Illaiyaraaja (Tamil: இளையராஜா) is a critically acclaimed Indian film composer, singer, and lyricist and the first Asian Composer to score a Symphony. He is a gold medalist from Trinity College of Music, London has composed over 4,500 songs and provided film scores for more than 900 Indian films in various languages in a career spanning more than 30 years.
He is based in Chennai, the fourth largest city in India and the centre of the Tamil film industry (colloquially known as Kollywood).
Ilaiyaraaja is a prominent composer of film music in South Indian cinema from the late 1970s till date. His work integrated Tamil folk lyricism and introduced broader Western musical sensibilities into the South Indian musical mainstream. He has thrice won the Indian National Film Award for best film scoring.
In the 2000s, he composed a range of non-film music, including religious and devotional songs, an oratorio, and world music. He is married to Jeeva, and the couple's two sons (Karthik Raja and Yuvan Shankar Raja) and daughter (Bhavatharini) are film composers and singers.
Ilaiyaraaja was born into a poor rural Dalit family in Pannaipuram, Theni district, Tamil Nadu, India, as the third son of Daniel Ramaswamy and Chinnathayammal. Growing up in a rural area, Ilaiyaraaja was exposed to a range of Tamil folk music. At the age of 14, he joined a travelling musical troupe headed by his elder step-brother, Pavalar Varadarajan, and spent the next decade performing throughout South India.
While working with the troupe, he penned his first composition, a musical setting of an elegy written by the Tamil poet laureate Kannadasan for Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
In 1968, Ilaiyaraaja began a music course with Professor Dhanraj in Madras (now Chennai), which included an overview of Western classical music, compositional training in techniques such as counterpoint, and study in instrumental performance.
Ilaiyaraaja specialized in classical guitar and had done a course in it with the Trinity College of Music, London.
Session musician and film orchestrator
In the 1970s in Chennai, Ilaiyaraaja played guitar in a band-for-hire, and worked as a session guitarist, keyboardist, organist for film music composers and directors such as Salil Chowdhury from West Bengal.
After his hiring as the musical assistant to Kannada film composer G. K. Venkatesh, he worked on 200 film projects, mostly in the Kannada language. As G. K. Venkatesh's assistant, Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the melodic outlines developed by Venkatesh. During this period, Ilaiyaraaja also began writing his own scores.
To hear his compositions, he would persuade Venkatesh's session musicians to play excerpts from his scores during their break times. Ilaiyaraaja would hire instruments from composer R. K. Shekhar, father of composer A. R. Rahman who would later join Ilaiyaraaja's orchestra as a keyboardist.
In 1976, film producer Panchu Arunachalam commissioned him to compose the songs and film score for a Tamil-language film called Annakkili ('The Parrot'). For the soundtrack, Ilaiyaraaja applied the techniques of modern popular film music orchestration to Tamil folk poetry and folk song melodies, which created a fusion of Western and Tamil idioms.
Ilaiyaraaja's use of Tamil music in his film scores injected new influence into the Indian film score milieu. By the mid-1980s Ilaiyaraaja was gaining increasing stature as a film composer and music director in the South Indian film industry. Besides Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films, he has scored music for Hindi (or Bollywood) film productions such as Sadma (1983), Mahadev (1989), Lajja (2001) and Cheeni Kum (2007).
He has worked with Indian poets and lyricists such as Gulzar, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu and T.S. Rangarajan (Vaali), and film directors such as K. Balachander, K. Vishwanath, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Balu Mahendra and Mani Ratnam.
Impact and musical style
Ilaiyaraaja was one of the early Indian film composers to use Western classical music harmonies and string arrangements in Indian film music. This allowed him to craft a rich tapestry of sounds for films, and his themes and background score gained notice and appreciation amongst Indian film audiences.
The range of expressive possibilities in Indian film music was broadened by Ilaiyaraaja's methodical approach to arranging, recording technique, and his drawing of ideas from a diversity of musical styles.
According to musicologist P. Greene, Ilaiyaraaja's "deep understanding of so many different styles of music allowed him to create syncretic pieces of music combining very different musical idioms in unified, coherent musical statements".
Ilaiyaraaja has composed Indian film songs that amalgamated elements of genres such as pop, acoustic guitar-propelled Western folk, jazz, rock and roll, dance music (e.g., disco), psychedelia, funk, doo-wop, march, bossa nova, flamenco, pathos, Indian folk/traditional, Afro-tribal, and Indian classical.
By virtue of this variety and his interfusion of Western, Indian folk and Carnatic elements, Ilaiyaraaja's compositions appeal to the Indian rural dweller for its rhythmic folk qualities, the Indian classical music enthusiast for the employment of Carnatic ragams, and the urbanite for its modern, Western-music sound.
Although Ilaiyaraaja uses a range of complex compositional techniques, he often sketches out the basic melodic ideas for films in a very spontaneous fashion.
The Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam illustrates:
"Ilayaraja (sic) would look at the scene once, and immediately start giving notes to his assistants, as a bunch of musicians, hovering around him, would collect the notes and go to their places... A director can be taken by surprise at the speed of events."
Ilaiyaraaja's music is characterised by the use of an orchestration technique that is a synthesis of Western and Indian instruments and musical modes. He used electronic music technology that integrated synthesisers, electric guitars and keyboards, drum machines, rhythm boxes and MIDI with large orchestras that feature traditional instruments such as the veena, venu, nadaswaram, dholak, mridangam and tabla as well as Western lead instruments such as saxophones and flutes.
