Ilaiyaraaja: Music is my religion

Ilaiyaraaja with his harmonium at his recording studio   | Photo Credit: K Pichumani

Ilaiyaraaja clears his throat and sips warm water from a glass placed on his table. It is a busy morning at Prasad Labs, but the recording room at the venue’s ‘Ilaiyaraaja Suite’ is eerily quiet. The maestro, who is in the middle of recording a duet for actor-music director Vijay Antony’s upcoming movie, has a look of intense concentration on his face.

He shuffles through his lyric sheets, checks the audio levels on the mic and doles out a few last-minute instructions to his co-singer, a young college student who seems surprisingly unfazed by the presence of the man in front of her.

The melody, sung in his deep baritone, is quintessentially Raaja.

Sariya varaliye… sruthi seraliye,” he says, listening to the playback on his earphones. He looks at a computer screen; a look of confusion passes over his face. He then turns to his most trusted companion — his harmonium — and plays the melody again. His eyes are closed as he croons the number, his fingers move seamlessly across the instrument.

The moment of doubt has passed. “Ready, ready, polaam!”

Ilaiyaraaja still uses his old harmonium, be it while composing a song in his studio or on stage during a concert. But he was never allowed to touch it during his younger days. “My brother would never let me go near it. He thought I would spoil it. But I started playing whenever he wasn’t there. That’s how I learnt how to play,” he says. “But the harmonium knows that it was made for me. It tells me that there is more music to be made.”

The maestro prepares

A thin glass wall separates Ilaiyaraaja’s intimate recording room from an expansive studio, the birthplace of countless songs that still reverberate in homes across the world. The floor is cluttered with serpentine wires snaking their way around the room.

His orchestra is rehearsing for the upcoming ‘Ilaiyaraaja 75’ concert in Chennai. As the conductor moves his hands, the sounds of various instruments come together in perfect harmony. Each song sees multiple takes with specific nuances given careful attention to. Even as the strains of ‘Unna Vida’ echo across the studio, the troupe goes over the intricate ‘Kaalainga Kazhuthu Mani’ sounds multiple times. A female vocalist is asked to sing the pallavi of a song at least six times. As they go on to rehearse timeless melodies like ‘Ninaivo Oru Paravai’, ‘Aanandha Raagam’ andNinnukori’, one thing is clear: they are all sticklers for perfection, just like the composer himself. “In this profession, I use so many instruments to make music. Good music is made with the help of many musicians who express their joy in the swaras. And that, in total, moves audiences,” says the maestro.


Ilaiyaraaja   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

The creative process

From Annakili in 1976 to Merku Thodarchi Malai, he has over 7,000 songs to his credit. He is quick to downplay his achievement, however. “It is like a regular job for me. Sometimes, it is mechanical... just like working on a computer. But the difference is how it touches human emotions. And how the audience eventually make it their own music. Now, that is a miracle.”

Ilaiyaraaja’s creative process is something that has confounded many. Where does one locate the genius in his body of work? He harks back to the one constant in his room: the harmonium. “Only the film director will be with me when the situation and the story are narrated. Then, it’s just me and my harmonium. I just think about the situation and touch my harmonium and music flows. If people consider it as an alternate world, so be it. To me, it is something that I can’t explain.”

If he can’t explain it, how does he name it? Ilaiyaraaja’s first non-film album How to Name It, which was released in 1986, is seen as a bridge between Indian and Western Classical styles. But it all comes from the same base, insists Ilaiyaraaja. “Western, jazz, folk or tribal music, whatever the form, they all have the same sapta swaras as the basis. I am proving that all these forms of music are one. And when that’s the case, what can you call it? How to name it?”

Can fans expect another instrumental album? “It can come out any time. If the timing, setting and situation are right, then why not?”

A day in Raaja’s life

With more people shuffling in to meet him, he has an ever-ready smile for all his fans waiting to get a picture with him. A fan, who has travelled a long way to present him a bouquet, gushes, “Sir, I grew up with your songs. I am eternally grateful to you.”

An ordinary day for Ilaiyaraaja would be meeting with fans every now and then just to have a word with him about his work and its impact. It’s a responsibility that he heartily carries on his shoulders. “Every song of mine is a symphony. People forget themselves in my music. Music and religion keep me young. My music is religion, and my religion is music. They are one.”


‘Ilaiyaraaja 75’ will take place at YMCA Grounds, Nandanam, on February 2 and 3. The first day will feature performances by artistes across the film industry, while the second day will have the maestro performing along with his musicians. The event is presented by the Tamil Film Producers Council, in association with The Hindu and Hindu Tamil Thisai. Tickets available at

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 11:50:33 AM |

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