Ilayaraja in my life!

I’ve always wanted to write about Ilayaraja and the impact he has had in my life, but it’s far more difficult than even the one I summarized last year about Rahman. When I started noticing Ilayaraja, it was mostly a ‘Kamal song’, ‘Rajini song’ or a ‘Mohan song’…never a Raja song. Then, in the late 80s I started noticing a pattern – most of the songs I loved were from Ilayaraja. It then dawned on my now-aware brain that the man behind those incredible songs was Ilayaraja – the connection was made and ever since I’ve been referring to them as ‘Raja-songs’.

I evolved from getting impulsively attracted the way a song opens and started appreciating the finer nuances…and boy, did Raja have a veritable feast in this department? Some of his most innovative pieces are hidden in the first and second paragraphs – anupallavi/ charanam. Most of Raja’s songs had similar tunes in both the first and second paragraphs – an area where Rahman is supposed to have broken new ground. But, the point in Raja’s music was the combination of a super-intelligent interlude offering clubbed with subtle background variations in the paragraphs even while retaining a common tune. I became truly aware of such nuances a lot later than the period in which some of these tracks were composed.

Most of my listening sessions were through a radio, not a cassette where I can replay the songs at will. And even with a simple radio listen, I actually grasped the entire song’s tune complete with the tune of the interludes! Raja’s music was so dominant in the 80s that you just cannot escape them. I’ve lived some of the best times of my life with Raja’s music playing in the background. I’ve recalled and sang (within my head) his songs when I was first infatuated…when I first fell in love…when I felt rebellious for the first time…when I finished studies and started looking for a job – and right across most of my life’s momentous occasions. The man seems to have myriad musical offerings for all of life’s situations.

I need to concede the fact that a 15 track list from Ilayaraja’s illustrious career is not only plain silly, but also incredibly insulting. But, as always in life, there are some things more precious than others. And the following list is just my very personal list of the absolute favorites. And mind you, I do not have any kind of musical training – so the following is intended and written in simple, common man language. I’ve avoided even normal terms like anupallavi/ charanam and have simplified it further as mere first and second paragraphs. My thoughts’ musical technicality is almost non-existent in this write-up, but the emotion is intact!

But – this is very important! – the reason why we like certain songs over others can be traced back to their raaga. While going into a raaga discussion is beyond my musical awareness/ knowledge, I do try and get the raagas of most of my favorite songs. And try and figure out other Raja songs in the same raaga – and it works amazingly well! Take a look at the Ilaiyaragam list – I’m sure you can find a treasure trove there if you’re able to zero-in on a raaga (through a song you love) that you like and look for other songs in that same raaga.

Unlike my usual style, this list is not in any order – amidst the incredible number of tracks the man has composed, I cannot pick one single favorite.

01. Naan thedum sevandhi poovidhu (Dharma Pathini, 1986)
If there’s one song in Raja’s repertoire that makes me wonder how he created every second of it, it is this song. This song bears a striking similarity in its tune and structure to an earlier song by Raja – Paada vandhadhor from Ilamai Kaalangal, 1983. But, the rhythm has been spruced up here and you really do not expect that when Raja’s vocals open with an alaap. Even the guitar and violins that follow do not hint at anything, but we know that after that short flute bit, we are in for a twist. And boy, the simple, faster rhythm structure that plays almost parallel to the lead vocal (of Raja) is mesmerizing. The way he abruptly ends Sevvandhi poovidhu and Andhiyil poothadhu and the lingering rhythm is sheer magic. After a dramatically different first interlude, that sneaky violin at the end of each line is a masterstroke. When Raja goes, En devi, he takes it an all new high. Delectable structure, this!

02. O vasantha raaja (Neengal Kettavai, 1984)
That prelude! Whoa! It cannot get better than this! The pallavi’s simple 5 lines end incredibly when S.Janaki beautifully turns En dhaagangal theerthida nee pirandhaayo back into the fold…this is sheer magic. The interplay between a classically molded first interlude paving way for a similarly backed first paragraph and a western second interlude with a western backed second paragraph is another stroke of brilliance. SPB making his incredible entry in the first paragraph is another highlight. This track is one amazing package.

03. Dhevanin kovil (Aruvadai Naal, 1986)
Another scintillating prelude – Raja’s voice intoning Christian-styled hymns in Tamil in the most unique manner possible. Chitra opens the song in her inimitable way and the manner in which violins interact with flute and guitars in the first interlude is something I can never take my mind off. But, the pièce de résistance is the tune in the paragraphs – Raja gets Chitra to awesomely drag the last word in each line that it’s almost divine. The second interlude showcases a tinge of sadness with that violin but Raja joins in with his trademark thandhana with such gusto, and with that short guitar piece, things get back on track incredibly. This song has so many unique facets that I discover something every time I hear it.

