On 76th birthday, Ilaiyaraaja still raja

What Helvetica is to typeface design, he is to Tamil pop culture

genius Ilaiyaraaja has scored music for about 1,000 films, including some hits in Kannada. He says his work so far is just pickle and papad;the real meal is coming up.

Ilaiyaraaja, who turns 76 on June 2, is not only India’s greatest film music composer but also the most prolific. His output of nearly 7,000 songs for more than 1,000 films, scores of devotional music albums and hundreds of live performances is as likely to be equaled as Sir Don Bradman’s Test batting average. In the last three years, Ilaiyaraaja has in fact worked on more films, and has a stronger pipeline of projects than his son Yuvan Shankar Raja, also a popular a well-established contemporary composer in south India, younger to him by 36 years.

For much of the 1980s, Ilaiyaraja was the engine that powered the entire Tamil film industry. In that era, Pongals, Tamil New Years and Diwalis with Ilaiyaraaja film releases in double digits weren’t one-offs but the norm. The little man from Pannaipuram, a village near Theni in Tamil Nadu, guaranteed supernormal returns for producers small and big of the kind even sovereign states cannot. Music-by-Ilaiyaraaja signaled greater capital safety than triple A rated financial investments. His music was sufficient to turn adolescent male actors, who hadn’t yet invested in a full-fledged shaving kit into bankable stars overnight.

Yet Ilaiyaraaja’s work far transcends its commercial success. In the mufossil buses of Tamil Nadu, drivers who double up as DJs pretend as if they do not know the existence of other music composers. It can be the most effective preserver of sanity in the searing heat. Tamils, often world beaters in the business of creating highly expressive and cheeky social media memes, have run out of superlatives when it comes to Ilaiyaraaja. The most common description for quite a number of years, from his collaborators to ordinary listeners has been this: “Ilaaiyaraaja’s songs are markers of our life stages.”

Indeed there are hundreds of Ilaiyaraaja classics for pretty much every human emotion. Mother sentiment? Have some of ‘Amma endrazhaikkadha’ from film ‘Mannan’. Starry-eyed job aspirant who’s got an interview call? Try ‘Madaithirandhu’ from film ‘Nizhalgal’ . Felling a bit Che Guevara-ey after a pink slip? Rouse yourself up for a bit of keyboard revolution with ‘Manidha Manidha’ from film ‘Kan Sivandhal Mann Sivakkum’. Find yourself in the ecstasy or love, or the Mariana Trench of love failure? Come to me with a 100 GB storage device.

Many Tamil filmmakers and music directors now don’t bother composing background score to fit the flow of narrative. They simply use Ilaiyaraaja songs with the ruse that it’s a scene set in the 1980s or 1990s. Ilaiyaraaja has kicked up quite a storm recently asking such filmmakers to, quite rightly, pay him a royalty for such acts of pilferage. Ilaiyaraaja playlists categorised by ragas, has sparked renewed interest in Carnatic classical music. Reminiscing about the experiences of working with Ilaiyaraaja and the backstories of the creation of his songs is now a full-blown content industry on YouTube and in assorted Tamil publications. Ilaiyaraaja’s music is to contemporary Tamil pop-culture what the typeface Helvetica is to modern global commercial design. You’ll encounter Ilaiyaraaja’s music on the Tamil street as often as you would the logos of multinational electronics firms or road signs in Helvetica.

Ever since Ilaiyaraaja started out as an independent composer with the film Annakkili in 1976 up until the mid 1990s, he was the most influential figure in Tamil cinema. Film scripts were written for Ilaiyaraaja’s tunes. The story was just a filler of space between six or seven Ilaiyaraja songs; it pretended to provide a context to the real hero that was his music. Often, the more honest directors did not even try to pretend.

Understanding genius

In trying to understand the pathways to achievement, psychologists found two distinct routes in conformity and originality. Conformity meant following the crowd down conventional paths and maintenance of status quo. Joseph Schumpeter, the acclaimed Austrian political economist described originality as an act of creative destruction. The world of South Indian film music pre-Ilaiyaraaja, was pretty much status-quo-ist. It was craving creative destruction. With no disrespect to Ilaiyaraaja’s predecessors, the music of that period was heavily influenced by the Carnatic canon, the soothing breeze of “light-classical” and eastern folk from the North that occasionally flowed courtesy Naushad Ali, Salil Choudhury and SD Burman. And sometimes they relied on straight lifts from the likes of Frank Sinatra. Tamil audiences eagerly gulped down Ilaiyaraaja’s uniquely original brand of music that combined Southern folk, the thrill of Western orchestration tailor-made for the visual medium, and the quick-paced melodic base of Carnatic music, like thirsty desert travelers would ice-cold masala lemonade served in frozen beer mugs.

Dean Simonton, legendary psychologist the author of the influential book The Origin of Genius who researched creative productivity found that on average, creative geniuses weren’t all that qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. But they were so enormously prolific that their volume of output gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.

Relying heavily on Simonton’s work, Wharton psychologist Adam Grant in his 2016 work, Originals: How The Non-Conformists Move The World, wrote: “To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces by the age of 35 when he died, Beethoven 650 and Bach over a 1000. Picasso’s oeuvre includes more than 1800 paintings, 1200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics and 12,000 drawings. The more a creative genius produces, the greater the odds of a hit.” According to him, the most prolific people not only have the highest originality, they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume. The odds, therefore, of producing an influential or successful idea are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.

But Ilaiyaraaja’s body of work, and the almost industrial pace of his output (composing five or six songs for single film was often an hour’s work for him) can upend such analyses on the nature of genius. Ilaiyaraaja himself, of course, has a far simpler explanation. “It comes on its own,” he often says.

In his most recent interview, Ilaiyaraaja claimed that what he had offered listeners over nearly 45 years was merely the equivalent of “pickle and paapad” in a meal. The prospect of an Ilaiyaraaja main course, at an age when most ordinary Indians are happy spending time in the company of ‘mega serials’ and grandchildren, is both tantalising and terrifying.

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