For fans, Ilaiyaraaja is synonymous with every great moment in life

'Bhakti' of Ilaiyaraja or devotion to Ilaiyaraja has been built over the last four decades. Illustration: Mihir Ranganathan

Understanding music fandom is now an integral part of popular music studies. We can try to comprehend music, places, and where we belong with such literature. Here is an ears-to-the-ground attempt to understand the fandom around South India’s legendary music composer Ilaiyaraaja by visiting two of his concerts in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Sundar (45) is a journalist. He was a traffic volunteer in Chennai on a “bad” traffic day sometime in the early 2000s. An otherwise strict enforcer of rules, he relaxed the rules for a Toyota Qualis car near Kodambakkam Power House Signal. “When the SUV stopped abruptly near me, I could see Ilaiyaraaja so close. He is my God. He is the God of music. His songs comfort me when I am depressed or feel clueless about the journey of life. I saluted him and cleared the road for his vehicle,” says Sundar. Such a deep reverence is not uncommon among those born in the 1970s-1990s.

Krishnan (35) is a human resource professional. He has an uncanny talent of telling you why Ilaiyaraaja chose a particular Carnatic raga for a specific scene in a film. In the Kamal Haasan-starred movie, “Unnal mudiyum thambi” (1988), the scene of the impoverished boy taking away the “rice for last rites” (vaikkarisi) from the graveyard has a background score in Revathi Ragam. The music is scored by Ilaiyaraaja.

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The story goes that Thyagaraja, one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, who had to get alms to eat (the practice is popularly called ‘unja viruthi’), got his bag filled with rice when he sang about Lord Rama in Revathi Ragam. The analogy is clear.

Seemanthini (50) is overwhelmed with joy whenever she listens to “Senthoorappoove” scored by Ilaiyaraaja in the film ‘16 Vayathinile’ (1977). “The opening phrases written for this number by Ilaiyaraaja brings a rush of happiness even today,” she says, smiling at the memory. “No wonder this song fetched singer S. Janaki a national award,” she recalls.

These three “Ilaiyaraaja bhakts” are among the 25,000+ fans who attended the two recent concerts of Ilaiyaraaja in Chennai over three months. For fans, Ilaiyaraaja is synonymous with love, loss, longing, anger, and every other great moment in their lives. Music composer Ilaiyaraaja is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon in the world of music.

When films enact Tamil life in the 1970s and 1980s, Ilaiyaraaja’s music infuses life into those frames. Bollywood filmmaker Balki put it succinctly: “Ilaiyaraaja gave south of India a distinct sound.” Balki was speaking at the sprawling YMCA grounds, Chennai on February 3, 2019, when Tamil Film Producers’ Council led by its President Vishal Krishna organized Ilaiyaraaja’s concert to celebrate the music composer’s 75 years of life.

On his 76th birthday on June 2, 2019, Ilaiyaraja claimed his “cultural” space in front of over 25,000 fans saying, “You are living through my songs. Can you deny this?” The people nodded as if they were spellbound by mesmerizing magic.  “I can stand for five hours or more,” he added and challenged the audiences if they could do that.

Ilaiyaraaja was right. A boy in his teens was seen lying down over five seats that he reserved for his friends, four hours ahead of the concert at EVP film city in Chembarambakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. Sudhakar, an ardent fan, came from Tirunelveli – 613 kilometers from Chennai by road – to listen to Ilaiyaraaja. Middle-aged Gowri and her 70-year-old mother Vatsala took a Tambaram (Chennai) – Sriperumbudur bus and got down outside the film city, walking four kilometers to reach the venue of the concert.

Krishnan, a devoted fan of Raja Sir (Ilaiyaraaja is referred to as ‘Raja Sir’ respectfully by his fans so as to not pronounce his name), will go wherever Raja Sir sings within Tamil Nadu. Krithika, who is 40 years old, was abused by other fans for holding on to ten seats for her friends from 2 p.m. onwards. She did not give up. Finally, she and her friends got to see Ilaiyaraaja perform for four hours fifteen minutes from 7.45 pm.

This deep connection exists maybe because Ilaiyaraaja’s art-making is so close to reality. He has had a few hardships in life. He’s from Pannaipuram village in Theni district and he remains true to his roots, despite scaling new heights in his musical career.

‘Bhakti’ of Ilaiyaraja or devotion to Ilaiyaraja has developed over the last four decades since the film Annakkili (1976) in which he made his debut as a music composer. This film brought him accolades. The frenzy over the second concert in June built up because playback singer SP Balasubramanian joined hands with Ilaiyaraaja after a gap of nearly three years. Playback singer KJ Yesudas sang for Ilaiyaraaja after a decade.

Both SPB (as he is referred to) and KJ Yesudas have sung many memorable songs for Raja. The crowd was not disappointed. When SP Balasubramanian started his stellar performance with the song “Madai thiranthu thavum nathialai naan” (Nizhalgal movie, 1980) the fans broke into roaring applause.

Ilaiyaraaja is known for his direct and spontaneous responses to situations. During the June concert, when playback singer Mano sang the song “Oh Priya… Priya…” from the film Idhayathai Thirudaathey (1989), Ilaiyaraaja asked the singers to stop the song mid-way. It turned out that a security guard was seen entering the orchestra to hand over a bottle of water to one of the artists. This had angered the maestro, and the song resumed after he gave a word of advice to the security guard on the stage.

