Ilaiyaraaja: ‘There are no composers today, only programmers’

How the Isaignani is gearing up for ‘Rock with Raaja,’ Chennai’s first big concert in two pandemic-influenced years

March 16, 2022 04:35 pm | Updated March 17, 2022 01:40 pm IST

Music composer Ilaiyaraaja at his studio in Chennai

Music composer Ilaiyaraaja at his studio in Chennai | Photo Credit: RAGU R

There are signs of music everywhere in Ilaiyaraaja’s new tastefully-done studio in Chennai’s Kodambakkam. Murals of instruments adorn the walls of most of the rooms. A wall facing the recording rooms has an illustration of the music legend himself, the art bustling with notes of music.

Inside, the 78-year-old musician is busy with last minute preparations for his upcoming concert: ‘Rock with Raaja,’ which will be the first big concert in the city after two years of the pandemic.

“These last two years were a dark phase for many people,” says Ilaiyaraaja, popularly known as ‘Isaignani’ for his musical expertise. He adds, “Even during that time, my music was their companion. Now, it is a chance to give them an opportunity to experience the same in person... I believe this will give them hope for better times ahead.”

Though he participated in thousands of concerts across the world, this one will be different, he promises. In a marked departure from his gentle melodies, this time he says he is focussing on “fun” — promos have him urging people to ‘dance to his songs’. “Yes, that’s a clue,” he smiles, “But I cannot elaborate on that.” While fans will miss singers like the late SP Balasubrahmanyam on stage, ‘Rock with Raaja’ could throw up a few surprises, with a line-up of singers that include names like Mano, Karthik, Shweta Mohan and Devi Sri Prasad, among others.

‘Where are the composers?’

The last few years have seen huge changes on the music front, with terms like ‘viral’ and ‘views’ becoming key indicators of success. Ilaiyaaraja, however, seems unfazed by social media’s metrics. “My music has been viral for four decades, hasn’t it,” he states, adding, “If a song is on people’s minds for just one week or so, how can you call it viral? There are no composers in the film industry today; there are only programmers. There are so many new singers and voices today, but does anything stand the test of time? With KJ Yesudas and SP Balasurahmanyam, that era is gone....”

With more than a thousand films to his credit, Ilaiyaraaja has experimented with many musical genres. “There are only four-five situations in cinema. That’s why AR Rahman gave a statement once that he is bored of composing for films. The same themes of love, love failure, and one-sided love keep repeating itself. Today, even songs celebrating mothers and sisters are not being accepted by the audience. All this is because the numbers are being sung by singers whose vocals do not exactly match with the characters voicing it on the screen.”

Nevertheless, Ilaiyaraaja have a busy year ahead, with upcoming cinema projects by directors Vetrimaaran and Seenu Ramasamy, among others, lined up. He is also slated to be working on an Indo-English project titled A Beautiful Breakup, directed by Ajithvasan Uggina. “I’m someone who always encourages new talent,” he says, explaining why he has such a diverse range of projects. “When Mani Ratnam came to me, he was just starting out; I accepted him because I wanted to promote new people in the industry.”

Music for courage

A couple of months ago, a music enthusiast named Seethalakshmi famously sang her way through breast cancer surgery, crooning Ilaiyaraaja’s popular 1990 number ‘Karpoora Bommai Ondru’ ( Keladi Kanmani). Earlier, social media was also abuzz with stories of a baby who was unwell, but started recovering to strains of ‘Thiruvasagam’. Explaining why he thinks that this concert is important, after two very challenging years, Illaiyaraaja says, “Most of these songs are actually done for a situation in cinema, but I did not know that it had such power among listeners... Music can not only heal, but also hide the pain that you nurse in your everyday life.

Rock with Raaja is on March 18, from 6pm onwards, at Island Grounds. Visit for tickets

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