Ilaiyaraja's Brilliance: How It Stands The Test Of Time
The ability to straddle the world of serious music without ever having to be a pompous or a bore is why Ilaiyaraja continues to be relevant.
I have been tasked with writing this tribute to Isaignani Ilaiyaraja. How do you start writing about a career spanning about 45 years, 1,500 films and approximately 5,500 songs? Do I start by explaining how he would use unusual western classical music techniques such as counterpoints in very unusual and interesting ways (here is the man himself explaining counterpoint, and here is a song where he uses voice-voice counterpoint so beautifully.
Should I talk about his use of melodic bass lines (sometimes the bass itself acting as a counterpoint to the voice such as here. Should I talk about how he uses the chromatic ascent and descent between the flute and strings to create the effect of the “butterfly” in this song. Should I talk about his use of Carnatic music ragas for vastly different situations to convey vastly different emotions, such as here and here?
We could go on and on and on. It would, however be a fool’s errand and there are vastly more qualified people to talk about it. Such is the scale and depth of his compositions that I will not even attempt it. If I do go down this path, I risk becoming like one of those music critics for a certain newspaper publication from Chennai who would review concerts with templatised adjectives (“mellifluous mayamalawa gowla, “a clear presentation of Todi”).
There are multiple aspects of his personality that I have not covered. His influences in life for instance are fascinating. How did Gnanadesikan become Isaignani? How did an atheist go on to become a deep devout Hindu who draws his inspiration and strength from the Kollur Mookambika, Tamil Shaivism and Adi Shankara?
His unwavering commitment to principles and putting “skin in the game” is another aspect of his personality that deserves a separate article in itself (close to 40 years back, he contributed about Rs 40 lakh from his own money for the renovation of the Srirangam Gopuram). I have not deliberately gone into these aspects.
I will try and approach this task from a personal perspective. Last weekend, I was on a two-day visit to Erode and Coimbatore. On Friday afternoon, I took a majestically named, rickety state corporation bus called the Ero 100. As the bus left the Erode bus stand, the driver switched on his cassette tape. For the next 2.5 hours, Raja blared through the speakers. He kept me and my fellow passengers entertained through a difficult journey in the heat.
This is what Raja does to many, like me — keep us sane and help us get through everyday life. Raja is by now, a part of the fabric of the everyday life of Tamilians across Tamil Nadu, to the point that, many scenes in recent Kollywood movies have his music playing in the background just to help stage the scene or set the ‘mood’. He represents a time. A memory.
But is he some relic of the past that we cling on to, for nostalgia? The answer, if we go by any town bus in Tamil Nadu, is a NO. Ilaiyaraja’ s music continues to be relevant. If you listened to music by Ajay-Atul, you would see Ilaiyaraja in it. The Ganga Aarthi in Varanasi apparently has Om Shivoham played everyday. And I am told by my friends from Mumbai that the Ganesh Yatra always has this song from Appu Raja in it. You would even see the hand of Raja in Kamal Haasan’s next release — Ilaiyaraja is everywhere.
If you are as old as I am you would know of a time when televisions had one channel. DD would on every weekend play what was called as the “art movie”. It would inevitably have poor people doing mundane things (always directed by a rich elite from Bombay/Delhi) in single long shots. This was considered very deep art.
To be honest, I found Nayan Mongia’s batting more entertaining than these snooze fests. India of that time seemed to be full of people like this. Commentators and opinion makers derided K Srikkanth for the crime of trying to hit the ball in the air. Venkatraghavan was considered a bit too low brow for trying to actually win games rather than “flighting” the ball and clapping the batsmen when the ball was deposited in the stands. To be boring and serious made you an ‘intellectual’ or an ‘aesthete’. Having fun was considered a sin. This was until I discovered Ilaiyaraja.
The first time I was transfixed by the Raja sound was on a summer afternoon when the movie Aan Paavam was on TV (by then even the government was possibly fed up with obscure art movies and had liberalised large parts of the economy).
And it wasn’t the Kadhal kasakudhaya or the title song that had me hooked. It was a two-minute stretch where the heroine has fallen in love with the hero and cannot wait to meet him the next day. A scene, with no dialogues, has its scope shifted with beautiful music. The music starts with the keys underlined by a signature melodic bass line. It then shifts with a call and response between guitars and the flute. When this two-and-a-half-minute passage had ended, my life had changed. I had never heard music like this.
While I couldn’t explain what it was back then, I had never heard such unpretentious yet serious music before. It was to the point, interesting and not boring. This probably defines Ilaiyaraja’s approach to his music and aesthetics in general. The ability to straddle the world of serious music without ever having to be a pompous or a bore is why Ilaiyaraja continues to be relevant.
Take the title score of Nenjathai Killathe as another instance. This is classic Ilaiyaraja. The credits open with a couple jogging during dawn. Ilaiyaraja uses the foot steps to set the rhythm and the temple bells in the background to create the morning effect. This is then followed by the sitar which leads into a counterpoint between the lead guitar and bass guitar followed by an immaculately written string section. In about two and a half minutes you get to sample the entire Ilaiyaraja universe — starting somewhere within an Indian musical space and ending with a string ensemble. The music is beautiful. It stands the test of time undoubtedly.
You will not be able to execute this music without having a grip over various musical streams. Yet, the music is ‘fun’. It is this aspect of ‘fun’ that in my view is the least explored aspect of his music. Fans of his music are quick to assign raga names to melodies. Others will talk about his experiments. And some others will cheapen the music and call it “fusion” (as if he suddenly took a mayamalwagowla and harmonised it). There is much more to the music. A depth that we will continue to explore, understand and decode. A breadth that covers so many different musical streams and ideas.
But Ilaiyaraja’s art was never boring. I have read many of the so called ‘classics’ and never made it past page 30. Ilaiyaraja’s music on the other hand reads like a page turner. There is a simplicity to his music that masks very serious craftsmanship. And this is what I am most thankful to him for. For teaching me that being boring is easy. But to be interesting and fun is far tougher.
Incidentally, when this article is published, I will likely be on a town bus on my way to Coimbatore for a Raja concert today (2 June). It will be hot. And the journey would make watching Gary Kirsten bat feel like a pleasant experience in comparison. However, as the bus leaves the bus stand, the driver will insert an old cassette tape. Raja will start playing. And then the bus, the heat, the seats, everything will stop mattering.
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