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Ilaiyaraja proves that the best is not always found in Bollywood

Ilaiyaraja turns 75 today and is undoubtedly one of the best music composers

editorials Updated: Jun 02, 2018 15:41 IST
Hindustan Times
President Ram Nath Kovind presenting the Padma Vibhushan to Ilaiyaraaja, Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi, March 20, 2018(Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

Broadly speaking, anything Indian — food, music, clothes, cinema — always tends to mean a sort of standard north Indian, generic Hindi-ish thing. Like curry (whatever that may be), there is something about the mainstream that is mostly Hindi-speaking and definitely belongs to a region in India that can only be classified as north. This is as true within India as it is for the diaspora and the wider world at large. One of the exceptions proving the rule is the prolific Tamil music director Ilaiyaraja, whose music has found its way out of the south to sway listeners around the country, and around the world. Today — his 75th birthday — is a good day perhaps to take a break from the Bollywood mainstream to explore what is sometimes patronisingly called regional work.

Ilaiyaraja, in the south, is about as mainstream as it gets. Before AR Rahman broke into the national consciousness, and long before Kolaveri Di, Ilaiyaraja composed Rakkamma kaiyya thattu for Mani Ratnam’s Rajinikanth-starrer Thalapathi. In 2002, it was voted the fourth most popular song ever in the world in a BBC poll. From Nayakan’s haunting Thenpandi Cheemayile which he sang, to Agni Natchatriram’s Raja Rajadhi Raja in which he has used only percussion instruments, Ilaiyaraja’s innovations in popular music have been loved by critics and fans alike for almost five decades. His experiments with the fusion of western styles, with both classical and folk traditions of India, have rightfully won him accolades around the world. Having composed over 7,000 songs and scored more than a 1,000 movies, his legacy as one of India’s finest composers is not in doubt.

As we celebrate the music and art of Ilaiyaraja on his 75th birthday, we must also consider all those composers, singers and artists who the mainstream has not been able to discover. Even in today’s world of YouTube ubiquity and social media, only the viral seems to have any value. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to go viral may never even rise out of the depths of anonymity and perhaps even penury. Some of the blame for that must be shouldered by us — the public — and also by the producers of that genre of popular music euphemistically referred to as item numbers. Encouraging local, regional talent means broadening our horizons beyond the mainstream, buying the work of talent outside Bollywood, and promoting it. Ilaiyaraja’s work is proof that the best work of all is not always found in Bollywood.

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 15:41 IST