Ilaiyaraaja is known by many names. Some have called him a maestro, notably the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London. Others refer to him as Ragadevan (Lord of the Ragas) or even Isaignani (Saint Musician), a title conferred by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu. For his legions of fans, he is lovingly known as Raaja.
The film composer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, orchestrator, conductor-arranger and lyricist’s extraordinary career has spanned more than four decades, encompassing over 7000 songs and 1000 films in at least seven languages. His music might now share radio and television airtime with others during the day, but it still monopolises the night. Over the decades, his music has become an intrinsic part of Tamil life.
However, while there is little dispute about the genius and craftsmanship of Ilaiyaraaja’s music, his politics have often been a matter of contention.
Adherents of various ‘progressive’ political ideologies—whether they are communist, Periyarist or Ambedkarite—have been critical of Ilaiyaraaja’s politics, or rather their interpretation of it.
The comrades feel a sense of betrayal that he seems removed from the times when he set his tunes to songs written by his brother Pavalar Varadarajan (described as ‘left-leaning’). The Periyarists, on the other hand, are miffed that in spite of his music representing the Tamil masses, he hasn’t willingly claimed his space in the Dravidian movement. Plus, there is the allegation that Ilaiyaraaja refused to compose music for a biopic on Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. The Ambedkarites too are utterly disappointed in Ilaiyaraaja for apparently disavowing his oppressed social identity (he was born into a Scheduled Caste family). Indeed, he has been accused of having Brahminised himself and cut off ties with his roots.
At the same time, the Brahminical hegemony has been fiercely trying (rather unsuccessfully) to discredit or reject the greatness of his work, and to write off Ilaiyaraaja as just another music composer in the history of Tamil music.
These external politics and perceptions have created a strange dichotomy around how Ilaiyaraaja’s work is widely understood. While his music is considered to represent the masses and is loved dearly by millions of Tamils and others, his politics is something that his detractors continuously use as an excuse to throw stones at him. Even ardent fans of his music generally refrain from dwelling on the politics of his music even if they enjoy spending hours analysing every other aspect of his work.
This brings us to some inevitable questions.
Does there exist a dichotomy in Ilaiyaraaja’s work? Is his craft different from his politics? Are Ilaiyaraaja and his works really Brahminised? If so, how is it possible for him to reign as the musician of the masses for more than four decades? Or could it be a case where his anti-caste legacy is deliberately unacknowledged and discredited in order to downplay the historical significance of his works? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is important to unflinchingly examine them in order to better understand Ilaiyaraaja and his music.
The pressure to proclaim identity
There are two often-repeated arguments that are used to dismiss the politics of Ilaiyaraaja’s works. The first is that he refuses to claim his oppressed caste identity. The second is that he has become a devout Hindu, and has in the process Brahminised himself. Both arguments have over the years become a legitimised part of the discourse around the maestro. But how much truth is there to them? Let’s look at both these criticisms closely.
There is tremendous pressure placed on Ilaiyaraaja to take ownership of his caste identity. Of course, there is no similar demand placed on musicians from more privileged backgrounds. No artist who is a Brahmin, Savarna or even from a dominant backward caste is forced to talk about his or her caste location. This pattern, of course, is not restricted to the arts. Even in politics (particularly anti-caste politics), all the articulations of someone from an oppressed caste are directly linked to his or her identity.
However, when the same politics is articulated by someone from an upper caste, they are extended the courtesy to remain casteless. This glaring difference in how we perceive the politics of oppressed and privileged caste individuals is itself a product of caste. It reflects a widespread inability to look beyond the caste identity of someone who comes from an oppressed section of society.
Even in progressive Periyarist and Ambedkarite circles, there has been a struggle to comprehend Ilaiyaraaja’s politics. This is primarily because proponents of both these ideologies place great import on the assertion of oppressed-caste identity. Without this, they are unable to fit a person’s politics into the Periyarist or Ambedkarite mould. The other bone of contention is that both these ideologies are atheist in nature and this comes in direct conflict with Ilaiyaraaja’s religious leanings. The music composer is open about being a devout Hindu. For these reasons, both anti-caste circles have been unable to find a place for Ilaiyaraaja’s politics.
