As Ilaiyaraaja turns 80, his music is as youthful as ever

As he steps into his 81st year today, Ilaiyaraaja’s hunger for excellence remains undaunted and he continues to fascinate us with his music, touching our hearts and soothing our souls.
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Modern Love Chennai, streaming on Amazon Prime Video since May 18, is an anthology of short films that interpret love in modern ways. The six stories, with different directors, are all curated by filmmaker Thiagarajan Kumararaja. The anthology also has 18 tracks, of which five are composed by youngsters such as Sean Roldan, Yuvan Shankar Raja, and GV Prakash Kumar. All of the remaining 13 are composed by one man, Ilaiyaraaja, who is turning 80 as he composes music for albums bursting with youthfulness, rubbing shoulders with composers half his age or less.

Raaja’s songs in this series, in particular the instrumental tracks he has come up with for Kumararaja’s short film Ninaivo Oru Paravai, have been pathbreaking to say the least. They bear the hallmark of Raaja’s soulful music but with a contemporary finish. Just a week before this, on May 12, was the release of the multilingual musical Music School, which again had music by Raaja. The film has seven original songs which Raaja has recorded with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. The score is Raaja’s hat tip to the 1965 classic Sound of Music.

In the midst of all this, Vetrimaaran’s latest film, Viduthalai Part 1, released on March 31 to some positive feedback from critics and audiences alike. The music for the film, again composed by Raaja in his first collaboration with Vetrimaaran, received wholesome praise including from the current social media generation. All this sudden buzz around Raaja’s work this year has prompted many to ask if we are seeing a return or comeback of Ilaiyaraaja. But was Raaja missing from the scene all these days to make a comeback now? 

It is widely known that after Raaja’s stunning entry into films as a composer in 1976, he single-handedly dominated the Tamil film music scene in the 1980s and 90s. In the 80s, he composed music for over 400 films, a staggering average of around 40 films a year! That would mean that Raaja would turn around a film — composing songs, recording them, and then scoring the background music in just 7 days! To put things in perspective, though a comparison of different eras is often unequal, these days composers take 2-3 months for a film. In the 1990s, which is when composers such as AR Rahman, Deva, and others entered the scene, Raaja still averaged 30 films a year. Most of us are aware of the quality of music he churned out in the 80s and 90s even while maintaining this frenetic pace. In this period, Raaja just lorded over the industry.

To find out if he was ever missing in action, it will therefore make sense to focus on the years following the dawn of this century and see what Raaja has been doing in this period. There is no doubt that Rahman’s entry into the Tamil film scene in 1991 with Roja altered the film music landscape in Tamil, and later in other languages too. This was also a time when we saw rapid and pathbreaking advancements in technology with the arrival of the internet, bringing paradigm shifts to all walks of life including various aspects of filmmaking and music composition. These changes, which are even more striking today, have also led to more democratisation of talent, allowing us to see a whole bunch of new music directors and singers bursting into the scene every now and then.

In this wave of changes post-2000, the volume of films for which Raaja did the music had certainly reduced. From 2000 to 2009, he did just under 100 films, which is an average of 10 films a year. This is a steep decline for Raaja, who was doing thrice the number of films or more in the previous years. Having said that, in the same period, Rahman who was the flavour of the season, did about 55 films at an average of five odd films a year. So, the reduction in the number of films Raaja did is more so in comparison to his own past records rather than others.

It has to be noted that the pace of filmmaking in general had also slowed down, with makers taking more time for the processes including the pre-production, shoot, and the post-production. This is unlike in the earlier years, when films would go on floors the moment the directors got dates from a star or even find a one-line story idea, developing the same on the go while shooting.

As focussing on quantity rather than the quality of music is obviously not the wise thing to do, let us look at the quality of Raaja’s work in the new millennium.

In 2000, he composed the score for Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram, an album that is considered top-notch work in Raaja’s career. Notwithstanding the fact that he composed the songs to replace another person’s music, while simultaneously ensuring lip sync with the portions that had already been shot, the work was outstanding. 

