Ilaiyaraja, the composer

Here is an article from The Hindu. The link to original article:


The Hindu – Home / 2018-06-06 12:42

Seventy five years in the life of a nation is a significant period. So is it in the life of a creative artiste. The highs and lows, impacts, influences – every flow that is recorded in the nation’s history makes an impression on the imagination of a sensitive artiste. Composer Ilaiyaraja, the colossal genius, symbolises the syncretic belief system of India: the musician who turned 75 recently, stitches together his musical narrative with diverse melodic ideas that forms the essence of this plural country. In that quintessential India – which forms Ilaiyaraja’s music – the best of Western thought was also present.

There’s India in Ilaiyaraja's music

Coming from a village in Madurai district, Pannaipuram, the grooming ground for Ilaiyaraja’s musical skills was theatre. He used to set tunes to his brother Pavalar Varadarajan’s songs, a communist of the undivided communist party. They toured the length and breadth of the state with their theatre and songs, one day, he along with his brother Bhaskar left for Madras, determined to learn music. “All we had was the Rs. 400 my mother gave us after selling off the radio we had at home. We knew no one and had no place to stay. But we knew we could sing on the pavement, and people would be there for us,” Ilaiyaraja says in an interview, revealing his strong faith in the common man, and in his art. As expected, it wasn’t easy. But he had been destined to meet Master Dhanraj, who could immediately grasp the potential of this young man from Madurai. “My master’s tiny room was inhabited by Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. He trained me in classical music: I took the music exam by Trinity College, London, and emerged as topper in classical guitar.”

From the world of stage Ilaiyaraja journeyed towards the world as his stage. He had now come to that phase in his music where he actually put to test the communist propaganda that formed a good part of his life – he broke barriers and devised a music that was classless. His music ushered in a modernity which was solidly grounded in the ancient, the pre-modern. In his music, there was the timeless folk, Carnatic/Hindustani and western classical, Baroque, and more. You can see an intermingling of characteristics too – the folk and western are based on a community idea, involving a band of musicians, whereas the Indian classical forms are more private, and individualistic. By co-mingling different forms and ideas, Ilaiyaraja created a highly distinctive and original style of music that took the “makkal” (the Tamil word he uses ever so often referring to the masses) by storm. Among those caught in the storm — the “makkal” invariably included music composers, scholars, musicologists, singers… the intelligentsia of music too.

Unsurpassed genius Ilaiyaraja has composed over 8000 songs, but every song sounds as refreshing as the first ; (above) at a recording in London, with his mentor M.S. Vishwanathan PV Sivakumar; L Srinivasan

Unsurpassed genius Ilaiyaraja has composed over 8000 songs, but every song sounds as refreshing as the first ; (above) at a recording in London, with his mentor M.S. Vishwanathan PV Sivakumar; L Srinivasan | Photo Credit: L_SRINIVASAN

Even in the aesthetic theory of Marx and Engels — the fathers of communism – music finds a prominent place in healing human society. For instance, Engels says: “Drama can no longer serve as the center for great assemblies, a different art must help, and only music can do that; for it alone admits of the participation of a great multitude and even gains considerably thereby in power of expression; it is the only art where enjoyment coincides with live performance and where the range of effect is as wide as that of ancient drama.” Marx, on his part: “music-making is an example of the physical humanization of our natural surroundings which, together with social development, may rightly be described as the objective unfolding of the richness of man’s essential being.” Ilaiyaraja’s music, that included all of South Indian languages and even Hindi, brought together people like no other music did. His music, captivated one and all, in an all pervasive way.

In fact, it was not merely coming together of people with Ilayaraja’s music, but people coming together in him. In almost all his public utterances, Ilaiyaraja is moved by the music of Naushad, Roshan, Madan Mohan, M.S. Vishwanathan, G.K. Venkatesh and several others, whom he calls the “great masters”. However, if you study the music of Ilayaraja closely, he is an embodiment of every major musical force in India: in him you find Madan Mohan’s phenomenal understanding of the classical idiom, MSV’s remarkable ability to transform a typical Carnatic imagination into a film melody, GK Venkatesh’s exceptional capacity to blend western and Indian styles, Naushad’s magnificent orchestration and much more. Ilayaraja has imbibed all these and surpasses them all in his unique vision. “How can I explain anything?” Ilaiyaraja asks everyone who wishes to be enlightened about his music. “Everyone’s music is made of their own life experiences. To me music is that which connects human hearts. It is something that takes you to unknown levels.” For Ilaiyaraja, music is spiritual seeking, “keep your inner eye constantly open”, he says. But that does not exempt it from hard labour. “In my early years, I would be in the studio till 11 pm. Come home, have bath and dinner, and write music till 2 am. I would wake up by 4, sit down to do my music and be at the studio at sharp 7 am. Music is everything to me. Do you know it took me 27 years to understand the C major chord on the piano?” he says in an interview.

With over 8000 songs and music for more than 1000 films, Ilaiyaraja’s creative impact remains consummate. Each idea is fresh, and each song moves towards unexplored territories. To remember what his guru G.K. Venkatesh remarked about him: “He is not in awe of his creations. That is the secret of his success. An Ilaiyaraja song is overshadowed only by another Ilaiyaraja song.” Ilaiyaraja himself says something similar about his constant renewal process. “To you I am Ilaiyaraja. But for me, I’ve to think of my next song, and I am praying that I will be able to tune my tanpura to the perfect shruti this time again.”

Ramana Maharshi, Ilaiyaraja’s spiritual guru, took everyone into his fold. The Buddhists, Christians, Hindus everyone loved the great philosopher since his unorthodox teachings transcended all religious barriers. Yet, the way Ramana is received depends on the individual’s “spiritual temperament and maturity” as Swami Yogananda put it. Ilaiyaraja no doubt envisioned his music for the “makkal”, yet, to understand it in all its supreme innovation and complexity that comes from an in-depth study of many musics, it depends on the listener’s sadhana.

The phenomenon Ilaiyaraja has to be located in his journey from communism to spirituality — both of which aspire for the greater common good. Ilaiyaraja’s music presents an integrated idea of India. May he be blessed with creative eternity.

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