An Encounter With The Maestro

An Afternoon with Illaiyaraaja

Part III & IV (Conclusion...)

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 III

Mohanlal in Guru (Malayalam)I seem to get accustomed to the pauses in our conversation. A guitarist who's been with Raaja from his early days comes into the mixing suite and sets up his guitar. I ask Raaja about `GURU' a film made in Malayalam by Rajiv Anchal.

Raaja's face wears a surprised look. `Guru kettutingala? Adai engae kaeeteenga?'

I tell him that I heard the soundtrack on tape. I tell him that I have not seen the film as it has not been released in Chennai. By this time, I enter a complaining mood. `Re-recording paarkanum saar. Ingae thaan padam release agalaiye.'

I ask Raaja about the experience of working with the Hungarian musicians. Did he compose some new music for a new album? Did the hungarian musicians play any instrumental music composed by him ?

`Athellam illai. Padathukku rerecording pannom.Chumma irundappa avangaluukkaaga vaasikka rendu movement compose pannen. Adu avungalukku romba pudichirundadu. Anubavichu vaasichaanga.'

I ask him about any new albums from him. Why was there such a long gap after ‘Nothing but wind’ ? The answer is monosyllabic.`Pannikittirukken'

He asks the guitarist if he has tried the new score for the album. The maestro seeks feedback about his future offering from his old associate.

`Nalla vandirukku Raaja. Nalla heavy aaga irukku. Vaasippom'. The guitarist continues with the practise of his score.

I ask raaja about India 24 hours - his recent musical offering.`Adhu oru documentary padathukku pottathu. Album aaga vandu irukku'. He even offers me the name of the company that owns the rights for the album and has released the album overseas.

I'm wondering about the image that the media has given this genius and trying to relate to my experience over the past two hours. The untruths made out in the media strike me harsher than ever before.

My complaining mood turns into a suggestive one. Why can’t Raaja release a series of albums containing his re-recordings? Who owns the copyright to re-recordings? Why aren’t his gems from the period 1975 to 1995 available on CD & tape? Why are we made to hunt for these scores? I go on to tell him about the tapes of `JHONNY' which play only on one speaker and are still being bought by his admirers like me.

He laughs. `Appadiya? Re-recording porutha varai composer thaan rights oda owner. Naan cassette pottal adai appadiye TV serial-il adichiduvaanga. Appadiyae poduvaanga. Adanaala seyyalai'.

As for the CD's from yesteryears collections Raaja explains that the music companies need to take the initiative.

The orchestra has assembled and this first take is about to be made. In the first take, a violinist plays the part that is later sung by the vocalists.The song gets off to a thumping start. Slowly, V.S. Narasimhan unobtrusively plays the song's pallavi to the accompaniment of the whole orchestra.

His solo violin seems to even convey the lyrical melody of the song laying emphasis and expression at will.


Part IV (Conclusion)

The arrival of Usha Uthup hastens the tempo of the workplace. Before getting to business, Usha complains that Raaja does not give her too many songs. She chastens Raaja to remember her more often. "Every song I have sung for you is a hit. But I only sing once in 3/4 years."

Raaja is mild in his response. He says that he does not decide."Only God wills it. If it has to happen, it will happen."

Usha is quick on the rebound. "You have a hotline to God. So why don't you recommend" She says in obvious reference to raaja's deeply religious pent of mind.

The recording gets underway and the maestro thumps his fist on the console as if he is recording his first song. The enthusiasm for composing is barely concealed.It is his life and comes naturally to him.

After doing so many innovations in the Film world, Raaja is well aware of the technological changes & the fast blurring line between good sound engineering and composing. The next genre comprising the like of Rahman clearly are only mastering the art of creating telling sound. Composing has clearly taken a back seat and Raaja prefers to only say that time & people's taste will decide the longevity of a composer's work..

As for the controversies raging the film world about him, his future in the filmdom, his involvement in mega projects of Kamal, Maniratnam & Rajnikanth that are in the pipeline, all I get is a smile and a "let's see" kind of look.

As the time comes for us to leave, he courteously and personally see's us off and gets on with his destined role in the wide world - creating music.

While I return one thing seems clear to me.

Illayaraaja is a musical phenomenon who is quite a misfit in the glitter of filmdom. He seems to view his role as a composer more as a Karmic one. Despite the sound revolution engineered by Rahman and Yuvan Shankar Raaja (his own son), Raaja still sticks to his own musical idiom. The wailing flutes and brisk violin movements that have characterised his music remains much the same: the stunning effect of chorus that has become a hallmark of his songs, the smooth transitions from the pallavi to anupallavi and then the saranam and the pervasive rusticity still capture the hearts of millions. Just listening to the only Tamil hit film of 1997 - Kaadalukku Mariyadai will make that abundantly clear.The remarkable composing concepts infused by Raaja in creating background scores is yet to be bettered by anyone.

As the world moves on towards the twenty first century, Illayaraaja is preparing to create musical works that shall ensure his place in the Hall of Fame of Indian cinema as its greatest composer ever.


Shyam Sekhar

Part I & II


"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.