Ilaiyaraaja is about to complete 1,000 films as a music director. The mastery and imagination he has brought to his craft for 40 years is unmatched.
The cornerstone, indeed the very soul of all Indian art—literary and performing—is Rasa (simply: “feeling” or “emotion”) as embodied in that immortal work of Bharata Muni, Natyashastra, the art-DNA of Indians.
Rasa determines the popularity, endurance and longevity of any work of art. It is Rasa that operates behind the scenes and directs our senses, mind, and feeling, and elicits adjectives like “classic,” “timeless” or even just an “ah!”
Whether or not we consciously realize it, till date, all of Indian performing arts follow in one form or the other, the principles laid down in Natyashastra. The inclusion of songs and dances in all Indian cinema made in all Indian languages is thus not a conscious decision made by its makers—it is Bharata Muni’s eternal artistic vision flowing in our veins.
And this vision has enriched both Indian cinema and India’s musical repertory by giving birth to and inspiring generations of top notch film music directors. It would truly be the death of Indian cinema if it became another mindless Western clone where a music-based film will be obliged to state it explicitly as “a musical drama” or variations thereof.
India’s greatest film music directors are an underrated lot for whom commercial pressure is an additional liability. Their work is primarily guided by the producer’s quest for “hits”, a director’s grandiose fantasy of what he/she considers “good music,” the lyricist’s limitations (increasingly today, verbal junk), the image of the leading stars, the visuals and plot of the song itself.
These constraints have mostly become the norm over the years, yet a few of these music directors have managed to give us many memorable compositions and soundtracks. What makes their achievements truly outstanding is that the average film song is only three to six minutes long, within which the composer needs to work his magic.
One of the irreplaceable contributors to music in Indian cinema is Gnanadesikan or Ilaiyaraaja, who will complete 1,000 films as a music director with the upcoming Tharai Thappattai in a career beginning with Annakili in 1976.
Given this sheer volume of his work, it is impossible to capture the full extent of Ilaiyaraaja’s music in the space of this piece.
And so, by definition, this essay will necessarily have some omissions—even of some of his most celebrated compositions. I’ve tried to examine his work primarily from the perspectives of melody, difficulty, and classicality in his Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu compositions.
Among other things, the credit for extending the frontiers of Tamil cinema music beyond Tamil Nadu singlehandedly goes to Ilaiyaraaja. His unchallenged musical dominance in Tamil cinema throughout the 1980s up to the release of Roja (1992) was so influential that it spawned a few music directors in Bollywood who plagiarized his numbers with impunity with the Anand-Milind duo topping the list.
On the downside, Ilaiyaraaja also nurtured the deplorable phenomenon of force-fitting lyrics into pre-composed tunes. His liberal use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) programming apart from his elaborate, manual orchestrations also paved the way for reducing the painstaking task of musical composition into one of mere sound engineering, which A.R. Rahman then perfected.
Ilaiyaraaja’s towering success owes itself to several factors: his early exposure to various genres and styles of Indian classical, folk, and film music, as well as his extensive training in Western modes of composition, orchestration and a keen ear for sound precision, which enabled him to effectively blend Western musical harmonies even in compositions based on hardcore Indian classical ragas.
His experience while working as keyboardist, guitarist, organist, etc for accomplished music directors like Salil Chowdhury and G.K. Venkatesh, with whom he worked in over 200 films arranging orchestras, enabled him to practice and improve his craft. As any creative person knows, these mere aids cannot substitute sheer creativity. In Ilaiyaraaja’s case, he extended this creativity with innovative experimentation.
And so, when Annakili released, its music became an instant hit because the Tamil audience hadn’t heard anything like it before—a Tamil rustic/folk tune in a mainstream commercial movie. Macchana Patingala, the first song that S. Janaki sang for him, was a sign of things to come.
There has been no looking back since then. By the end of the 1970s, many of the major producers and directors from both Tamil and Telugu cinema had begun queuing up at his door. It is said that in the 1980s, he used to score music for at least 40 movies annually, most of the songs becoming blockbusters.
One such composition is the classic Andhi Mazhai from Raaja Paarvai (1981), one of the grandest expositions of western orchestration in Indian cinema music using a subtle amalgam of two hardcore Carnatic ragas—Vasanta and Pantuvarali—as its core. The rendition by S.P. Balasubramhanyam and S. Janaki is unmatched—indeed, the role played by this duo in most of Ilaiyaraaja’s music should be counted as one of the defining pillars of his success.
It won’t be incorrect to say that Raaja Parvai established Ilaiyaraaja as a musical force to reckon with, the other standout creative manifestation being the brilliant instrumental score set in pristine Pantuvarali raga that Kamal Hassan performs in a concert in the movie.
In the same year, Ilaiyaraaja also composed the excellent but highly underrated Yaarigaagi Aata in the Kannada movie Bharjari Bete, almost echoing Andhi Mazhai, but equally brilliant.