Yet, if we look beyond Periyarist or Ambedkarite ideologies, it becomes clear that Ilaiyaraaja too can have a place in anti-caste history.
Over time, various ani-caste schools of thought have accepted and reclaimed Nandanar as a major icon. This 7th-century saint was from an untouchable caste, but his devotion to Lord Shiva earned him a place among the 63 Nayanars. While Nandanar might play a docile devotee role in the Brahminical rendering Nandanar Charitam, in the Bahujan retelling, he is interpreted as an anti-caste radical who performed one of the earliest ‘temple entry movements’ at the Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram. In these retellings, the ritual purification of Nandanar in fire is considered as the death penalty unleashed on him for daring to enter the temple.
If the legacy of Nandanar, a devout Shaivite, can be accepted by anti-caste groups, then why is Ilaiyaraaja not viewed in a similar light? After all, Ilaiyaraaja—perhaps even more than Nandanar—has been successful in fighting the Brahminical hegemony. He has broken more barriers and ‘polluted’ the sanctity of several more shrines. And despite all this, he has made it difficult for the gatekeepers to levy any penalty on him. If anything, Ilaiyaraaja is a more successful version of Nandanar. And that makes it important to understand his politics.
Striking the Brahminical hegemony
Until Ilaiyaraaja arrived, the music in Tamil cinema remained an extension of the Carnatic tradition, and the scene was dominated by musicians who were either Brahmins or non-Brahmin Savarnas. While the movies attempted to connect with the Bahujan masses, the songs and music retained a certain eliteness.
Ilaiyaraaja changed all this.
He single-handedly struck at the core of the Brahminical hegemony in cinema music and converted it into a form that was easily accessible by the masses. And because his monopoly lasted for almost 20 years, he was able to completely disrupt the nature of film music and through that altered the course of Tamil cinema itself. Whenever an artist disturbs the status quo through their socio-political interventions, hegemonic forces lash back with a penalty. As they did for Ilaiyaraaja.
In 1979, three years after his entry into the Tamil film industry, the state broadcaster All India Radio banned his song ‘Oram Po’ from Ponnu Ooruku Pudhusu for vulgarity. However, what the All India Radio dubbed as ‘vulgar’ was merely Ilaiyaraaja’s deliberate political statement against the then hegemonic forces. Although the song written by Gangai Amaran (Ilaiyaraaja’s younger brother) was composed for a particular situation in the film, the lyrics clearly refer to Ilaiyaraaja by mentioning his mother’s name Chinnathayee and his native Pannaipuram. The song goes on to cheekily demand that various gatekeepers stop blocking the protagonist’s way and to let him and his bicycle move forward and up. Interestingly, the song depicts three symbols of Brahmanical gatekeeping—an elderly lady denoting the rigid older establishment, an Ambassador car depicting the elite classes and finally a constable representing those who have the power to police. The protagonist requests everyone else to help push the bicycle so that once he reaches his destination, others too can follow.
Whether the public got the song’s message or not, it is evident the Brahmin-dominated All India Radio did, and thus banned it for vulgarity. Because in Brahminical spaces, what is more vulgar than the brazen entry of the ‘other’?
Later in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985), Ilaiyaraaja did something that shocked the Carnatic music world. He picked a song by Tyagaraja, one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, and altered it. ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ is a kirtana written and composed by Tyagaraja in the Kambhoji raga. Ilaiyaraaja used lines from the original song and composed it in Saramathi raga for the film.
The intervention here cannot just be interpreted as a creative remix but as a bold and blasphemous act by someone who was not intimidated by the sacredness of the Trinity. Ilaiyaraaja’s liberties sent the Carnatic world in a tizzy. So much so that rasikas are still confused about which raga is the ‘correct one’. And when they learn what Ilaiyaraaja did, their reactions can be rather indignant, if their comments on the rasikas.org forums are anything to go by.
