Karthik Raja is all set to perform a tribute concert featuring the best of his father’s songs. He talks to Udhav Naig about being part of a musical family
The moment Karthik Raja announced that he would be presenting Ilaiyaraaja’s smash hits from the 80s at the King of Kings concert in Kuala Lumpur on December 28, the question on everyone’s mind was what could he bring to the table that Ilaiyaraaja couldn’t? Yet, the Ilaiyaraaja family unanimously seemed to agree that if there was one person among them who could do justice to Raja’s compositions, it was Karthik Raja. This is a bit of a surprise considering the family itself is full of talent.
As I waited for Karthik Raja inside the iconic recording studio in which Ilaiyaraaja composed many magical numbers, I make a mental note to keep the interview to the point. Karthik Raja promises that the concert will be an ‘experience in itself’. “The list of songs that will be performed has been picked by me. It will feature songs that are usually left out of his concert repertoire. We will perform songs like ‘Singari Sarakku Nalla Sarakku’ from Kaaki Sattai.”
But as we get talking, the conversation naturally turns towards the maestro and Karthik’s relationship with him. “I was 12 years old, when I started doing sound checks with dad when he brought instruments home to test them,” he says. In 1985, Ilaiyaraaja took the young Karthik along to attend a workshop in Singapore to learn how to use computers. “For me it was about playing games on the computer, but I used to observe what my dad was doing. It was a workshop to learn on the CX5M system that was used around the time of the making of Punnagai Mannan. I started composing tunes on it.”
Karthik was a good student. “I was a rank holder,” he states. All of that changed one fine day when he got a call from his father to immediately come to the recording studio. “I was in school that day and I was asked to play the keyboard for one of his songs. That changed everything. Music suddenly became my life,” he recounts.
Since then he has been working regularly with his father. Despite gaining a profile that few can only dream of, the composer has been deliberately choosy. What is the reason? “As a music composer, I would like to work in films which require me to step in and contribute. Otherwise, I am happy with what I am doing,” he says.
He constantly drives home the point that Ilaiyaraaja worked hard for what he is today. It just didn’t happen all of a sudden. “My father worked hard towards it. He learnt Western and Indian classical over a period of time. It is often projected as if everything just came to him.”
This is something that Karthik seemed to have imbibed from his father. “I like to do experimental stuffs, for instance, like Cuaron’s Gravity. I thought the background score was fantastic.”
Speaking to Karthik, one can’t help but get the feeling that he is not happy with the space provided to him. While it is true that Indian films have songs in them, it is also true that the songs are pre-determined. Does he have any plans to try something other than films? “I want to do something like a Broadway musical. Or if anyone offers me to design the sound in a film, I would be happy to do it,” he says.
Yet, sometimes he has done what is often described as ‘essential’ in mainstream cinema. For instance, he has composed a ‘gaana’ for Vaarayo Vennilavey, which has been sung by Gaana Bala. “The director wanted Gaana Bala to sing it. But, I have composed a ‘folkish’ tune which will have the kind of lyrics that you would associate with gaana. I want to do such work,” he says.
As I take leave, I ask him about the tenor of King of Kings. “There are some surprises, but I want the music to do the PR for me,” he says.