He is based in Chennai, the fourth largest city in India and the centre of the Tamil film industry (colloquially known as Kollywood).
Ilaiyaraaja is a prominent composer of film music in South Indian cinema from the late 1970s till date. His work integrated Tamil folk lyricism and introduced broader Western musical sensibilities into the South Indian musical mainstream. He has thrice won the Indian National Film Award for best film scoring.
In the 2000s, he composed a range of non-film music, including religious and devotional songs, an oratorio, and world music. He is married to Jeeva, and the couple’s two sons (Karthik Raja and Yuvan Shankar Raja) and daughter (Bhavatharini) are film composers and singers.
Ilaiyaraaja was born into a poor rural Dalit family in Pannaipuram, Theni district, Tamil Nadu, India, as the third son of Daniel Ramaswamy and Chinnathayammal. Growing up in a rural area, Ilaiyaraaja was exposed to a range of Tamil folk music. At the age of 14, he joined a travelling musical troupe headed by his elder step-brother, Pavalar Varadarajan, and spent the next decade performing throughout South India.
In 1968, Ilaiyaraaja began a music course with Professor Dhanraj in Madras (now Chennai), which included an overview of Western classical music, compositional training in techniques such as counterpoint, and study in instrumental performance. Ilaiyaraaja specialized in classical guitar and had done a course in it with the Trinity College of Music, London.
Session musician and film Orchestrator
To hear his compositions, he would persuade Venkatesh’s session musicians to play excerpts from his scores during their break times. Ilaiyaraaja would hire instruments from composer R. K. Shekhar, father of composer A. R. Rahman who would later join Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestra as a keyboardist.
He has worked with Indian poets and lyricists such as Gulzar, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu and T.S. Rangarajan (Vaali), and film directors such as K. Balachander, K. Vishwanath, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Balu Mahendra and Mani Ratnam.
Impact and musical style
Ilaiyaraaja was one of the early Indian film composers to use Western classical music harmonies and string arrangements in Indian film music. This allowed him to craft a rich tapestry of sounds for films, and his themes and background score gained notice and appreciation amongst Indian film audiences.
According to musicologist P. Greene, Ilaiyaraaja’s “deep understanding of so many different styles of music allowed him to create syncretic pieces of music combining very different musical idioms in unified, coherent musical statements”.
By virtue of this variety and his interfusion of Western, Indian folk and Carnatic elements, Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions appeal to the Indian rural dweller for its rhythmic folk qualities, the Indian classical music enthusiast for the employment of Carnatic ragams, and the urbanite for its modern, Western-music sound.
Although Ilaiyaraaja uses a range of complex compositional techniques, he often sketches out the basic melodic ideas for films in a very spontaneous fashion. The Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam illustrates:
“Ilayaraja (sic) would look at the scene once, and immediately start giving notes to his assistants, as a bunch of musicians, hovering around him, would collect the notes and go to their places… A director can be taken by surprise at the speed of events.”
Ilaiyaraaja’s music is characterised by the use of an orchestration technique that is a synthesis of Western and Indian instruments and musical modes. He used electronic music technology that integrated synthesisers, electric guitars and keyboards, drum machines, rhythm boxes and MIDI with large orchestras that feature traditional instruments such as the veena, venu, nadaswaram, dholak, mridangam and tabla as well as Western lead instruments such as saxophones and flutes.He uses catchy melodies fleshed out with a variety of chord progressions, beats and timbres. Ilaiyaraaja’s songs typically have a musical form where vocal stanzas and choruses are interspersed with orchestral preludes and interludes. They often contain polyphonic melodies, where the lead vocals are interwoven with supporting melody lines sung by another voice or played by instruments.
The bass lines in his songs tend to be (melodically) dynamic, rising and falling in a dramatic fashion. Polyrhythms are also apparent, particularly in songs with Indian folk or Carnatic influences. The melodic structure of his songs demand considerable vocal virtuosity, and have found expressive platform amongst some of India’s respected vocalists and playback singers, such as K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubramaniam, S. Janaki, Sujatha, P. Susheela, K.S. Chithra, Malaysia Vasudevan, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.
The second, Nothing But Wind (1988), was performed by flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and a 50-piece orchestra and takes the conceptual approach suggested in the title — that music is a natural phenomenon akin to various forms of air currents (e.g., the wind, breeze, tempest etc.).
He has composed a set of Carnatic kritis that was recorded by electric mandolinist U. Srinivas for the album Ilayaraaja’s Classicals on the Mandolin (1994). Ilaiyaraaja has also composed albums of religious/devotional songs.
Ilaiyaraaja’s most recent release is a world music-oriented album called The Music Messiah (2006). Its musical concept is based against a mythological narrative.
Ilaiyaraaja has composed music for events such as the 1996 Miss World beauty pageant that was held in Bangalore, India, and for a documentary called India 24 Hours (1996). The pop/hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas sampled an Ilaiyaraaja composition called “Unakkum Ennakum”, from the film Sri Raghavendra (1985), for their tune “The Elephunk Theme” from their breakout album, Elephunk (2003), The alternative artist M.I.A. sampled his composition “Kaatukuyilu,” from the film Thalapathi (1991) for her song “Bamboo Banga” on the album Kala (2007).
He had done a few small-scale shows early in his career in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and was involved in a charity concert to raise funds for the construction of a Hindu temple in India. A television retrospective titled Ithu Ilaiyaraja (‘This is Ilaiyaraja’) was produced, chronicling his career.
Awards and honours
He also received State Government Awards from the governments of Kerala (1995), Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (The Lata Mangeshkar Award) (1998) for excellence in music.
He was awarded honorary doctorates by Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu, India (Degree of Doctor of Letter (Honoris causa)) (March, 1994), the World University Round Table, Arizona, U.S.A. (Cultural Doctorate in Philosophy of Music) (April, 1994), and Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu (Degree of Doctor of Letters) (1996).