If you have not heard of Ilayaraja or know very little of his music, get prepared for a pleasant revelation and a wonderful experience.
Ilayaraja has countless fans in South India and all over the world, so this post may not be a surprise for them. (However, I am sure they would love to listen to their evergreen favourites over and over again). On the other hand, if you are a fan of film music in other Indian languages, I would strongly urge you to listen to the songs here and experience the orchestration for yourself. Did you know that two of Hindi film music’s popular songs are based on Ilayaraja’s original compositions? (Dhak Dhak Karne Laga – superhit from Beta is based on Abba Nee Teeyani from Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari and the popular Kishore number Neele Neele Ambar par from Kalakar with its wonderful guitar piece is based on Ilaya Nila from Payanangal Mudivathillai). Also, the lovely saxophone theme music in Amitabh’s Cheeni Kum is by Ilayaraja. Listen to this delightful orchestration from Cheeni Kum here (click below) to get a preview of Ilayaraja’s genius in orchestration.
Ilayaraja made a grand entry as a Music director with the film Annakili. This film featured melodius compositions based on folk songs that had orchestration and vocals that were trendsetting. Later, Ilayaraja created a milestone with the movie Pathinaru Vayathinile (Padaharella Vayasu in Telugu). The song Sindhura Puvve by S Janaki was a chartbuster. With this single song, Ilayaraja established a milestone as a composer who not only composed beautiful melodies, but also created stunning effects for the listeners with his orchestration. He brought concepts of western symphonies, combined them with folksy touches and Indian instruments in a manner that was never attempted in the history of Indian cinema. The sounds he created with his arrangements were mostly ‘sweet’ and pleasant, soothing. He also created effects of soulful yearnings, joyful abandon or pathos as required.
When I say Ilayaraja is unparalleled, inevitably people talk about A R Rahman and his great orchestration. However, in fairness to both of them, I believe we should not compare Ilayaraja and ARR. I will focus only on Ilayaraja here.
His orchestration was so far ahead of his time that the film industry was totally unprepared to support such high standards of music with visual effects and cinematography. I will not advise anyone to see the visuals for some of his best songs. They were very poor. When a journalist asked Ilayaraja whether he was disappointed that his brilliant orchestration was not matched by visuals, he replied “Why can’t you enjoy music by listening – why do you have to see?”. I agree with him. There are various ways of enjoying film music. Some focus more on poetry, lyrics and the emotions conveyed by the lyrics. Some need visuals. My way of enjoying film music is different. I focus only on the contours and shape of the tune – vocals and arrangements. By listening intently to the music and following the contours, you can discern and feel the undulations, tonal variations, ebb and flow of the music. To me, language does not matter for my enjoyment of film music. I enjoy and admire music by following the contours of the tune even in languages that I do not understand.
In most of his songs, there is a wonderful combination of creative innovation and inspired orchestration. It is hard to separate the innovation from the orchestration. However, in these two posts, I will focus mostly on highlighting the great orchestration.
What is great or unique in Ilayaraja’s orchestration? I will highlight his distinctive touches in two posts (Part 1 and Part 2). In part 1, I listed 12 songs from Tamil and Telugu languages. Most of Ilayaraja’s tunes are the same across Tamil and Telugu songs. It should be very easy for both Tamil and Telugu readers to relate to these songs, regardless of the language. At various parts in the post, I highlighted his distinctive characteristics of orchestration (arrangements) as ‘Features’.
You can listen to the 12 songs listed here on the player below. The player automatically shuffles the songs and does not display the list of songs beforehand (to retain the surprise element). You can skip songs, but this is limited by the player. Click the play arrow below to enjoy the stunning and magical experience of Ilayaraja’s orchestration along with the beauty of his tunes. ( A tip to enhance your listening pleasure: When listening to the songs in the player, if you want to browse further on this site or another one, open a new window for further browsing. The player will continue to play Ilayaraja’s songs in the current window while you are browsing)
Again, for those who may not have felt the magic of Ilayaraja’s arrangements, I would urge you to listen intently to the following 4 ‘specials’ among the 12 gems. It does not matter if you do not know the language, just follow the contours and shape of the song and feel the effects of the orchestration.
