An Encounter With The Maestro
This write-up is merely an effort to share with numerous fans of Indian film music, an experience that every music lover would thoroughly enjoy. As a long standing watcher of the Tamil film music scenario and an admirer of Mr. Illayaraaja, I have on quite a few occasions observed the entire process of creating music for movies by various music composers besides him.
What makes Raaja a unique phenomenon is the sheer native genius in him that has a facile way of responding to technology's challenges and yet not succumbing to its pervasiveness.
Illayaraaja has proved time and again that he is equally at ease with folk songs as with carnatic music or for that matter any other music form. Time and again he has publicly expressed that composing is basically creating alternate forms to existing musical works. Isai enbadhu verum sithu velai is one of his stock phrases.
His attitude of modestly simplifying his own creative prowess has often been interpreted as arrogance by the media in Chennai. An afternoon I spent with the maestro at his studio gave me a chance to freely interact with a man who is extremely simple, extraordinarily dedicated to his work and a virtuoso in Indian film music.
I thought there would be many in our midst who would like to get a closer glimpse of this enigmatic genius who was pretty warm and communicative that afternoon.
The afternoon heat in Chennai was at its sweltering best that Thursday as I drove through Bollywood's crowded arteries. The appointment was at 2 pm and I was on time. The Gurkha at Prasad studios probed me on my purpose. I have to use the cine slang to gain entry. The fact that I was in a car helped.
Raaja Saar-ai paarkanum. Avar theatre engae?
The response was far from direct. Deva Saar left-il deluxe theatre-il irukkaru. Raaja Saar paarkaright-il poganum. Angae Yaarum poga vida maatanga.
I tell him that I have a prior appointment and proceed.
As I enter the spacious lobby of Illayaraaja's musical haven, the spartan place struck me. Sitting in a corner was Kalyanam, Raaja 's secretary of years. I told him of our objective and my relative had a good reference. The intercom came in handy. And in a moment, I was ushered towards a short flight of stairs.
As I ascended the flight of stairs and turned, I was shocked to see the maestro himself coming up to receive us and asking us what he could do for us. All bollywood gossip about the man with a high and mighty way had already begun to look pretty suspect.
I told him about being his admirer since aeons and expressed my desire to watch him at work. He immediately led us into his editing suite from where he oversees his scores get recorded. On previous occasions I have never had a chance to get to talk to the man and it was always an impersonal experience.
To my surprise, as the evening went along, the man was actually communicating freely with me on a variety of subjects and he revealed his mind like never before. The recording theatre was a familiar place except that the forty violinists were no more a regular feature and the latest synthesizers have taken their place. There were hardly a dozen musicians and huge hall wore a deserted look.
I comfortably lodge myself on one of the sofas inside his console while the maestro settles down into a brief spell collating his thoughts on the day’s composition.
The song was a bylla number to be sung by Usha Uthup for Vijayshanthi's forthcoming film tentatively named Jhansi. The small group of musicians were not quite out of their afternoon dullness what with the studio sappadu's heavy spell on them. Raaja gave them ample time to program his score and evidently it took them longer to program than it took him to write and create music.
Meanwhile it was time for me to get the man to speak. I tried to be crafty and keep the controversies for the later part. The initial part was soft and centered around his sons. His eyes brighten when I refer to Karthik, his elder son.
Where does he compose?
Avan veetiliye program pannikkuvan. Appuram ingae vandhe mixing pannuvan.He does not seem to get good projects. And despite an excellent score, many of his films suffered poor directorial treatment. (I said about Karthik.)
Namma pangai naam seyyarom. Appuram nadapadhu irai arul. (The gnani is philosophical.)
I ask him how he felt when he sang under his son’s baton.Was he not the first composer father to sing for his son? The happiness is evident as his face brightens. But, words fail to come.
I inform him that Karthik was chosen among the twenty worthy young.
Indians to watch out in future by Gentleman's Quarterly, a leading English
"Naan endha paper, pathirigai padikiradillai. Ungalai madiri nanbargal solli than theriyum. Naan en ulagil nimmadhiyaaga vazhgiren"
I ask about the press and all the loose talk about his symphony. Was it like his earlier albums? Would it be Carnatic - western classical ably fused? Or, would folk find more expression?
"Naan en manadil patta isaiyai seidirukkaen. Neenga athai kettu than sollanum. Wait panna
vendiya suzhnilai. Konjam naal poruthu adhu varum."
Does he differentiate between folk, carnatic, western, fusion? What does he enjoy more?
"Isai enrathu ellame enakku onnu than. Music panrathu enakku periya vishayamillai. Ippadi ukkanthu yosichaal adhu thaana varum." The statement is more reflecting the pervasive role of
music in his life. He seems to say that his life is music and he does not feel that it is a job where he toils.
Meanwhile the recordist Sethu plays two of his latest songs hot from the recording spools. One sung by Raaja on Amman is unique in its style. The next one sung by Hariharan & Bavatharini also has a new feel about him.