But that’s not all. In the same film, another song ‘Paadariyen Padipariyen’ (I don’t know music for I have not learnt it) speaks the politics of music from a Bahujan perspective (although appropriated in the movie by a Brahmin woman character). The song is about the oral tradition of Tamil folk music, asserting that it is this that gave rise to the ragas of the Carnatic tradition. One verse goes:
“Can there be anything wrong in what I say?
Because what is new in these ragas?
That hasn’t already sung by the Bahujan woman
Who worked in the field and at her home!”
And the performance ends with an awe-inspiring punch where Ilaiyaraaja fuses ‘Paadariyen Padipariyen’ with ‘Mari Mari Ninne’, illustrating how even Tyagaraja’s kirtana might have emerged from the tunes of the Bahujan working classes.
Even today, Ilaiyaraaja’s creative ‘distortion’ makes its presence felt. When you search for the song ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ on YouTube, it suggests Ilaiyaraaja’s version right after Tyagaraja’s. And singer Chitra’s rendition of ‘Paadariyen Padipariyen’ ends up appearing third in the suggestion list. However, popular Carnatic singer TM Krishna, whose name appears at the seventh place in the list, is not happy with Ilaiyaraaja’s subversion.
In his book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, TM Krishna states:
“[W]e can and must ask: what does this transposition of a composition from its parent raga onto another actually do to the kirtana? A great deal, actually. The essence of its being disintegrates. This is not to say that the film version of the kirtana was not beautiful. I am examining what the film version did to the integrity of the kirtana. As I said, the film song destroyed it. To me, the film version was unacceptable.”
In the same book, TM Krishna also reprimands Ilaiyaraaja for creating his own raga Panchamukhi and labels it as a bad idea.
Polluting pure spaces
It is ironic that Ilaiyaraaja’s detractors often accuse him of being Brahminised. Because throughout his career, Ilaiyaraaja has consciously or otherwise polluted the so-called pure spaces in music.
In his very first year of entry into the industry, Ilaiyaraaja composed a song called ‘Kettela Ange’ for the film Bhadrakali (1976), where the lines written in Tamil Brahmanical dialect are set to the folk beats of the parai drum and imbued with a western flavour. The marriage between the parai drum of the lower castes and the Brahmanical dialect was sacrilegious enough for All India Radio to ban this song as well for ‘vulgarity’.
Later in Ellaam Inbamayam (1981), there occurs a situation where a wedding takes place at the cheri (untouchable settlements) between an upper caste man and a lower caste woman. Ilaiyaraaja set a song called ‘Maaman Voodu Machu’ for the celebration that follows. The song begins with the beating of parai drums accompanied by the playing of nadhaswaram and urumi, which is soon interrupted by an individual who demands something ‘decent’ instead.
Ultimately, after some bickering, a middle ground is reached and both the ‘decent’ song and folk music are played together. This exchange about the marriage between ‘decent’ and folk music is deliberately placed against the inter-caste wedding taking place in the scene. What is particularly interesting about this conversation is that it unfolds not in the dialogue but within the song’s lyrics written by Panju Arunachalam.
These interventions were not restricted to the early part of his career. In 2016, for the film Tharai Thappattai, Ilaiyaraaja picked MS Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy’s philosophically dramatic song ‘Aarambam Aavadhu Pennukulle’ from Thanga Padhumai (1959) and remixed it into a funeral song rife with parai drum beats. The despairing lines of actress Padmini in the original song are exaggerated to comic effect in Ilaiyaraaja’s remix. While both versions are brilliant in their own way, one is left wondering if Ilaiyaraaja’s take on the original is a tribute or a parody.
Ilaiyaraaja doesn’t spare the gods either. In the very popular song ‘Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu’ from Thalapathi (1991), he inserts the Thevaram lines of Appar Tirunavukkarasar Nayanar as an interlude into a commercial ‘record dance’ number. Until then, those Thevaram lines might have been heard only in temple renditions or Carnatic music stages.
Thus, for a man who is accused of being Brahminised, Ilaiyaraaja seems to have no notions of purity or pollution. His music seems to emerge from a place that is fiercely unmindful of such classifications. In an interview to Cinema Vikatan on the occasion of his 75th birthday, he was asked to explain his idea of spiritualism in a simplified way. His answer was clear: “Spiritualism itself is simplified… everything is equal and same! What can be the complication in this to make it simpler?”
