Hits of Ilayaraja, innovation

In the earlier two posts on orchestration (links given below), I highlighted distinctive features of Ilayaraja’s orchestration.  As I keep mentioning, it is very difficult to separate the great orchestration and the innovation in his songs. Invariably, his tunes have great arrangements and something ‘new’. However, in this post, I will highlight the experiments, innovation and the ‘newness’ that Ilayaraja brought to film music.

I am trying to share the enjoyment of film music from the ‘outside’ by following the contours of the tune and feeling the effects of the orchestration and vocals. I am not delving deeply into the finer inner technical details of the composition, arrangements, lyrics or the raga base. However, as an exception, I will delve into finer technical details in only two of the following songs. We need to understand the finer technical details to understand the novelty that Ilayaraja brought to his music.

I have created this mix of 12 songs from Tamil and Telugu songs. Most of Ilayaraja’s tunes are the same across both the languages. This is primarily because most of the movies are made in both the languages. It should be easy to identify and relate to the song, regardless of the language. As in the previous posts, I will not advise anyone to see the visuals of these songs. Ilayaraja’s tunes were way ahead of time and the accompanying visuals were very poor and in quite a few cases, bordering on the ridiculous and laughable. Just close your eyes, visualise the imagery he creates with his music and enjoy the beautiful effects from the playlist below.

If you are in the USA or Canada, you can also enjoy the songs on the player below. The player shuffles songs automatically. You can also skip songs, but it limits the number of times you can skip. Click the play arrow below to enjoy the creativity and novelty in his songs.

A tip to enhance your listening pleasure: When listening to the songs in any of the players, 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)

I wanted to highlight as ‘special’ only a few of the 12 songs, but ended up with 10 specials. So here goes:

1)   Poonthalir aada from Paneer Pushpangal – Tamil: This song has many outstanding features – the use of guitar, lovely rhythm, humming and of course a melodious tune. But the one feature that stands out is the use of chorus. The chorus adds a special dimension to the entire song and elevates an outstanding song to a magical level. The many uses of chorus effects by Ilayaraja will take up several blog posts! However, in a majority of the cases, the chorus adds a magical and haunting effect to the song. It appeared that Ilayaraja used chorus as a replacement for typical musical instruments. You have to listen to this song at full volume in a closed room to feel the magic of the chorus.  The use of chorus in this fashion was the innovation in the early 1980s.

2)   Panivizhum malar vanam – Ninaivellum Nitya – Tamil: Again there are several outstanding features in this song – the use of guitar, violin and the flute as individual pieces and together. But, the highlight in my view is the opening line “Panivizhum malar vanam” which is set to a rhythm pattern! Ilayaraja took a rhythm pattern and built a melody around it. After the first few lines by SP Balu, the prelude music starts with guitars and violin and ends with the rhythm pattern by the trumpets. The same rhythm pattern of the trumpets was used by Ilayaraja to compose the first line.


3)   Ithuoru pon malai from Nizhalgal – Tamil: The chirping of the birds and everything else in this song makes this a delightful number sung by S P Balasubrahmanyam.  I must highlight some of the finer technical details here. In the second interlude, towards the end, you will hear the flute and guitar playing simultaneously. But the contours and tune of the flute and guitar are different. In technical terms, when two or more instruments play simultaneously, but in different patterns and contours, it is called a ‘counterpoint’.  These patterns are difficult to compose. Ilayaraja used counterpoints extensively. More on this later.

4)   Ekantha vela from Anveshana – Telugu: Ilayaraja composed this tune on a train journey from Chennai to Madurai along with the director of this film. This film is a murder mystery full of guns, corpses and darting, suspicious looks. This song is set against this backdrop of mystery. The interludes therefore have eerie music. But if you notice the vocals, there are quite a few things that are ‘new’.  Janaki and SP Balasubrahmanyam, do not sing an entire line by themselves, but complete a line together, with Janaki ‘singing’ only a single sound or word through a major portion of the song. This sort of ‘interjecting’ a word was an innovation by Ilayaraja.  The peculiar (and yet very attractive) vocals are a perfect fit in the overall mysterious effect.

5)   Raja rajadhi raja from Gharshana – Telugu: This group song has the chorus synchronized perfectly with S P Balu’s voice. The highlights are the prelude and interludes. If you notice, apart from the percussion effects, there are no ‘instruments’ used in the prelude or interludes! In fact, in the second interlude, he uses the chorus as ‘instruments’! Ilayaraja oncechorus again showed that you need creativity, rhythm and melody to create a great dance number – you do not need heavy thumping beats, loud music or high-pitched vocals.

6)   Materani from O Papa Laali – Telugu: This is SP Balu’s breathless song. In the two charanams (antras), SP sings without a break.

 7)   Ahaya gangai from Dharma Yutham – Tamil:  Ilayaraja and Janaki forged a wonderful combination with Ilayaraja challenging and taking Janaki’s vocal skills to a different height. But, in this song, he really pushed the boundaries of Janaki’s voice by making her sound like an instrument! In the prelude as well as in the second interlude, Ilayaraja used Janaki’s voice innovatively like an instrument. The effect is much more pleasing than a trumpet or guitar. The tune itself has many pleasing and graceful undulations by both Janaki and Malaysia Vasudevan.

8)   Andhi mazhai from Raja Parvai – Tamil: There are too many new features in this song. Notice the use of mridangam and use of vocals in the prelude. Apart from this novelty, he also introduced the haunting background vocals by Janaki and SP Balu towards the end of the charanams (antras). With great arrangements, he created a beautiful effect of rain in the second interlude.innovation

9)   Paadariyen from Sindhu Bhairavi – Tamil: This song starts off as a simple and innocuous folk song. Gradually, instruments in a traditional Carnatic concert blend with the tune. And finally, the entire tune becomes a pure Carnatic classical tune in the end. It takes a lot of innovation and creativity to blend and merge different genres like this.

10) En uyire from Poonthotta Kaavalkaaran – Tamil: Chitra starts the melodious prelude. If you observe the chorus, which joins her in the prelude, you will notice the harmonic pieces sung by the chorus are not in the same pattern as the melody being sung by Chitra. This is the vocal equivalent of a ‘counterpoint’. In the context of instruments, this simultaneous and independent play is called counterpoint. In the context of vocals, it is normally called polyphony. But, ignore these fine technical points and enjoy the song!


I will let you identify all the ‘new’ features in the other two songs.

Hope you enjoyed the work of this genius with his many experiments, new and unusual use of vocals, chorus and instruments that create a magical experience for listeners. No words are enough praise for this innovative maestro.

The link to Hits of Ilayaraja, orchestration – part 2 is at the top of this page and also here.

The link to Hits of Ilayaraja, orchestration – part 1 is here.

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9 Responses to Hits of Ilayaraja, innovation

  1. Ravi
    Thanks for asking me to comment on your blog. I read a few posts and the posts related to Ilayaraja (I prefer to call him Raja). I also saw the comments related to your Raja posts. To ask me to write about Raja on a comment box, would be akin to testing the limits of the comment box. I will try to be short in my commentary as my blog has a lot of details about Raja’s technique and genius. I also notice that you have covered a number of songs from Tamil and Telugu. Raja has done outstanding work in Malayalam, which can give you a completely different perspective. He has also used Kannada as his testing ground for many new techniques that he later on went to implement in Tamil and Telugu.

    Is Raja, all about hit songs? He is not about that as there are several composers who have given hits in their area of work. He is the one who is responsible for paradigm shifts in the Indian film music world and he has demonstrated that music is not created by accident or improvisations, but by the strength of the mind. His music, is one of design.

    So, what is the true Raja legacy? You can go on and keep talking about Western composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, Wagner, Mozart, Chopin, Mahler, Haydn. You can also talk about South Indian music gurus such as Thiagaraja, or Purandaradasa. Alternatively, you can start with various folk music forms of India. Lastly, you can talk of fantastic Indian composers from the past such as Madan Mohan, Roshan, SJ, SD, RD, KA, Salilda, MSV, KVM,. Or, you can do what I do – speak about Ilayaraja. It is one and the same. Raja is the embodiment of every good thing that happened in music before him plus his own contribution. There has never been a composer of his caliber in India ever nor will we see any in the next 100 years. His genres do not fit any definition; his experiments break all known rules; he is a gifted soul who sees one musical system inside another.

    Please do not contain his work with a sample of 20 or 30 of his popular songs. A lifetime is not enough to explore all his work.


    Ravi Natarajan

    • rsbaab says:

      Thanks a lot Ravi for sharing your insights and wonderful feel you have for Raja. As you rightly said, even a lifetime will not be enough to cover the many wonderful facets of Raja’s music. Your blog covers some facets of his music in amazing detail and richness. I also believe you can spend a lifetime covering his use of chorus, his background music in films and on the innumerable ‘new’ things you discover every time you listen to his music. I never had the opportunity to listen to his songs in Malayalam. Thanks for highlighting this, which to me is more ‘new’ music from Ilayaraja. Once again, thanks for visiting and sharing your valuable and experienced insights into the work of the genius Raja. Your comments are invaluable and of course, your blog is even more so.

    • Kulasekaran. M says:

      Ravi sir, one thing you know, I have read your entire comments on IR’s work in your
      geniusraja.blogspot. com
      It is really so fascinating that i get an urge every now and then to go through it again and again.
      Hats off to your detailed analytical work on IR’s music.
      – Kulasekaran. M

  2. Anonymous says:

    The great Ilayaraja shows his humility and tells that he is very small when compared to music composers such as Madan mohan,Roshan,Noushad,RD,SD,SC and C ramachadra.
    Please check this interesting video.


    • rsbaab says:

      Thanks for posting this video. Yes, indeed Ilayaraja was very humble. This was a very instructional video about how he sees music and his inspiration.

  3. Vamsi says:

    Thanks for comments.it is a great analysis on the composers from your side.Pls keep up the good work.


  4. Anonymous says:

    nice songs

  5. Nandini Sree says:

    nice songs..i have seen this video abt raja sir..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jl2y1xxmPaw

  6. Dr.Raghavendra says:

    Hearty congratulation to ilayaraja sir for receiving padma award . Any award is less for his gifted soul of music . His music caliber is like water . Where ever you put it will have its shape . 👍🎹🎷🎻🎼🎶🎵🎤🎺🎸🎧📼📀📻📺

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