And then it was the turn of Moondram Pirai (1982), which went on to become a classic, most certainly for its music as well. Remade in Hindi as Sadma, the most celebrated number is Kanne Kalaimaane, a lullaby of epic tranquility based on the Kaapi raga with shades of Natabhairavi.
The other score is Poongatru, most notable for its seemingly bizarre but excellent use of strings, flute and tabla in the orchestration in the interludes. A 10-15 second phrase in its first interlude has been near-completely lifted by Kannada music director Hamsalekha in his chartbuster song Preeti Maadabaradu.
Raaja Paarvai and Moondram Pirai, among other films, heralded Ilaiyaraaja’s long association with leading directors of South Indian fillms of the period, including K. Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, Bhagyaraj, S.P. Muthuraman, and Mani Ratnam in Tamil; and Kondadarami Reddy, K. Vishwanath, K. Raghavendra Rao, and Vamsi in Telugu. These associations unleashed some of the most memorable and popular compositions that endure till date.
Ilaiyaraja, in Tamil, means “prince”. But musically, he is the King, whose authoritative rule has been matched by very few in the history of Indian cinema. He has created so many classics that creating a short list to showcase his range of work is ruthless injustice.
One casual glance takes us to songs as diverse as the exuberant Ennadi Meenakshi from Ilamai Oonjal Adukiradhu (1978), a bizarre kind of Tamil film music throwback to Elvis Presley. Valaiyosai Kala Kalavena from Sathya (1988) is notable for its pace and rapid interludes. In Inji Iduppazhagi from Thevar Magan (1992), he returns to an excellent folksy tune.
The wildly popular Rakamma Kaiyyatattu from Dalapathi (1991) was voted fourth in the list of “the world’s top 10 most popular songs of all time” in a poll conducted by the BBC World Service website. However, this song would also dislodge Ilaiyaraaja from his position as the numero uno in Tamil film music after his showdown with the film’s director Mani Ratnam. But that is a different story.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Ilaiyaraaja rewrote the grammar of background music (BGM) in Indian cinema. He showed, arguably for the first time, that BGM could make distinctive statements in isolation.
Until he shot to prominence, BGM largely consisted of—to put it loosely—stock phrases designated for various situations, emotions, etc, a holdover from the tradition of the stage, where ancillary instrumental music was constrained in real time by the usage of some basic, typical instruments.
And so, Ilaiyaraaja’s BGM instantly, starkly stood out because he made a complete break from this past. It also helped that some of his directors of different eras understood the significance of effective BGM scores. Silence as a powerful background score was perhaps best understood by K. Vishwanath and later, Mani Ratnam, and still later by Ram Gopal Varma.
Sample the introductory scene of Raghuvaran in Shiva (1989) where the BGM begins with just the sound of the flick of a match followed by shocking but simple, ceaseless, and deadly drum work. Or the BGM in Sagara Sangamam (1983) where an understated but rapid flute-centric, Keeravani-based ensemble keeps pace with a stunned Kamal Hassan’s frantic cycling heightening the scene’s drama.
Or another one again in Keeravani—a vastly different, pathos-inducing flute-centric BGM in Nayagan (1987) where Kamal Hassan meets his future wife in a brothel. Such moments were craftsmanship at its best. And they continued to come, in one film after another, elevating him to the stature of a master who taught the disciples around him.
Composing raga-based music for cinema calls for employing malleable ragas since not all lend themselves to the musical expression of all moods and emotions. Even if a director finds a raga that appears to be tailormade for creativity in film music, there’s no guarantee that the composition will fit the particular situation.
The classic example is Ilaiyaraaja’s own brilliant Hindolam composition in Sagara Sangamam. This song has a minor disconnect, simply because the raga choice is incompatible with a phrase in its lyric: Nee To Nadachina Yedu Adugule Swara Saptaka Mai—the keywords being “swarasaptaka” meaning “seven (musical) notes” whereas Hindolam comprises five notes. The lapse, albeit a minor one, is an illustration of the challenge that music directors confront.
However, even a brief perusal of Ilaiyaraaja’s body of classical work in films reveals him to be the last of the living legends rooted in the classical tradition. A partial selection of his classical raga-based film compositions leads to tracks like the pathos-heavy Revathi raga in the semi-erotic Kanavu Ondru, where full marks go to S. Janaki, whose “thin” voice is laden with heaviness to convey the feeling. It is notable for the brilliant string work and drumming, without losing the purity of Revathi plus the excellent layabhedam, and how Ilaiyaraaja has made great use of signature Revathi phrases (examples, Ragam Tanam Pallavi of M.L. Vasanthakumari and M. Balamuralikrishna) in both the antaras.
Then we have his Malayamarutham, a typical Suprabhatam raga. Among all his compositions in this raga, nothing quite matches the subtlety and leisurely exploration in the lyric-rich Sivapoojaku from K. Vishwanath’s Swarnakamalam (1988). Come Mohanam and the now legendary Ninnukori Varnam comes to mind instantly. Perhaps no other music director has loved and used this raga to this extent. The timeless Vei Vela Gopemmalaa is a mix of at least three ragas primarily set in Mohanam. Purity, on the other hand, is exquisitely showcased in Poovil Vandu.
