Performance is an important component of a musical composition: Ilaiyaraaja

The maestro speaks on his philosophy of music, the origins of his ideas of composition, the early training that put him on the road to stardom.

June 04, 2018 07:20 pm | Updated December 01, 2021 06:06 am IST - Chennai:

 Maestro Ilaiyaraaja during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai.

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai.


In an interview to The Hindu at the studio where he began his career as a composer at Saligramam in Chennai, maestro Ilaiyaraaja, who turned 75 on June 2, spoke about his philosophy of music, the origins of his ideas of composition, the early training that put him on the road to stardom, and the universality and timelessness of music. Excerpts:

You have always insisted that your musical compositions have been the product of spontaneity and that your creations are due to on the spur responses to situations and emotions. But isn’t creativity also a product of nurture and experience rather than nature and innateness alone?

Certainly, my experiences and learning are responsible for my output too, but I also sense that some of my music is the reflection of the efforts of the past lives – mine or other musical exponents. I have never found composition to be a chore or a difficult task. Tunes seem to come to me naturally which is why I emphasise spontaneity to it. Of course to compose music for certain moods and situations, my experiences of the past and my learning have helped me to render them, but compositions are more than just that. For me, my music is part of me and which is why it seems second nature and my compositions are instinctive.

Your explanations seem similar to what the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujam used to say, attributing his intuition, mathematical inspiration and formulae to the “Namagiri devi”, while dreaming; attributing his mathematical abilities to spirituality.

He was a genius, who ascribed his abilities and output to a force and that a supernatural force was guiding him. In my case, I do not feel that a force is telling me what to do or how to do something. I feel a moment of clarity when a tune comes to mind spontaneously. It is as if I am the subject and the object of art at the same time when this happens. Of course, this composition has to be developed further and receives finality when it is performed by artists in the orchestra.

What explains the timelessness in your music?

The moment we live in, is a consequence of several experiences in the past, isn’t it? A piece of great sculpture built, let’s say, in the 8th century … it must have been completed by an artist who brought in his emotions and ideas onto the sculpture from that period. But when we appreciate it today, we do it for what it stands, its artistry and its relevance even today, right? That is timelessness. The same holds true for composing tunes or music as well. But not all music will have such timeless characteristics. It is well known that Mozart’s compositions – which were a product of spontaneity – have those attributes. There is research that has proven that brain cells get stimulated better when children are exposed to music such as Mozart’s compositions. I believe my compositions do so too as they are a product of spontaneity. The challenge for a good musician is to bring out compositions that seem fresh to the listener even if the listener has heard the song or the composition before.

That being said, not everything that is done spontaneously is artistic.

It requires a refined mind and a sensitivity to bring out ideas that have an aesthetic sense and then adding different elements – some complex such as various counterpoints and some relatively simple – to give it shape as a composition. I had learnt the different forms of counterpoint – modal, strict and free forms as part of my training. Sometimes it has taken me days to write musical bars based on strict and modal counterpoints, sometimes hours and so on. For musical compositions to reach a high level and to derive from spontaneity, of course, one has to do the necessary steps to learn the rules and regulations of composing high quality music. It requires a lot of hard work for a composer to bring out music which is to be played by musicians and to decide what instruments are required to bring that out. For that to happen as a product of spontaneity, it takes time and discipline.

How has your music evolved over time, and how did you incorporate various genres over time?

I always felt music to be universal and undifferentiated – Western classical, folk, Carnatic or Hindustani and so on. When I made my first album – “How to name it” – I tried to show that there was no differentiation between various genres. I tried to use Indian ragas as counterparts to Western compositions such as Bach’s.

People call this “fusion” but these are no two different things that are fused together. Music is universal and undifferentiated in my view.

In present day music composition, the use of technology has introduced us to new sounds and new forms of music. But there is distinctiveness to your compositions in terms of the instruments that were used to play your compositions. Do you think that is missing today?