04. Pothi vecha malliga mottu (Man Vaasanai, 1983)
Will this man ever tire of creating such knockout preludes? This one beats the earlier two, by a mile. That agile violin, and so many assorted sounds create such a stunning effect…but that tune beats it all in one stroke. SPB’s intermittent Aah ha and a small laugh before he starts, is another stunner. The first interlude’s guitar superbly ends in a naadaswaram to create that rustic effect. The way SPB and Janaki exchange niceties with an incredible tune and the clap effect that plays in the background when Pothi vecha is sung again after the first paragraph…it’s all magical. That second interlude is another mind bender with flute ending in grand violins. This is sheer triumph of an amazing tune.

05. Pani vizhum (Ninaivellam Nithya, 1982)
This film had three songs I love – all complete gems. The other two – Needhaane endhan pon vasandham and Rojavai thaalaattum thendral are equally brilliant, but this track stands out for its serene tune that seems to owe its life to the stray, almost casual violin note that plays after every two words uttered by SPB…that’s true innovation! SPB’s rendition of the first and second paragraphs has his unique nonchalance in the voice and he carries it beautifully. The second interlude in particular – the way the guitar and violins merge and the whole thing gets suffixed with a flue and guitar again…delectable!

06. Poongaatru pudhithaanathu (Moondraam Pirai, 1983)
Another film with an incredible soundtrack. Unlike many people I know, I’m not all that fond of Kanne kalaimaane. My second preference is actually the much less heard Vaanengum thanga vinmeengal that opens the film. But Poongaatru is absolute goose bump material – every time…I mean it, every time – even now – I listen to this song, the preludes and the backgrounds give me goose bumps. It was way ahead of its time and was a class apart. The almost mute way the first interlude starts, gets on to a shrill flute note and suddenly opens up to a plethora of violins is Raja’s classic style all the way. The overlapping violins in the second interlude instinctively has come to mean a speeding train for me – as its shown in the film – it was that appropriate!

07. Vaanam keezhe (Thoongaadhey Thambi Thoongaadhey, 1983)
My dad took me to this film when I was a little kid, in Trichy and believe me, I actually was so scared when Kamal (my hero, at that age!) was drugged that I forced my dad to get me out of the theater. I haven’t seen the film fully since 🙂 Even on the TV, I have caught only occasional shots – not in its entirety! And I caught on to this song very recently. This is almost like a classic, chart buster pop song fused with unique Indian orchestration and made enjoyable to the core! This is a unique song – 3 paragraphs and I sing along it completely (not necessarily the right lyrics, but with the complete tune of all 3 interludes). SPB carries this song like the pro he was, in his peak in the 80s.

08. Kannane nee vara (Thendrale Ennai Thodu, 1985)
I’ve always had a soft corner for two of Raja’s soundtracks, more than others and considered them as complete soundtracks with every song working big time. One is K Bhagyaraj’s Thooral ninnu pochu and the other, Sridhar’s Thendrale ennai thodu. This film is loaded with a set of mind boggling tunes that I wonder what Sridhar went through, when he heard them first. I mean how can I even decide between Kannane nee vara and Thendral vandhu ennai thodum…is it even mortally possible? But, let me do the hard work and say that the former just about manages to trump the latter – but just about. As usual, it’s the violins that captivates all over the track – the interludes getting the best deal. The tune in the paragraphs, composed in the form of a question and response, tune-wise (not through the lyrics!) is brilliant and is something you just cannot get out of your head.

09. Poo malarndhida (Tik Tik Tik, 1981)
The dance jadhis that open the song cannot be more deceptive. The song per se starts almost abruptly – but after the shrill vocal opening, the cheesy I love you almost symbolizes those times. But beyond all that, the squeaky violin in the first interlude almost define Raja’s trademark violin pieces. He has used this style of violin in many songs but here, it starts out of nowhere to start the interlude and also accompany the verses at the end of every two words!

10. Naguva nayana (Pallavi Anu Pallavi, 1983)
The only Kannada song in the list and what a song! Maniratnam seems to have extracted some truly inspired music out of Raja. The violin piece in the beginning – when the two lead singers finish tracing the basic tune without words, is the hallmark of Raja. The song itself creates a tune of 4 words – Naguva, Nayana, Madhura, Mouna! Each word sung with a mild variation that flows oh-so-gorgeously. The interludes have something very Balumahendra’ish about them – I’m not entirely sure why, though! The fact that Balki chose to use this tune for the Idea Cellular campaign and the fact that it has been so ubiquitous, almost 2 decades speaks of Raja’s brilliance.

