An Artiste of Millennium

Ilaiyaraaja changed rules of music composition bringing in new dimensions paving way for fresh wave of creative artistic flavour tinged with elements of rural folk practices


Ilaiyaraaja, thy name spells magic. Comparisons can be odious, but if Hollywood can be proud of Nino Rota, Bernard Herreman and Ennio Morricone, then the Tamil film world has Ilaiyaraaja. According to the website Taste of Cinema, he holds a place among these legends as one of the world’s top 25 accomplished film music composers. Ilaiyaraaja’s knowledge of cinema is evident in his background scores, which add a new dimension to it.

It would be fitting to call Ilaiyaraaja the musical genius of the millennium from India. For the average south Indian, particularly Tamilians, it’s hard to escape Ilaiyaraaja — it doesn’t matter if you live in India or belong to the global Tamil diaspora. A composer for more than a thousand films with a whopping number of 8,000 and more songs recorded, and more hits than anyone else in a career spanning four decades, Ilaiyaraaja is nothing short of a legend.

Born in Pannaipuram village in Theni district, Ilaiyaraaja now stands as a colossus in terms of being a cultural ambassador for Tamil culture. He has scored music for films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi films. Ilaiyaraaja provided music that satisfied the expectations of large sections of society – which includes the working classes and the rural masses – and brought attention to their way of life and gave meaning to their emotions, desires, sorrows, anxieties and struggles.

Ilaiyaraaja was in many ways a trendsetter. His entry into films in the late 1970s was an era of new ideas in Tamil cinema, a period which saw the breaking up of star system associated with the ageing stars, MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. Dravidian cinema almost reached the level of saturation with its intent to homogenize culture and taste. His entry ushered in a new wave with ‘partly realistic and anti-sentimental stories’. Ilaiyaraaja as a creator not only exemplified this era but stood as a catalyst bringing in phenomenal changes and one such big change was neo-nativism and representation of authentic rural lives.


In the heydays of cinema hall culture, moviegoers clapping for title credits of heroes were not uncommon, but people did that maybe for the first time in Tamil film history when the name of Karunanidhi appeared on screens during the iconic film Parasakthi and they followed it for him later too. Likewise people did that during the 1970s and 1980s when Ilaiyaraaja’s name appeared on screens.

Ilaiyaraaja as a superstar musician became a highly marketable commodity — producers and directors queued to book him. Ilaiyaraaja, who was making music for almost 40 films a year, regularly lived up to expectations and satiated the public’s thirst for easily comprehensible high quality music and made his mark as a central figure in the Tamil film industry. For close to three decades, he dominated the industry like no other; more than just a few films were made just keeping him in mind. Indicating a landmark, his every hundredth film was marked along with his name in the title credits – the 100th film was Moodupani in 1980, 400th was Nayakan in 1987, the 500th Anjali in 1990 and 1000th film Tharai Thappattai in 2016.

Ilaiyaraaja brought in elements of his subjective experience into musical forms, which acted as cultural markers. His music brought in a hitherto unknown sense of collective and individual attachment to the cultural product and it cut across different classes of people and communities within the social and economic milieu.


Ilaiyaraaja changed the rules of music composition bringing in new dimensions. He paved the way for a fresh, down-to-earth wave of creative artistic flavour tinged with elements of rural and folk practices. Though music of the previous generation had songs talking about the plight of the workers and peasants it did not provide them in a way it was experienced. Theodere Baskaran says that folk music has been used earlier, but quite functionally through classical music idiom. Ilaiyaraaja brought music in with its soul, with its earthy, rooty characteristics. He used authentic instruments like tharai and thappattai (Parai drums) that were traditionally considered polluting to provide an authentic musical experience.

South Tamil Nadu has been historically a centre of various traditions of ballads, folklore, dance and drama and Ilaiyaraaja, who comes from that background, influenced the emergence of nativism and neo-nativism as genres in Tamil cinema. Filmmakers came up with a lot of village-centric subjects highly dependent on his music. Right from Annakili in 1976, Padhinaru Vayathinile in 1977, Rosappoo Ravikkaikari in 1980 and over the years a series of films with neo-nativist subject being produced giving us heroes like Ramarajan and Rajkiran, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the ‘village hero’ as a centre of filmic imagination was made possible by Ilaiyaraaja.

Highlighting much on this subaltern connect of Ilaiyaraaja’s contributions senior BBC journalist Sampath Kumar said that Ilaiyaraaja has taken music in different forms to the least initiated common people including slumdwellers, and his music has reached all irrespective of caste and class. His work brought respectability to folk music and popularised it while also taking classical Carnatic music to all.

Talking further about the hierarchy in music Sampath says that Carnatic music concerts are attended only by a few even among the upper castes, but Ilaiyaraaja through his music simplified it so that the common man without even a rudimentary knowledge or training in music is able to enjoy classical ragas. While placing his critique on TM Krishna, he says that ‘When Ilaiyaraaja composed a Thyagaraja Kriti in a raga different from the original, this avant garde musician Krishna, who wants to change everything in music, cried foul and questioned Ilaiyaraaja.’

At another level, given llayaraja’s enormous success, there are attempts to recuperate him within the elite scheme of things by invoking his proficiency in classical music. Classical musician Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer said, “Ilaiyaraaja is a brilliant man. He went to London and conducted a symphony with big-time composers; and they had listened to him and appreciated him… He knows our (classical) music… Now he is dishing out some easy music. I think he will slowly increase the dose of high class music and make people knowledgeable about carnatic music.”


BGM (background music) as part of film music is a key element in supplementing the emotional content of a filmic narrative. One of Ilaiyaraaja’s greatest strengths and contributions is his BGM scores. For the first time in Indian film history, BGM was scored with utmost minutiae to synchronise with the visual images. Ilaiyaraaja has complete mastery over this aspect of musical composition. His acumen and knowledge on the aesthetics of cinema and understanding of the role of music in films are what set him apart. His BGMs augment the narrative in the most effective ways in musically expressing the unspoken thoughts and unseen implications that underlie the film’s narrative.  They provide strength to the visual experience.