Vasanth, an ardent fan who was watching this remarked, “Tomorrow, this will trend on social media. They will forget even how SPB and Raja reunited, and all the songs they played today…” It is true that Ilaiyaraja’s frank and sometimes rough comments have earned him the reputation of being tough. But all such opposition melts before his melodies.

The devotion is not just for Raja Sir but for the abundance in mellifluous, devotional compositions. Even the way his concerts begin holds a clue to this. After a brief evocation “Guru Brahma, Gurur Vishnuhu…” to the teacher, his orchestra and singers start the song Jananai Janani Jagam Nee Agam Nee which sings the praise of Mother Mookambikai, the reigning deity of Kollur in Karnataka. This is from the movie Thai Mookambikai (1982). Just ahead of this opening performance, Ilaiyaraaja talks about his mother Chinnathai and sister Kamalam who fed him during early childhood. “It is the food they gave me that built my body” he recalls with moist eyes.

The next song adores Shiva – Om Shivogam from ‘Naan Kadavul’ (2009). The third song is a bridge – starting with Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram, it morphs into an anthem of sorts (Hey Ram movie, 2000). The devotional numbers are rounded off with a moving rendition of Kaiveenayai Yenthum Kalaivaniye (Vietnam Colony, 1994), a song on Goddess Saraswati, the deity of knowledge, sung by Carnatic musician Bombay Jayashri. There was a song on Saraswati in his earlier concert too.

In a lighter vein, during Raja’s February concert, Rajinikanth asked him, “Swami, who is giving you more, Goddess Saraswati or Goddess Lakshmi? (deity of economic wealth).” Ilaiyaraaja responded, “Swami, as always, it is Goddess Saraswati.”

Note the affectionate appellation used by each, referring to the other as ‘swami’. This affection is evident in all dealings with people with whom he has had longstanding professional relationships, whether it is SPB, KJ Yesudas, Usha Uthup, or Kamal Haasan, to name a few.

In the June 2 birthday concert, Ilaiyaraaja got philosophical with SP Balasubramanian saying that the “songs happened to me by providence.” When Ilaiyaraaja sang the lines “Paathai illatha oorukku ellam paattale vazhi pottom” (For those villages with no access roads, we created access though our songs), the audiences erupted in joy, and it took several minutes for the applause to subside.

KJ Yesudas’s entry was marked by one of his famous numbers, a dedication to mothers, “Amma endru azhaikkatha uyir illaiye; ammavai vanangathu uyarvu illaiye” (All living creatures worship the mother) which was a turning point in Rajinikanth’s career through the film ‘Mannan’ (1992). Kamal Haasan, present at both concerts, sang “unnavida indha ulagathil osanthathu onnumilla” (there is nothing greater than you, my beloved, on this earth) from the film ‘Virumandi’ (2004). This romantic song is the most popular number in the film. It is worth recalling that Kamal Haasan had also sung a few songs at the February concert, and one of the highlights of that concert was the song Raghupathi Raghava from ‘Hey Ram’ which he sang along with his daughter Shruti.

Then came the moment of the evening: SP Balasubramanian and KJ Yesudas got together for the song “Kaattukuyilu manasukkulla paattukkonrum panchamillai…” (This wild bird has no dearth of songs) from the 1991 Rajinikanth blockbuster ‘Thalapathi’. Usha Uthup, in her inimitable style, sang “Meluru othakadai… nerathoda poga venum” and said the song is from one of the oldest films ‘Johnsi’.

However, Ilaiyaraja did not recollect scoring the music for this particular number. He admitted it on the stage. “I have given all the songs to you people. It is yours now,” he said. Ilaiyaraaja’s daughter Bhavatharini performed “Yetho moham… yetho thagam…” from the film “Kozhi Koovuthu” (1982) while wishing her father on entering the 76th year of his colourful life.

The contemporary cultural history of Tamils is incomplete without Ilaiyaraaja. It is in happiness, love, loss, intoxication, sobriety, and devotion that the 7,000 plus songs of Ilaiyaraja from over 1,000 films connect with the people effortlessly.  “Ilaiyaraaja is an emotion in Tamil land. He is love for some people. He is a lullaby for others. He represents an aspiration for some and a vehicle to store their feelings for a few others,” says Seemanthini.

Ilaiyaraaja sang about his origins in a beautifully worded “Vaanaththukkulle irunthu kuthichchu vanthena… boomiyile irunthu vedichchu vanthena” (Have I jumped from the sky or have I sprouted from the earth). He sang with SP Balasubramanian about the birth of music. “Enge irunthai isaiye…” (Music, where were you earlier…) bringing tears to the eyes of several listening in the audience. It was a fitting song to capture the mood of the long-awaited public reunion of the veteran composer and the singer.

SP Balasubramanian presented a portrait of Sri Ramana Maharishi (who Ilaiyaraaja adores as his Guru) as a birthday gift on the stage. “The Lord, O Arjuna, dwells in the heart of every being, and He by His delusive power spins round all beings set as if on a machine” (Bhagavad Gita 18: 61) is one of the verses often quoted by Sri Ramana Maharishi to explain the oneness of life. Ilaiyaraaja, his music, and his thronging audience also bring about a celebration of oneness and the One.

(Peer Mohamed is Founder and CEO of ippodhu.com)

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