Source: The Frontline -year 1989
This is the introduction to an interview with Ilaiyaraaja that appeared in The Frontline in 1989.
This article traces Ilaiyaraaja career and accomplishments. The actual interview is present in another article.
This is an article about and an interview with Ilaiyaraaja [the original musical phenomenon].
Some of the info about him mentioned in this composed music for 400 movies. The count has now crossed 700, I think. That was in 16 years!! Unbelievable.Also it is mentioned in the article that Ilaiyaraaja has got two national awards. As an update, he got his third national award for the telugu movie "Rudra Veena" in 1989. Ok, without any further ado, here it is....
Ilaiyaraaja Musical Mission
Presenting the phenomenon of Ilaiyaraaja : one of the best pro-fessional composers the Indian film world has produced. The country's most prolific composer, he is extraordinarily versatile and has an unorthodox approach to music. A musician working in the cinematic medium much ahead of his time, with unusual gifts. Insights into the man and his music, with an interview by A.S.Panneerselvan.
"It is a treat to watch him working. I must say that he is the only complete music director in the film industry. He does everything - composing, orchestration, arrangement of instruments, writing notations,conducting and, in a few instances,even sound recording and balancing of tracks. He is a master composer and a brilliant orchestrator. His non- filmi album 'How to name it ' stands as a testimony for my observations."
---- Flute maestro Hari Prasad Chaurasia
"This young man has achieved a hundred times more than any one else in the profession. Only time can tell the quantum of his achievements and his contributions. To be frank, I have a lot to learn from this genius."
---- Composer Naushad
"He is as good as any top ranking composer in any part of the world. His prolificity is something phenomenal. He richly deserves both the national awards he has bagged so far."
---- Violinist L.Subramaniam
The praise showered is on the phenomenon of Ilaiyaraaja. And for those who had the opportunity to move with him closely, the admiration for the person runs ahead of that for his music. In just over a decade, Ilaiyaraaja has scored music for more than 400 films in five languages-Tamil,Telugu,Malayalam,Kannada and Hindi. He has been commissioned to score music for the next English venture of the Metro Film Corporation. Acknowledged as one of the best professional composers India has produced, he is rated as a musician much ahead of his time. It might take some time to understand the changes he brought in tonal quality and sound quality. Says his former guru G.K.Venkatesh : "He is so modern and simultaneously ahead of his time. He is not one who loves his own creation or is spellbound by it. That is the secret of his success. An Ilaiyaraaja number is overshadowed only by another Ilaiyaraaja number"
The Ilaiyaraaja story is a story of hard and dedicated work by a man of unusual gifts. Born in the little hamlet of Pannaipuram in Madurai district, Ilaiyaraaja went to school in the nearby Kombai village. When he was in the eight standard, two astrologers, Palaniswamy and Santhanam, predicted that he would not study beyond that. In 1958, he enrolled himself in Thevaram High School for the ninth standard and felt that he had disproved the prediction. But owing to certain unforeseen circumstances, Ilaiyaraaja was forced to accompany his elder brother, Paavalar Varadarajan, a propaganda musician for the undivided CommunistParty of India, to give concerts.
This musical mission proved the predictions right. " Between 1958 and 1968 ", he recalls in his book 'Sangeetha Kanavugal'(Musical Dreams) ," we travelled all over TamilNadu. There is not a single town or village in this State which hasn't listened to our music." In 1968, he moved to Madras along with his other elder brother Bhaskar and younger brother Gangai Amaran (who is also now a lyricist, composer and director). Despite the nagging poverty and starvation, he pursued his musical mission. He enrolled himself as a student of Western Classical music under "Master" Dhanraj. 'Master" was able immediately to spot Ilaiyaraaja's extraordinary gift and did not accept any fee from him. It was in his master's room in Luz, Madras, that he was initiated to the various nuances of classical music. "Bach, Beethoven, Mozart ,Schubert,Haydn and Brahms used to visit our lodge everyday, you know," says Ilaiyaraaja smilingly. This training made him take up an examination of the Trinity College of Music, London, in which he emerged a gold medallist in classical guitar.
