Why classify music? Does music need visual props? How many singers can sing for five minutes at a stretch? Composer Ilaiyaraaja, who has just been chosen for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, is full of questions.
The minute the appointment is fixed, I listen to my all-time favourite How to Name it. The album, which saw a composer from Pannaipuram in Theni bring together Tyagaraja and Bach, continues to play on in my head even as I wait for my meeting.
Breaking the silence is a deep gravelly voice. “An interview? That too with a photograph? I thought we were just speaking,” says Ilaiyaraaja, who has charmed a whole new generation of listeners with the recent Neethaane En Ponvasantham. We start off speaking about his surging popularity ever since he made his debut with Annakili in 1976. “If I had known I would become famous, where is the thrill? We don’t know what is in store for us, do we?” he asks.
His work has enthralled music lovers in the digital age too, with people launching into intense discussions about his orchestration and interludes on the Net. In fact, plans are afoot to digitise Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions, which run into thousands (he’s composed for close to a thousand movies!). But the master musician refuses to take credit for any of his creations. “It just came. I don’t know from where. Questioning the origin of music is like asking why the breeze is soothing, why you shiver in exhilaration when the spray from the waterfall hits you. The day you wonder where it comes from, things get difficult. Sometimes, entire songs are ready in just about five minutes. How do you explain that?”
Truth is simple
Is he being modest about his achievements? “No. I have an ego. If not, I would not be doing interviews,” he laughs. “But, the truth is simple. You have to tell it as it is. The day I know how music happens, I might lose that very ability. Some things just fall into place. For instance, in NEP, I did not know the Western musicians for whom I was writing the score. But, it worked out well.”
Nothing irks him more than the compartmentalisation of music. Many reviews of NEP’s music and background score say it is reminiscent of the 80s. “Not many people have the qualification to pass such remarks. This is a new attempt. Why compare it to the 80s? Why classify music at all?”
Ask him about the new crop of singers, and he continues in the same vein. “Many have earned name and fame. But, how many of them can sing for five minutes at a stretch? If one can’t even do that, how can one be a singer? Many don’t even attempt to understand the composition. That makes me very unhappy.”
After close to four decades in the field, the maestro continues to take up projects close to his heart. He’s now working on Balu Mahendra’s Thalaimuraigal, Prakash Raj’s Un Samaiyal Araiyil, a remake of the Malayalam hit Salt and Pepper, and Gunasekhar’s Tamil-Telugu historical starring Anushka, Rani Rudhrama Devi.
Over the years, people have told him his music has made them smile, cry and even fall in love. But, some feedback moves him incredibly. For instance, then director of Bajpe airport (Mangalore), Peter Abraham, told him that his music helped him cope with the trauma following the horrific 2010 air crash. “Then, there was this doctor family, who said their daughter came first in her MBBS exams after she studied to the accompaniment of my music. I never knew it could touch people in so many ways. But, that is the power of music. What is the use of something if it can’t provide succour and help you live in peace?
But, does he even listen to his own music? “Never. My music is for the world. Let them enjoy it.” And, what does he have to say about the superlatives used to describe his interludes, a mere line of which can bring back memories of the whole song? “Just the song? Don’t you also remember the first time and the situation in which you listened to it?” he smiles.
Music reigns supreme
Which brings us to the picturisation of his songs. Does he think some of his lovely numbers have suffered because of poor visuals? He disagrees. “Are visuals that important? Music reigns supreme. It does not need a visual prop. While listening to a number, do you enjoy the tune or do you enjoy it because you imagine someone singing it? In fact, quite a few hits of mine are from films that no one has heard about. The songs still rule, though.”
Ilaiyaraaja is known for his excellent orchestration and the use of native and Western instruments. His compositions give a lot of importance to the guitar, violin and the flute, but what’s his favourite instrument? “Manasu. It encompasses everything. Without it, nothing works. It creates music, literature, poetry… When the heart is pure, everything seems pure.”