Padma Vibhushan Ilaiyaraaja on music in 21st century: 'It's an art only when performed; digitisation is soulless'

Ilaiyaraaja speaks about his formative years, inspirations in the music industry, digitisation of music and how he kicks away monotony while composing music.

Surendhar MK March 23, 2018 17:18:25 IST
Padma Vibhushan Ilaiyaraaja on music in 21st century: 'It's an art only when performed; digitisation is soulless'

Veteran composer Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja,  who was recently conferred Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honour, participated in his first ever fireside chat in Google, USA as part of the internet giant's 'Talks at Google' series.

Besides answering the curated questions of Googlers with a freewheeling spirit and in his inimitable style, the Maestro also reminisced about his childhood, countless years of religiously learning music and exploring a collaboration with YouTube to ensure his extensive oeuvre reaches future generations.

Padma Vibhushan Ilaiyaraaja on music in 21st century Its an art only when performed digitisation is soulless

Ilaiyaraaja. Photo courtesy Facebook/@Ilaiyaraaja

"One can never make music; it should happen without any plan of action. A bird never knows its destination. It just keeps flying in the sky and encounters whatever that comes in its direction. That's how music works," says Ilaiyaraaja, the only music composer with five National Awards to his credit, including two for best background score effort.

Designing a makeshift flute in his childhood and his musical inspirations

Taking a trip down memory lane, Ilaiyaraaja exchanged beautiful memories of his childhood. "My early days were in a village called Pannaipuram. The villagers used to collect bamboos, load it in a cart and take it for business. One day, I was running after a vehicle and pulled a bamboo. Keeping the picture of Lord Krishna's flute as a reference in mind, I made the holes in the bamboo using my mother's detangler and designed a makeshift flute. The distance between the holes does matter to make the flute to produce music in proper sruti. It was not easy for a kid of my age to do that. But, surprisingly, it turned out well. I felt it was miraculous," he remembered.

When asked about his inspirations during his formative years in the industry, Ilaiyaraaja said, "I can quote numerous people. First comes my elder brother Paavalar Varadharajan. That's where my musical journey started. Later, many composers inspired me. Naushad Ji, C Ramchandra, SD Burman, Roshan, Madan Mohan to name a few. Anyone who composes good music is my inspiration. I was just treading on their paths."

Music in the age of digital technology and earning a gold medal from Trinity College of Music, London.

Ilaiyaraaja revealed how he struggled to get training in music when he was staying in his village. "Almost all the great musicians in the world are properly trained from their childhood. I had no one to teach me. Who would teach you music in a remote village? My brother used to beat me with a cane if I touch his harmonium, let alone playing it. Even the musicians who work with me have had musical training. When I came to Chennai in 1968, I wanted to get trained in music and Dhanraj Master was the one whom I approached. He was the only one who could teach aspiring musicians during those days. Even before we started with our formal training, he asked me to enroll in Trinity College's competition. When I told him that I don't know to play, he just insisted me to go for it, and I registered. Then I took his classes, appeared for the contest and it was a gold medal," he recalls with pride.

Ilaiyaraaja, who has scored music for more than 1000 films across languages in his four-decade-long career, has always been a staunch opponent of the overuse of digital enhancements in songs. "The ability to present the music digitally is not the same as composing music. If it is art, it should be performed. Digital is just mechanism. Digital can produce great sounds but it is soulless and the charm of the music is lost," said Raja, adding that the soul can only be perceived and felt through live instruments.

"Organisations like Google and YouTube didn't help me," says Ilaiyaraja

Ilaiyaraaja rued that Google and YouTube did not come to his rescue, to set up his official music channel years ago when he was planning to venture into the digital space. "Long back, organisations like Google didn't help me. Even when I started my YouTube channel, we had problems. If not for the issues from YouTube's side, my YouTube channel would have been successful. When an album is released, people tend to use their imagination to picturise a song. Later, when they see the actual visuals of the song, some of them would feel let down. I think now we can have a contest for aspiring talents to picturise my songs again and people all over the world can be the judge to select the best picturized song. We can reward the winners too. If YouTube finds this collaboration interesting, I'm game," said Raja.

Countless years of religiously learning music and how his wife Jeeva held fort with the family when it mattered the most

Blaming himself as the worst father to his children for not spending quality time during their growing up years, Ilaiyaraaja said, "I had never made time for my family. But my kids and wife tolerated me. My wife was incredibly supportive. She took care of the family single-handedly and made the kids understand. She would always ensure that they never disturb me. And I have never trained any of my kids. All of them are self-made."

Elaborating his day-to-day agenda to minute details, Ilaiyaraaja said, "No musician in the world would follow a frenzied schedule like mine. My day starts at 4 am with Sanskrit class for half an hour. By 5 am, I will be in TV Gopalakrishnan sir's residence for Carnatic music lessons. After an hour's learning, I would reach my home for the daily pooja and head to the recording studio by 6:45 am. By 7 am, I would enter the studio and my assistant Sundararajan will be ready with the tapes of the tunes I recorded, and I would start writing the orchestration for that day. I have never taken more than 30 minutes to write the orchestration for any song. It applies to all my 6,000 plus songs. I would even compose three songs in a day. I bet no one would have ever done that."

Adding more detail, he said, "By 7:30 am, the score will be ready, and my assistant will send it to the studio, and inform the musicians and singers about the recording. Then it's meditation time for an hour. After the breakfast around 9 am, I would be setting up the orchestration and by 10 am, rehearsal would be over. Lyricists will come between 10 am and 11 am, and I will simultaneously try tunes for the lyrics. By 11 am, playback artists would reach the studio, and they will rehearse for an hour, and by 12 PM noon, we would start recording. The same session would repeat for the next set of songs. I would reach home around 10 pm and after my dinner, I will again go to Gopalakrishnan sir's residence for Carnatic lessons. It was my schedule even after I attained stardom. When it comes to background score, I will never keep a film in my studio for more than three days. I would complete the score in three days maximum."

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