Last year, and this year—so far—have been tremendous for Ilaiyaraaja. The Padma award, of course, and prior to that, the honour of inaugurating the December Music Festival at the Madras Music Academy, are recognitions that augur well for this most favourite film music composer of mine, whose songs can be best described with one word (and I’m coining it here): ‘singable’.
Raaja sir, as he is fondly called in the fraternity, came in with a deep understanding of Western classical music and seamlessly mixed it into Tamil folk. The title track of his first film, Annakili, had an undeniable Western classical lilt which made you feel as if you were swaying to the call of the wind. And then there was Machaana paatheengala, the folk number. Since then, his compositions have come as a storm of both genres combined.
Some of the vintage Ilaiyaraaja hits which garnered pride of place in the old cassette and tape recorder era were Yengengo Sellum Yen Yennangal (Pattakathi Bhairavan), a song which sounds like it was composed for Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, but was actually picturised on (hold your breath) Sivaji Ganesan and Jayasudha. But that trivia is immaterial to the longevity and popularity of the song, where effects like reverb and echo blend in.
There’s another super favourite song of mine, one I thought was filmed on Rajinikanth and Sripriya, but was actually filmed on Sivakumar and a lesser known actress, was Yenn Kanmani Un Kadhali from Chittukuruvi. This song has ‘seconds’ sung by the lead singers themselves, SPB & P Suseela, where the lyrics play out like a romantic banter, along with the bus conductor’s voiceover interjecting with lines like, ‘Teynampettai super market irangu’.
The comedy, Meendum Kokila, has two of my favourite Ilaiyaraaja numbers–Ponnaana Meni and Hey Oaraayiram. The former is a duet, which plays out in two different places in the film, and the latter is an SP Balasubramaniam solo, which has the most sweetest charanam in ‘Nee paathadhum naan vandhadhum thean aanadhey vaazhvil’.
With much furore these days over copyright issues, the only radio station which plays his songs regularly is All India Radio’s 100.5 FM Gold. Like its name, this station is pure gold in its song collection. One afternoon as I was cruising along the city streets, fast violin strains hit fleeting brief crescendos and eventually engulfed into a big wave of staccato bars.
The song, of course, was Rakkamma Kaiyya Thattu (Thalapathy), which to me, stands out as one of Ilaiyaraaja’s most modern compositions that can easily fit into a Vijay or Ajith film made today. Ditto for the romantic and well-rendered number from Hey Ram, Nee Paartha Paarvaikkoru Nandri. Or if we went further into the past, into the 80s, Valaiyosai Kalakalakalavena can well play to montages of romance in a bus even today.
The Padama Vibhushan couldn’t have come at a more opportune time in Ilaiyaraajas career, even as he gets felicitated while still actively composing music. Another of our great music directors, MS Viswanathan, did not, unfortunately, get to receive such honours.
Today, Ilaiyaraaja’s stage shows abroad are welcomed with great enthusiasm and applause, and it is indeed a happy thought that our maestro is taking his music to every corner in the world. There is music for all seasons in his repertoire. What are your favourite songs from the Ilaiyaraaja playlist?
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment