The story goes that once a young man in a loose pants and shirt walked into the studio of well-known music director K Chakravarthy for a guitar music recording in the 70s. Unimpressed by the unassuming man in front of him, Chakravarthy didn’t have much hope in his skill. So he began to hum a tune and told the man to write the notation. The young man not only wrote the perfect notation but immediately replicated the music too. A dumbstruck Chakravarthy then told the man, ‘one fine day, you will rule the industry’. The young man was none other than Ilaiyaraaja.
It has been more than four decades since he arrived in the music industry but even to this day, many aspiring music directors yearn to reach his benchmark. Such is his prowess that most musicians or composers cite him as a profound influence on their music and skill. Having garnered many accolades and laurels during his glittering career, there are as many admirers of his as there are detractors. While some prefer to be in the glamorous film world through music direction, but the maestro remains unfazed. “Most of the people do their job for 8-10 hours but music is not my job. It comes naturally to me, just like breathing without any effort. Music is a natural process for me. That’s the kind of love (Preethi) I have,” says Ilaiyaraaja. A true multi-faceted musician sought after by every musical artiste, he inspires equal parts of admiration and fear owing to his punctuality and dedication. He is also one of the few composers who continues to encourage instrument players and doesn’t use much of technological enhancements in his compositions.
Having worked in all southern music industries and Bollywood, he is fluent in all south Indian languages. This oeuvre allows him to adapt to any kind of song with ease. Although he prefers to be objective when it comes to talking about his favourite lyricists, mention Veturi Sundararama Murthy and his face lights up, owing to their special bond.
Unlike the present scenario where a composer creates a tune and the lyricist writes according to it, the earlier practice was to study the lyrics and then compose the tune. Ask Ilaiyaraaja which style he prefers and he quips, “Anything is music for me. Either way works for me. We make adjustments to the tune, according to the lyrics so it flows in the right meter. For instance, when I was working on the music for the 1986 movie ‘Raakshasudu’, the director explained the scene to me and I imagined what the conversation would be like so I started to sing Malli malli idi rani roju which became the hook.”
Even today, the first line of any song is usually written by the music directors to create a hook. Sharing another instance, he says, “In the film Rudraveena, the director told me that the heroine would reveal her name to the hero by singing a ragam, and wanted me to create something like that. So I composed a song in Lalitha Priya ragam from Hindustani music. The way she hums the song is meant to give a hint to the hero about her name, which is Lalitha,” adds the 74-year-old. As someone who was way ahead of his time, his work was a truly pioneering one, introducing the audience to counter singing, incorporating different octaves and natural sounds in the same track and experimental rhythms. His affinity for nature reflects in his work, as seen in songs such as Aaa Kanulalo Alala Naa Cheli, Keeravani Chilakala and Aamani Paadave.
They are a far cry from some of the songs today which draw heavily on technology. “These days the music is more of noise than melody.”
But he has high hopes for the burgeoning talent in the industry. “If a person can sing in perfect sruthi and laya, it is the best qualification he/she has as a singer. I did the same with singer Chitra when she came to me for an opportunity. I liked her standard of singing and immediately called her the next day and gave her a song,” says the composer who has given music for more than 6,000 songs. Besides introducing singing legends to the industry, he himself has sung a few songs which went on to become chartbusters.
Many in the industry feel that under his tutelage, singers get the opportunity to explore their full potential. Those who know him see S. P. Balasubrahmanyam as his one true friend who always felicitated him on every occasion. Perhaps, that’s why his sending a legal notice to singers SPB and Chitra astonished many fans. When asked about this, he remains tight-lipped and doesn’t comment.
Everyone has their moments, this is his time. Today, many equate him to a smiling saint who is not very verbose. Truly, the knowledge he possesses can’t be obtained by practice or luck, it must have been carried forward from the previous birth. Quiz him whose incarnation he might be, he laughs, “I am the incarnation of many musical souls.”
Jack of all trades
Worked as an assistant music director to Salil Chowdhury and GK Venkatesh in more than 300 movies
His composition Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu from the 1991 film Thalapathi was voted no 4 in the world’s top 10 most popular songs of all time by nearly half-a million people from 155 countries in a poll conducted by BBC in 2003
Honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for creative and experimental works in music in 2012
Received the Centenary Award for lifetime achievement at the 46th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at Panaji, Goa in 2015
In a poll conducted by news channel, CNN-IBN celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema in 2013, Ilaiyaraaja was voted as the greatest music composer of India
Besides being a music composer, he is a lyricist, singer, conductor, instrumentalist and film producer
Currently working on the upcoming Telugu movie Sabaash Naidu, the trilingual film starring Kamal Haasan