I ask him this new feel his music has started evoking. After Kaadhalukku Mariyadhai, Raaja seems to have evolved a more pop oriented rhythm format and the beauty is that it is mild and blends with his usual composing format and orchestration. He agrees and attentively watches every word I say. I'm put on the defensive. But, moments later he says, his songs will have a fresh feel.
I seem to get accustomed to the pauses in our conversation. A guitarist who's been with Raaja from his early days comes into the mixing suite and sets up his guitar. I ask Raaja about `GURU' a film made in Malayalam by Rajiv Anchal.
Raaja's face wears a surprised look. `Guru kettutingala? Adai engae kaeeteenga?'
I tell him that I heard the soundtrack on tape. I tell him that I have not seen the film as it has not been released in Chennai. By this time, I enter a complaining mood.`Re-recording paarkanum saar. Ingae thaan padam release agalaiye.'
I ask Raaja about the experience of working with the Hungarian musicians. Did he compose some new music for a new album? Did the hungarian musicians play any instrumental music composed by him ?
`Athellam illai. Padathukku rerecording pannom.Chumma irundappa avangaluukkaaga vaasikka rendu movement compose pannen. Adu avungalukku romba pudichirundadu. Anubavichu vaasichaanga.'
I ask him about any new albums from him. Why was there such a long gap after ‘Nothing but wind’ ?
The answer is monosyllabic.`Pannikittirukken'
He asks the guitarist if he has tried the new score for the album. The maestro seeks feedback about his future offering from his old associate.
`Nalla vandirukku Raaja. Nalla heavy aaga irukku. Vaasippom'. The guitarist continues with the practise of his score.
I ask raaja about India 24 hours - his recent musical offering.`Adhu oru documentary padathukku pottathu.Album aaga vandu irukku'. He even offers me the name of the company that owns the rights for the album and has released the album overseas.
I'm wondering about the image that the media has given this genius and trying to relate to my experience over the past two hours. The untruths made out in the media strike me harsher than ever before.
My complaining mood turns into a suggestive one. Why can’t Raaja release a series of albums containing his re-recordings? Who owns the copyright to re-recordings? Why aren’t his gems from the period 1975 to 1995 available on CD & tape? Why are we made to hunt for these scores? I go on to tell him about the tapes of `JHONNY' which play only on one speaker and are still being bought by his admirers like me.
He laughs. `Appadiya? Re-recording porutha varai composer thaan rights oda owner. Naan cassette pottal adai appadiye TV serial-il adichiduvaanga. Appadiyae poduvaanga. Adanaala seyyalai'.
As for the CD's from yesteryears collections Raaja explains that the music companies need to take the initiative.
The orchestra has assembled and this first take is about to be made. In the first take, a violinist plays the part that is later sung by the vocalists.The song gets off to a thumping start. Slowly, V.S. Narasimhan unobtrusively plays the song's pallavi to the accompaniment of the whole orchestra.
His solo violin seems to even convey the lyrical melody of the song laying emphasis and expression at will.
The arrival of Usha Uthup hastens the tempo of the workplace. Before getting to business, Usha complains that Raaja does not give her too many songs. She chastens Raaja to remember her more often. "Every song I have sung for you is a hit. But I only sing once in 3/4 years."
Raaja is mild in his response. He says that he does not decide."Only God wills it. If it has to happen, it will happen."
Usha is quick on the rebound. "You have a hotline to God. So why don't you recommend" She says in obvious reference to raaja's deeply religious pent of mind.
The recording gets underway and the maestro thumps his fist on the console as if he is recording his first song. The enthusiasm for composing is barely concealed.It is his life and comes naturally to him.
After doing so many innovations in the Film world, Raaja is well aware of the technological changes & the fast blurring line between good sound engineering and composing. The next genre comprising the like of Rahman clearly are only mastering the art of creating telling sound. Composing has clearly taken a back seat and Raaja prefers to only say that time & people's taste will decide the longevity of a composer's work..
As for the controversies raging the film world about him , his future in the filmdom, his involvement in mega projects of Kamal, Maniratnam & Rajnikanth that are in the pipeline, all I get is a smile and a "let's see" kind of look.
As the time comes for us to leave, he courteously and personally see's us off and gets on with his destined role in the wide world - creating music.
While I return one thing seems clear to me.
Illayaraaja is a musical phenomenon who is quite a misfit in the glitter of filmdom. He seems to view his role as a composer more as a Karmic one. Despite the sound revolution engineered by Rahman and Yuvan Shankar Raaja (his own son), Raaja still sticks to his own musical idiom. The wailing flutes and brisk violin movements that have characterised his music remains much the same: the stunning effect of chorus that has become a hallmark of his songs, the smooth transitions from the pallavi to anupallavi and then the saranam and the pervasive rusticity still capture the hearts of millions. Just listening to the only Tamil hit film of 1997 - Kaadalukku Mariyadai will make that abundantly clear.The remarkable composing concepts infused by
Raaja in creating background scores is yet to be bettered by anyone.
As the world moves on towards the twenty first century, Illayaraaja is preparing to create musical works that shall ensure his place in the Hall of Fame of Indian cinema as its greatest composer ever.