On the maestro’s 70th birthday, classical pianist the author recalls his experience of working with the master’s music.

The brief is too ambiguous. I am given a few days to prepare. In these few days, I will have to listen to all the pieces in maestro Ilayaraaja’s album How to Name It, analyse them and prepare a script that will help demystify their intricacies to a 3000-strong audience. My role will consist of anchoring, playing a little bit and providing explanations about the pieces with (somewhat inane, but nevertheless required) humour. Having heard the album several times before as a child, I go ahead and turn the stereo on. Unfortunately, listening to these pieces as an adult is not quite the same.

For one, it is difficult to provide a context for these pieces. They are not representative of any “period” in Indian music, nor do they relate to any film scores that an audience will be familiar with. Neither do they reflect a specific, identifiable genre. Sure, all of them echo classical western harmonic ideas that somehow manage to encapsulate Indian classical melody. The melodies themselves are distinctive, the overall effect being something quite extraordinary. However, there is no easy way to present ideas such as the “fugue” without getting into textbook definitions, and even those will not adequately describe the sort of arrangements used in the album.

There is brilliance in the composition, and virtuosity in the playing, and this is definitely great music. Unfortunately, rhetoric and bubblegum sycophancy do not allow you to actually view the music for what it is — original, extremely unique, and not easy to categorise. The idea of using Raga Charukesi in an orchestral section (with western classical harmony) is quite fantastic to the traditionalist but, if anything, the harmonic arrangement of the strings section actually coaxes the raga alive very distinctly.

Indeed, Ilayaraaja’s music exists in the improbable. It is a genre by itself, with its own rules and grammar. The context and the period are, very simply, Raaja “sir” himself.

Flautist Navin Iyer and I presented a tribute to his music recently. From trying to pick a selection of songs that embodies the spirit of the maestro’s music to figuring out arrangements that would not compromise the original we faced a number of issues. A chance mention of the concert on Facebook had the effect of people demanding that we include certain pieces. Hardly a day or two after the concert announcement there were heated debates online as to why we should not be allowed to present the tribute, why it will not do justice to the original and why none other than the maestro himself should present his oeuvre. Parsing out the hype and the hysteria, there is some truth to some of these statements. It is indeed difficult to present these exact arrangements without the full orchestra replete with original arrangements, harmonic patterns and, perhaps, the singers who sang them originally.

All this prompted us to wonder why other composers do not meet with such reactions. Part of it is the originality of the context. But Ilayaraaja’s music is indeed unique in the way it is constructed. Each piece encompasses overwhelming complexity within the space of three or four minutes, instrumental interludes that are mind-boggling for the performer. Yet they register on the listener completely (the piano in Mouna Ragam’s theme, or the brilliance of the theme in Johnny, the theme of Veedu reprised in How To Name It, the instrumental dance number for Punnagai Mannan, the innumerable “background” sequences).

 Nor is it credible in today’s age of fast music consumption that Raga Shuddha Saveri is used for a poignant wedding sequence (‘Manamagale Marumagale’ from Thevar Magan) or a Raga Kanada reflects the protagonist’s fall from grace in Sindhu Bhairavi (‘Poomaalai Vangi Vandhan’).

With bassist Keith Peters helping us rearrange the pieces to suit a reduced set-up (piano, flute, bass and percussion), we managed to put together a programme in which each section reflected a specific musical idea. For instance, one section dealt with the use of chromatic progressions in the bass — the theme from Punnagai Mannan or ‘Rojapoo’ from Agni Natchatram. Yet another dealt with rhythmic complexity (from folk to classical to pop, simple to complex rhythms, use of specific percussion aids, etc.).  We also looked at ‘classical inspirations’ as a section (the theme from Johnny interspersed with the ‘Bourrée in E minor’ by J.S. Bach is an example).

The problem, as I saw it, is that the pieces had to be presented ‘as-is’. Instrumental departures, or improvisations, took away from the credibility of the presentation. The pieces, shorn of their specific and intricate arrangements, do not make the same sense. In other words, Ilayaraaja is not for the undisciplined or ‘casual’ musician. He requires you to do homework, and understand the process with which the compositions have been created. Brought up to revere classical music and trained to follow notation, I was surprised at how difficult I found the process.

To illustrate this, the composer made me play a Bach three-part invention at the end of the How to Name It reprise concert. Taken by surprise, I managed the first section without a hitch. He then made me reverse the order of the piece, using the left hand to play the treble section and the right to play the bass. Using this example, he went on to explain how the mind of musicians work and why each voice (or hand, in this case) had a unique role in a master musician’s imagination (hence making such “switches” difficult) and how musical composition is a penance unto itself. 

Critics of Ilayaraaja’s work decry the work he did in the late 1990s and thereon. Their view is that the golden age ended with the late 1980s. I beg to disagree. Listen to the arrangements for ‘Nee Partha Parvai’ from Hey Ram (2000) to understand why. I believe that the context for listenership has shifted.  

And therein lies a crisis that faces us as we approach a tech-intensive, time-constrained ‘easy listening’ era. Today’s generation of musicians or listeners may not understand the arrangements, let alone perform them, or view them for the context they represent — the context of the composer himself.  

Like all other masters before him, the maestro has largely remained faithful to a musical fabric of his own making.  As it has been with classical music, process-intensive craft will always be upheld with those who embrace the challenge.

Indeed, I look at maestro Ilayaraaja as a teacher. A role he performs to perfection every time he ascends the stage.