Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Concluding Part


There is a definite growth pattern the diligent can perceive in a creative musical career, be it classical or commercial. Imagine a frustum of an upright cone. At the start of the career, an otherwise talented musician (or artist) is somewhere close to the base of the cone, with the largest radius around representing the listeners. Importantly, wide base also necessarily implies a wide range of listeners – from those who are connoisseurs to theoreticians to musicians to laypersons, cutting across all slice of the population. In other words, the artist is popular.

Over the ensuing years, taking for granted the consistent creativity of the artist (eliminating one hit wonders), as his command and knowledge of music, his musicianship or his musicholarship grows, as an artist he climbs the axis of the cone towards the tip. His music becomes that much matured to reduce the radius of influence in the listeners around him. The listeners need some sophistication to appreciate what he is contributing with his music. Some of the skimmers who can’t put the additional effort to appreciate the music, fall out. The musician is perceived to be less popular (in populist judgment).

In a career spanning a few decades, with voice and creativity intact, a classical or commercial music composer climbs such a cone of musical maturity and corresponding influence. Consciously or inadvertently. Extrapolation of this climb obviously leads to a stage where the music is so intricate and complex or simple and straight, only a few can first understand to appreciate it. The end at the tip is tempting to perceive: the musician becomes his listener, an end in himself [**].

But as a fan who strives to hopefully understand and appreciate, I would like to keep the cone a frustum without that tip. For Ilaiyaraja.

Somewhere after 1995, Ilaiyaraja seem to have climbed the cone up from the stand alone tunes and blend his music with the movie being made. In this matured avatar of him, the songs he composed were extended interludes for the brilliant, topical, background score. They no longer were meant as crowd pleasing popular hits, but ably assist the movie to proceed. If competent directors choose to realize their potential.

Perceivable is the ever maturing music. In the process, often remains as the barest necessity of its melody, discarding much of the grandiose musical ornamentation he unassumingly orchestrated around his tune over the years. The more he realizes his music all around in nature, the more he keeps its capricious decorations out of his compositions. His melody bridges him with nature. His music, us.

Listen for example to this duet from the movie virumAndi (2006) directed by Kamal Haasan:

unnavida – Audio

Or to this duet from the yet to be released movie azhagar malai:

karugamani – Audio

Observe the complex rhythm, yet set in electronics (compare with any hand played percussion). And the interludes, still different and easy flowing as it ever has been but lacking the rich symphonic orchestration of songs discussed in Part 1 and Part 2.

Here is one more from the same movie with pre-set rhythm. The lyrics of the song seem to reflect his inner equilibrium.

ulagamipo – Audio

I hear the director of the movie has Ilaiyaraja literally singing and enacting the song in the movie. The height of the discussed method of visualizing music by total surrender (see Part 3), I should say.

The effect of such maturity is for the music to discard some of its original followers and even unappealing to a new generation of endurers of Tamil movies with off-the-shelf rhythm driven, off-key singing, ring-tone friendly music compositions. Such is art. Resembling the growth of an upright cone from its initial wide base, as art matures, often its, perhaps needless, popularity wanes. But it enchants and educates more than a generation who were ready to climb the cone full length. As it happened in Ilaiyaraja’s operatic rendition of Thiruvasagam.

Pages can be written as tribute to the thiruvAsagam presentation of Ilaiyaraja. For those who need an introduction, Thiruvasagam is a collection of beautifully crafted hymns on Lord Shiva written (in Old Tamil) by Manickavachagar. It was translated to English in the 19th century by G. U. Pope. Suffice to say, thiruvAsagathhirkurugAr oruvAchagathirkum UrugAr – those not melting for (the verses of) thiruvAsagam, won’t melt for any other written Word. After several years of soaking within it, by 2006 Ilaiyaraja composed music for certain sections of thiruvAsagam. He sung thiruvAsagam as the first Indian oratorio, accompanied by orchestration composed by him and played by the 100 year old Budapest Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Laszlo Kovacs). A crowning feat of his long realized strength of fusing Western Classical with Indian Classical and semi-classical music.

Although Ilaiyaraja’s thiruvAsagam – as it came to be called – was received well (sold out – after getting the first one on the day of release, I went back and got six more to gift to friends), detractors criticized him for disrobing thiruvAsagam of its traditional garb of OdhuvAr style recitation thus diluting its spirituality. Any such artsy debate will never end due to its subjective premise, but I think such criticism often arise out of insecurity – an urge to slot into jaded familiarity or dismiss totally what is completely new and seemingly undefinable. If at all, Ilaiyaraja’s music decorated the verses with such proper context and emotion that one requires no accompanying visuals to visualize the purport of thiruvAsagam.

And here I cite an example from his thiruvAsagam: this is not the main operatic piece from the album. Not even perhaps the popular. But, contrary to the visuals-for-music movies we discussed so far, the piece shows emphatically, music can visualize. If it arises from competent and perceptive composers.

thiruvasagam – Audio

The verses in the above song is addressed to the King Bee (kO thumbI in Tamil). For instance the first stanza in Tamil reads

pUvERu kOnum pura ndharanum poRpamaindha
nAvERu selviyum nAraNanum nAnmaRaiyum

mAvERu sOdhiyum vAnavarum thAmaRiyAc
cEvERu sEvadikkE sendRUdhAy kOththumbI.

