Classical Ilayaraja

This is the first of 15 articles titled Classical Ilayaraja appeared on Usenet in the 90s.
I’ve added links to the songs, so you can listen as you read.
You could also try my Tamil song search.

Recently, I watched the movie Chembaruthi on video. One of those unethical, “kuppai” screen printed video cassette, you know, that gives you a vision like that of a “soda-butti” watching TV without his spectacles! Ilayaraja has done a fantastic job in that movie. Though I had heared all those songs many times while I was in India, watching that movie created a reminiscent train of thoughts in my mind, about Ilayaraja, his music, the dramatic change he brought about in Thamizh cinema. I thought that it would be worthwhile to discuss his music, particularly the CLASSICAL aspect! I am aware that it is not possible to write about all his carnatic oriented songs, about how he has handled those raagas, how he has deviated from the classical style etc. But it would definitely be interesting to pour out our ideas once in a while in a random order of the raagas covered by him.

In Chembaruthi there are six songs, out of which 4 are carnatic based. All the songs were “sooper hits”. To a guy who knows carnatic music, the raagas are explicit, and to a non-classical rasika, they are just great tunes! This was one of his specialities, to give the raaga in almost good shape and also make a good cinema tune out of it. And of course, the rhythm should give scope for good dance movements so that the hero and heroine could share their love by dancing! Maybe, many of his tunes have to be branded as semi-classical or light music (even though the raaga form might be pure) only because of this rhythm factor.

Chalakku Chalakku Selai is one good number in Chakravaagam. There is no impurity in the tune (like any anniya swaram). He has confined to classical 16th, Sa Ri1 Ga3 Ma1 Pa Da2 Ni2 Sa. Of course, not to mention, that the lyrics are very bad, fighting to degrade the song from semi-classical to light music. In the charanam the heroine says kalyaaNam aagaama paay pOda vENaam, ennaala aagaadhu aamaam. You know, some good heroines with morality do say such deterrant, anti pre-marital sex things to the always advancing heroes!

Ilayaraja has only few Chakravaagams in his account. In the janya raagas of Chakravaagam, he has excellent numbers. Like, Malayamaarutham…. Sa Ri1 Ga3 Pa Da2 Ni2 Sa, Sa Ni2 Da2 Pa Ga3 Ri1 Sa. His first malayamarutham came as a pleasant surprise in Sridhar’s movie (for whom he always had a soft corner) Thenralae ennai thodu. I distinctly remember how the ‘Ananda Vikatan’ magazine wrote in glowing terms about kannmani nee vara kathirunthen song in Malayamaarutham. Yesudoss and Uma Ramanan had done a wonderful job in that song. Ga Pa Da Sa Ni Da Pa Da Pa Ga, Ga Pa Ga Sa Sa Ri. What a wonderful start! The sharp rishabam gave a beautiful colour to this song. Maybe Ilayaraja’s first Malayamaarutham was poojaikkaaga vaazhum in Kaadhal Oviyam. That was a good song too. Deepan Chakravarthi had struggled to keep in pace with that tune (like some violinists get into trouble with Seshagopalan’s pace!). Then came thenRal vandhu muthamittathu in Malayamaarutham in Oru Odai Nadhiyaagiradhu (another Sridhar’s movie). Gosh! That was a fast song too. Krishnachandar and S.P.Shailaja tried their best, but probably spoiled it. Particularly, S.P.Shailaja has sung like the shrill sound you hear when you apply the breaks on a car that you bought for $500! There are two other songs in which he has deleted both Ni and Ma in Chakravaagam. I don’t think that such a raaga exists in carnatic music with any known name. Those two songs are amudhE thamizhae (Kovil Pura), and nila kuyilae (Magudi). They are simply excellent. One should be an artist and play those songs to know their quality. amudhE thamizhae starts like Sa Ri Ga, Sa Ri Ga, Sa Ri Ga Pa Ga Ri Sa, Sa Ri Sa Da Sa… Pulamai Pithan’s lyrics glorified that song. In the charanam he says, if you listen to and speak Thamizh, oon mezhugai urugum, athil ulagam karainthu pogum, such is the beauty of this language! One cannot write any better, about the greatness of Thamizh language. (Those people like Thamizh Vendhan & co, who have no other job other than inundating the S.C.T with meaningless news about Thamizh Ezham, now, have a point!).

I vaguely remember a song “naan irrukka bayam etharkku” (Kuva Kuva Vaathukkal?) At that time, when I had primitive carnatic music knowledge, I had diagnosed that song as “Valaji” (Rishabam deleted in Malayamarutham, Sa Ga Pa Da Ni Sa, Sa Ni Da Pa Ga Sa, you can say that it is a janyam of Chakravaagam too, even though theorists might say ‘janyam of Harikambodi’). Maybe, that song is indeed Valaji. Ilayaraja has few songs in Revathi, another 16 Janyam. Perhaps the best onces are sangitha jaathi mullai (Kaadhal Oviyam) and kanavu onru thonruthe (Oru Odai Nadhiyaagiradhu). But I personally feel that MSV’s melodious use of Revathi is unparalleled in the song manthira punnagai (Manal Kayiru).

