Archive for December, 2009


Maestro of Opportunism

December 20, 2009

Ilayaraja – A name synonymous with the Tamil music industry. An incomparable genius who totally transformed the role played by music in films and the perception of people towards film music.

The mid 1970s. It was during this time that Rasaiyya aka Ilayaraja entered films. It was the period when listening to Hindi film songs was considered fashionable and tamil film music was looked down upon. The fate of tamil folk music was even more worse. It was virtually non existent in tamil movies. Only Carnatic music was considered to be ‘quality’ music. Ilayaraja would forever change this trend. His style rediscovered tamil folk music and experimented with nuances of music which were totally unheard of till then. The purists who initially dismissed his music as worthless had to eat their own words. Today, his music has reached a stage where his contemporaries pale in comparison.

Raja has always had an interesting relationship with the ‘elite’ of the tamil society. His eagerness to be in their good books is a known secret to anyone that has followed him over the years. In this light, the recent conferring of the ‘Isai Gnana Mani’ award on him by the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam gains interest. The award was given away by the Jayandera Saraswati who is currently on bail for murder charges. It was apparently in recognition of Raja’s Thiruvasagam and his services to tamil music. During his acceptance speech, Raja revealed that he was asked by Chandrasekaran (Jayandera’s predecessor, now deceased) to work on the Thiruvasagam album. This is an interesting comment considering the fact that the gurus of the Kanchi mutt have never considered tamil to be a ‘pure’ language. They have gone to the extent of branding it as ‘neesa baashai’ (the language of the shudras). Also, the Kanchi Mutt follows the Vaishanavite approach of the Hindu religion and doesn’t approve the Saivite way to which Thiruvasagam belongs. All this is relatively unimportant. Our main point of concern is why would a genius like Raja stoop so low time and again.

Ilayaraja was born as Gnanadesikan (but known as Rasaiyya) in a Dalit Christian family. During his early years he was exposed to communist ideals by his elder brother ‘Paavalar’ Varadarajan who was involved with the Communist party. As a budding music composer, he assisted his brother during propaganda tours where music was used as a mode of protest. But once he started making attempts to enter the film music industry all this started to change gradually. Raja found it pretty hard to make an impression in an industry which was dominated by influences of Carnatic music. The purists refused to accept his style of music, branding him as ‘thavil party’. Needless to say, the fact that he came from a lower class background also added to this dismissal. Steadily Raja did begin to make progress and was accepted by the general public. But in order to be accepted by the so called custodians of music, he was rather compelled to change his personality. The mid 80s to early 90s saw the gradual shift of Raja towards the ideals of Hindutva. You can see this change in a lot of songs he composed during that period. A notable example is the ‘Janani Janani’ song among others. His personality also took a sharp change with the constant shaved head and beads around his neck and what not. He started doing concerts to collect funds to donate to the temple at Srirangam. It is a pity that he failed to notice that his fellowmen were still struggling to enter the very same temple! This change in attitude of his has been written about by many. A excerpt from an article about him in the Outlook magazine:

‘…despite his achievements, Ilayaraja is uncomfortable with the truth of his origins. When K.A. Gunasekaran wrote Isaimozhiyum Ilayarajavum (The Language of Music and Ilayaraja) in 2002, the composer was offended by the fact that Gunasekaran had discussed his Dalit origins. Ilayaraja sued the publisher and author for defamation. He has tried ceaselessly to merge himself into all that Hinduism holds in high regard. He is an ardent devotee of Ramanan of Thiruvannamalai and also planned to start a music research centre with the aid of the Kanchi Mutt’

It is a widely known fact that inspite of his generous donation to the temple at Tiruvannamalai, he was barred entry into the temple’s sanctum sanctorum during the religious ceremony held there.

As a composer, Raja has undeniably revolutionised music. But as an individual, he has completely failed in many respects. Why he tries to ape a group which has for centuries subjugated his own fellow beings is a mystery only he can answer. He may be excused for doing so during his initial days, but to do it till this day just baffles our understanding. Is this a case of sheer opportunism gone too far?