There’s Ilaiyaraaja and there are Others – Wishing the “Maestro” on his Birthday

In the rush of new movies and music, many gems are either lost or forgotten. No one can be blamed for this happening; it is just the way the world is, the old making way for the new. Here, we attempt to bring back to your memory some wonderful pieces of art, some of them worth the label of vintage classics which never gets lost in the madding crowd. The first name which strikes your mind is the legendary music composer Maestro Ilaiyaraaja.

His music, like his persona and his background, is steeped in and inspired by pure love and passion towards music. Born Gnanathesikan, he became Ilayaraja due to many influences — starting when he joined the school his father changed his name as “Rajaiya” but his village people used to call him as “Raasayya”. Ilaiyaraaja joined Dhanraj Master as a student to learn musical instruments and the master renamed and called him as just “Raaja”. In his first movie Annakili, Tamil film producer Panchu Arunachalam added: “Ilaiya” (Ilaiya means younger in the Tamil language) as the prefix in his name Raaja and he named as “Ilaiyaraaja” because in the 1970s there was one more music director A. M. Rajah who was a popular one.

Ilaiyaraaja grew up surrounded by music. His demeanor belies not only the spectacular height of his ascent but also the breadth of his musical signature. From composing music for South Indian films to Bollywood, Ilaiyaraaja continues to broaden his horizons and top the charts with massive musical hits such as Chanti, Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari, Sagara Sangamam, Bobbili Raja and Rakshasudu to name a few in Telugu among the long list of hits he delivered.

Ilaiyaraaja is what happens when the legendary Indian classical music lineage meets the nerve center of modern music: the ubiquitous synthesizer, commonly known as the keyboard. Scoffed by the purists, the versatile keyboard has nevertheless transformed contemporary music, and there is hardly a more telling example of this than Ilayaraja. His characteristic fusion music, while edgy and experimental, is firmly grounded in rigorous classical training.

His tryst with cinema began with Tamil film called Annakkili (‘The Parrot’). His music was pure magic, setting trends and causing tsunamis as it challenged the notions of the musicality of the time. Be it Maniratnam‘s Dalapathi, Nayakudu, Raghavendra Rao‘s Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari, and Vamshi‘s Anveshana, Manchu Pallaki, Ilaiyaraaja has scored the music for an inordinately a vast number of classics.

The soft-faced, bespectacled maestro remained popular with both discerning filmmakers and the general public for decades because his melody-soaked compositions, while rewardingly rooted in Indian folk and light classical music, always remained easy to hum.

Ilaiyaraaja was, however, a bit of a late bloomer, achieving success in South films only when he was well into his mid-30s. Born in a poor family in Tamilnadu, he was highly influenced by the folk music during his childhood.

Ilaiyaraaja’s music was an eclectic mix of various musical forms. His primary and most favorite influence remained Tamil folk music. His early years were spent amidst the rolling hills and the lush mountain valleys of the South. The rich musical tradition of this region left an indelible mark on the young Gnanathesikan. Years later he revealed that his art drew heavy inspiration from the outdoors of his hometown, where he spent his childhood. The “Maestro” also had a unique sense of rhythm. Melody and rhythm blended in perfect harmony to make his compositions extremely captivating. His tunes are always simple, graceful, hummable yet heartfelt. He would always say that film music should appeal to the common man.

He always strove to capture the freshness of wild, untamed nature in his compositions. This trait is not only apparent in his compositions. A look into his almost 40-year career Ilaiyaraaja was always in with the times. Variety and versatility were his forte. He would consciously strive to be different. Each tune was crafted with care, love and enthusiasm. He would forever experiment.

After that, he never gave up on this trait. He would vary tempo, orchestration, vocals etc. to give each song a unique feel. Another outstanding feature of Ilaiyaraaja’s music is its strong vocals. Being a vocalist himself, he had a special knack of handling singers. He worked with a wide variety of singers and brought out the best in each of their voices. Whether it was SP Balasubramanyam or Chitra or Suseela or Janaki he has given memorable songs to all.

He has a unique personality. Temperamental, mercurial, adamant and obstinate on one side, childlike, impish, simple and genuine on the other. He had small eccentricities that endeared him to the people around him.

Ilaiyaraaja himself as a composer is unsurpassable. It would take an entire article to discuss his composing skills.

The legendary music composer turns 73 today and wishes the thespian a Very Happy Birthday.

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