Sangeet Natak Akademi, which rarely acknowledges film music directors, has made an exception with Illayaraja. B. Kolappan explores how the composer transformed genres, upended trends and made his mark

It is not often that you spot the name of a film music composer on the Sangeet Natak Akademi award roll of honour.

Composer Ilayaraja receiving the honour this year, for creative and experimental music, offers yet another opportunity to reflect on the evolution of Tamil film music — before and after his arrival.

In the 1960s, Tamil film music was already at its peak. M.S. Viswanathan was experimenting with every possible musical sensibility, leaving the listener wondering if there was anything else left to explore.

Besides, Hindi songs were on the lips of film music lovers in this part of the country.

Setting the context of Ilayaraja’s entry into the field, playback singer T.L. Maharajan said: “Hindi songs were a major hit in Tamil Nadu before Ilayaraja’s time. Even at weddings, it was fashionable to sing only Hindi songs. Ilayaraja turned that trend on its head.”

With Annakili (1976), Ilayaraja broke new ground — composing across genres. Though the title song was essentially folksy, the song Sonthamillai Banthamillai was cast in Nadanamakriya, a classical raga. It was as if the young composer was proclaiming to the film music world that his canvas was wide and varied, and that there were many more unexplored territories.

The maestro’s genius is most evident in his ability to combine forms seamlessly. Mr. Maharajan points to folk songs in an orchestral mould — striking a perfect balance between native tunes and a modern rhythm. For instance, in the song Senthoora Poove Ilayaraja employs a rush of violins to set up the intro for the folk melody that follows.

Similarly, he could blend the Carnatic and folk idiom, as is evident in Marutha Marikolunthu Vaasam, in which a very classical Mayamalavagowla raga is effortlessly adapted into a folk tune.

Such master pieces came from immense hard work and effort. He would painstakingly notate the portion to be played by each instrument in a song, factoring in every nuance.

“In his initial days, there was a tendency to confine him to the realm of folk music. But that was not to be, as Ilayaraja continuously broke new ground with songs like Kannan Oru Kaikuzhanthai, or Carnatic musician M. Balamuralikrishna’s super hit Chinna Kannan Azhaikiran in quintessential Reetigowla. These were early signs that indicated that he was soon to become a well-rounded music director,” said film director Suka, who is trained in classical music.

Lalitha Ram, a music enthusiast, said though Ilayaraja’s mastery over folk, Carnatic and Western music was formidable, his music was never inaccessible to the lay listener. “But the problem with him was that he often packed too many ideas in a single song. When I am enjoying a particular piece of music, suddenly a new idea enters before I savour the first idea,” she said.

According to Suka, though Ilayaraja had handled many Carnatic ragas, no two songs based on the same raga sound similar. For instance, Janani set in Kalyani is completely different from Nadiyiladum Poovanam composed in the same raga. Idu Oru Pon Malai Pozhudu and Sundari Neeyum, both super hits, bring out very different flavours of the same raga, Kedaram.

A similar diversity is evident in the haunting Simmendramadhyamam masterpiece Ananda Ragam Ketkum and Thalattum Poongatru as well.

Even Chalanattai, a vivadi raga, found beautiful expression in Panivizhum malarvanam.

His Thiruvasagam Symphony, How To Name It and Nothing But Wind only prove that Ilayaraja constantly explores new ideas, making a mark each time.

On receiving the award, the composer said: “It is a real surprise for me.”

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