja, Mari Mari Ninne in an auditorium that features Sindhu (Suhasini). To indicate the accessibility of classical music, Sindhu tells Balaganapathi after the efficiency that it could have been higher if everybody may perceive the lyrics and wonders if a folks composition could possibly be included in a carnatic live performance. 

When he derides her, she sings ‘Paadariyen Padippariyen’ a Tamil folks track in the identical Saramati raaga. Beginning as a folks track, it fantastically transitions into the Carnatic Mari Mari Ninne, underscoring the purpose that there are not any boundaries in music. 

Talking about this composition in a Solar TV interview, Ilaiyaraaja stated that this was the one track that he did “homework” for.

“I needed to infuse the people track in the identical raaga. I sat with all the e-book of Tyagaraja compositions and labored on the way it could possibly be carried out. Once I hummed Paadariyen Padippariyen, it completely sat in the identical tune as Mari Mari Ninne. I instructed Balachander sir (the director of the film) that there can be applause within the theatre after this track. I instructed him that I might cease composing if it didn’t occur,” Ilaiyaraaja had stated.

As predicted, there was rapturous applause after the track within the theatre. The composer bought a Nationwide award for Sindhu Bhairavi.

His use of western classical symphonies in essentially the most unlikely conditions is spectacular. His background scores carry the narrative of the films and add to your cinematic expertise. In a tradition the place folks would clap for the heroes and create cutouts for them, followers began doing the identical for Ilaiyaraaja in Tamil Nadu, such was his affect.

In addition to Tamil cinema, he has additionally scored music for Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi motion pictures like Sadma, Paa, Cheeni Kum

Ilaiyaraaja has additionally invented his personal raaga known as ‘Panchamukhi’. 

What retains him ticking?

Ilayaraaja and SP Balasubrahmanyam were one of the best duos in Tamil music
Ilayaraaja and SP Balasubrahmanyam had been the most effective duos in Tamil music

“A person settled in life with a safe job approaches life in an informal method. However a person for whom many of the likelihood is closed approaches life with an all-out braveness and from a brand new view level, which permits him to attain much more than the previous. I’m just like the latter. That’s the reason for the freshness and novelty in my background rating,” he had instructed The Frontline.

Ilaiyaraaja has composed over 8,000 songs in 1,000 movies and has enthralled audiences by means of his live shows. He has been conferred with the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and 5 Nationwide Awards as nicely. Since July 2022, other than being an ace musician, he has additionally been a Member of the Parliament. 

Amazingly, he proves that music transcends all boundaries. 

Ilayaraaja successfully combines western classical music with folk songs
Ilayaraaja efficiently combines western classical music with folks songs

To drive dwelling this level, Ashok Sir shares one other anecdote associated to Ilaiyaraaja. In 1994, when he was working at a restaurant in Madurai, a foreigner walked in a single afternoon. 

As Raaja’s music was enjoying within the background, he instructed them to “cease the Indian music” utilizing an expletive. Nonetheless, when he was paying the invoice, Ashok Sir instructed him, “I might have had no points in case you had requested me to merely cease enjoying the music. However why did you need to say Indian music? On the way in which to your resort, purchase this cassette known as ‘How one can title it’ by Ilaiyaraaja. Hearken to it to grasp what Indian music is.”

Surprisingly, the person visited the restaurant the subsequent day and requested for Ashok Sir. He gave him a Rs 500 tip and thanked him for introducing him to good music. 

Ilaiyaraaja believes that music ought to come from the guts and shouldn’t be a activity. “Should you labour on creating music, it won’t have soul,” he had as soon as instructed The Hindu and that stands true.

So, what’s your Ilaiyaraaja story?

Edited by Padmashree Pande

‘The Ilaiyaraaja interview: ‘Why ought to filmmakers learn about music creation?’ by Srinivasa Ramanujam for The Hindu, Revealed on 31 Could, 2018
‘Maestro remembers Dhanraj Grasp’ by B Kolappan for The Hindu, Revealed on 02 February, 2019
‘No level in classifying music, says Ilayaraja’ Revealed on 16 October, 2017 Courtesy The Hindu


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