Sirimalle Puvva – Ilayaraja’s landmark song with a lilting and haunting effect
Mounamela noyi – for the ‘sweet and pleasant effect’
Talattudhe Vaanam – for a ride on the ‘waves’
Ilama Enum poonkatru – for a mellifluous blend that is soft and easy flowing.
1) Mounamela Noyi from Sagara Sangamam – Telugu: This romantic duet set in a moonlight setting, is set to vocals and arrangements that flow in gentle waves. Notice that most of the music created through guitar,strings and flute is ‘sweet’ and extremely soft and pleasant. I consider this to be among the best romantic duets of all time. Observe the sweet alaap by Janaki and how the song closes with a blend of SP Balu’s and Janaki’s voices.
2) Thalattude Vaanam from Kadal Meengal – Tamil: Observe the beautiful arrangements and the folksy vocals in the interludes. Without knowing anything about the movie or the context, you can feel that this song is about water and waves. Notice that both the vocals and the arrangements play an equal role without being dominated by the other. This is a distinctive feature of his songs. The vocals are melodious because Ilayaraja mostly composed the tune first without any lyrics. The poets wrote lyrics to his tunes. His vocals are therefore free flowing without any restrictions of predetermined lyrics and rhythm.
3) Sirimalle Puvva from Padaharella Vayasu – Telugu: This is the same song as Sindhura Puvve in the original tamil movie – Pathinaru Vayathinile. This is Ilayaraja’s landmark song. He set a trend with the brilliant use of guitars, flute, violins and overall arrangements. Notice how he combined elements of folk and Indian music with influences from western symphonies.
4) Ilama Enum Poonkatru from Pakalil oru iravu – Tamil: If you close your eyes and follow the contours and shape of the song, you will notice that all the notes have been woven together in a beautiful melody without any sudden breaks, jerks or jumps between notes. His creative use of chorus is another feature of his arrangements. It appeared that Ilayaraja used chorals in places where one would normally use an instrument. This use of chorus mostly created an haunting effect.
5) Manchu Kurise Velalo from Abhinandana – Telugu: The opening flute creates an wonderful imagery of heavenly mountains. The entire orchestration is coordinated to create an imagery of mountains, mist and snow.
6) Vadatha Rosapoo from Gramathu Athayayam – Tamil: This is a sad song – notice the use of violins, guitars and flute and the deep percussion to create the effect.
7) Ninnu Kori varnam from Gharshana – Telugu: This foot tapping chartbuster highlighted the combination of rhythm, arrangements. It is hard to decide which is more appealing – the vocals with beautiful undulations or the brilliant orchestration. He used concepts of the carnatic classical base and created a wonderful fusion with western orchestration.
8) Chinna Chinna from Ninaikka Therintham Maname – Tamil: Obviously a song meant for dancing! Notice the beautiful use of percussion in the first interlude and the trumpet and accompanying rhythm in the second interlude. Ilayaraja shows that you do not need high pitched vocals or loud vocals for dancing.
9) Rangulalo kalanai from Abhinandana – Telugu: This gem with the lovely alaap has a beautiful rhythm. A feature of Ilayaraja’s arrangement was a seamless blend of western and Indian instruments. Regardless of the situation or context, he would often blend the two styles seamlessly to create the desired effect. His focus was more on creating the effect, not in the choice of instruments. Notice how he creates a fusion effect in this song.
10) Chamakucham Chamakucham from Kondaveeti Donga – Telugu: A folk based tune, with innovative arrangements. Notice how Balu’s ‘chikki chikki’ and trumpet create the foot tapping rhythm at the beginning of the song. The song has folk, western arrangements and rhythm along with Indian touches.
11) Vellai Puravandru from Pudhu Kavithai – Tamil: Again a demonstration of how vocals and arrangements have an equal role and complement each other. Notice how Janaki’s voice is used in the prelude and interludes.
12) Ayiram malargale from Niram maratha pookkal – Tamil: Notice how the alaap settles into the orchestration in the prelude to create the rhythm and tempo that is maintained throughout the song.
The link to part 2 of this post is here. You can also find the link at the top of this page.