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Ilayaraja’s symphony

A DIY maestro fan guide

How to become an Ilayaraja follower of 3 decades experience in 15 minutes flat

Chennai: Ilayaraja has to be the best musician ever as can be figured out from his fans, who in general know more about his music than he possibly does.

This is not the case with any other music director. Take for instance Ilayaraja’s projected archrival in the industry, A R Rahman’s music. Sometimes people have difficulty in even identifying the singers. And these people are usually the singers of that song itself.

You can’t blame them. For, Rahman, if the industry people and knowledgeable critics are to be believed, has basically outsourced music composing to a high-end supercomputer set up at his Kodambakkam and Los Angeles music studios (the former for Indian movies and the latter for Hollywood ventures). The instrument players do some random thing. The lyricist writes out some random verse. The singers croon out some random melody. And then Rahman sits with the supercomputer and — young music directors can note this down —- taps the ‘enter’ button and, voila, a music CD is spewed out. This process may seem complicated, and rather silly, too. But such a procedure alone can possibly explain how a jazz-filled number and ‘pianoic’ riffs ended up being part of a film (Kadal) set in rural Tuticorin, a kind of place where musical horns in buses itself is considered too posh and outlandish.

Another thing said against Rahman’s music is that they are seldom instantly catchy. This point is now so well ingrained in popular imagination that some enterprising universities are already offering doctoral thesis on the subject: ‘The innate connection between: Rahman’s Music and Hair on Your Ears— How both take years to grow on you’.

Ilayaraja’s music, on the other hand, is snappy enough to become a chartbuster even before it is composed. In popular musical forums on the internet  —- one of the qualities to be deemed a good Ilayaraja fan, by the way, is to possess a good broadband connection — the maestro’s fans are already discussing the quintessential magic in his harmonic usage of — this should be obvious —- saavu melam in a sensual romantic song for a yet to be made movie, whose director, of course, felt the impact of Ilayaraja’s music even when he was just an idea in his (director’s) dad’s head.

But there are Ilayaraja Fans and there are the Ilayaraja Fans.

There is a huge difference between two: The first set listens and feels happy. The second set listens and feels haughty. Why? They have a valid reason: They are jerks.

No, they are experts in film music. Now, expertise in film music comes through years and years of hard work of claiming one to be an expert.  Otherwise, there is no other redeeming quality to them.

Your aim must be join this exalted group because it is the one with all the bragging rights on the interwebs.

Here is a simple two-point method to be a topnotch Ilayaraja fan of over 30 years experience in 15 minutes flat.

Avoid the obvious: All Ilayaraja songs are great. But the truly great are the ones that are not deemed great.

Don’t feel confused. We will tackle this with a practical example. Take the Rajnikanth-starrer Thambikku Enbtha Ooru.  The film features En Vazhviley Varum Anbe Vaa and Kadhalin Deepam Ondru, which even people who have not heard the two numbers will confirm belong to the all-time classic list.

So when people talk of Thambikku Entha Ooru’s music, you, as a ‘the Ilayaraja fan club’ member, will have to pipe up, and declare unequivocally that the song Aasai Kiliye Arai Kilo Puliye to be the real classic from the film. It shouldn’t matter to you that it is no song but just a rendition of Koyambedu vegetable market bill to the accompaniment of instruments and was featured in the film because it allowed the director to fill four minutes in the screenplay.

But as a ‘the Ilayaraja fan club’ member you don’t just say a song is good. You have to say things that will be ‘news’ to Ilayaraja himself. So you say that Aasai Kiliye, song set to Arabhi ragam, symbolising robust heroicness, also involves a pinch of Devagandhari, representing finer feelings like love and compassion. ‘Ilayaraja, with this subtle shift in the melodic line, musically plants the idea that the hero, all rough and tough now, has romance hidden in him and will find the girl who is arrogant to be charming in the future.’ Of course, you don’t stop with this alone. You use rhetoric:  ‘Has any other music composer the capacity to plot the entire screenplay in thirty seconds of music?’

Retain the obtuse: Remember the 80s and the early 90s were watershed in Kollywood for being the era that churned out films that were mostly unwatched or unwatchable.  Many of them featured the music of Ilayaraja. Since nobody has seen those movies, you can practically say anything about them.

‘Oh that song from Thanthuvitten Ennai. Gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. Pure bliss’.  This must be your typical gambit. Such a comment should naturally elicit a response like: ‘Thanthuvitten Ennai? Dude, go have a life’. But you’re not dealing with normal people, you’re dealing with the Ilayaraja fans. So your comment will elicit this: ‘Thanthuvitten Ennai. Dude, that’s an underrated classic. Especially that stretch in that number Mannavane mannavane manasukkeththa thennavane, between 1.23 and 2.34, when the flurry of flutes segues seamlessly into the pizzicato of violin at a tempo and tenor that are unconventionally rousing as they culminate in the soulful slices of ghatam and oboe. How he pulled off that shift to oboe is beyond words’. For the record, nobody in the history of the world knows how an oboe even looks, and you cannot find pizzicato in many dictionaries.

Also, from time to time wonder about the choice of singers that Ilayaraja made for his songs. This will convey the image that you are impartial and are basically a connoisseur of good music. But don’t go overboard and give the game away through such lines: ‘One day, one day in my life, I will understand why Raja Sir settled for Kollangudi Karupayi in Aan Pavam when D K Pattamal was still available for singing’.

Useful Tips: Remember Ilayaraja is ‘Raja sir’.  If you want to sound cool, use: Mottai.

Words to avoid in the circles: Symphony. Egoism. Headstrong. And, of course: the Oscars.

(Disclaimer: My next article is: A DIY guide on: How to antagonise both Ilayaraja and A R Rahman fans through just one article)

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