Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ilaiyaraja - The Composer Par Excellence

Haven’t we all seen enough farcical interviews with celebrities, dishing out the same archaic questions with formulaic patterns and clichéd expressions? Have we not wondered on the credibility and the preparedness of the interviewers? On why interviews can’t be more thought provoking? On why can’t, instead of being superficial on issues or delving on only the laurels of the interviewee, the interaction be honest and bring out the unknown secrets of the accomplished who is sitting across the table?

I have seen scores of such empty conversations laden with empty euphemisms or stage-managed outpouring of emotions. This is so true, especially with Indian filmdom and more so in the Tamil filmworld.


In previous interviews of Ilaiyaraja, as always is the case, questions were asked by lesser mortals on how he wrote that score or this; how he met that director or this musician; how he felt about that success or this failure.

None had ever moved closer to the man’s genius or for that matter ever attempted to unravel the mystery surrounding his working style, thought processes in writing music and only felt too enamoured to unfacade his philosophical utterances. 


Till I saw Gautam Vasudev Menon’s interview with Ilaiyaraja in the pretext of Neethaane En Ponvasantham’s audio launch, this remained so true that I started watching this interview with oh-no-not-again feeling.

I was wrong. Pleasantly so.

The interview, which lasted 45 minutes in all, was refreshing, eloquent and was a well-planned search of Ilaiyaraja’s musical philosophy.

All that I had longed to know about his creative process, his comfort zones and his understanding of music and its creation was queried by Goutam.  Goutam was a class act in the process, equal in task, in the unnerving presence of Raja and deftly stayed clear of the 'throw-you-off-the -guard' philosophical expressions of Raja.

The thoroughness of Goutam’s seemingly questionnaire (though he never looked at one), stemmed from the fact that he is an accomplished writer himself. His eloquence was to the fore when his questions, even when they were long and were about complex themes, as it was clear and precise in argument too. His style was not flowery, not rustic and not at all adulatory.

Raja, on the other hand, was relaxed, welcoming and approving of Goutam’s searching questions. It was as though he was waiting for such a moment to happen and was ready to share his understanding of music and its creation. Surprising, as Raja is known for his uninteresting interviews where he usually turns out to be a nervous man, always ready to jump at a discordant note or return back to his disarming philosophical reverse questioning mode.

Probably the rarity of the musical score of Neethaane En Ponvasantham, as he admits, did the trick.

Raja’s thought process in creating music

There are certain elements, which he describes as his basis while writing music, while Goutam asks him pointedly about the thought process.

“I need to be true to myself first”, says Raja and continues, “I should not fall into any fixation that a given director needs/deserves this music”. This, I feel, has more toward his equality and commitment to all the directors with whom he had worked - irrespective of their merits, and towards his own creative conviction. He further elaborates that he should not have any motivation while he starts writing the music! 

A very deep observation.  Best understood by a factual expansion of his first statement - which he does not show any emotion to the cast, crew or budget or to any other extraneous parameters but is only commissioned on the theme and what it demands from him.

“Music should happen on the spot; at that moment”, he says, an often repeated system of Raja, this time with an analogy. “A sculpture transforming at the hands of the sculptor, freezes in time when it attains its finality. It stays that way for centuries to come; music should happen and it happens to me thus. It has to flow spontaneously”.

Discerning the Discipline and Dedication in Music Creation

When Goutam admits that his understanding of music was defined by Raja’s songs through his youth, he also mentions that he was hesitant to approach the man with whose music he grew up with. He was only waiting to attain a stage (after 12 successful films) when Raja would feel comfortable working with a him, now a seasoned creator, a successful one with a reasonable music-to-visual sense.

 “The creation and presentation of NPV’s (Neethaane En Ponvasantham) music is a new experience to me; it has never happened to me with anyone…” was what Raja says - a very strong statement for a man whose career had spanned more than 36 years and with scores for over 950 films.

“I know the dedication of the musician to his instrument; I also know how it should sound when a group of musicians play a single note in unison,” defining the musical discipline, which he is often feared for.

The Process of Writing Music

Raja’s method of writing scores is self-balanced, he says. The aural volumes of different instrument sections are built into the score and hence the engineers do not need to balance the volumes after the recording. He further explains that as he writes the score, he decides, again spontaneously, which instruments groups need to be engaged at which point, and how many instruments are needed in each group. It was amazing when he said that for a certain song in NPV he had originally written the music for 12 string instruments but on inspecting the recording theatre, he had to cut down on the number of violins to engage as he felt so many would sound harsh.

Musical Genre of Neethaane En Ponvasantham


“I realized that I am capable of writing this kind of music after I finished writing this…” said Raja. He and Goutam discuss about how the Hungarian conductor and the British musicians and engineers, while working for the NPV album, had said that the music was not western classical music nor could it be classified as Indian music.

“Watch out for this new genre of music, Goutam. This sounds new. And this is Raja’s music” was what the conductor from Budapest had said. “This is world music and you cannot name it”, should have been nostalgic to Raja’s ears who had called his first non-film album, ‘How to name it?’ 25 years ago.

Differentiating between Similar Situations and Creating New Musical Scores – Avoiding ‘Musical Intention’

How does he differentiate between what to offer for a specific situation –even when he had to listen to hundreds of directors demanding thousands of tunes for romantic scenes? How had he ensured that he delivered a different sounding song every time?

Here is where the mastery, the unbelievable precision and the razor-sharp memory weigh in. While writing the score, he says he could realize whether the incumbent tune resembled any of his other tunes. What results is a spontaneous rendering of an alternative tune. “There should be no intention” he says.

The Musical Journey

“How can I define? I have lived my life. I followed it, committed mistakes, learnt from them and disciplined myself”, Raja muses. Philosophically, he states that, “Raja is dead. I am lost. How can I bear myself praising myself? Haven’t I learnt only this much? With all my limitations, I do not know how my composition pours out as music. The moment I could decipher that mystery, I will stop”.

Resonance with the Masses

Thousands everyday listen to his music. He has provided solace and happiness tomillions through his compositions. How does he see this contribution?

A wonderful analogy then flows from the Maestro. He uses the ‘Alpha Rhythm’ principle which states that one of the two instruments, placed close to each other, will resonate in accordance, when the other is strung – if both are in tune.

He, another rarity of this interview, muses, “In the beginning (of my career), I used to wonder. After the success of Annakili (his first film 36 years ago), I used to ask myself - why do the masses like this music? Why do they accept that this is good? I have not canvassed them. I did not persuade them to listen to my music. Yet why are they loving this?

In a profound statement, Raja then declares that that was not him who made the millions happy by providing the music. It was the people who have made themselves happy by identifying themselves with his music. His music was theirs. They were already attuned and his music touched that right concordant note.

Profound indeed. And brilliantly presented.

Legacy of Raja’s Melodies

Signifying the anguish of many original creators who feel that the current generation is often fed with lesser music – living the short-lived life purely by the packaging and by the different sounding recording, Goutam felt that ‘this (Raja’s) is music; this is classic; and this is style. This should be taken to the younger generation. In a bold new sound, Raja's melodies, as heart and soul, will be the new music of the new generation.’

“I want to talk to them. Interact with them. I want to reach out to the people and pass my experience to the future generation”, Raja’s statement concludes as the well-choreographed interview draws to a close.

I could see that it was Goutam’s easy approach which made the great man reveal so much about his beliefs and processes. The interview, I am sure, would have been a first for Raja too, as he often emphasizes about the uniqueness of NPV's music and about its creation process.

Kudos to Goutam Vasudev Menon!

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