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This article was first published in 2018.
How did Ilayaraja reach cult status? Coming from a small village in southern Tamil Nadu, with virtually no education and no musician in sight except his elder brother Paavalar Varadarajan whom he would accompany for music performances as part of Communist party propaganda, Rasaiah as he was known then had no traces of a musical genius in the making. (This is the second part of a series on the maestro. (Read the first part here)
The Paavalar brothers travelled across the length and breadth of the State. Their speciality was converting popular Tamil and Hindi songs into numbers which served as propaganda for the Communist party. It was perhaps this practice that enabled Rasiah to have almost a computerized memory of songs for particular occasions.
Struggle in Chennai
Moving to Chennai to seek a fortune in the film industry, he and his brothers stayed in a small lodge in Mylapore, attending classes of Dhanraj Master and hoping to meet some director or producer who would give them an opportunity. Life was a struggle. Singer S P Balasubrahmanyam and Raja’s music troupe would present music performances including the then popular Hindi songs at various places. Ilayaraja was making a living by working as an assistant for music director G K Venkatesh. Ilayaraja was looking for opportunities to make his own mark but there were no takers. It was then that Panchu Arunachalam, an associate of Kannadasan, was looking for a music director who would provide folk-based music for his film Annakili. Panchu said he was fed up with the domination of Hindi film music in Tamil Nadu and wanted someone to break the stranglehold of Hindi music.
Ilayaraja’s first song for the film Annakili was marred by a bad omen – a power cut just before the recording began. A few persons, who were not convinced of Rasaiah’s mettle, felt the film was doomed. Since there were already a few Rajas around, Rasaiah was given the name Ilayaraja.
Annakili had a poor opening. For two weeks, the film limped at the box-office. And suddenly, as the songs played out from the radio, the song Machaanai Paatheengala sung by S Janaki took Tamil Nadu by storm.
As the other songs too like Annakili Unnai Thaedudhae became popular, crowds flocked to the theatres, swayed to the songs, and Annakili turned out to be a hit. For those who thought it was a flash in the pan, came other hits. When some said he could never replace MSV and his brand of Carnatic-based songs, IR came up with Kannan Oru Kaikuzhandhai in Bhadrakali with amazing improvisations like different tunes for Yesudas and P Susheela for the same lyrics in the song, the overlap as in En Kanmani (Chittu Kuruvi) and in the near-breathless song in Kanmaniyae (Dharmayuddham), the seamless Western-Indian combo in Minminikku Kannil Oru Minnal (Sigappu Rosakkal) – IR was like a roller-coaster ride, providing wave after wave in a musical tsunami.
Ilayaraja was soon in demand, churning out hit after hit. Bharatiraja teamed up with him in Padhinaaru Vayadhinile, and the duo went on to deliver many hits, providing a new framework to the Tamil film industry. Ilayaraja brought with him a fresh breeze. This was soon to be a gale, sweeping aside veterans and young music directors alike. Established singers like T M Sounderajan and P Susheela had to take the back seat. Youth took over the film industry, bringing in new talent among cinematographers, sound engineers and other technicians. Shooting moved away from sets to outdoors to capture nature at its best, with Ilayaraja’s music providing melody and rhythm to nature.
The Raja-Susheela rift
There was a misunderstanding when at a recording of another music director in Raja’s early days as a guitarist, P Susheela felt he had not played a chord. Raja maintained he had played it. It turned out later that the sound engineer had failed to record what Raja had played. When there was an altercation, it is said that Raja had to leave the room. Was that why he utilized S Janaki more in the early days? Sources close to him said that Raja continued to look upon P Susheela as a Goddess, and almost worshipped her. He did use her voice for many songs, which turned out to be hits as well. Yet, Janaki had a range and an ability to bring out the mood of the song which suited IR more. After a recording with Lata Mangeshkar, which was IR’s dream, Raja is said to have remarked to his musicians that Lata was fantastic but Janaki Janakidhaan.
Ilayaraja felt Janaki’s range, improvisation and ability to change her voice to suit the situation – whether lullaby, folk song, sad situation, romance or sensuality – suited him more. A line of Janaki songs right from Annakili proved him right. In the past, Janaki was more used for the second heroine. In those days, it was an unwritten rule that Susheela would sing for the main heroine, and Janaki or L R Easwari for the others. Ilayaraja changed it all, and gave primacy to Janaki, a bold decision which paid off.
It must also be remembered that age was beginning to take a toll on Susheela, and her voice was not as sweet as in the past. Singing in the higher octave was a bit of a struggle for her. Therefore, Ilayaraja’s decision to go more with Janaki (who excelled in singing in the higher octave), was also a sound professional decision.
It was not that he ignored Susheela. Ilayaraja had brushed under the carpet tpast misgivings as far as Susheela was concerned. Susheela went on to sing a number of songs under the Ilayaraja baton, many of them went on to be hits. Although they did not create the same kind of impact of the IR-Janaki combo, the PS-IR songs too had their own magic and delight (Raasaavin Manasilae, Unnai Nambi Nethiyilae, Solai Pushpangaale, Darling Darling Darling, Ye Thenrale, Muthumani Maalai, Kannan Oru Kai Kuzhandhai, Gangai Aatril Ninrukondu, etc.)
It was said that Ilayaraja placed Susheela at such a pedestal that she was above all else for him. He would talk about her music and her voice for hours. It was an irony that he almost ended her career and had to resurrect it himself.
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