Then Ilaiyaraaja joined G.K.Venkatesh as his assistant. Hisrole as an assistant was so significant that the lyricist_cum_producer Panchu Arunachalam decided to have him as the music director for "Annakkili".Ilaiyaraaja recorded six songs for that film in folk style. And the rest is cinema history.
Ilaiyaraaja's modus operandi is unique in more than one sense. He writes down the tune in the form of notations ; he doesn't hum it or play it on his harmonium.The tune seems to flow spontaneously from his head. One has not at any time seen him worked upto produce a tune. It comes so naturally and effortlessly to him that an onlooker feels that composing might be the easiest profession in the world. As he writes the tune, he writes down the orchestration to the last detail. He does not miss even a single obbligato. When he goes recording, he embellishes his work by taking on the spot decisions which are " precise and flawless."
Ilaiyaraaja approaches music in a most unorthodox manner. He is not cowed down by the dogmatic rules prescribed by self-styled guardians of "pure music ". He declares : " Music is nothing but sound and there is no place for value judgement among various sounds. " He adds : " I am not a musician. For a musician,raga is a hurdle ;tala is hurdle; his musical training is a hurdle. Since I am not a musician, I have no parameters to restrict myself. Whatever comes to my mind, I have no hesitation in doing it. I am able to compose a song in aarohanam alone, while the whole spectrum of music vidwans believed for centuries that a song should essentially comprise aarohanam and avarohanam. This is because I have no bonds."
He is india's most prolific composer, yet there is no question of his music sounding stale or repetitive. This is a function of his extraordinary versatility. Most people in the field would acknowledge that film music has become richer after his entry. Ilaiyaraaja, who has firm roots in the soil in which he was born, has made folk music popular. The respectability he brought to the simple soul-stirring folk and tribal music is much more, in terms of both quality and quantity, than the results of several festivals put together.
Despite two ( three, now ) national awards for the best music direction and a highly acclaimed non-verbal instrumental compact disc titled " How to name it, " released internationally by Oriental Label, U.S (the first such for an Indian film composer) to his credit, little has been written about him and his music. The reason for this is Ilaiyaraaja's self-imposed exile from the media glare.
Ilaiyaraaja Musical Mission
The following FRONTLINE interview, which lasted five hours and spanned two sessions, took place at his composing room at Prasad Studios and his newly constructed, aesthetically sensitive house at T.Nagar,Madras.
FRONTLINE : Why do you avoid journalists and critics?
Q : What is your view about music?
A : To me, music is nothing but fraud. The moment you play all the seven notes, music is completed. Then going on repeating it- in different permutations and combinations - is nothing short of cheating. The person whosuccessfully cheats a large audience for an extended period is called the "big" composer. Genuine music, to me,is the one which has no purpose. It should be as natural and as purposeless as the flow of the river. I have a purpose in creating my music. The purpose is business. Saint Thyagaraja sang songs to attain God. So even he had a purpose for his music. At least, he never sold his music. But take a farmer for instance. While ploughing, he spurts into a crescendo of music with no purpose. That is true music.
Q : Will the vidwans and musicologists agree with your view about music?
A : Please tell me, who are the vidwans and musicologists? Saint Thyagaraaja, who spent his whole life as a wandering singer, sang his heart and soul out. The people who learn 15 krithis of that saint and practise them for their lifetime call themselves vidwans and musicologists. I have listened to all these living vidwans. There is always a tone of arrogance mightiness ringing in their voice and style of singing. I am very sure that Thyagaraja swamigal wouldn't have sung in this manner. His approach must have been the most simple, the most lucid and the most spontaneous. That is missing in the concerts. (Ilaiyaraaja sings a krithi to explain his contention). Therefore, there is no need for me to convince them.
Q : Then how do you define music?
