An Encounter With The Maestro

An Afternoon with Illaiyaraaja


Shyam Sekhar chats with Music Director Illaiyaraja


This write-up is merely an effort to share with numerous fans of Indian film music, an experience that every music lover would thoroughly enjoy. As a long standing watcher of the Tamil film music scenario and an admirer of Mr. Illayaraaja, I have on quite a few occasions observed the entire process of creating music for movies by various music composers besides him.

What makes Raaja a unique phenomenon is the sheer native genius in him that has a facile way of responding to technology's challenges and yet not succumbing to its pervasiveness.

Illayaraaja has proved time and again that he is equally at ease with folk songs as with carnatic music or for that matter any other music form. Time and again he has publicly expressed that composing is basically creating alternate forms to existing musical works. Isai enbadhu verum sithu velai is one of his stock phrases.

His attitude of modestly simplifying his own creative prowess has often been interpreted as arrogance by the media in Chennai. An afternoon I spent with the maestro at his studio gave me a chance to freely interact with a man who is extremely simple, extraordinarily dedicated to his work and a virtuoso in Indian film music.

I thought there would be many in our midst who would like to get a closer glimpse of this enigmatic genius who was pretty warm and communicative that afternoon.



Part I

The afternoon heat in Chennai was at its sweltering best that Thursday as I drove through Bollywood's crowded arteries. The appointment was at 2 pm and I was on time.  The Gurkha at Prasad studios probed me on my purpose.  I have to use the cine slang to gain entry.  The fact that I was in a car helped.

Raaja Saar-ai paarkanum.  Avar theatre engae?

The response was far from direct.  Deva Saar left-il deluxe theatre-il irukkaru.  Raaja Saar paarka right-il poganum.  Angae Yaarum poga vida maatanga.

I tell him that I have a prior appointment and proceed.

As I enter the spacious lobby of Illayaraaja's musical haven, the spartan place struck me. Sitting in a corner was Kalyanam, Raaja 's secretary of years. I told him of our objective and my relative had a good reference. The intercom came in handy. And in a moment, I was ushered towards a short flight of stairs.

As I ascended the flight of stairs and turned, I was shocked to see the maestro himself coming up to receive us and asking us what he could do for us. All bollywood gossip about the man with a high and mighty way had already begun to look pretty suspect.

The master at work!!!I told him about being his admirer since aeons and expressed my desire to watch him at work. He immediately led us into his editing suite from where he oversees his scores get recorded. On previous occasions I have never had a chance to get to talk to the man and it was always an impersonal experience.

To my surprise, as the evening went along, the man was actually communicating freely with me on a variety of subjects and he revealed his mind like never before. The recording theatre was a familiar place except that the forty violinists were no more a regular feature and the latest synthesizers have taken their place. There were hardly a dozen musicians and huge hall wore a deserted look.

I comfortably lodge myself on one of the sofas inside his console while the maestro settles down into a brief spell collating his thoughts on the day’s composition.


Part II

The song was a bylla number to be sung by Usha Uthup for Vijayshanthi's forthcoming film tentatively named Jhansi.  The small group of musicians were not quite out of their afternoon dullness what with the studio sappadu's heavy spell on them.  Raaja gave them ample time to program his score and evidently it took them longer to program than it took him to write and create music.

Meanwhile it was time for me to get the man to speak.  I tried to be crafty and keep the controversies for the later part.  The initial part was soft and centered around his sons.  His eyes brighten when I refer to Karthik, his elder son.

Where does he compose?
Avan veetiliye program pannikkuvan.  Appuram ingae vandhe mixing pannuvan.
He does not seem to get good projects.  And despite an excellent score, many of his films suffered poor directorial treatment. (I said about Karthik.)
Namma pangai naam seyyarom.  Appuram nadapadhu irai arul.   (The gnani is philosophical.)

I ask him how he felt when he sang under his son’s baton.Was he not the first composer father to sing for his son? The happiness is evident as his face brightens. But, words fail to come.

Raja with his sons Karthik and YuvanI inform him that Karthik was chosen among the twenty worthy young Indians to watch out in future by Gentleman's Quarterly, a leading English magazine.

"Naan endha paper, pathirigai padikiradillai.  Ungalai madiri nanbargal solli than theriyum.  Naan en ulagil nimmadhiyaaga vazhgiren"

I ask about the press and all the loose talk about his symphony. Was it like his earlier albums? Would it be Carnatic - western classical ably fused?  Or, would folk find more expression?

"Naan en manadil patta isaiyai seidirukkaen.  Neenga athai kettu than sollanum.  Wait panna vendiya suzhnilai.  Konjam naal poruthu adhu varum."

Raja with OrchestraDoes he differentiate between folk, carnatic, western, fusion?  What does he enjoy more?

"Isai enrathu ellame enakku onnu than.  Music panrathu enakku periya vishayamillai.  Ippadi ukkanthu yosichaal adhu thaana varum."  The statement is more reflecting the pervasive role of music in his life. He seems to say that his life is music and he does not feel that it is a job where he toils.

Meanwhile the recordist Sethu plays two of his latest songs hot from the recording spools. One sung by Raaja on Amman is unique in its style. The next one sung by Hariharan & Bavatharini also has a new feel about him.

I ask him this new feel his music has started evoking. After Kaadhalukku Mariyadhai, Raaja seems to have evolved a more pop oriented rhythm format and the beauty is that it is mild and blends with his usual composing format and orchestration. He agrees and attentively watches every word I say.  I'm put on the defensive.  But, moments later he says, his songs will have a fresh feel.


More to come in Part III, including

  • Raaja on using Modern Technology to create Ancient Music, in the context of two projects he is doing.

  • Raaja on Guru.

  • On the Past Recording Experiences.

  • Usha Uthup on Raaja.


Shyam Sekhar

Part III


"Tamil Thirai Valai" thanks Mr. Shyam Sekhar for conducting this interview and penning this write-up and Mr. Ramesh Vaidyanathan for choosing "Tamil Thirai Valai" as the right forum to publish this interview.