He uses catchy melodies fleshed out with a variety of chord progressions, beats and timbres. Ilaiyaraaja's songs typically have a musical form where vocal stanzas and choruses are interspersed with orchestral preludes and interludes. They often contain polyphonic melodies, where the lead vocals are interwoven with supporting melody lines sung by another voice or played by instruments.
The bass lines in his songs tend to be (melodically) dynamic, rising and falling in a dramatic fashion. Polyrhythms are also apparent, particularly in songs with Indian folk or Carnatic influences. The melodic structure of his songs demand considerable vocal virtuosity, and have found expressive platform amongst some of India's respected vocalists and playback singers, such as K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubramaniam, S. Janaki, Sujatha, P. Susheela, K.S. Chithra, Malaysia Vasudevan, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.
Ilaiyaraaja has sung over 400 of his own compositions for films, and is recognisable by his stark, nasal voice.
He has penned the lyrics for some of his songs in Tamil and other languages. Ilaiyaraaja's film scores are known both for the dramatic and evocative melodies, and for the more subtle background music that he uses to provide texture or mood for scenes in films such as Mouna Raagam (1986) and Geethanjali (1989).
Ilaiyaraaja's first two non-film albums were explorations in the fusion of Indian and Western classical music. The first, How To Name It? (1986), is dedicated to the Carnatic master Tyāgarāja and to J. S. Bach. It features a fusion of the Carnatic form and ragas with Bach partitas, fugues and Baroque musical textures.
The second, Nothing But Wind (1988), was performed by flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and a 50-piece orchestra and takes the conceptual approach suggested in the title — that music is a natural phenomenon akin to various forms of air currents (e.g., the wind, breeze, tempest etc.).
He has composed a set of Carnatic kritis that was recorded by electric mandolinist U. Srinivas for the album Ilayaraaja's Classicals on the Mandolin (1994). Ilaiyaraaja has also composed albums of religious/devotional songs.
His Guru Ramana Geetam (2004) is a cycle of prayer songs inspired by the Hindu mystic Ramana Maharishi, and his Thiruvasakam in Symphony (2005) is an oratorio of ancient Tamil poems transcribed partially in English by American lyricist Stephen Schwartz and performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.
Ilaiyaraaja's most recent release is a world music-oriented album called The Music Messiah (2006). Its musical concept is based against a mythological narrative.
Ilaiyaraaja's composition Rakkama Kaiya Thattu from the movie Thalapathi (1991) was amongst the songs listed in a BBC World Top Ten music poll.
He composed the music for Nayakan (1987), an Indian film ranked by TIME Magazine as one of the all-time 100 best movies, a number of India's official entries to the Oscars, such as Anjali (1990) and Hey Ram (2000), and for Indian art films such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan's FIPRESCI Prize-winning Nizhalkkuthu ('The Dance of Shadows') (2002).
Ilaiyaraaja has composed music for events such as the 1996 Miss World beauty pageant that was held in Bangalore, India, and for a documentary called India 24 Hours (1996).
The pop/hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas sampled an Ilaiyaraaja composition called "Unakkum Ennakum", from the film Sri Raghavendra (1985), for their tune "The Elephunk Theme" from their breakout album, Elephunk (2003), The alternative artist M.I.A. sampled his composition "Kaatukuyilu," from the film Thalapathi (1991) for her song "Bamboo Banga" on the album Kala (2007).
Ilaiyaraaja rarely performs his music live, which may be due to the time he devotes to his composing activities. His last major live performance, the first in 25 years, was a four-hour concert held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai, India on October 16, 2005.
The show was widely televised both in India and abroad. Less well-known was his live 2004 performance in Italy at the Teatro Comunale di Modena, an event-concert presented for the 14th edition of Angelica, Festival Internazionale Di Musica, co-produced with the L'Altro Suono Festival.
He had done a few small-scale shows early in his career in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and was involved in a charity concert to raise funds for the construction of a Hindu temple in India. A television retrospective titled Ithu Ilaiyaraja ('This is Ilaiyaraja') was produced, chronicling his career.
Awards and honours
Ilaiyaraaja has won the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for the films Saagara Sangamam (1984), Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) and Rudraveena (1989).He also won the National Film Award for Best Background Score for Malayalam film Pazhassi Raja (2010).
He won the Gold Remi Award for Best Music Score jointly with film composer M. S. Viswanathan at the WorldFest-Houston Film Festival for the film Vishwa Thulasi (2005).
He was conferred the title Isaignani ('savant of music') in 1988 by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and received the Kalaimamani Award, an annual award for excellence in the field of arts from the Government of the State of Tamil Nadu, India.
He also received State Government Awards from the governments of Kerala (1995), Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (The Lata Mangeshkar Award) (1998) for excellence in music.
He was awarded honorary doctorates by Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu, India (Degree of Doctor of Letter (Honoris causa)) (March, 1994), the World University Round Table, Arizona, U.S.A. (Cultural Doctorate in Philosophy of Music) (April, 1994), and Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu (Degree of Doctor of Letters) (1996).
He received an Award of Appreciation from the Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (1994), and later that year was presented with an honorary citizenship and key to the Teaneck township by Mr. John Abraham, Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, U.S.A.