Asia’s first symphony writer. 1,000 films. 8,000 songs. 20,000 concerts; still growing. Ilaiyaraaja’s game-changing run started post-1970 and each composition of his is a journey to eternity. Take “Janani…Janani” in Thaai Mookambikai (1982) for example. Could anyone other than the maestro have brought out the nuances effectively in the song? I am doubtful. His obsession with perfection is legendary, and singers who have sung his composition would vouch for this. The genius transformed the soundscape of film music, forever without compromising on the pronunciation of Tamil words. In fact, no other composer’s career symbolises the popularity of film music as does his career. Ilaiyaraaja’s music defies classifications and never follows a predictable format. His music charms everybody. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say his music has been the driving force behind many films’ successful run at the box-office.
It’s a busy evening at Prasad Studios. Singers and instrumentalists rehearse timeless melodies for a concert. “Singaari Sarakku” from Kamal Haasan’s Kaaki Sattai echoes across the walls. “Yesudas may come in anytime. But we can start the conversation,” smiles Ilaiyaraaja, looking relaxed.
For a fangirl, this interview seemed a good excuse to have an in-depth chat with the ‘God’ of film music. Excerpts from the conversation:
Even today you use your old harmonium while presenting concerts or composing a song.
Certain things never change. (Pauses) The harmonium knows it better. I didn’t go near it during my younger days. I was scared of my brother who feared I would spoil it. Slowly, I remember playing in his absence. (Laughs) Music is the culmination of saptaswaras and good music (folk, tribal, Western, jass) can be made from any instrument. All forms of music are one. Your understanding depends on your capacity to perceive it.
What makes Ilaiyaraaja, Ilaiyaraaja?
You should say that. I am not in awe of my songs. To you, I am Raja sir. But I have to think of my next. It’s a constant renewal process. Can someone do music for 24 hours at a stretch and never get tired? It’s me. Because I don’t ‘work’. I enjoy what am doing. It’s not like a regular job. I make music for my fans and it touches their emotions. When I make music, it’s mine. The moment it reaches them, it is theirs. Rather, they make my music theirs. People forget themselves in my music. It’s amazing. Once, I was composing some tune at a hotel. A Russian lady, who was passing through, entered my room after listening to it. She asked me to play the tune again. She was in tears. Despite not knowing the language, she was moved.
I am sure. But how does it happen?
I let things be. It’s never a process. Birds don’t plan and fly around. What I do is somewhat similar. If I put in the effort, it won’t have the soul. Music should happen. I think that’s what you call ‘magic’. Something happens between me and the harmonium. It’s difficult to explain. It’s an emotional thing. I am like a drop of water in this vast, divine ocean.
Everyone’s music is made of their own life experiences. To me, music is more like a spiritual seeking that takes one to unknown levels. During my initial days, I would be in the studio till 11.30 pm; reach home, shower and write music till 2 am. Again, I would wake up by 4 am, do my music and be at the studios at 7 am. Music is everything to me. I keep thinking about music, even in my dreams.
Every time a filmmaker narrates the situation of a song, I start humming the tune. They trust my capabilities. How? I am still figuring out.
You have experimented with different genres of music. You have not presented a full-fledged Carnatic kutcheri yet.
I don’t believe in classifying music. But if the right situation comes, why not?
Your music came as a fresh breath of air around the late 70s. Tell us about your first guru.
I am what I am because of my brother-guru Pavalar Varadarajan. He used to understand the pulse of the audience so well and earned their applause. Maatuvandi pogadha idam ellam kooda, enga paattu vandi poyirku. When Communists became prominent in Kerala, he would help in propaganda, singing revolutionary songs. He was quite spontaneous, too. I never thought I was learning from him, but actually did. I learnt how to improvise songs and to enrapture the audience from him. Also, he made me realise that cinema was a powerful medium. I left my brother in 1967 as I felt I had to do more as a musician than being a part of a propaganda troupe.
We came to Madras, we knew no one and had no place to stay. We were left with Rs 400 that my mother gave after selling the radio we had at home. We knew people would be there for us. We sang on the pavements. It was not easy at all. Finally, destiny made me meet Master Dhanraj, who trained me in classical music. Later I took the exam by Trinity College, London and topped in classical guitar.
Your music broke barriers and you devised something that was classless. When Annakili (1976) happened, did you think you would be a phenomenon in the later years?
No. I had difficulty in grasping how music was made for films. It was a huge learning curve and the toughest phase of my life. But it was wonderful to see people respond to my music. I used to go to walks on the Santhome Beach. As I walked through the streets, radios in every house would play songs from Annakili. The feeling was just profound because I have never promoted my music in the beginning. Everyone unanimously loved it and seamlessly got connected.
You changed the rules of music composition bringing in new dimensions. That, undoubtedly, paved the way for your success. At any point, did you feel pressurised?
Success and failure are for materialistic people; not me. I always give 100 per cent in whatever I do—irrespective of how others view it.
People associate your music with ‘timelessness’.
The music itself is timeless and the biggest challenge is to provide a sense of freshness every time someone hears music. When that is made, people remember you. It stays with them.
There is distinctiveness to your compositions in terms of the instruments, which I think is missing in the current scenario.
If you may say so. (Laughs)
You are severely a misunderstood personality.
(Laughs) Of course, what I say, often, is being misinterpreted and misunderstood. But only I know my intentions. They are genuine. It’s unfortunate how people are quick to lap up negativity. I feel bitter when that happens.
There is a growing awareness on copyrights and royalty issue now.
Exactly. This wasn’t there when I started out. I spent all my time simply making music. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Better late than never, right? Only I hold the right to all my songs. They are my creation, and when someone earns money from that, shouldn’t I get my due share? If I ask for that, how is it wrong?
Fans are happy that your spat with SPB has come to an end.
I am glad.
We listen to your music when we are low. So, whose music do you listen to?
(Grins) World music. If you insist that I pick names: Johann Christian Bach, Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
What’s your greatest fear?
I don’t fear anyone. Pirappukku naan anjen.
Read the interview in Malayalam
I smell bondas and bajjis. I am sorry. What’s your favourite food?
(Laughs) We have been distributing snacks for those rehearsing. I am not a foodie. Curd rice would suffice, in general.
Pleasure meeting you, Raja sir.