(Ilayaraja’s first film as composer, Annakkili, released on May 14, 1976. That completes 40 years of relentless and glorious music making from the man, and some more, as he is still active and present. As a (music) technically inept listener and music fan, I can’t help but take this milestone as an opportunity to share my thoughts about Raja.)
Imagine it is 1982. Yes… 1982.
But also imagine that you have the same media landscape as it exists today, in 2016. So, in 1982, you have the internet, Facebook, Twitter, a multitude of newspapers, tons of bloggers, music reviewers online and a way to comment on anything and everything, online.
It is early January in 1982. Producer Kovai Thambi of Motherland Pictures has got the last Friday of February for the release of his Mohan-starrer Payanangal Mudivathillai and he was in a tizzy. There’s so much to be done in terms of pre-release promotion.
His contact at the film’s music label, Think Music, calls him and confirms that they can release a 30-second teaser of the first song of the film. They had decided earlier that the first teaser will be of the peppy youth number ‘Hey aatha aathorama poriyaa’. Kovai Thambi had earlier planned to reveal a teaser of ‘Ilaya nila pozhigirathu’, but the label had a valid reason for not using it for the first reveal – Ilayaraja had composed the tune earlier for Balu Mahendra’s Moodu Pani, and Balu had rejected that tune. Think Music did not want the film press to gossip that the first song of this film is a reject from someone as big as Balu Mahendra, and didn’t want comparisons between the musical tastes of Balu and this film’s debutant director, R. Sundararajan.
A week after Pongal, the teaser of ‘Aye aatha’ went live on YouTube at 12 midnight. The next day, the full song, with lyrics, was uploaded on YouTube.
By the time it was 9 am the next day, it had crossed a million views. A few hundred college going girls in Chennai had heard the song sung by fellow college-going boys, directed at them, by the end of that week. It also went right on top of Mirchi’s weekly countdown.
Think Music decided to release the full album in the last week of January. The Hindu’s Baradwaj Rangan, not a frequent music reviewer, went ga-ga over the album, particularly heaping praise on Ilaya nila and Mani osai kettu yezhundhu. Milliblog gave it a 200 word review, and got the raaga of the song Thogai ilamayil wrong and came under fire for that when a member of the Raja mafia online pointed it out in the comments section that had crossed 100+ now.
Musicaloud’s Vipin didn’t like Mudhal murai raaga deepam yetrum neram, but loved the rest of the album, and gave it an 8.5 out of 10.
Raaga Suresh wrote a blog post on how beautiful Saalayoram solai ondru was, and it was lapped by the a lot of folks on Facebook and Twitter, all echoing how the song ‘talked’ to them. Someone else on the TFM Raja thread commented about how critical S.Janaki was, to a song like Mani osai, and most people agreed whole-heartedly.
There were half page interviews with S.P.Balasubramanyam, Poornima Bhagyaraj, Mohan, Vairamuthu and debutant director R.Sundararajan in The Hindu, Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle and The Times of India (through a media tie-up between Motherland Pictures and Chennai Times) and almost 1/4th of all these interviews were dedicated to the respective artists waxing eloquent on Raja’s soundtrack for the film. R.Sundararajan, in particular, used more than half his interview in The Hindu to literally gush about the fact that Raja, THE Raja, had decided to produce music for his debut film.
The soundtrack went triple platinum in just weeks. By the time the film released in the last week of February 1982, all the 7 songs were a rage across Tamil Nadu. The film went on to be a monster hit.
Quite a few school-going girls in Tamil Nadu used ‘Thogai ilamayil aadi varuguthu’ as the song to dance on, in their school annual day function that year, though many schools did not give permission to the boys, to dance for ‘Hey aatha’.
Now, imagine the same set of euphoric reaction, attention and celebration for 5 more Tamil film soundtracks… in the same year, 1982. Yes, those were K.Bhagyaraj’s Thooral Ninnu Pochu, Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai, SP.Muthuraman’s AVM-produced Kamal Hassan masala Sakalakala Vallavan, Gangai Amaran’s Kozhi Koovuthu and Sridhar’s Ninaivellaam Nithya. And for a Malayalam film by Balu Mahendra, Olangal, with 3 superhit songs, one of which Balu was so enamored with, that he asked Raja to reuse it in a Telugu film of his in the same year, Nireekshana.
Plus, there were many other hits that received significant airplay all through the year, from other films, including Janani Janani from Thaai Mookaambikai, En purushanthaan from Gopurangal Saaivadhillai, Vellai pura ondru from Pudhukavithai, Kaaviriye from Archanai Pookkal, Sangathil paadatha, the only song composed by Raja in Auto Raja, him reusing Olangal’s Thumbi Vaa again, Sandhana kaatre from Thanikaattu Raja, the title song and Santhakavigal from Metti and the critically acclaimed soundtrack of Bharathiraja’s Kaadhal Oviyam, though the film flopped very badly.
That’s almost 10+ superhits that were on the lips of many, many listeners across 3 states, 1982.
Ilayaraja repeated this in 1983 too. He had Aanandha Kummi, Man Vaasanai, Mundhaanai Mudichu, Adutha Vaarisu, Malayoor Mambattiyaan, Thanga Magan, Vellai Roja and Ilamai Kaalangal in Tamil; Bapu’s Mantrigari Viyyankudu, and Saagara Sangamam, in Telugu for which he won the National Award for best music; Sadma in Hindi, which made him a rage in the North, as ‘Illiya Raja’; and Mani Ratnam’s debut film, in Kannada no less, Pallavi Anupallavi.
And he repeated the same feat in 1984. As he had done it in 1981 too, and before and after all these years, year after year.
