Gnanathesikan; also known as Ilaiyaraaja, is rightfully acclaimed Indian singer, film composer, lyricist, conductor-arranger and the first South Asian Composer to score a Symphony. Most of his work has been showcased in Tamil film industry. This worldwide renowned film composer is often credited with introducing musical sensibilities of the West in the South Indian and specifically Tamil music industry. With a never ending success record, he has managed to compose more than 7000 songs, performed in more than 20,000 concerts and provided films scores for more than 1000 movies. Here is a brief and interesting profile of one of the greatest composers this world has ever witnessed.
Ilaiyaraaja was born with a name of Gnanathesikan in a Dalit family in 1943. His name was changed to ‘Rajaiya’ after he joined school. However, the people of his village used another name to call him. It was ‘Raasayya’. With a sheer love for music in his heart, Rajaiya became a student of Dhanraj Master to learn different musical instruments and was renamed by the master as ‘Raaja’. During the early 1970s, a film producer of his first Tamil movie added “Ilaiya” as a prefix in his name which means ‘younger’ in Tamil language. After that incident, he was named as ‘Ilaiyaraaja’. He was exposed to a vast range of Tamil folk music at a young age.
At a mere age of 14, he became part of a travelling musical troupe that was led by his elder brother and was called as ‘Pavalar Brothers’. During that era, he wrote his first composition. It was a musical piece with an elegy setting and written by one of the greatest Tamil poets; Kannadasan for India’s first prime minister Nehru. Soon after that, he started performing and his talent spread like a wild fire throughout the South India. He also began organizing a music course with his first music teacher; Master Dhanraj in Madras (now named as Chennai). It included an artistic overview of classical music, training of different compositional techniques (for e.g. counterpoint) and deep learning of different types of instrumental performances. He took a course related to classical guitar from Trinity College of Music, London and mastered this art beautifully.
Start of Music Career
Ilaiyaraaja was a lover of art and music from an early age and started learning different music techniques and unique instrumentation. He is famous for integrating traditional Indian music and specifically Tamil music with Western music techniques. In 1986, he became the first composer to record computerized film songs for Tamil films. He was also one of the first film composers to use string arrangements and Western classical music harmonies in Tamil music and film industry. His first composed symphony was released by the name of “Thiruvasakam” and became famous throughout the South Asian music industry.
Ilaiyaraaja was undoubtedly a trendsetter in Tamil film industry. He entered into films during the late 1970s. His debut marked an era of new Tamil cinema, followed by a breakage of star system that was being associated with the ageing stars; Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran. Ilaiyaraaja shined as a creator during the era of 1976 and 1985. This time period was dominated by a new concept of ‘anti-sentimental and partly realistic stories”. During those times, he revolutionized the Indian film industry through his phenomenal representation of neo-nativism and rural lives.
Ilaiyaraaja’s music is dominantly characterized by an ethereal orchestration technique that is a fine amalgam of Indian and Western instruments, and different musical modes. He makes use of the advanced electronic music technology that merges electric keyboards and guitars, synthesizers, rhythm boxes, drum machines. His compositions are dominated by Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) with huge orchestras that characterize aesthetic traditional instruments such as nadaswaram, veena, mridangam, venu, dholak, tabla, and a number of western instruments such as flutes and saxophones.
Ilaiyaraaja composed the soundtrack and score of a Malayalam-language film in 1984 called as “My Dear Kuttichathan”. It was one of the first Indian stereoscopic 3D films. The soundtrack of one of the all times 100 best movies (ranked by Time magazines) was also composed by Ilaiyaraaja in 1987. He composed for many of the India’s official nominations for the Oscars, such as Nayagan (1987), Anjali (1990), Muthyam (1986),guru (1997), Thevar Magan (1992) and Hey Ram (2000) and of the first prize winning Indian art films i.e. FIPRESCI by Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Ilaiyaraaja’s Work to Honor Front Line Workers
In 2020, Ilaiyaraaja composed a beautiful and heartfelt song on humanity and togetherness titled as ‘Bharath Bhoomi’. It was made with the sole purpose of paying tribute to all the people out there in the field fighting with COVID-19 amidst chaotic circumstances such as army, police, doctors, janitors and nurses. The playback singer for this song was S. P. Balahsubramaniyam. It was released officially through the YouTube channel of Ilaiyaraaja on 30th of May, 2020, in both Hindi and Tamil languages.
Awards and Honors
Ilaiyaraaja is blessed with a lot of awards and honors for his matchless contribution in Tamil film and music industry. He was awarded with Cultural Doctorate in Philosophy of Music by the World University Round Table, U.S.A in 1994, Degree of Doctor of Letter – Honoris by Annamalai University of Tamil Nadu in 1994, Degree of Doctor of Letters by Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu in 1996. After completing his studies, Ilaiyaraaja came out from Trinity College of Music, London; bearing a gold medalist in classical guitar. The Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America also rewarded Ilaiyaraaja with an Award of Appreciation in 1994. Later that year, he was bestowed upon with an honorary citizenship alongside a key to the township of Teaneck by Mr. John Abraham who was the Mayor of Teaneck at that time.
Not only did Ilaiyaraaja manage to make a special place in the hearts of Indians and especially people of Tamil, he also successfully entered his way through several award nominations. He has won five National Film Awards till now. Two of them for the best Background Score and the remaining three for the Best Music Direction. He was rewarded as the third-highest and second-highest civilian awards namely Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan by the government of India in 2010 and 2018 respectively. In 2012, He was praised for his experimental and creative works in music industry and was awarded with one of the highest Indian recognition awards i.e. The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
Ilaiyaraaja rarely shows the magic of his compositions in live performances. However, his first ever live performance was in 2015; a concert at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai, India, which went on for a time span of four hours. He also performed live in Italy at the Teatro Comunale di Modena in an event-concert in 2004.
In 2005, there was a HIV/AIDS awareness event organized at Gachibowli Indoor Stadium, Hyderabad. It was sponsored by a number of famous agencies. The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation was one of those agencies. Different Hollywood, Tamil and Telugu stars came forward to speak about HIV and its consequences. This event took off with Ilaiyaraaja’s composition that was rendered by the singer Usha Uthup.
Ilaiyaraaja – The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Ilaiyaraaja can rightfully be called as the musical genius of the Indian millennials. It does not matter if you’re a South Indian or belong to general Tamil exodus, it’s hard to escape from Ilaiyaraaja’s music compositions. He stands out with his outstanding achievements and is rewarded with revolutionizing the Tamil film industry. Coming from rural Tamil areas and a humble background, he observes the elements of everyday life and beautifully depicts them through his ethereal compositions.