So much about Chakravaagam and its janyams and Ilayaraja. In Chembaruthi, two of the 4 carnatic songs, are in Sindhu Bhairavi raagam. They are kaadhalilE ezhumbura alaigaLai and “kadalile thanimaiyil”. Ilayaraja himself has sung the former (thso, thso rendition) and Nagoor Hanifa the latter. Both these songs are excellent Sindhu Bhairavi’s. One in three of all cinema songs are in Sindhu Bhairavi scale (one of the commonest cinema melodies, like the 20th mela Natabhairavi). Ilayaraja has innumerable songs in Sindhu Bhairavi, a variegated population from valai osai kalakala ena to shenbagame shenbagame etc. One cannot list all of them. But, probably MSV’s Unnakenna Mele Ninrai (Simla Special) is the best of Sindhu Bhairavi. In kaadhalilE ezhumbura the lyrics is unusually good. Probably, Muthulingam or whoever was the lyricist, had a strong tea before writing that song! That song goes to tell the pathetic life of fishermen. The lyrisict says in pallavi kadal thaneer karikudu kaaranam irukkudu, meenavar vidugira viyarvaikal kadalile kalakudu… (Sea water is saline because of fishermen’s sweat). Good idea, ain’t it?

Lastly,there is one song in Kaappi raaam in Chembaruthi: chembaruththi poovu (after decades, Banumathi Ramakrishna sang a tail piece of this song). His other Kaappi are ada maappiLLai (Siva), hei paadal onru (priya). As far as I know Ilayaraja is the only one who used Kaappi in cinema. All of them are good. He starts ada maappiLLai like, Ma Ga3 Ga3 Ma Pa, Pa Ma Ga3 Ma Ni2 Pa Ga2 Ri Sa Ni3 Sa Sa. Wonderful start! To start Kaappi in madhyamam and use its key phrase ‘Ga3 Ma Ni2 Pa Ga2 Ri Sa Ni3’ at the very beginning is an excellent approach to the tune. This is one of the instance in which his classical ‘vidwat’ was manifest. Even in chembaruthi poovu he uses the bashangam of Kaappi, in the very beginning, like, ‘Pa NI2 Ma Pa Ni3 Sa’. Why did he choose to score tune in Kaappi for both these above situations in which the bride and the groom are humoured by the ‘thozhan’ and ‘thozhiyar’ on the occasion of their betrothal. Is their any definite pattern that he follows in scoring tunes for situation? Maybe.

Lakshminarayanan Srirangam Ramakrishnan,
Internal Medicine Department,
Brackenridge Hospital,
Austin, Tx 78701.

  1. A .somaskanda says:

    I loved your erudite commentaries on IR’s music.I wonder if you could identify for me the raga in the popular tamil bhajan by Swami Haridas,”prabho ganapathey”, popularised again by o.s.arun in one of his recent bhajan album.thank you.


    One small request sir, I need the song lyrics (in words) from the film “Enn Rasavin Manasalae” the song which Act by Meena as “Kuyil Pattu oh” Please kindly send me the lyrics for this song From I Akila.

  3. S Anand says:

    This article is not mine, I’m afraid. It’s by Ramki (Lakshminarayanan Srirangam Ramakrishnan), written in the 90s, and is the first in a series of 15. I plan to put in links to the rest over the next few days. Sorry about the bhajan — I know little of carnatic music.

  4. Siva says:

    I love only Hip Hops and Hard Rocks, I never listerned to old tamil songs. After reading this article and listrening to such songs, i was actually moved. Really they are Precious and yet to be preserved. Those hard rocks cannot sustain in peoples mind for a long time, these classical songs they have a longer life cycle.

  5. Rajendra Kumar says:

    The article is well written and it is obvious that the author has a sound knowledge of Carnatic Music.However, I must add that there are some factual errors. 1.Thendrale ennai thodu was released in 1985 and Kaadhal Oviyum in 1982.Therefore, it is wrong to say that his first Malayamarutham was in Thendrale Ennai thodu.But a little known fact is that Raja had indeed composed a song in Malayamarutham in 1980 for the film Nenjil adum Poo onru and the song is Kodi inbam …sung by SPB and Janaki.It is a pure Malayamaruthum and an excellent composition.Unfortunately the film was never released .. 2.The female voice in Thendral ennaimuthamittthu is Sasirekha’s and not Shailaja’s. 3.Amudhe Thamizhe is based on raga Rasika Ranjani-Raja’s own creation. 4.Finally, though the author is entitled to have his opinion, I do not agree with him when he says that Manthira punnagai-from Manal Kayiru is the best Revathi.I feel that Kanavu Onru Thondruthe from Oru Odai Nadhiyagirathu is the best Revathi I have ever heard in fim music because of the way it is composed and the way it is rendered…What a superb orchestration! Same is the case with Sindhu Bhairavi-a raga used by Raja very often.Valai osai, Attama therottama(Captain Prabhakaran),Enna Satham indha neram, Muthu mani malai..Mani osai kettu ezhundhu….the list is endless..Can these be matched by any other composer?I have my doubts…

  6. Sai Magesh says:

    Chembarthui has a beautiful melody(may be best among other songs from the same film) “nila kaayum neram saranam”. Why didn’t the author mention about that? Is it not based on any Raaga?