Let us not go into the full translation, which can be read from the web [***]. Just notice the sendRUdhAy kOthumbI at the end. It means Go, abuzz, King Bee. Now listen to the above musical score by Ilaiyaraja. Observe the background score starting from the time he sings sendRUdhAy kOthumbI until the beginning of singing the next stanza. Close your Tamil-unknown eyes and listen from anywhere in the Human World. You can vividly visualize in your mental eye, the random buzzing flight of the King Bee.

Such perception of thought that seamlessly translates into musical deliverance is spiritual. If this is dilution of thiruvAsagam, let me hereafter be ordained to stroke my spirituality with only such dilutions. For discussion, one is reminded of the Flight of the Bumble Bee (YouTube link) by Rimsky korsakov and Verdi‘s opera. But for me, my lamentation about the curse of the bygone movie visuals for his music becomes even more damning.

The next step in the cone of excellence (with the associated inevitability of molting popularity) is to just realize without lyrics, without visuals, only the music within.

Carnatic music rAgAs (embellished scales) are usually conceived with seven (janaka – parent – rAgA), six or five notes (the janya – child – rAgA of a janaka rAgA). Breaking that tradition, Dr. Balamuralikrishna in his illustrious career has conceived several four-note rAgAs like sumukham, mahati, lavangi and has composed and delivered krithis in them with success. Taking inspiration perhaps from this – for, he has long been enamoured by the music of Dr. Balamuralikrishna – Ilaiyaraja has created a composition in a scale that uses just three notes.

Minds adept in the hoary tradition of South Indian Classical Carnatic music would indignantly wonder what creative combinations one could achieve with just three notes; for how long; can a gamakam be introduced therein and so on. Rightly so, because the fertility of imagination in a rAgA often spells its untimely popularity or timely demise.

This composition of Ilaiyaraja not only has the main melody (song) set in three notes, but the entire accompanying orchestration.

Here is his explanation to an audience in Italy not long ago on how he built that composition

three_in_one_intro_smk – Audio


The novice that I am, I forgot all about the sthAyis (octaves) and the range it provides to explore a scale. The joy we derive from music is in such unpredictability, from a familiar known when the music immerses you into a captivating unknown, teasingly familiar yet exhibiting stranger aspects that is comprehensible but not in the first listen, ever unpredictable.

Listen to the composition with the entire orchestration

three_in_one_smk – Audio

Just three notes? For Ilaiyaraja it is two too many.

Ilaiyaraja chose his career of composing music in a predominantly visual medium that demands stand alone hits out of every composed song. Thriving in such unforgiving standards, he not only has belted hit after hit but has dared to experiment the length and breadth of music: jazz to rock, folk to classical, Carnatic to Hindustani, full bench orchestra to solo voice, symphonic structure for movie songs (read Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 1), exploration of mElakarthAs of Carnatic music (sample: movie kAdhal Oviyam starts with a song in kanakAngi and ends with another in rasikapriyA, the respective first and last of the 72 melakarthAs), songs for unusual situations (samples: songs for fight sequences, bus ride with first, second and third person dialogue in movie chitukuruvi, dialogue as songs, school parade singing vandE mAtharam in off key in movie mumbAi express), apt use of rAgAs (read Lakshminarayanan’s series given in [*]).

Ilaiyaraja has scored music for more than thousand such movies most of which never attempted a visual justice to his magnificent music. Irrespective of such consistent incompetence he has managed to keep his creativity and music ever on a higher plane, nevertheless mostly accessible to the common fan, a trait observed by critics in the music of Mozart.

Such a successful movie music composer career is sufficient for his deeds and fame to last forever. But as creators in any form of human expression are known to be, Ilaiyaraja continues to defy what we commoners consider as his best. Over the decades, Ilaiyaraja has metamorphosed successfully to shred the constraints of visuals (movies) with his music albums (from the early How to Name It to the recent Thiruvasagam) to realize his inner music and capably reach his fans with it. Ilaiyaraja’s music is its own visual flesh and pervading spirit.

Even if it be misinterpreted as a left handed compliment, let me end this series with a visual observation. If you agree the resemblance of universal genius in my visual is vivid than the accursed mismatch of the inept movie visuals indelible in our minds for the music of Ilaiyaraja, it is a minor redemption.




Earlier parts: Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4


[*] Ilaiyaraja has composed music for more than a thousand movies. It is impossible to write a single article that does justice to the entire musical phenomenon, introducing and saluting his music while also satisfying the expectations of his fans. Hopefully this essay series serves as an introduction to those who are yet to explore his music.

A much more elaborate attempt was already made by my Srirangam friend Lakshminarayanan a decade back in the internet. Titled Classical Ilaiyaraja, the fifteen part essay is also preserved at the unofficial Ilaiyaraja home-site.

[**] The frustum of a cone analogy has many assumptions that could go wrong. The creator is assumed consistent and productive in a long career, amidst a population with consistent musical taste. Any or all of which could go wrong.

[***] thiruvAsagam in Tamil and English – as pdf files.

[****] The songs and music used here are only for illustration purpose. There is no download link provided.

[*****] Thanks to all those who in the past one and half month, helped with the songs, their audio files and video links and the associated discussions.

Acknowledgement: Anantha @twitter; Balaji @twitter; Ganesh @twitter; Prakash @twitter; Vijay @twitter; Sudarshan, Lakshmi @twitter, Jagadeesh. Thanks also to karthi @, trisanku @twitter, anonymous (for azhagarmalai review) for links and appreciation.