A: Music is nothing but sound. There is music in the bark of the dog. There is music in the walk of every human being. Music is not a subject to be discussed. It has to be experienced. The universe is one which has its own rhythm pattern, and it goes on in a cyclic fashion without losing its equilibrium. Similarly,sound is ultimately a solitary note. It is not ascending. It is not descending. It is not vertical. Nor is it sinusoidal. It is dynamic. Yet this dynamism defies our general perception. We human beings have lots of limitations. We are able to perceive only the sounds within the audible frequency. There are notes above and below that. We forget them. Man has fragmented this solitary note into seven notes of the octave.Listen to the howl of the dog. Doesn't it have a swara prashta. Sa Re Ga.(Ilaiyaraaja sings and shows the similarity) There is no difference between the howl of the dog and the songs of vidwans. Actually, I have written a script in which i have recorded in what raga a dog barks on various occasions. This proves my theory - music is nothing but sound.
Q: There are various systems in music - like Carnatic, Hindustani,Western, tribal and folk.And every system has its own schools. Which system do you think is the most well developed one?
A: I do not like to make these types of value judgements. The person who assumes the role of a judge should be extremely well versed in the various systems of music which he compares. A person who ompares and rates Carnatic music higher than light music should know both the systems. But people who dismiss light music here do not know both the systems. Saying Hindustani is superior is superior to Carnatic, and even in Hindustani, Drupad is superior to Thumri or Kayal, opera is superior to symphony,sounds utter nonsense. No one knows all the systems of music thoroughly and hence no one is qualified to be a judge. But every one of passes value judgements about one music or the other. Further, to me, at a different level, all these systems and schools appear imaginary. But before going into the value judgements of other musical systems, let us have a look at the attitude of our own vidwans towards our own classical music. If a musician sings a particular number very well, with excellent sangathis in the right places and right punctuations, we don't praise him. On the other hand, our vidwans will say : "Seventeen years ago at the Music Academy, I rendered this number in a much better manner." For me, the past is past ; I am more concerned about what you are going to do. Talking about ancient glory never makes me happy. Now I am sure that a Thyagaraja Swamigal or a Dhikshitar is not going to be reborn, for obvious reasons. They just can't live with this generation of musicians who torture music. ( laughs).
Q : Your notion about music is reflected in your work. The list is endless. Do the producers and directors mediately accept your experimentations?
A: Now I am a saleable commodity. Above that, I have a reputation on which the producers and directors have faith. My commercial viability, coupled with my reputation, gives me enough freedom to assert my right as a composer. They have confidence that if I do something, it would somehow reach the wider public. But I have the responsibility of proper films for experimentation. I cannot just throw away my labour in a gutter. So selecting producers and directors is my own prerogative.
Q : After your entry, we find that for almost all songs, the tune is first set and then the lyric is written.Don't you think that you are curtailing the freedom of the lyricist?
A : No. it is not like that. This type of question never arises when one understands the nature of the work.It is team work, where the director decides the situation for which I, as the music director, create music accordingly. The function of the lyricist is to write lyrics for that music. That is the demand of the work. If he is notable to write for the tune, it is his weakness. There is no point in finding fault with me. I am prepared to set the tune for any poetry. I am sure that i will be able to create a tune, because I know what my job is. As days progress, composing seems to become a simple and effortless job, a sort of daily routine. I don't expect others to praise my daily habit, composing.
Q : There is a void in the field of lyric writing. Do you feel it? If so, what are the steps you have taken to fill it?
A : Yes, I do accept that we don't have a good lyricist after Kavignar Kannadasan. But what can I do about it?
Q : What is your approach to spotting talent in singing?
A : I am convinced that if some one has talent, he will somehow move into limelight. But one cannot go and search and discover any talent. They have to emerge naturally. Take the example of Chitra. After listening to her once, I made her sing. Earlier, another girl called Jenny came for the voice test. I felt that she was talented and I started giving her a chance right from the next day. But I cannot pressure others by saying : " Write well; avoid repetition of words ; be spontaneous. " It has to come naturally. Suddenly one good lyricist will emerge. Till then we must wait. What choice do we have?
Q : Are the singers able to cope with you in your experimentation?
A : With some amount of hard work and struggle, I am able to get what I want from the singers. We have to compromise at some levels, otherwise the work will never progress. I should be prepared to forgo certain things and the singers should also be prepared to do the same. Since this spirit is there, I am able to pull on without much of a problem. We also have enough talented singers.
