Ilaiyaraaja turns 80 | What’s your Ilaiyaraaja story?

As the inimitable composer turns 80 on June 2, we look at how listeners relate to his songs at a very personal level, making them an intrinsic part of their life’s journey

June 01, 2023 05:00 pm | Updated 07:43 pm IST

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja performing at the 50th Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava, at National College Grounds, in Bangalore on September 23, 2012.

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja performing at the 50th Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava, at National College Grounds, in Bangalore on September 23, 2012. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Some years ago, when translator and writer G. Kuppusamy was travelling by bus, he realised the driver was in a very bad mood following a tussle. He was cursing everyone at the top of his voice, and drowned out the music being played.

“Suddenly came the song ‘Yennai thottu allikonda mannan perum ennadi’ in Swarnalatha’s voice and I could sense a change in the driver’s mood. He started tapping on the steering wheel to keep the beat. By the time the song ended, he was a changed man. He politely asked a woman standing with a child to move aside a bundle and sit down,” recalls Kuppusamy.

The maestro turns 80 on June 2, and the occasion gives an opportunity to ponder over how Ilaiyaraaja’s music continues to strike a chord with his die-hard fans. “Every individual has an Ilaiyaraaja story. Even though they think that the story is buried deep inside them and cannot be shared with anyone, they feel one person knows it, and that’s Ilaiyaraaja, who has created a suitable song sequence just for them. And they revel in it,” writes Kuppusamy.

A scene from the Tamil film Annakili
starring Sivakumar and Sujatha. Music: Illayaraja

A scene from the Tamil film Annakili starring Sivakumar and Sujatha. Music: Illayaraja | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

He says Ilaiyaraaja’s music has occupied the world of two generations since the 1976 film Annakili.

Unique experiences

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja with his teacher Dhanraj master.

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja with his teacher Dhanraj master. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The experiences Ilaiyaraaja’s music create in listeners is unique, and they are grateful to him for creating those magical moments. Otherwise, why should a parotta stall owner in Tirunelveli display banners for his new outlet with the portrait of Ilaiyaraaja?

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja.

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What could explain the act of a group of friends playing the guitar and singing an Ilaiyaraaja number at the funeral of their friend, in keeping with his last wish? The maestro found it spell-binding to watch the reaction of a one-year-old child, leaving the toys behind to listen to the song ‘Kaatumali’ from Viduthalai, composed by him.

Writer Jeyamohan calls himself a devotee of Ilaiyaraaja — the first volume of his Venmurasu, was released by the maestro. He says the song ‘Kanden engum poomagal natyam’ from Kaatrinile Varum Geetham (he listened to it for 20 times!) spurred him to write the novel Kottravai,” Jeyamohan is quoted as saying in his book Ilayaraja: Kattukkul Adangatha Kalaignan.

 Music composer Ilayaraja, during an interaction at his studio in Chennai on May 31, 2018.

Music composer Ilayaraja, during an interaction at his studio in Chennai on May 31, 2018. | Photo Credit: SHAJU JOHN

Ilaiyaraaja’s music creates such an obsession in fans that they love to go back to the irrecoverable past — what science calls the reminiscence bump. They want to turn the clock back and long to return to the period when the song was released, or when they heard it for the first time.

ILAIYARAAJA playing the guitar.

ILAIYARAAJA playing the guitar. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archvies

“It is a name for the phenomenon that we remember so much of our younger adult lives more vividly than other years, and these memories last well into our senescence,” writes Slate magazine quoting Petr Janata, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis.

Though nostalgia in music is an all-encompassing term used when someone thinks of another time in their life and songs that trigger emotion, Ilaiyaraaja’s music evokes high spirits as well as soothing melancholy. The feeling is more pronounced in those, who have moved away from their birthplace and live elsewhere on account of employment, marriage, or other reasons.

Sivakumar and Sujatha in the Tamil film poonthalir

Sivakumar and Sujatha in the Tamil film poonthalir | Photo Credit: Gnanam

“In my opinion, an underlying pathos transcends all his songs. ‘Vaa ponmayile’ in Poonthalir is an outstanding love song, but there is a tinge of sadness in it.

‘Idho idho en nenjile’ is a song rendered by two friends in a jubilant mood in the film Vattathukkul Chadhuram, though the preludes and interludes soak the listener in melancholy. Ilaiyaraaja, probably, is the only music director, who can convey the outcome of the film in his songs,” says writer Suka.

Ilayaraaja’s music rose above the plots and characters of the movies and his creativity worked to the advantage of the stars, who benefited from his compositions. He, himself, has admitted that he has scored music for films with pathetic storylines.

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja during a recording.

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja during a recording. | Photo Credit: Gnanam

Ilaiyaraaja arrived at a time when the Tamil film world was still dominated by M.S. Viswanathan. With his strong grounding in folk, Western, and Carnatic music, a deep understanding of the cultural milieu, and outstanding capability for using string instruments, the maestro revolutionised the world of Tamil cinema by ushering in new styles of music.

Suka explains that what sets Ilaiyaraaja apart from others are his preludes and interludes. “They are separate tunes that play independently of the songs. But his genius lies in creating a connecting point for them and the song. He introduced separate sections for preludes and different variations for interludes,” he adds.

One can never accuse Ilaiyaraaja of giving hits for only some actors. Across the board, he has created careers and resurrected lagging ones with his music. Some years ago, during a conversation with actor-politician Vijayakanth for The Hindu, when it was suggested that he got the best songs from Ilaiyaraaja, he quickly reacted: “Then, what about the songs in Ramarajan’s films?”

Three-day special event
A music show for the fans of Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja
Celebrating Ilaiyaraaja
From June 2 to 4, 6.30 p.m.
At Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall.

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