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Memorable films



Upperstall profile by: Anand Subramanian

Ilayaraja is undoubtedly one of the greatest music directors that Indian cinema has ever seen. He has been the most prominent and prolific music composer for Tamil filmdom through the 1970's, 80's and 90's. He has composed over 4000 film songs and has composed music for more than 800 films in other Indian languages besides Tamil as well while always sounding fresh and innovative. At his peak, hoardings of his films would carry larger pictures of his than the stars of the film. And one can openly say that no song composed for Tamil films even today by other musicians can escape having his touch somewhere.


Ilayaraja was born on 2nd June 1943 into a poor agricultural family in a small village called Panniapuram in southern Tamil Nadu in South India. Growing up among the paddy fields, he was exposed to a wide variety of Tamil folk music. His older brother, Pavalar Varadarajan was a supporter of the left movement and would widely travel the state with a musical troupe. Ilayaraja went along with him and became an integral part of the troupe.


During his travels, his keen ear would pick up all the songs sung by farmers and other village folk. Ilayaraja then came to Chennai (then Madras) and began to formally learn the essentials of Western classical notation. Beethoven and Bach were major influences on him from then on. He began to do odd jobs in film recordings like playing the guitar or keyboards for many music directors of the time while also becoming a full-time assistant to GK Venkatesh, a leading composer in Kannada films.


1976 was a turning point for both Ilayaraja and Tamil film music. His compositions for his debut film Annakili (Parrot) were path-breaking for their innovative orchestration as well as their deft adaptation of folk forms. It was something never heard before and made people sit up and take note. In particular, the title song, Annakiliye Onne Theduthe, sung brilliantly by S Janaki, remains an evergreen favourite and seems timeless every time you hear it. Needless to say, it sounds as fresh today as it did then.


Ilayaraja was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. From music that was predominantly based on classical Carnatic styles, he infused folk and Western classical melody into Tamil film music. Every song of his would feature an extraordinary fusion of Western, folk and Carnatic music. His flair for creating catchy melodies was unmatched while his trademark symphonic violin pieces in film songs became his signature and one could easily identify a song composed by him. He also pioneered the use of modern electronic sounds combined with the intricate arranging of traditional Indian instruments like the veena, nadaswaram, tabla and the mridangam. He was among the first to use choruses extensively in his songs and has also sung many songs himself and is known for his rich and rustic rural voice. In fact, his singing in the title track in Nayakan is legendary.


The preludes to Ilayaraja's songs have always been special as they pulled the listener into the mood of the song. In the song Idhayil Kadhai Yezhudum Neram Idhu from the film Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, the introductory notes that sound like temple bells are extraordinary as they lead you into the song. His perfect use of the right Carnatic Raga for the right song is masterly and what's more he could moulds the ragas to suit different moods. His use of Raaga Simhendramadhyamam in a song from the film Kakkai Chiraginile, to create a pathos mood, is the work of a genius.


Ilayaraja is an acknowledged master in the use of Western counterpoints and harmonies to melodic classical Carnatic tunes. Using both voices and instruments to present his counterpoints, he has magically lifted many of his songs from the ordinary to extraordinary. He often acknowledges Bach as his inspiration.


Apart from his phenomenal film songs, Ilayaraja is also an acknowledged master in the art of the background score for films. His repertoire moved beyond mere song compositions to true understanding of the cinematic form and the perfect use of background music to enhance a scene. His expressive themes and background scores for films like Mouna Raagam (1986), Nayakan (1987) and Gitanjali (1989), all for Mani Rathnam, are extremely evocative and to put it simply, stunning. It is said that on many occasions, directors had him specially compose themes and pieces before they went to film.


Ilayaraja's musical work went way, way beyond film music. He has also worked on several non-film albums such as How to Name It and Nothing but Wind. He is also known to be a spiritualist, a staunch devotee of Ramana Maharishi, and has composed several prayers and songs from the ancient Hindu texts. One of his greatest achievements was bringing to life poet Manickavasagar's famous work Tiruvasaagam,. It was a daunting challenge to convert these fabled verses to music. Ilayaraja did this successfully with the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra and working with over 300 musicians from Austria. Stephen Schwartz, Oscar award winner and America's most celebrated opera play writer, has written about 'Thiruvaasagam in Symphony' -


"Last night, at Sony studios in New York City, I had the pleasure of hearing the almost finished mix of Ilayaraaja's amazing work. It is unlike anything I've ever heard before, a stunning blend of Indian and western music and instruments. I asked Mr Raja if this was something different for him too, and he said he had never done anything like this piece before. I don't know if anyone has. So I believe those of you looking forward to this are in for a great treat. The section to which I contributed English words is about twenty minutes long and dovetails back and forth between Mr Raja singing in Tamil and an American singer singing in English, plus there is a large and beautifully produced chorus. Mr Raja's orchestrations are superb, and the recording engineer, Richard King, has done a spectacular job sonically. I felt so very proud to be a small part of this project."


The accolades and awards have been deserving and plentiful. He has won the National Award for Best Music thrice for Sagara Sangamam (1984), Sindhu Bairavi (1986) and Rudraveena (1989). He has also won a gold medal from the Trinity College of Music, London. He was conferred the title Isaignani (Learned Musician) by M Karunanidhi, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Today, he is never addressed by his name but with this title. He is also referred to reverentially as ‘Maestro Ilayaraja.


Some of his most memorable songs include: Annakiliye Unnai Theduthe (Annakili), Sendhoora Poove (Pathinaru Vayadhinile), Hey Paadal Ondru (Priya), Senthazham Poovil (Mullum Malarum), Azhagiya Kanne (Uthiripookal) , Kaatril Endhan (Johnny), Ithu Oru Pon Maalai, Moodupani (Nizhalgal), Keladhe Nimageega (Geetha), Kodai Kaala Kaatre (Paneer Pushpangal), Uravenum (Nenjathai Killathe), Metti Oli Katrodu (Metti), Thakida Thadimi (Sagara Sangamam), Kanne Kalaimane (Moondram Pirai), Pottu Vaicha (Mann Vasanai), ABC Nee Vaasi (Oru Kaidhiyin Diary), Chinan Chiru Kiliye (Munthanai Mudichu), Udaya Geetham (Udaya Geetham), Thenpandi Seemayile (Nayakan), Naan Oru Sindu (Sindhu Bhairavi), Ae Kuruvi (Muthal Mariyathai), Poovil Vadu Koodum (Kathal Oviya) and many, many others.




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