Fusion as a form of equality
One of the most admired characteristics of Ilaiyaraaja’s work is his skill in fusing different genres of music. Even his harsher critics have acknowledged his prowess in bringing together completely different sounding instruments and traditions. However, there is a pervasive rationale behind his recurring fusion work that is not often spoken about.
For Ilaiyaraaja, fusion is also a way to illustrate how all forms of music are fundamentally “equal and same”. In the same interview to Cinema Vikatan, when asked to reflect on the change in music over the decades, he claimed that music is always the same and essentially just sound waves in the air. He questioned if air can have race, caste or religion. He further said that he did not like the idea of compartmentalising music, requesting others not to do so either.
His fusion operates in three layers. In the first layer, he merges Tamil folk music, which is considered as the expression of the Bahujans, with Carnatic music that has been dominated by Brahmins and other Savarna castes. Here, he establishes the equality and fusibility of these two forms of music from the Indian subcontinent. In the second layer of fusion, he takes these two forms and merges them with Western classical to illustrate how the music from the east and west are equal and fusible too. In the third layer, he introduces other forms of music to enhance the song in question.
One can pick almost any song from Ilaiyaraaja’s discography and notice these layers and their underlying politics. For example, in ‘Ada Veetuku Veetuku Vaasapadi’ from Kizhaku Vaasal (1990), he incorporated elements of Mozart’s 25th symphony, 1st movement in a theru koothu (street dance performance) song with folk instrumentation.
In his first fusion album, ‘How to name it?’ (1986), Ilaiyaraaja’s intentions were even more overt. One of the tracks is named ‘I met Bach in my house’ where Ilaiyaraaja places German composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach’s arrangements in an Indian music setting. And in another titled, ‘Chamber Welcomes Thiagaraja’, he places elements from Tyagaraja’s Carnatic compositions within western chamber music.
Later in his album ‘Thiruvasakam’ (2005), he transposed the Shaiva hymns of 9th-century Tamil poet Manikkavacakar and housed them in the kind of symphonic music that is usually redolent of Christian hymns. In so doing, his fused music rooted not only in distinct geographies but different religious traditions.
The politics of his fusion are unmistakable in the song ‘Naadirukkum Nilamaiyile’ from Ullam Kavarntha Kalvan (1987). The lyrics proclaim:
“Do you want the Tamil pasurams
Or the Telugu kirtana or the ever-changing Western music?
Shall I sing it all?
And turn them upside down and subvert it all?
Shall I fuse the beauty of different art forms?
Now you tell me, dear! Have I won in this test?”
Firing the gatekeeper
In his four-decade long career, Ilaiyaraaja made his compositions available for innumerable filmmakers, producers and actors, irrespective of how small or big they were. Because he was extremely prolific, he was able to compose songs for everyone at break-neck speed. He did not have to be ‘selective’ like other top musicians—he was accessible to all, and ready to churn out superhits for everyone. If top stars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan got memorable songs, then so did lesser known actors like Suresh, Pratap K. Pothen or Ramesh Aravind. Newbie filmmakers were offered the same quality of work as celebrity directors like Mani Ratnam. Several debutant filmmakers rushed to get Ilaiyaraaja’s tunes because they believed that his music had the ability to convert small films into big hits.
In several interviews, Mani Ratnam has mentioned that while making his first film Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983), he didn’t have the budget to pay Ilaiyaraaja’s market fee. The composer still readily agreed to work in the film. The songs were superhits and they continue to be reused and remixed in other films across multiple languages.
In 2016, debutant filmmaker Lenin Bharathi recalled how the composer agreed to work for Merku Thodarchi Malai for a smaller fee without batting an eyelid. Such stories about Ilaiyaraaja’s largesse for financially challenged filmmakers abound. While one often hears of other artists helping their friends, it’s far rarer for this to happen in the case of unknown newcomers. But for Ilaiyaraaja, music is meant for all and therefore he goes out of the way to make it available for literally everyone. By doing that, he makes his music universal in the true sense.
