“If you whistle, I will leave,” the maestro warned hundreds of fans who couldn’t control themselves on seeing him perform at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium during the audio launch of Gautham Vasudev Menon’s latest film Neethane En Ponvasantham.
The crowd behaved itself for the rest of the evening. Ilaiyaraja was very clear that he wanted the Hungarian National Philharmonic orchestra from Budapest to be treated with respect. “You have come for the music. Enjoy it. Don’t whistle. If you wish to show your appreciation to the musicians, clap,” he said.
The show began with an interesting documentary on Ilaiyaraja where his oldest collaborators and friends spoke about their association with him and this was intercut with singers performing some of his best songs – ‘Manram Vandha Thendralukku,’ ‘Kuzhal Oodhum Kannanukku,’ ‘Ilaya Nila,’ and ‘Padu Nilaave’.
Just when you were wondering if all the performances would be pre-recorded, the orchestra launched into a terrific medley of Ilaiyaraja hits that captured different moods — from ‘Raaja Kaiya Vecha’ to ‘Then Paandi Seemayile,’ ‘Kanmani Anbodu’ and ‘Sundari’ among others. The instrumental themes ensured the focus was on the melody of the maestro’s evergreen hits.
Gautham Menon sang ‘Uravugal Thodarkathai’ before inviting the man himself on stage as the crowd rose to its feet to give him a standing ovation. Dressed in a white dhoti-kurta, he took his harmonium for a prayer as the crowd screamed. “I can’t sing if you make noise,” he said, before singing the devotional ‘Janani, Janani.’
It was after this that he gave them that ‘Whistle-and-I-leave’ ultimatum. Not many would have dared to do this and even if they did, not many would have succeeded in ensuring that the crowd actually obeyed.
Gautham asked him about the harmonium. “It’s not a mara petti (wooden box), it has life. I know only him. And only he knows me,” Ilaiyaraja said. Apparently, the harmonium was bought for Rs. 85 and he would get beaten on the knuckles if he was caught fiddling with it. “It was like a kalla-kadhalan (secret lover). I would even sleep on it.”
Next question: What’s changed as a composer in all these years, asked Gautham. “No change... I have always made sure no two songs are alike. When directors tell me they want a song like one, I tell them no song should be like another. I don't listen to directors.”
Stating that there’s magic in his voice, Gautham requested Ilaiyaraja to perform five songs unplugged for him. “I have also arranged for the lyrics, sir, in case you have forgotten,” he said.
With nothing else but his harmonium and Steve on the guitar, Ilaiyaraja sang ‘Kodai Kaala Kaatre,’ ‘Kanmaniye Kadhal Yenbadhu,’ ‘Adi Aathadi,’ ‘Oru Poongavanam’ and ‘Thendral Vandhu,’ giving the audience trivia about how those songs were recorded.
Santhanam, who was called to introduce the first song from the album ‘Pudikala Maamu’, said he once sang a Telugu composition by Ilaiyaraja to woo a Telugu girl through her window since he didn’t know the language only to have her father sing the next paragraph from the other side. “You love and blame me,” laughed Ilaiyaraja.
Suraj Jagan and Karthik performed the rockish ‘Pudikala Maamu’ before Suriya came on to introduce ‘Kaatrai Konjam.’ Sunitha Sarathy performed the pathos-filled ‘Neethaane En Ponvasantham’. Later, Ramya NSK, granddaughter of N.S. Krishnan, joined Yuvan Shankar Raja for ‘Saayndhu Saayndhu.’
The live performances of songs from Neethane En Ponvasantham were only a bonus as the crowd heard the best of filmmakers talk about the genius of Ilaiyaraja and first- hand accounts of the maestro came up with tunes of a whole movie within minutes. Thirty-five minutes for all songs of Chinna Thambi , said P. Vaasu. 40 minutes for 9 songs from Chembaruthi . (see box for the Best of Ilaiyaraja songs they picked).
Lyricist Na Muthukumar said he cherished the eight days he spent writing the songs for Ilaiyaraja. The heroine of the film, Samantha, said that the role of Nithya Vasudevan was a journey of a lifetime, introducing ‘Satru Munbu’ performed by Ramya.
“This film will take me from wine shop to coffee shop, from Royapuram to Royapettah,” said Jiiva, before introducing ‘Pengal Endral’ sung by Yuvan Shankar Raja. Karthik sang ‘Ennodu Va Va’ before Ilaiyaraja joined the orchestra to perform ‘Vaanam Mella’ for the finale.
The strategy of turning an audio launch into a full-blown celebration of Ilaiyaraja seemed to have paid off. It was an evening of nostalgia for fans. And goose bumps.
What they said: Best of Raja
Singer Karthik and guitarist Steve took on the challenge to perform any of the favourite songs requested by the VIP filmmakers present. And the duo delivered in style.
Bharathirajaa ‘Pothi Vacha Malliga Mottu’ (Mannvasanai)
Balu Mahendra ‘Thumbi Vaa’ (Olangal)
K.Balachander ‘Poongathu’ (Mudhal Mariyathai)
P.Vasu ‘Orey Naal’ (Ilamai Oonjalaadugirathu)
R.V. Udayakumar ‘Pacha Mala Poovu’ (Kizhakku Vaasal)
Sunderrajan ‘Amma Endra Azhaikaatha’ (Mannan)
Suresh Krissna ‘Valai Osai’ (Satya)
S.P.Muthuraman ‘Aasai Nooru Vagai’ (Adutha Vaarisu)
R.K. Selvamani ‘Aattama Therottama’ (Captain Prabakaran)