A king and his times

Posted on May 21, 2016


Looking back at the Ilayaraja era, which began forty years ago, with the release of ‘Annakili’ on 14 May, 1976.

So Ilayaraja’s music and I, we’re both in our forties. 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: MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar or PU Chinnappa, Saigal or Pankaj Mullick. (Apparently, no generation can resist the “who is greater?” dispute.) 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 interviews – heck, the man was so prolific, he was giving us new songs to mark our Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays… 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 see 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 Vaanam keezhey and Pothi vacha malligai mottu

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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 play lists 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. All of which he’d toss into the blender inside his head, that wonderful bald head that wasn’t so bald those days, and pour out his patented genre-smoothies. The very Western-sounding beginning of Kodai kaala kaatre (it could be a late-sixties pop hit The Hollies might have sung) would give way to an interlude in which a solo violin would start playing like a coconut-shell fiddle from a village deep South, with rustic drumbeats to match. Or, in Manjal andhi velaiyo, an electric guitar would glide through Carnatic-sounding passages that a lesser composer might have used the veena for. None of this would sound odd, out of place.

It’s not that the music could be enjoyed only with all this analysis, either. It is commonly believed that the songs that become popular are the simple songs and that if you begin to layer in complexities, you’ll lose the “common man.” But all of Ilayaraja’s hits straddled breadth of appeal with depth of musicianship. So after you got past the instant appeal of the song (and these songs wormed into your ear on the first listen), 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, which, those days, was whipped out whenever a top-ranking Delhi politician kicked the bucket; the use of voice as one of the “instruments”; or the use of an instrument as a parallel voice (the bass guitar in Megam kottattum, the flute in Yerikkarai poongaatre) 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 courses of the main meal, which was served by the vocal parts. 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 thinking up tunes. 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 get really geeky, like we did those days, and chart time on the X-axis and the notes on the Y-axis, you get the temple-like dome the song talks about. So it isn’t that he was a lesser tunesmith. It’s just that he loved writing for instruments more than composing for voices. (Nothing else can explain, 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. Behind the heart-warming art, there was the cold precision of an architect. Not a brick was out of place.

This touched-by-God preciseness proves a problem for some of the younger generation. The music is too… controlled, they’ll say. But if Ilayaraja is controlled, then so are Mozart and Beethoven. You don’t get the “hey, it’s just some guys jamming” feeling with their music either. But I do see other reasons Ilayaraja’s music doesn’t reach across to younger listeners as much it should, as much as we’d like it to. The videos, for instance. Every time I tell someone to look a song up, they’ll go to YouTube, and end up watching eye-blinding clothes on a couple executing dance steps styled after exercises in PT class. Once you’ve seen those images, once you’ve laughed at them, it’s hard to take the song seriously.

Another thing could be the sound, which wasn’t so much an issue with pre-Ilayaraja composers like MS 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 the 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 that someone – perhaps Ilayaraja himself – removes the rough edges from his songs, re-records them with people who know how to make, say, the trumpets sound less strident, the tabla less metallic-sounding, bring some high-low balance between instruments so 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 the 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.” After forty years, this style has not gone stale – we are still in some sort of Ilayaraja era. And it isn’t just about a Tamil composer like D Imman, whose songs sound like a devotee’s homage to his deity. Have you listened to 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. But who has the time to educate newbies when there’s so much we ourselves have to discover, so many songs that went unnoticed because all we heard were the big hits from the album, and before we got to hear the other songs, the next big hits were upon us?  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, with the bass guitar, flute and saxophone in a heated ménage à trois. The Ilayaraja era transforms music lovers into archaeologists. The more you dig, the more you find.

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