A bright new world opens up in Keeravani, a sampoorna (full) raga that he explores with great aplomb in numerous excellent compositions. His best though is Kaatrilendan Geetham. The 20-second aalapanam in S. Janaki’s voice brings out the complete bhava (feeling) and raga structure of Keeravani. The evocation of excellent pathos with orchestration in the second interlude and S.P. Balasubrahmanyam’s rendition are the highlights of the sentimental hit O Papa Lali from Geethanjali (1989).
The next raga is the raga of the first lesson in Carnatic music. Ilaiyaraaja’s Mayamalavagowlas are truly commendable. We can cut directly to the brilliant Telugu folkish Yamaho Nee Yama, which traverses the entire length and width of the raga, preserving its classicality intact. The orchestration in the interludes is truly extraordinary.
Then, there is the superb National Award-winning Lalitha Priya Kamalam from Rudraveena (1988) in Lalitha raga. Both the structure and the quality of the entire composition is a great study in systematically developing and exploring the raga. And composing this for a movie starring a mass entertainment star like Chiranjeevi speaks volumes about Ilayaraja’s prowess.
Of all South Indian languages, Ilaiyaraaja has composed the least number of songs in Kannada cinema. However, many among his Kannada soundtracks score extraordinarily on the scales of popularity as well as quality. The list of his fine songs is a long one, among which is the romantic, high-pitched, energetic and difficult Jeeva Hoovagide in Kaapi raga in Ilaiyaraaja’s debut Kannada film, Nee Nanna Gellalare (1981), the first and only movie in which he worked with superstar Rajkumar. The other equally brilliant composition from the same film is Nanna Neenu Gellalare set primarily in Hindolam, and superbly shows the scales of both Hindolam and Shuddha Dhanyasi, not to mention the jazz-heavy, complex orchestration.
Ilaiyaraaja’s association with Shankar Nag gave us Geetha (1981), a terrible movie but a musical treasure. Finally, how can one forget this pastmaster’s formidable Sweety Nanna Jodi based on Natabhairavi raga? As has always been the case, what one heard in this song was the output of the genius of a man with a special vision unlike anyone else before, or after.
Every music lover has his/her list of Ilaiyaraaja songs, which, according to the person’s preferences from a 1,000-film-long list, are “the” most popular. This writer has chosen a few, which rank highly among these choices. There is, for instance, Abbanee Teeyani, a romantic cult hit in the pathos-inducing Shivaranjani raga, stolen shamelessly by Anand-Milind and repackaged as Dhak Dhak Karne Laga in the Hindi film Beta (1992).
Balapam Patti, whose popularity for years shows how music can cast a spell when a magician uses the wand to perfection, has a unique prelude that shows the phrasal structure of Shuddha Dhanyasi raga in about 30 seconds. Subhalekha Rasukunna is justly popular while Mandram Vandha is another evergreen “sad song” in which the jazzy interludes enhance the melancholic subtext. In Chinna Raasave, he shows how to use the boring Lathangi raga in film music to belt out a mass hit.
Music doesn’t lend itself to intellectualism and analysis the way the written word does—or in the words of S.L. Bhyrappa, you can’t use the minor scale or say, Hindolam, to preach Marxism or whatever ideology. Equally, to paraphrase Ananda Coomaraswamy, Indian music is both personal and impersonal. It is impersonal in the sense of it being the distance between two shadjas (sa, the first note) of any raga. And it is intensely personal in the context of the artist, who uses his/her creativity to explore the innumerable paths to traverse this distance. Every journey is new, and the biggest failure of an artist would be trying to memorize the route.
Given this background, even the greatest of composers—the Trinity of Carnatic music—have at best left behind patterns for us in the form of readymade kritis (compositions). Some have endured. Some haven’t. At one time, Thyagaraja kritis like Chakkanimargamu, Enaatinomuphalamo, etc used to be regular fixtures at concerts. Not too many artists sing these anymore. That applies to most such composers in varying degrees. However, that doesn’t mar their eminence or stature or both.
In the case of film music, this phenomenon of obsolescence is quicker because it is compounded by the rigidity and narrowness of composition. A well-done classical composition has almost endless scope for expansion and innovation whereas a film composition has none.
Most of the early masters like Pankaj Mullick or T.G. Lingappa have been reduced to mere names in film music history. Few remember their actual compositions or those from even the next generation. Even R.D. Burman’s songs from as late as the 1990s survive mostly through remixes.
His ability to flourish in spite of the exit of seniors and entry of newcomers makes Ilaiyaraaja a phenomenon, unlike any other music composer in Indian cinema.
And the full credit for his truly monumental milestone of composing music for 1,000 films solely belongs to him and rests firmly on the twin pillars of his creativity and genuine passion for music.