Do Ilaiyaraaja's repeated, misplaced outbursts detract from magnitude of maestro's accomplishments?

Gita Aravamudan

Jun 11, 2019 09:00:52 IST

Music maestro Ilaiyaraaja made news last week, but not for his music. The incident in question happened at a live concert, during which he shouted at a security guard for bringing water to the thirsty VIP singers on stage. The poor man was made to fall at the maestro’s feet and apologise publicly to the audience...for doing his job.

For a couple of years now, Ilaiyaraaja has been turning increasingly crusty. When he sued his once close associate, SP Balasubrahmanyam — the voice behind most of his popular songs — over copyright issues, he was publicly slammed by his own brother Gangai Amaran. He said while his brother was indisputably a genius, he had "no brains". "He's listening to what someone's telling him and behaving in this idiotic manner," Amaran said. “Why can't people sing his songs, so people world over can listen to his music? Why is he asking for money for this? We get the wind and the rain for free...this is like the rain saying 'no, I won't pour down on you unless you pay me'".

Do Ilaiyaraajas repeated, misplaced outbursts detract from magnitude of maestros accomplishments?

Music composer, Ilaiyaraaja. Facebook/Ilaiyaraaja

Ilaiyaraaja got into another controversy when he remarked, during a TV interview, that those who use his old compositions to evoke a certain era exhibited “impotence, or lack of masculinity (aanmai illathanam),” because they were incapable of composing music of their own. He made this remark when speaking about the box office hit film, 96, where the use of his songs was intrinsic to the plot, in order to evoke nostalgia of the '90s. His music was used to pay a tribute to him. Perhaps he didn’t realise this, or hadn’t seen the film. It wasn’t even a royalty issue as the director of the film had paid for using his songs. So, why did Ilaiyaraaja make these remarks? His fans were equally saddened by his outburst and his use of words. Was the genius growing irritable with age?

I met Ilaiyaraaja for the first time in 1978, soon after the release of the hit Tamil film 16 Vayathinilai, directed by Bharathiraja, starring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi. He was in his early thirties and had been around in the industry for a couple of years. It was not his first film, but it was one of his first major hits.

He was still a simple man then, ready to talk about his village roots and his struggle to enter the Tamil film industry. He told me about his close bond with Tamil folk music, his travels with his brother’s drama troupe that he joined when he was just 14, his tryst with learning western music in Chennai, his long stint as an assistant to a music director in the Kannada film industry, and his final break in Tamil films with "Annakili". By then, he had scored music for about a dozen films. He was ambitious and hardworking. He wanted to succeed, but I don’t think even he had anticipated the huge success that would come his way. Born as Gnanathesikan, he was dubbed Ilaiya — meaning 'young' — Raaja, because there was already a famous music composer in the Tamil film industry known as AM Raja.

My next meeting with him was in the early '90s. By now, his music was all pervasive. In the intervening 20 years, he had touched great heights. Ilaiyaraaja had perfected his unique technique of blending Tamil folk music into his compositions, and came up with super hit songs like "Mankuyile Poonkuyile" for Karagatakaran (1989). He was equally successful with his rollicking rock-and-roll songs in Sakalakala Vallavan (1982) and love songs like “Ilaya nila pozhigirathe”.

There was no doubting his magic touch. He was scoring music for 30 to 40 films a year. And now, he had his 500th film, Mani Ratnam's Anjali (1990), another major blockbuster that had just hit the screen. Wherever I would go to in Chennai, I would hear people humming his super popular songs from this film.

I met him in the recording studio this time. It was an unusually rainy day and I had waded through ankle-deep water to reach the studio. I was almost expecting him to not be there.



But he was already in front of his console at work. The orchestra was testing the score he had given them. I found a marked change in his attitude. He was no longer diffident or unsure, but was definitely in charge. He took a break to answer my questions. “How many such scenes I have done,” he sighed. “But it has to be done.” He was referring to the fight scene in a potboiler film for which he was composing music at that time. In a corner stood his old harmonium box, which he still used for composing all his important music. It had travelled a long way with him, he said.

Back then, Ilaiyaraaja was at his peak, but his popularity would soon begin to wane. Many young composers had come into the scene, the foremost among them being AR Rahman. Ilaiyaraaja’s grip on the industry started to loosen by the late '90s.

By early 2010, the number of films he worked on had reduced to about a dozen a year. But his track record was still amazing — he had composed over 7,000 songs, did the score for more than 1,000 films, and performed in over 20,000 concerts. He had received two major Padma awards and travelled to several countries for concerts. His son, Yuvan Shankar Raja, was now a popular composer.

Ilaiyaraaja achieved far more than what he had set out to. Isn't that reason enough for him to be more humane and magnanimous, and not irascible and angry?

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 17:37:56 IST