The Tamil film industry is celebrating 75 years of music composer Ilaiyaraaja, who was born on June 2, 1943. Ever since his debut, Annakili (1976), Ilaiyaraaja revolutionised Tamil film music, bringing together a range of genres to produce classics that were both popular in their time as well as timeless.
Among Ilaiyaraaja’s numerous contributions was the change he brought about in the structure of the Tamil film track. To the standard three-charanam track, Ilaiyaraaja introduced preludes and interludes – and the film song was never the same again. He has composed over 5,000 songs in over 1,000 films, and it is no exaggeration to say that if the interludes were converted into tunes, we could count add 5,000 songs to his discography.
Until the 1970s, film tunes focused more on the lyrics than the music. A majority of compositions by such composers as KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan and CR Subburaman followed the three-charanam model. These songs had a repeating pallavi followed by very short interludes before the singer started the charanams, which contained the weight of the lyricist’s ideas. The crisp interludes were breaks for listeners and acted as links between the lyric sections.
In many songs, these interludes were repetitive, with the same notes and orchestration repeating before every charanam. Just one example: AM Rajah’s composition Pattu Padava from Then Nilavu (1961), in which the interlude is repeated between the two charanams.
Among the reasons for the recurring interlude were possibly technological challenges and the difficulties involved in recording elaborate pieces.
Ilaiyaraaja went down a different route. His tracks were not only about the lyrics, even as he took care never to bury them. The length of the songs was the same, clocking an average of four to four-and-a-half minutes. But there was more music. Ilaiyaraaja cut the song to a two-charanam format and lengthened the instrumental prelude and interlude.
In the magical Poo Malaye Thol Serava from Pagal Nilavu (1985), Ilaiyaraaja starts the prelude with a burst of layered violins in two different octaves. This prelude merges with the sounds of the veena and the flute before the layered vocals (by the composer and S Janaki) emerge. Two distinct melodies provide a counterpoint to the vocals.
The use of violins ensures that the interludes become even grander. At no point does the orchestration deviate from the mood of the fantasy love song.
Interludes were not mere decoration but reiterated the song situation, even in tunes on which Ilaiyaraaja provided only the orchestration. This is the case with Kuzhal Oothum Kannanukku from Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu (1986), which was composed by MS Viswanathan. Ilaiyaraaja’s contributions are clear to anybody familiar with Viswanathan’s style. In the movie, the hero, who plays the flute, sings along with the heroine’s voice, but is unable to locate her. The second interlude creates a haunting effect through the use of the flute, reinforcing the physical distance between the lovers.
In Pani Vizhum Iravu from Mouna Ragam (1986), loosely based on the Natabhairavi raga, the interplay of the violin, the electric guitar and a chorus in different melodic scales creates a sensual mood, bringing out the pulls and pressures of a relationship that is strained but moving towards reconciliation. If the interlude were rendered through vocals, it would result in a wholly separate, and equally lovely, song.
Ilaiyaraaja created complex compositions at great speed – sometimes, he took merely half a day to crank out a future chart topper. Kadhalin Deepam Ondru from the Rajinikanth-starrer Thambikku Entha Ooru (1984) was composed from the hospital bed. Ilaiyaraaja was indisposed with an illness during the film’s production. The movie’s producer, Panchu Arunachalam, who had launched Ilaiyaraaja’s career with Annakili in 1976, was in a fix. The sets were ready, and the crew was waiting for Ilaiyaraaja to deliver his tunes, but his doctors had debarred from work. Ilaiyaraaja whistled the tune from his hospital bed and wrote down the notes for orchestration, Rajinikanth revealed at a public event.
Kadhalin Deepam Ondru, based on the Charukesi raga, is no rush job. Its interlude orchestration has the counterpoint technique stamp of Ilaiyaraaja. That he was able to imagine such elegantly structured musical notations from a hospital bed proves the level to which he had internalised the techniques of Western musical orchestration.
Although AR Rahman is credited with popularising techno elements in Tamil cinema, the pioneer was Ilaiyaraaja. He made great use of techno and jazz elements in the late 1980s to cater to younger fans. In Raja Rajadhi Rajan from Agni Natchathiram (1986), the interludes bring in scat vocals with an ultra-modern tempo that supports the orchestration.
Equally remarkable is the use of the same phrases for completely different situations. In Puttham Pudu Kaalai in Alaigal Oivathilla (1981), the first interlude is a soothing flute melody. This was a song made for a romantic situation, but it was dropped from the film and retained in the final album.
The flute melody re-emerges in one of Ilaiyaraaja’s best background scores for Veedu (1988), in an emotionally charged scene. The film is about a woman’s struggle to build a house of her own. Her grandfather visits the plot of the under-construction house. The old man’s joy emerges through the background score, which uses bits of the same melody that signified love in Alaigal Oivathilla.
Ilaiyaraaja’s music in the 1980s became the equalising element across Tamil films that featured superstars as well as lesser-known actors. Aan Paavam (1985), the acting debut of director Pandiarajan, was a romantic comedy that co-starred Pandiyan. Both Pandiarajan and Pandiyan were barely known when the movie was released in 1985. That hardly deterred Ilaiyaraaja from scoring the delightful number Kuyile Kuyile. For the composition, Ilaiyaraaja used the wind instrument shenai that is usually reserved for sad or poignant situations across the interludes, creating a festive feeling on par with the nadaswaram at a wedding.
Aan Paavam also has a memorable background score, especially the scene in which the groom, played by Pandiyan, goes to meet his bride, played by Seetha, at her house. When a doubt is raised about whether the groom and the bride are compatible in terms of their height, Seethe stands on her toes to gain a few inches.
After Ilaiyaraaja’s emergence, his competitors could no longer ignore the importance of preludes and interludes, but they could seldom replicate Ilaiyaraaja’s genius. All these years later, the only real competition to Ilaiyaraaja is the Tamil language itself and the staggering range of emotions it is able to convey.
Corrections and clafirications: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the raga on which Pani Vizhum Iravu from Mouna Ragam is based as Chala Natai. The song is roughly based on raga Natabhairavi.