Documenting Bahujan lives
One of Ilaiyaraaja’s most important contributions lies in how his music acts as an extension of the folk tradition and documents the culture and politics of the Bahujan. Until his arrival, the Bahujan majority was forced to listen to sounds and words alien to it. Through his music, Ilaiyaraaja captured their relationships, romance, devotion, joy, happiness, struggles, pain and everything else. And he documented all this through their own instruments and sounds. While his music might be universal, at his very core, there exists a folk bard in Ilaiyaraaja.
The best way to illustrate this would be through the music he made for actor Ramarajan’s movies.
The film industry and the public have both been equally baffled why the musician’s work for Ramarajan— at best a mid-level star who was popular primarily in tier-2 towns and villages—was so exceptional, and often better than what he produced for far bigger actors. The probable reason lies in the kind of films in which Ramarajan acted. With an eye on the rural audience, he starred in a series of films—like Enga Ooru Pattukaran (1987), Karakattakkaran (1989), Paattukku Naan Adimai (1990) and Ooru Vittu Ooru Vanthu (1990)—that focused on local folk-art forms and traditions. These themes allowed the folk bard in Ilaiyaraaja to draw deeply from his musical roots.
Even while capturing the devotion of the Bahujans, Ilaiyaraaja’s music cut across all beliefs. It included both the Brahminised Adi Parashakthi in ‘Janani Janani’ (Thaai Mookaambikai, 1982) and the local deities Mari Amman in ‘Mariamma Mariamma’ (Karakattakkaran, 1989) and Periyachi Amman in ‘Karumathur Katukulae’ (Virumaandi, 2003). Further, it included Jesus Christ in ‘Devanin Kovilile’ (Vellai Roja, 1983), the Prophet in ‘Nabi Vazhi Nadanthal’ sung by the eminent Tamil Muslim singer Nagore E. M. Hanifa, and tied together all beliefs to compassion in ‘Kadaval Ullame Orr Karunai’ in Anbulla Rajinikanth (1984).
Periyarists, however, remain miffed that Ilaiyaraaja refused to compose the music for a biopic on their leader Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. While it is popularly believed that the composer turned down the project because of his aversion to Periyar’s atheism, Tamil writer V Mathimaran points out that it was actually because of a personal conflict with the biopic director Gnana Rajasekaran. This is most likely true because in the film Kadavul (1997), Ilaiyaraaja didn’t shy away from composing a song called ‘Ariviruntha Konjam’ that critiqued choosing God over humanity and rationality.
Another criticism about Ilaiyaraaja is that some of his songs glorified the intermediate castes in movies like Chinna Gounder (1991), Thevar Magan (1992) and Ejamaan (1993). While it is true that some of these songs were used on the ground to consolidate caste power, if we look at it holistically Ilaiyaraaja’s music has only enriched the representation of the intermediate castes.
In all his collaborations with filmmaker Bharathiraja, the lives of intermediate castes were documented realistically and with a humane touch—examples include Mann Vasanai (1983), Muthal Mariyadhai (1985), Kadalora Kavithaigal (1986) and Nadodi Thendral (1992) among others. And this extends to almost all other rural and small-town based movies that Ilaiyaraaja worked for, such as En Rasavin Manasile (1991), Nattupura Pattu (1996) and Solla Marandha Kadhai (2002). By fixating on one or two songs, his critics ignore several hundred other works where the lives of these very same communities have been narrated with dignity, which was never possible before.
The ostracised becomes the auspicious
Ilaiyaraaja often used his music compositions to assert his undisputable position in the industry. The success of 16 Vayathinile (1977) where he had sung the ‘title song’ (Solam Vithaikayile) for the first time led to the belief that it would bring good luck if Ilaiyaraaja rendered the title song.
Thus, you can often hear Ilaiyaraaja either singing or humming when the opening titles of the film are played. Very often, these songs are not about the movie’s theme but about Ilaiyaraaja. He becomes the spokesperson for the film where he introduces himself and the film to the audience. For example, during the opening titles of Karakattakkaran (1989) Ilaiyaraaja and the film’s director Gangai Amaran have a conversation about it. In the philosophical song ‘Paatale Buthi Sonnar’ that follows, the composer sings about the history of music and his role in it.
