Ilaiyaraaja at 80: Looking at the musical genius and his work in South Indian cinema


The maestro forayed into Hindi cinema with Kamal Haasan’s Sadma, a remake of Balu Mahendra’s Tamil film Moondram Pirai

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Ilaiyaraaja is a well-known Indian musician, composer, arranger, conductor, orchestrator, instrumentalist, lyricist, and singer. He was born R. Gnanathesikan on June 3, 1943, and is best known for his work in Tamil and Telugu cinema. He is nothing short of a legend, having composed songs for over a thousand films, and a career spanning four decades.

His songs and music frequently express political themes and are an essential component of social events and celebrations because of the rich aural culture in the Tamil environment. They offer both aesthetic pleasure and linguistic and regional pride. It is obvious how well-received his work is since numerous people have commented on social media about how his music has given meaning to a wide range of emotions. His works not only served as a creative composition but it has a message that has relevance for a larger section of society. Born in the village of Pannaipuram in the Theni district, he rose to prominence quickly. He attempted to write his own music despite working with well-known composers. He has written music for films in the languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, and Marathi. In a true sense, he was a trendsetter.

Widely popular composer Ilayaraja has come a long way since his debut Tamil album Annakkili in 1976. With a staggering record of over 1000 albums and numerous honours to his credit, he has left a strong imprint across languages with his music. Having predominantly worked in Tamil industry, the veteran composer has also worked in few films in other languages. In the Hindi industry, he has worked in just around half a dozen movies; however, his work was still unparalleled.

The maestro forayed into Hindi cinema with Kamal Haasan’s Sadma, a remake of Balu Mahendra’s Tamil film Moondram Pirai. It could be argued that it was Ilayaraja’s long-time association with Balu Mahendra that paved way for his entry into Bollywood. Four years after the release of Sadma, Ilayaraja returned to Bollywood with Kamagni and it was soon followed by Raj Sippy’s Mahaadev. In 1996, Ilayaraja reunited with Balu Mahendra for Aur Ek Prem Kahaani. Even though Ilayaraja worked on the Hindi remake of Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva and Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram and Mumbai Express, which were released in Hindi; it was in 2007 he made a strong comeback with R Balki’s Cheeni Kum and went on to work with him in Paa, Shamitabh and Ki & Ka.

Let’s look at some of his remarkable creations that left an everlasting impact.

Machana Pathingala, from ‘Annakili’

A young man who had travelled to Chennai in search of riches was offered the chance to compose music for Annakili in 1975. It signalled the start of a phenomenon in South Indian cinema. Ilayaraja mixed folk rhythms with the era’s film music techniques for the songs in this delicate black-and-white movie about unrequited love. Those who listened to the radio in the late 1970s will always have a soft spot for this colourful tune in Janaki’s beautiful voice.

Metti Oli Kaatrodu, from ‘Metti’

Numerous melodies of this type dominated the ’80s. This Mahendran song, “Metti,” was performed by Ilayaraja, with humming by Janaki. Many listeners of this song claim that it takes them to another realm. Its attractiveness is enhanced by the sensual lyrics.

Thenpaandi Cheemayile from ‘Nayagan’

A timeless song from a timeless film! Understanding the words is not necessary to grasp the meaning. Our eyes start to tear up as a result of the song’s composition and accompanying video. A song that leaves such an immediate, profound impression on the listeners! All of Mani Ratnam and Ilayaraja’s songs were theatrical feasts, and they made a fantastic team.

Janani Janani from ‘Thaai Moogambhigai’

One of the most well-known Tamil devotional songs ever since its premiere is this song from the 1982 movie Thaai Moogambhigai. It was one of the songs that was played during every meeting for worship in the 1980s.

Uravugal Thodarkathai, from ‘Aval Appadithan’

The songs Ilayaraja wrote more than 30 years ago are still making people happy today because of his unique enchantment. This song is from the 1978 black-and-white movie Aval Appadithan and features the deep voice of K J Yesudas. The melody of the maestro is complemented by the lyrics.

Everyone who heard his music experienced a sensation straight forward that touched their souls. His captivating and emotional composition was praised not just in India but also outside.

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