Ilayaraja is, without a doubt, a genius who revolutionised the world of music. It isn’t without reason that his fans call him ‘Raga Devan’ (God of ragas). However, in the past few years we’ve been hearing less of the musician’s melodies and more of his controversial comments. On his birthday, we take a critical look at Ilayaraja — is being a creative genius an excuse for what would otherwise be considered bad behaviour?
His latest remarks came a week ahead of his birthday, during an interview with The New Indian Express, where he criticised present-day composers for using his tunes and songs in films without getting prior permission. What he said in itself wasn’t the problem; Ilayaraja has been vocal on his thoughts on copyright issues. It’s the way he said it — the composer has a way with words, where he tends to pick the sharpest ones to make a point.
In this particular case, he said composer Govind Vasanth is ‘weak and impotent/lacks masculinity’ for not composing an original tune for the Tamil movie ‘96’. He also said films use his songs without getting prior permission. The director of ‘96’ replied that they had all the necessary copyrights and had paid royalties.
While social media outraged and debated about his comments, they do make you wonder, for someone of such repute and fame, could he not have found a better way to phrase the remark, especially since he hadn’t watched the film and didn’t know that the required permissions were taken?
This is not an one-off incident. In the past, Ilayaraja has said similar remarks that turned into controversies and he has been at the receiving end of online trolls. For example, in 2018, during a concert he compared Jesus with Ramana Maharishi, speaking highly of the latter.
It’s not like just his opinions that get him into trouble. He makes vituperative attacks in response to criticism. For instance, a couple of years ago, during a concert, noted filmmaker P Bharathiraja, who had a long association with Ilayaraja, criticised him for ‘becoming a brahmin.’ In response, Ilayaraja made some personal remarks, talking about the director’s ‘drunken antics’, and it created a furore.
Ilayaraja, who is known to maintain absolute silence such that no one in the studio can chatter during the recordings, seems increasingly dissatisfied with the present. Is this intellectual arrogance, something we have overlooked through the years as ‘eccentricities of a genius’? After all, it is said that while other music directors compose music at night, Isaignani composes music for the night, since many consider his songs that soothing.
Or is it disenchantment that has eventually caught up with him? Ilayaraja has had verbal wars with other music directors, singers, television channels and FM radios over copyright issues. “When Ilayaraja was in his peak, there were no such issues. Even he was not worried about copyright. But today it is a major thing and even a single film music director manages to earn a lot using the system. It’s no wonder he is worried and feels cheated. If he can consult with his circle before saying anything, he can stay away from such controversies,” says John Sundar, a singer who runs a light music orchestra in Coimbatore.
A slow decline
A writer (who didn’t want to be named), who wrote many Tamil short stories eulogising Ilayaraja’s songs, is of the view that such things happen with many actors, writers and filmmakers in the later period of their life.
“It happened with director Balachander. It happened with actor Sivaji Ganesan. It happened with writer Sujatha. And it is happening with Ilayaraja too. None of them did memorable work in the later period in their respective fields. This kind of decline is normal and speaking absurdly is a result of angst,” he says.
It’s not the decrease in film opportunities for Ilayaraja or the change in the people’s taste but what is riling the maestro is that musical tastes have changed and he is unable to connect, the writer adds. “His last best composition was for ‘Neethane En Ponvasantham’ in 2012. After that he composed for more than 40 films, but none of them had that mesmerising touch.”
It is said that Ilayaraja never acknowledged the work of the lyricists, playback singers or even other composers he worked with. While many see this as his nature, some think it as intellectual arrogance.
A journalist who has been associated with the composer for a long time says Ilayaraja often thinks of himself as a god. In the film ‘Nizhalgal’, he composed a song in which a line goes like this: ‘Pudhu ragam padaippathaaley naanum iraivaney (I am also a God, since I am creating a new raga)’.
The journalist says, “He is true to his words. He considers himself a god. When signing autographs he signs as ‘Iraivanadi Ilayaraja’ in Tamil. The word ‘iraivanadi’ has a dual meaning. If you split the word, ‘iraivan’ and ‘adi’, it means the server of god. If you use it as a single word, it means that he himself is a god. What more can you say?”
However, singer Sundar says, “There is nothing wrong in what Ilayaraja says. Maybe his choice of words is bad, but the ideas he tries to convey are important.”
Music creators are like that, he says. “We see him merely as a film music composer. He went beyond that long ago. Every now and then he tries a new experiment. It is our fault if we don’t understand him,” Sundar adds.