Again in Kumbakarai Thangaiah (1991), he opens the film with the song ‘Ennai Oruvan Paada’ where he goes one step further and claims that his role in music was conspired by the higher forces of universe.
Just when you wonder how can even a genius composer be so self-aggrandising, he mockingly claims that he knows nothing about music or singing in ‘Enna Paaduvadhu’ from Keladi Kanmani (1990).
This apart, there are a host of self-referential songs where he invokes the name Raaja (king), a monicker often used by fans. These include songs like ‘Raja Rajathi’ from Agni Natchathiram (1988) where the lines claim “Whether it is in the past or future, I shall remain the King forever!”, ‘Raja Kaiya Vachcha’ from Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989) that claims “If Raaja touches something, then it can’t go wrong!” and ‘Raja Raja Dhan’ from Oru Oorla Oru Rajakumari (1995) where the song unequivocally declares “Raaja is the King!”.
Naturally, this has made his critics accuse him of extreme narcissism. However, it is important to contextualise what Ilaiyaraaja is doing here in the historical scheme of things.
Writing about the outrage that followed the construction of Mayawati’s statues, Anu Ramdas, editor and founder of Round Table India, in her essay ‘Mayawati or Hatshepsut: Her place has to be shown’, argues:
“This outrage is not only the moral high-ground occupied by the elites but is in fact the fearful acknowledgment that not so often in human history do we come across a woman with the power to command the engraving of her own image in stone, which has the approval of an elected government. Here is a Dalit woman who did just that. Unlike most of the female statues scattered around the world, from past to present times, neither are her statues tailored to the male gaze nor are they signposts of male benevolence, these represent her sense of history and were built to her own specifications.”
And this is exactly what Ilaiyaraaja too does in his music. Deeply aware of the erasure and overlooking of artists from oppressed communities, he uses his transgressive power to put his name down in history. The engraving of his name into several of his songs is a deliberate act against powerful caste structures.
Symbol of resistance
It is not uncommon to witness images of Ilaiyaraaja in salons, tailor shops, roadside restaurants, teashops, autorickshaws, mechanic shops and every other working-class space. While it might be tempting to assume that his fans have gone overboard, it begs the question as to why other popular music composers have not achieved this kind of fandom.
It is because in Ilaiyaraaja they not only see a stellar composer but a man who has risen from the bottom and fought the reigning establishment to earn his place. Beyond the obviously brilliant and vast body of music he has created, for the average working-class individual, Ilaiyaraaja represents resistance, success and dignity.
So it wasn’t surprising that in the film Pariyerum Perumal (2018)—which is about a Dalit person’s struggle against the caste system—its filmmaker Mari Selvaraj used a wall painting of Ilaiyaraaja at a key moment in the song ‘Naan Yaar’. A lot of critics assumed that the filmmaker was trying to connect both the protagonist and Ilaiyaraaja through their caste locations. But it wasn’t that. Rather, Ilaiyaraaja’s image appears there as a symbol of resistance, strength and survival.
Resolving the dichotomy
While his critics might continue to nit-pick on minor issues, if they looked at Ilaiyaraaja’s output in totality, they might understand that there exists no dichotomy in his work. His musical genius and his underlying anti-caste politics have always co-existed and if anything, they draw strength from each other.
If Ilaiyaraaja’s music can be accused of any dichotomy, it has to be that it is both deeply local and exceptionally universal at the same time. Like saint-poet Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukural, Ilaiyaraaja’s music is firmly rooted in Tamil life, but still has a message for the world. Indeed, to compare him to other composers or artists might do him injustice. His historical significance demands a place next to other illustrious Tamil icons like Thiruvalluvar, Avvaiyar or Ilango Adigal.
To sum up Ilaiyaraaja would be akin to pinning down the vast air expanse. It is pointless to try and trap him in small balloons or stuffy metal cylinders. Some might hold on to the momentary phases of fog and smokescreens, but like the air, he escapes it all and rises above for the Tamil world to breathe him in now, and for all time.