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Two score and more

Ilayaraja  

So, Ilayaraja’s music and I, we’re both in our 40s. This doesn’t mean that his is the only music I grew up with. The songs on radio and television came from the 60s, 50s, sometimes even the 40s, during special programmes that would give rise to debates among elders as to who was better: M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar or P.U. Chinnappa, Saigal or Pankaj Mullick. But Ilayaraja’s was the music that marked my generation, like inches on a height chart, like candles on a birthday cake. It’s like he was giving us presents, in the form of new songs, to mark our schooldays, our days at college, our first (or third) job interview. It’s hard to explain (and I’ve tried, oh, I’ve tried) to younger cousins and colleagues what it was like to be in the Ilayaraja era. But let me try again.

Let me go back to some random year, say, 1983. We’d get ‘Thaamaraikodi’, a soaring announcement of adolescent love with guitars bubbling out of one speaker and a harmonica exhaling through the other one, and then we’d get a funky dance number like ‘Onnum theriyaadha paapa’, and then there’d be a semi-classical duet like ‘Raathiriyil poothirukkum’ that would sound like ‘Srinivasa thiru venkata mudayai’ (and then we’d realise it was the same raga, Hamsanandhi), and then we’d get Kamal going bonkers around a well in ‘Thakita thadimi’, and then a wispily moustached hero in an Oliyum Oliyum programme would unleash another declaration of love in ‘Geetham sangeetham’, and then the boy in the next seat in class would be humming ‘O maane maane’, and then we’d get a song that’d sound strangely arrhythmic (‘Kanavu ondru thondruthey’) and we’d have to wait to grow up a little to fully get it, and then a Telugu-speaking classmate would come back from his holidays with a cassette filled with ‘Emani ne’ and ‘Eureka saka mika’, and then we’d tell him what he’d missed, ‘Eeramaana rojave’ and ‘Vandhaale alli poo’…

And then we’d discover that it wasn’t just these songs that played on the radio, that the albums had songs they couldn’t fit into radio playlists simply because there was already a backlog of Ilayaraja songs to play, and so we’d seek out the cassettes and find that the Thanga Magan album also had ‘Adukku malligai’, that the Vellai Roja album also had ‘Nagooru pakkathile’. So we’re not just talking about songs that became hits. We’re talking about albums that kept yielding hits. It’s like one man in Madras was putting out at least one ‘Thriller’ every month. In Tamil. In Telugu. In Kannada. In Malayalam. In pop. In rock. In folk. In jazz. In Western Classical. In Carnatic. In Hindustani.

The very Western-sounding beginning of ‘Kodai kaala kaatre’ would give way to an interlude in which a solo violin would start playing like a coconut-shell fiddle from a village deep South. Or, in ‘Manjal andhi velaiyo’, an electric guitar would glide through Carnatic-sounding passages that a lesser composer might have used the veena for.

It’s not that the music could be enjoyed only with all this analysis, either. All of Ilayaraja’s hits straddled the breadth of appeal with depth of musicianship. So after you got past the instant appeal of the song, you’d realise what was beneath the beats and the voices and the immediately apparent instruments. You’d see, for instance, a bass guitar hugging the voice. You’d see counterpoints, even if, at the time, you didn’t know the word for them was ‘counterpoints’.

There’s a thesis waiting to be written about how Ilayaraja subverted music-making not just in the obvious ways — his elaborate instrumental passages; the astounding inventiveness with which he imparted joyous new colours to traditionally one-note instruments like the shehnai; the use of voice as one of the “instruments” but in the manner he brought preludes and interludes to the fore. Earlier, these instrumental stretches, however brilliantly done, were ultimately sips of water between the main vocal meal. But in many Ilayaraja songs, the vocals could be considered the filler, something to bide time till you got to the real meat of the song, the interplay between instruments.

Which isn’t to say Ilayaraja was a slacker in tune-making. ‘Nadhiyoram naanal ondru’ or ‘Vaa ponmayile’ or ‘Ennai thottu’ or ‘Oranchaaram’ are so beautifully tuned that they’d stand without any instrumental backing. Or take ‘Kaadhalennum kovil’: If you chart time on the X-axis and the notes on the Y-axis, you get the temple-like dome the song talks about. Ilayaraja just loved writing for instruments more than for voices. (Nothing else explains, at least to me, some of the utterly ordinary vocalists he worked with. And, in contrast, the brilliance of his background scores.) When you look at a song like ‘Azhagu aayiram’, it’s practically meaningless without the call-response play between distorted guitar effects, the flute, the singer’s humming, cascades of violins and piano runs, all timed with the precision of a Swiss watch. Behind the music, there was mathematics; the precision of an architect.

preciseness I do see one reason Ilayaraja’s music doesn’t reach across to younger listeners as much as we’d like it to. The videos. Every time I tell someone to look a song up, they’ll go to YouTube, and end up watching terrible film footage of a couple in eye-blinding clothes executing weird dance steps. Once you’ve seen those images, it’s hard to take the song seriously.

Another hurdle could be the sound, which wasn’t so much an issue with pre-Ilayaraja composers like M.S. Viswanathan because their use of instruments wasn’t as dense. Sound wasn’t much of an issue with our generation either, given the shoebox two-in-ones we had, or the rudimentary quality of speakers in cinema halls. But with today’s headphones and post-Rahman-era sensibilities, one can see that Ilayaraja’s sound engineers let him down on several occasions. I sometimes wish someone — perhaps Ilayaraja himself — would remove the rough edges from his songs and re-record them to make, say, the trumpets sound less strident, the tabla less metallic, and bring some high-low balance between instruments so that they don’t all sound like they’re crouched in the same decibel range. Ilayaraja’s recent soundtrack for Neethane En Ponvasantham showed us what a difference such spit-and-polish can make. The violins in ‘Saaindhu saaindhu’ sound like they have silk threads for strings.

But regardless of form, the content still stands. There will always be songs that work and songs that don’t — but I am talking about the style, which we refer to as ‘Ilayaraja-esque’, a style known even to music lovers in Bollywood, thanks to Ilayaraja-inspired hits like ‘Dhak dhak karne laga’ and ‘Neele neele ambar par’.

After 40 years, this style has not gone stale. Have you heard Ajay-Atul’s blockbuster soundtrack for the just-released Sairat, which has become the highest-grossing Marathi movie of all time? Put the music under a microscope and you’ll see Ilayaraja’s DNA.

There’s so much Ilayaraja to discover, so many songs that went unnoticed because all we heard were the big hits from the album. Like the Keladi Kanmani soundtrack. When the film came out, it was all about ‘Nee paadhi naan paadhi’ and the breathless ‘Mannil indha kaadhal’, and then, after some months, you stumbled into a seriously sexy number called ‘Thanniyila nananja’, where the bass guitar, flute and saxophone met in a heated ménage à trois. The Ilayaraja era transforms music lovers into archaeologists. The more you dig, the more you find.

Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu ’s cinema critic.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 10:05:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/baradwaj-rangan-on-growing-up-in-the-ilayaraja-era/article8629657.ece

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