Performance is an important component of a music composition and art. Without performance, that composition will not be good music. Today, digital technologies have helped compose music but they are mechanisms and they do not incorporate performance to create sounds that produce music – the interplay of various instruments and artists playing them. I believe this is a core of musical composition which is reflected in mine.

You have in the past said that music is a salve to people?

I believe that people exposed to music and who are taught music will not commit violent crimes. Music and greater exposure to it will help bring peace to society.

Your brother was your first teacher, right?

My brother, Pavalar Varadarajan, was everything for me. He was a communist sympathiser. He grew up in our village in Pannaipuram where there was the Gandhiji Untouchability Eradication and Village Progress Union, established in the 1930s and which provided a platform for theatre and art featuring people from various castes and communities. Many cinema and drama artistes used to visit this theatre. My brother used to take part in a popular play, “Paataliyin kodi” (Workers’ flag). He wasn’t a member of the communist party, but he used to take part in plays and dramas featuring communist ideals. At a time when the communists became prominent in Kerala, my brother used to help in propaganda and singing revolutionary songs. I remember my brother singing songs in tea estates addressing workers from a jeep high in the hills. Once, as a young school student, I saw EMS Namboodiripad thanking my brother for an electoral victory of the communists in Munnar.

My brother then set up a troupe to propagate ideals through songs. It was also the time when I was told by an astrologer that I wouldn’t be able to continue education beyond Class VIII (my ESLC). I wanted to prove him wrong. So I went to work in the Vaigai dam to earn some money to further my education. My job was to pour water on the construction through a hosepipe to strengthen them. While I worked seven days a week on the dam, I used to sing along during work. I earned my first salary and knew that I will be able to further my studies later. During work, I used to regale my fellow workers with songs and tunes that melded with the noises at work – stones being mixed for concrete at the site etc. I went on to join Class IX later.

Meanwhile my brother was now popular and needed a hand for a kutcheri in Thiruvembur. My mother told me to join my brother in the kutcheri to sing songs and play music with him. That was the start of my musical journey and the end of my formal schooling education. My brother used to take us to various political gatherings where our programme followed the speeches. We used to play songs for about two hours and then move on to the next programme somewhere else, even far away. The hectic travel did not hamper his singing or his energy. I used to play the harmonium for him and I learnt more and more from the mistakes I made then.

My brother used to understand the pulse of the people so well and how to earn their applause. I learnt so much from him then. I remember having told K Balachander that the song Padariyen Padippu-ariyen (in Sindhu Bhairavi ) will definitely earn applause when the “Marri marri ninne” bit ends the song. And exactly that is what happened.

My brother also taught me how to improvise songs for the moment and to enrapture the audience. There was a time when my brother’s troupe was asked by the police not to play songs in a communist gathering for the lack of permissions. So my brother told the people that the next kutcheri is in some other location. I remember people running after our vehicle as we went on to the next location to come over and listen to my brother’s troupe.

Importantly, my brother used to write songs in tunes that were popularly composed by MS Viswanathan. I realised then that cinema as a medium was so powerful and that the applause was earned more due to the original tune composed by MSV. That is when I realised that I wanted to become a composer in my own right. I began trying to create new tunes based on my younger brother’s lyrics or Bharathiyaar’s poems.

In 1960, my brother asked me to play a song that I had composed based on a poem written by Kannadasan about Jawaharlal Nehru and published in Dina thanthi . That was the first time my brother asked me to sing a song that I had composed and I felt that I had finally been recognised at the age of 17.

Till 1967, I was with my brother. But I felt that I had to do more as a musician than just being part of a communist propaganda troupe, unlike my brother who had become a firm adherent to the communist cause. My mother gave us some money – Rs 400 (then a large sum of money for us) and I left with my other brothers to Chennai to further our music education.

My music trainer Dhanraj Master recognised the fact that I could memorise tunes easily and told me to learn musical notations and western classical music. Later I finished a course in western classical music and then became a guitarist to Salil Chowdhury and following that, I became an assistant to GK Venkatesh. That is how my early journey to becoming a music composer happened.

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