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  8. usha says:

    nilawe nee ware vendhum, Oooo…. taniyeh unn tunai vendhum, Oooo….
    Vaan tedhuthey unnai than odiwa..Ooo Ooo Ooo (Ilayaraja paadiya, intha paadal entha padathil endre teriyuma? Terinjal ennake solunggal…pleaseeee

  9. Sita vishwanathan says:

    @somaskandan……..prabho ganapathe seems like raga tilang to me.

  10. balasoupramanien says:

    Friends, he is not a young raja (Illaiyaraja) Big Big Raja! he is unreachable and not comparable .
    I never bored with his songs. He is a big big treasurer of every music learners
    (Coordination of Instruments, Chorus, Mood of the situation, vocal modulations,
    Experiments in music, language(s)).
    So, Pl keep listen, enjoy and learn music easily.
    Thappa sollalanu nenaikiren!!!! any comment please!

  11. MBJ Pancras says:

    Nothing But Wind

    Music the world filled with,
    And is God-breathed the melody in it.
    Music moves the world around on its way,
    And it’s wind in music dwells.
    Muse of Music! Let me imbibe thy notes
    For sans thee my voice lies half-dead
    When my heart is to sing
    NOTHING BUT WIND is music.

    My soul enters the sylvan woodlands-
    The abode of musical birds,
    And in quest of music haunts every nest.
    It’s music that birds chirp,
    And I lay my soul on a pasture,
    And the chirping of birds does caress my soul:
    The cuckoo sings with twain quick notes,
    The nightingale babbles with nectarous notes,
    The sparrow squeaks with mumbling thoughts,
    The throttle bubbles with drizzling thoughts,
    All sail into, my soul cherished
    When wind turned to music through birds.
    Crickets join the orchestra with their wings rubbed the air,
    And music flows when their wings flap.
    My soul journeys along the bank of musical stream,
    Where bamboos rustle when wind penetrates them:
    It’s “Bamboo” music breathed thro’ flute,
    I learnt the love for music born thro’ bamboo
    Perfected with beautiful melodies.
    Dwelling on pastures music grows personified:
    Harps reverberate at the hands of the shepherds,
    Green music born of pastoral spirit join the bleating of lambs:
    The lambs bleat and music is breathed,
    And the whole of the pastures flutter with joy.
    Into deep woods my soul moves,
    And lions roar I hear, elephants trumpet,
    And ravens voice hoarse notes
    When “bamboo” music is tried by machines:
    Harp turned to Guitar, bamboo turned to piano,
    And music now flows thro’ science –
    Science that survives with computers.
    When engine whistles I hear music
    And train follows it with “friction” music,
    Rhythmic beats perfected on rails.
    ”Friction” music turned to “roar” music
    When air-plane has been invented.
    My soul speeds up – speeding up
    And hears jet engines launch musical roar
    Yet perfected by computer technology –
    An impeccable rhythm thro’ jets.
    My soul runs atop the mountain peak
    Where rockets zoom into the sky with “rocket” notes
    Blasting off for the stars,
    Measured with “light year wavelength”.
    Stars roll down with noise and roar,
    The universe being filled with “lightning” sound.
    Seeks solace the world shrouded with machines…
    ………seeking solace thro’ divinity
    With mantras chanted;
    Yet “disco vogue” lingers on earthly pleasures,
    And man is belittled by his social excusable sins,
    And his society turns to animalism.
    Down from the mountain peak my soul rolls down…
    The peak that showed me fleeting moments of life.
    An inevitable holocaust shrouds the earth,
    And a victim with wounds and bruises am I.
    Back into the sylvan woodlands my soul runs now-
    Into the sylvan woodlands, the abode of musical birds,
    And haunts every nest in quest of music.
    To breathe “bamboo” music I run,
    For I learnt the love for music born thro’ bamboo.
    Forlorn! Bamboos are found nowhere.
    My soul longs for “bamboo” music,
    Yet learns a truth that music is NOTHING BUT WIND.
    And my soul is convinced that Wind is Music, and Music is Wind.
    Longing for silent music at the threshold of woodlands
    My soul now lies.

    Muse of Music! My heart sang a truth
    And it’s my garland of thoughts presented unto thee.

    This verse is penned as the versifier (I) has been inspired by the musical album of Ilayaraja, the first Asian who composed symphony at Royal Philharmonic Orchestra England, whose real genius has not been understood by many. The musical album is NOTHING BUT WIND. He is an Indian.

  12. MBJ Pancras says:

    Ilayaraja (Haiku)

    music genius
    born in Indian soil
    living in ragas.

  13. Ravichandran.N. says:

    Could you please tell me how do you identify ragas? I used to hear classical songs but am unable to identify ragas. Could you suggest means to get it? (Dont say I need to go for classes). However, you are a WONDERFUL person. I see MSV/TKR, ILAYARAJA, KVM as GODS.