In the same year, he composed music for a Malayalam film Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal directed by Sathyan Anthikkad, in which all of the songs were excellent. This film would pave the way for a long standing director-composer collaboration in Malayalam cinema, with Raaja going on to team up with Anthikad for many more memorable outings. We also have to mention some of the great works he has done during this period in Tamil films, including in Bharathi, Kasi, Virumaandi, Pithamagan, Naan Kadavul, Megha, Nee Thaane En Pon Vasantham, and more recently Psycho in the year 2020, to list a few.

At the same time, Raaja was also producing some equally great music in other languages such as Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. Films like Suryakanthi (2010) in Kannada, Manasinakkare (2003), Rasathanthram (2006), and Pazhassi Raja (2009) in Malayalam, Anumanaspadam (2007), Mallepuvvu (2008), and Sree Ramarajyam (2011) in Telugu, and of course Cheeni Kum (2007) and Paa (2009) in Hindi which had some outstanding songs and score, come to mind. There were several other films in this period too, such as Kaadhal Rojave and Chithiraiyil Nila Choru, which had some lovely songs and music but didn’t do well at the box office.

Songs like ‘Isaiyil Thodanguthamma’ (Hey Ram), ‘Om Sivoham’ (Naan Kadavul), and ‘Unna Ninachu’ (Psycho) — which belong in any ‘All-time best Raaja songs’ list — all came out in the years after 2000. Likewise, the fact that two among the five National Awards Raaja won, that too for the Best Background Score, were in the period after 2000 demonstrates the lingering quality of his scores.

As social media took over, the buzz in the world of music has been about ‘collabs’, where people from different geographies and backgrounds come together to create music. Raaja has been trailblazing on this front in recent times. Just last week, Carnatic mandolin exponent U Rajesh, younger brother of the late mandolin virtuoso Srinivas, performed alongside Raaja in a live concert in Chennai. The highlight was the compositions he played in ‘Raja Lahari’, a raga created and composed by Ilaiyaraaja. The concert also featured the music prodigy Lydian Nadaswaram playing Raaja’s composition from the album How To Name It, among others.

While on this, I learnt that Raaja is also working on How To Name It-2, for which Rajesh will again be playing the mandolin. In the recently released Telugu film Custody, Raaja paired up with his son Yuvan Shankar Raja for the music. The famed Carnatic vocal and violin duo Ranjani and Gayatri have been doing ‘Raaja by Raga’ concerts to rapturous audiences in India and abroad, themed around Raaja’s use of Carnatic style in his film music.

Besides, even when Raaja was doing less volume of music in the last two decades by his own standards, his old music continued to find place in new films. New-age directors including Karthik Subbaraj, Thiagarajan Kumararaja, and C Premkumar have the habit of using Raaja’s songs in the background as part of the sound design in their movies. Some of the yesteryear hits of Raaja are also routinely remixed and used in films these days, becoming instant hits with the current generation as well. The song ‘Per Vachaalum Vaikama’ from Michael Madana Kama Rajan, which was a super hit in the 90s, became an even bigger hit in its remastered version in the 2021 film Dikkiloona. Directors like R Balki have gone a step further to request Raaja to rehash his own old hit songs for their new films. Balki is of the view that reproducing those timeless melodies with the help of the current technology in terms of sound quality and engineering will help take them to the current generation.

Now to our original question of whether albums like Viduthalai Part 1 and Modern Love Chennai meant the ‘return’ of Raaja. Subasree Thanigachalam, the producer and presenter of the popular show Quarantine From Reality, has an interesting take. She says that it is the listeners who moved away from Raaja in the past few years, trying to explore other music, while he continued to produce music of the same quality all these years. According to her, it is we who have returned to Raaja and are trying to rediscover the maestro now. I tend to agree with her. As he steps into his 81st year today, Ilaiyaraaja’s hunger for excellence remains undaunted and he continues to fascinate us with his music — music that passes through our ears to touch our hearts and soothe our souls, remaining a timeless wonder. 

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business and films. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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