I know there is little sense rueing the lack of mega surround-sound around Ilayaraja’s uninterrupted, prolific run in the late 70s, all of 80s and much of the 90s, but it sure was present, within whatever media was available at that time, and in what we call word-of-mouth.
He was also everywhere, quite literally, across the 4 Southern states, through radio.
To look back at Ilayaraja’s 40 years as a composer is to look back at life in the 70s and 80s in Tamil Nadu. Much like looking back at the 60s and 70s America as Woodstock. He was an unstoppable force of nature, devouring film scores by the dozen, year after year, regardless of who the director was, how shitty the films were and no matter which hero gained from his sparkling music.
I have written previously about Ilayaraja’s role in my life, as a mid-70s born person in Tamil Nadu. What I had not written back then was the fact that I did not have a music player or a radio of my own (we bought those things for the entire family back then, remember?) till I went to college, in Salem, in the mid 90s. This was shortly after 1992, and so A R Rahman was the first film composer that I recognized as someone worth devoting a lot of time on. It was also very fashionable to like Rahman back then and he had fully earned that qualification. Prior to Rahman, the only other musician I had idolized was George Michael, thanks to my cousin sister inculcating me into her cult of George Michael.
Because I never had a personal music player, much of my music consumption in the 80s was merely incidental. I did not have control over it, mostly. And hence, I took the composers of that music for granted. They were, in my growing years, more of Kamal-songs, Rajini-songs, Mohan-songs and Karthik-songs, than Ilayaraja songs. That identification came very, very late in life, at least to me. I still remember that moment, interestingly.
It was 1991. I was in school. The school had planned an excursion and we were to leave that night. We had assembled in the school (Chinmaya Vidyalaya, in Coimbatore) in the night to board the bus. The power was out (as always) and we were chatting excitedly in the school backyard about multiple things, in complete darkness, while waiting for the bus.
A friend asked me if I had heard the songs of Idhayam, an upcoming film. I said I hadn’t (no personal music player, remember?). He said the songs are fantastic and he was particularly going on-and-on about April mayile, and predicted that this song, along with ‘Hey party nalla party dhaan’ would become mega hits. I had no idea how those songs sounded and my friend went on to helpfully sing parts of April mayile. I did not know how to contextualize that song based on his singing.
I remember coming back from the trip and looking out for the music of Idhayam on radio, and on Oliyum OLiyum, on Doordarshan. By that time, it was all over the place and was a huge hit on radio. So it was very easy to get the music even if I did not own a music player. I went on to sing Pottu vaitha in a school function, started it on a wrong note, got the high notes horribly wrong and had to stop singing mid-way. I also went on to add Pottu vaitha and Idhayame idhayame in a mix-tape I made 2 years later, while in college in Salem – I had branded the mix-tape, ‘Soft and serene collection’ and it was full of Ilayaraja songs (in hindsight).
My hero-worship of Raja started very late in his career, when he was deep inside his synth phase. But that was the time I took the effort to dig his 80s and 90s songs I had missed, while growing up. And I realized I was missing a total treasure-trove of his songs from Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam only in the last 5+ years. Now, of course, amends have been made, and I’m all the more wiser.
I still have an opinion on Raja’s not-so-interesting synth phase in the 2000s, though he produced an occasional gem nevertheless. But the scene had changed. The music scene was wide open by then and there was a profusion of singers, composers and lyricists all trying to carve out a niche for themselves. So, we would never, ever have the kind of sweeping command a Raja (in composing), or a S.P.Balasubramayam/S.Janaki (in playback singing), or a Vaali/Vairamuthu (lyrics) held, in Tamil cinema ever. That phase, accentuated by limited options and even more limited consumption avenues, is long over.
The present, and future will be crowded. It’s not just in music – take any field (acting, writing, sports, television etc.) and you’d see tons of people making a mark, moving on, trying again, failing, or succeeding. There will be a lot to choose from, as professionals and as listeners.
But, it is worth remembering the last most dominant player in the pre-media-explosion period in each field of art. In Tamil film music, given my memory, it was Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, and then MS Viswanathan, and finally Ilayaraja. His dominance was so unparalleled that films were sold on his name alone. That’s a feat even his predecessors cannot claim. By the time Rahman’s face was adorning cassettes and CDs, the dynamics of the movie business had changed irrevocably. Music, released before the film, is merely a publicity vehicle now – not a vehicle to propel the narrative of (even shoddy) films as they did back then. Back then, people looked forward to the seamless integration of dialog delivery, acting chops, poetic verses and mellifluous music, all in one film. Not all of them are relevant these days, and not in the same weightage. It’s not devolution, though – it is still an evolution, to accommodate different kinds of story-telling.
For that earlier kind of film-making of Southern India, Ilayaraja was a name who ruled the roost like no other. His music made the careers of numerous heroes, heroines, lyricists, playback singers, directors and producers. And for that, for that prolificness, we listeners have to be ever grateful, regardless of you being a 70s, 80s or 90s born, or older. You may scoff at his outdated present-day music (with exceptions, of course)… I may too, but there is no denying what the man has done in the past. And if we do not contextualize his current output with his past, we’re not only fooling ourselves, but also insulting serious art. And he has left us so much to dig and enjoy from his incredible repertoire that one lifetime seems rather inadequate. It’s just a matter of time and personal evolution that people would eventually go back to Raja’s music, regardless of how much they fancy present-day music, which, in itself, is very, very interesting. In this context, while I do seek out as much technical analysis of Raja’s music (that exists in the nooks and corners of the internet), I really miss something like Krish Ashok’s Abaswaram podcast. Such efforts would go a long, long way in adding context to the complexity and beauty of Raja’s music (as also other composers’).
If Tamil (or Southern) film was an A4 size page, Raja, in my view, is about half its page, in terms of quality output. You may want to fill the page differently… I understand that completely.