11. Idthu oru pon malai (Nizhalgal, 1980)
Now, how could I not have chosen Poongadhave or even that joyous outburst, Madai thirandhu? But Idhu oru pon maalai pozhuthu has a quite grace about it and I may have thought about this song subconsciously every time Bangalore has great weather outside my car window while I’m driving to work – and that’s most days! This is one flawless song packing in everything a Raja fan could imagine. The serene prelude with the guitar-violin combo, that extremely pleasant accompanying rhythm, Vairamuthu’s superbly imaginative lyrics…that knock-out violin in the first interlude, the flute ending the first interlude and a solo sad violin note ending the second…the meaning in the lyrics of first and second paragraphs…SPB towering over every inch of this song…they just don’t make songs like this anymore!

12. Jallanta (Geetanjali, 1989)
The only Telugu song in this list. Again, why this? And not classics like Aamani padave or O papa laali? I mean this film is jam packed with some of Raja’s best music and ran for its music too! But, the reason behind this song is personal. When I was young, I always preferred male solo songs and didn’t care much about female solos – partly because I sing well, to some extent – and used to try singing along SPB and Mano. So, I used to ignore the female solos and focus on the male solos, complete with those tacky lyrics booklet you used to get in small petty shops in Tamil Nadu. But the two female solos I remember really captivating me (amongst many others, as usual) is Chatriyan’s Maalayil yaaro and this song from Geetanjali. Chitra rocks like a complete rock star in this lively song. This is one of Raja’s best songs celebrating the rain and the constant backing rhythm makes you shake your feet automatically. I still – even now – tap my fingers in unison when Raja adds the rhythm after a brief pause as Chitra finishes the first line, for the first time, in the beginning of the song. The first interlude reminds me a lot of Mouna Raagam’s Oh oh megam vandhadho or even Punnagai Mannan’s Vaan megam – both extremely competent and brilliant rain songs by themselves. The second interlude with the pahadi/ tribal feel is another of Raja’s trademarks that we’ve all grown up with. In particular, the one facet that gets me every time is the tune that flips on its back as Chitra gets the tune back to Jallanta at the end of the paragraphs…beautiful!

13. Putham pudhu kaalai (Alaigal Oivathillai, 1981)
No Kaadhal oviyam? Yes, may be, since I play that song more often than others, but Putham pudhu kaalai is special. Another ‘morning’ song, but very different from Pon maalai pozhudhu. The sedate prelude…completely laid back tune…the very mild backgrounds…the phenomenal interludes, as usual loaded with Raja’s violin pieces…really cool stuff from Raja.

14. Yen eniya (Moodupani, 1980)
Guitar all the way! Prelude is an example and so is the way it accompanies the tune all through. Yesudas’ easy rendition and the vocal choruses Raja adds all through the song so amazingly are stuff made for legends. Both the interludes, in particular, are absolute delights.

15. Paattu thalaivan (Idhaya Kovil, 1985)
I can hear you ask, ‘Paattu thalaivan…of all the other classics in the film?’. Vaanuyarndha sollayile, Kootathila koyil pura…! But this song perhaps represents the 80s Raja perfectly. SPB’s mild drunk act in the beginning since the film’s hero (Mohan) is kicking the drinking habit and is playing a prank with his lady love, opens the song quite uncharacteristically. The first interlude carries every Raja stamp known to mankind and I try and reproduce it exactly all the time it plays. The highlight is the tune Raja imagines for the paragraphs…the way he makes SPB extend Kaadhal pesum-hmmm-hmmm-hmmm-hmmm – that is imagination at its best. It may sound really insignificant due to the number of times we’ve heard this song, but trust me – it’s not! It needs to be done and very few composers do it. There’s also a funny smacking sound that plays after every words in the opening (Paattu thalaivan, paadinaal paattudhaan) – Raja seems to have his own rule in using that and changes the instrument to play it, the third time…Oh how I wish I was there when he conjured this track!

This is by no means a reasonable and final list. I probably like about 200+ Ilayaraja songs but considering the fact that I’ve never got myself down to articulating my thoughts about Ilayaraja, this is an essence of what I like about the man. I feel blessed that I exist in the same time frame as a musical genius. And yes, hell with 100 words – this is the single largest piece in Milliblog, so far, I suppose!