Q : Are the other musicians in your orchestra able to riseto the occasion in playing difficult numbers?
A : No, there are limitations. I think I have done a lot in film music. And my difficult and experimental numbers have been received very well. The limitation of instrumentalists is obvious inmany respects. But that is not a problem for film music. Really, we don't need extremely talented musicians for everday recording. However, when you attempt some work for study purposes and other musical experiments, the limitation is glaring. We really need more talented musicians for these works. Most of the musicians who play for recording learn music only for their livelihood. The moment something stoops to the level of merely earning, you cannot expect much from it.
Q : Some producers and directors who reaped the maximum benefit from your music have deserted you because of your busy schedule. Some people would consider this as an act of betrayal. How do you look at it?
A : Is there any place in the world where there is no betrayal? Even our so-called close friends ditch us in life. What can I say about this? Today I am a profitable commodity. People mob me. Some who benefited from me are going to praise me and the rest, for whom I was not accessible, are going to slander me. How can I expect them to praise me? I have nothing against anyone. I go to Prasad ( studio ) at 7 in the morning and work till 10 in the night. Today is the second Saturday and the whole industry takes rest, but I am at my work. Despite all these things, I cannot give dates to all of them simultaneously. It is humanly not possible. To be frank, I am not at all bothered about the people who have left me. I am not going to gain anything nor lose anything. Who are the losers? Who knows?
Q : You have thus far scored music for more than 400 films. After all, our films are the same. Are you planning to avoid film assignments to concentrate on recorded musical ventures like, 'How to name it '?
A : Recorded music is still not a popular concept in our country. Film is the only medium through which one can reach a wider public. At present, it is very difficult to avoid films completely. But I have an idea on these lines. Just now I have completed my new album, " Nothing but wind'. They will materialise as time progresses.
Q : The term 'rerecording ' has become popular even among the village folks, thanks to you. (Film background music is referred to as rerecording in industry circles). What special care do you take to make your background score so different?
A : All the musicians who visit my recording theatre appreciate the speed in which I am able to work and the quality I am able to produce. But I don't find any reason to it. The ideas come automatically to me according to the mood of the film. If i don't get any idea, then the film is like that. I have a screening of the film the day previous to the recording. The next day, when I am sitting with 60 musicians in the theatre,the reel is screened again. As I view the film, I start eliminating the ideas which others in the profession would adopt for the particular situation. I don't even use the instruments which others will use for a particular sequence. Therefore, I have to think fresh. A man settled in life with a secure job approaches life in a casual manner. But a man for whom most of the chances are closed approaches life with all-out courage and from a new view point, which enables him to achieve a lot more than the former. I am like the latter. That is the reason for the freshness and novelty in my background score.
Q : Are you prepared to support new directors who want to make experimental films?
A : Definitely, yes. But before that, what is experiment? I don't understand. Most of the experiments never take people into consideration. There cannot be an experiment without people. It is indulgence. I don't subscribe to it.People who have listened to my music and studied it will notice that I have popularised the various elements of Indian and Western classical music by slightly diluting them. A rich harmony is taken to a rickshaw-puller by adding a folk element to it. 'Marimari Ninne' and 'Maha Ganapathim' are popular among the villagers not because of any vidwans. They are popular because I have used them in a proper manner. To me, experiment means taking things on a high pedestal to the masses in such a way that they will accept them. Other than this, all experiments are a process of fooling oneself and the general public.
Q : Who is the composer you like most?
A : Bach. The reason is that he composed music in the formative days of Western classical music. There are three different types of counterpoint among which writing invertible counterpoints is the most difficult one. His compositions are so complete with every note falling in the right place with amazing mathematical precision. That is his greatness.
Q : Do you think you have the right recognition? Are you happy with your two national awards?
A : I have not been recognised by this Government to which I pay my tax happily. The national awards don't mean much. It made no difference to me. The only recognition I have is that South Indians throughout the world listen to my music. But this doesn't help me even buy a train ticket on the emergency quota ! I don't have any good quality instruments to record my music. I cannot even get the basic requirements to function as a musician. This is the recognition I get in my own country.