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Why Illaiyaraaja fans still can't get enough of his music

Tamil music composer Illaiyaraaja hasn't mellowed with age; his musical genius is as sharp as ever though his no-nonsense attitude has descended to brusqueness

Illaiyaraaja on a billboard in New York City's Times Square in November 2021.
Illaiyaraaja on a billboard in New York City's Times Square in November 2021. (

With the weeks of rain in Chennai, old fears about the 2015 floods have surfaced, and with it, memes from that time. Recently, someone sent me that old photograph of musician Ilaiyaraaja in a boat on a flooded Chennai street. For me, it triggered an interesting memory. It was on one such very, very rainy day in 1991 that I went to interview isaignani (musical genius) Ilaiyaraaja for Filmfare.

The streets of Chennai had huge hoardings of his 500th film Anjali, a runaway blockbuster whose songs were on everyone’s lips. He had come a long way from his village in Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Born Gnanathesikan, he was named Rajaiya in school, later shortened to Raja by his music guru. When he entered the Tamil film industry in the 1970s, his first producer Panchu Arunachalam added ‘ilaiya’ (younger) as a prefix to distinguish him from the senior music director A.M. Rajah.

The first film for which he composed and scored the music, Annakili released in 1976 when he was 33 years old. Fifteen years later, in 1991, when I met him, at 48, he was the undisputed king of music in Tamil Nadu. He reportedly commanded 7 lakh per film; other popular music composers earned less than 2 lakh.

That day, the road to Prasad Studios in Kodambakkam in Chennai was knee-deep in water. I was running late. I knew he was already there as I had been told he had left home at 7am. I hoped he wouldn’t turn me away. He was known to be taciturn and reclusive.

But I needn’t have worried. As I entered the darkened studio, he greeted me cordially without looking up from what he was doing: “You came in the rain”. Considering the larger-than-life legend of Illaiyaraaja, he was a small figure in a white dhoti and shirt, standing next to an array of recording equipment. “I don’t normally give interviews,” he continued, still not looking at me. “What is there to say? I am only doing a job like anyone else.”

Below us, in a pit, sat musicians in a circle, tuning their instruments and chatting as they waited for the maestro to give them their cue. Behind them was the big screen on which the film for which he was composing music was projected. “As soon as I finish composing the background music for the fight, we can go down and you can watch it come to life,” he said. The songs and dialogue had already been recorded; only the background score remained.

Kamal Haasan, Illaiyaraaja and Rajnikanth in 2018.
Kamal Haasan, Illaiyaraaja and Rajnikanth in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Up on the screen was the climax of a Tamil film. A frightened young couple surrounded by villains crouched hugging each other in the middle of a big ring of fire.  The heroine’s brother jumped in and started punching the villains. Ilaiyaraaja’s keen ear detected a discrepancy. The sound of the fire was not right. He wanted a stronger sound of wind. His instructions were spoken in a soft voice.

“How many scenes like this I have scored music for…” he said almost pensively. Most films had the same themes. A romance. A fight. Angry parents. Villains. Did he get bored composing music for the same kind of sequences day after day? “You also get bored with traffic jams,” he parried with a laugh. “Every day you are faced with the same problem on your way to work. But you learn to live with it. You have to!”

It was rumoured that he had signed up for 50 more films. How would he do it? “Practice,” he replied, “When I entered the industry, I was like a baby learning to walk.” Now, he said, it took him just three days to compose music for a film and about 45 minutes to compose a song. But just because he was fast, it didn’t mean he didn’t work hard. He was cooped up for 10 hours a day in recording studios. In between recordings, there were always people waiting to meet him. When he went home, he said, he just wanted to sit alone.

Do you like the music you compose everyday, I asked him. He was amused. “I can’t make the kind of music I like for films,” he smiled. “I only make the kind of music the audiences will appreciate. I am like a tailor—I fit the music to my customer’s requirements.” The computerised equipment he used helped him to work much faster and produce the kind of sounds he had never dreamt of, he added. Back then, the transition to digital was just beginning and Illaiyaraaja was one of the early adopters.

Ilaiyaraaja with the harmonium he has used for the past 50 years to compose all his songs.
Ilaiyaraaja with the harmonium he has used for the past 50 years to compose all his songs.

Soon we went down to the musicians and I watched as he took out his old harmonium, the one on which he had composed music from the beginning of his career. The fight scene came back on the screen. The musicians gathered around and took notes as he played snatches on his harmonium. In half an hour, it was ready and the musicians were back in their places, set to play.

Today, Illaiyaraaja has composed more than 7,000 songs, scored for more than 1,000 movies and given over 20,000 stage performances. When I met him, he had already made two non-film music albums: How to name it?, dedicated to Tyagaraja and Bach and Nothing But Wind in collaboration with Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia. Later, he composed an album of devotional songs dedicated to his guru Sri Ramana Maharishi and Thiruvasakam: A Crossover, an oratorio of ancient Tamil poems performed by the Budapest symphony orchestra. In 2006, he released The Music Messiah. In November this year, he featured in an advertisement in New York’s Times Square as part of a promotional campaign for a music streaming service.

But age and fame have not mellowed him; his straight-talking, no-nonsense attitude has now become brusqueness. In fact, he’s acquired notoriety for arrogance. In 2017, he sent a legal notice to his friends and long-time collaborators, Chitra and the late SP Balasubrahmanyam to prevent them from singing his compositions without paying him a royalty. On multiple occasions, he’s shouted at journalists, other musicians, actors and staff at events to honour him and others. 

The Ilaiyaraaja I spoke to in 1991 was a softer, more philosophical man, who was willing to discuss everything from repetitiveness to plagiarism. Our homes and heads were filled with his music. We were in awe of his repertoire; from classical to folk to jazz to hip-hop, every conceivable genre of music has been incorporated into his compositions. Genius as they say comes with its own baggage. At 78, Ilaiyaraaja is still going strong, composing music, going on tours—and lashing out when he is irritated! And, his fans can’t get enough of him and his music.

Also read: Jai Bhim shows us that little has changed in 70 years

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