What makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja

I know, I know, super ambitious premise. So I am going to accept defeat right at the outset. I can’t possibly define what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja in a single article. Maybe not even if I wrote an entire book. Instead, I am simply going to discuss certain aspects of his work that are, let’s say, less talked about. I am using as the base, a comment I left on another blog and building on that.

What makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja? Is it because he was so influenced by Western classical music and knew it so well? Is it the speed with which he wrote/writes music? No, and I will explain why.


Getting influenced by Western classical wasn’t what made Raja so unique. Everybody was getting influenced by it from at least the 1950s. On the lines of Chittukuruvi-Mozart, Salil da also borrowed from Mozart for the melody of Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyar Bada. Naushad also listened to a lot of western classical. RD was into stuff like bossa nova iirc.

What made Raja’s work so distinct while still operating very much within the conventional film song format (where Rahman tried to change the format itself often times to get to where he wanted) is how AUTHENTIC were the Western parts that he was writing. And not just the writing but that he got the musicians to play in a Western manner for the first time.

It’s not easy to perceive that difference until you have yourself heard a lot of Western music and not just classical but the multitude of genres like rock, funk, soul, jazz etc.


As I mentioned above, Raja understood for instance that drums in Western music can and often are played very fast without ever sounding LOUD. This is anathema to the way we use percussion. Because our percussion instruments (except molam which is inherently quite loud) are played by the fingers, the moment you ratchet up the tempo, the volume also goes up at least a little. There is less dynamic range, if you will. This gets transposed to the way our local musicians often play western percussion too. And further to an erroneous notion that using lots of instruments in Western means lots of cacophonous noise, that is that everyone should play together and raise the volume to deafening levels.

These are the things Raja changed. He gave the music so much space to breathe. People talk about how many different instruments he uses but nobody mentions the spaces where there is either silence or very few instruments/soft sections. He is masterfully orchestrating the building up and releasing of tension which is the very essence of Western music, at least from a modern classical/blues/rock perspective. And his listening, his preferences in Western clearly weren’t cliche and straight up but extended into the obscure and the arcane (which he somehow always found a way to make over into something accessible for a Tamil/Telugu audience).

Take the section from 5:54 running for a minute or so, it fascinates me more that he knew about such music in the first place because Hindi as well as Tamil seemed then to be stuck in disco or bad copies of rock, blissfully unaware of these beautiful syncopated beats and grooves:

Notice here too how gentle the drumming actually is even though it’s a busy pattern. That was a hallmark of a lot of 70s rock/funk/fusion etc. Raja did not judge it as hippie/drugged/countercultural/degenerate, he just heard something he liked and used it.


I may have written about subversion before. Or maybe that was one of my many Quora answers on Raja.

Raja is one of the very few music directors in film music who seems to feel that going from point A to B the straightforward way is boring almost to the point of being abhorrent.

He has expressed his boredom with this before. When asked at IFFI Goa about using a very rich Western classical section in the background score of Alaigal Oyvathile (a film set in a rural background), he said simply that maybe he must have felt bored of approaching the same kind of situation the same way and just wanted to do something different for the sake of it. Of course, he had to be careful at all times to balance this trying something different just because business with good taste so that it didn’t get distracting.

But a classic example of this subversion is the guitar part from 1:30 in this song. Notice how he indulges in a little bit of modal interchange before resolving it back to where he wants to pick it up with the charanam.

Consider also that Azhagaga Sirithathu Andha Nilavu is hardly one of his masterpiece songs and may not make my top 100 of Raja and maybe top 200 at best. That is, even when we move beyond his most cherished creations, the ‘classics’ if you will, there is still a lot of innovation going on in these songs.

As said earlier, the subversion is handled smoothly enough that it does not distract listeners, does not detract from their enjoyment of the music. But perceptive listeners can still understand that his music affects them differently from the regular film music.

Here is director Vasanth who professes to being a music lover and who very nicely touches upon this subversion as he describes the intro of Andhi Mazhai @ 53:50 without calling it that:

So…staying with the ‘thriller’ intro of Andhi Mazhai, ever noticed how nasty the intro riff of Ninnu Korri is?

It’s not until the violins come in that you know it’s going to be happy territory. He likes to keep you on edge, slightly unsettled, trying to guess how the song is going to go rather than relax and sit back and chill. He doesn’t do this ALL the time but he does it a lot and maybe in the majority of his songs.

It is this subversion that, contrary to a popular myth, sets him apart from his predecessors. The myth being that Raja was a continuation of the conventional melodic film music tradition (and Rahman broke away from it). No, that’s a very superficial reading of Raja’s music because, again, as Vasanth describes aptly and succinctly (unlike me), there are so many dimensions to his songs and it’s not about the melody. To the extent that often the melody is barely the point, even when it is very beautifully composed all the same. Raja’s music is not tranquil or comforting (though it CAN be those things from time to time), it is exciting and a large part of why it is exciting is he unsettles you, especially when you don’t expect to be unsettled. That is, you expect a Dum Maro Dum or a Lekar Hum to be unsettling because they almost arrive with a big “Hey, here I am and I am going to unsettle you” banner. Raja instead trips you up even in an otherwise sleepy Jayachandran-Janaki duet like Azhagaga Sirithathu.


Stevie Wonder memorably wrote (and sang) on the song Sir Duke, “Just because a record’s got a groove, don’t make it in the groove/But you can tell right away at letter A when the people start to move”.

Raja internalised the importance of groove like no other composer before him and maybe very few after.

Groove as such barely existed before R D Burman in Hindi and Tamil film music. You could, of course, point to exceptions like some fast songs of MSV or Shankar Jaikishan but those aren’t red hot, undeniable grooves that you absolutely have to move to (the way Wonder describes them). That would be, again, stuff like Dum Maro Dum or Aaja Aaja.

But even that, and I say this as a huge RD Burman fan, can hardly hold a candle to the grooves Raja was writing. The grooves he wrote, you would think he was jamming with Sly and the Family Stone or something.

Let’s take another bumper hit song from Agni Natchatram. Listen to the guitar at 2:13, that’s a heck of a groove.

Another one. This time, again, an unheralded song, hardly one of the masterworks. Listen to the intro of Athadi Allikodi:

When I heard songs like these AFTER listening to a lot of funk, I was like, “Man, THAT’S the kind of music he made me, us all, listen to.” This goes back to the earlier discussion on the amazing and rebellious 70s rock and soul music Raja appropriated into his style. Raja wasn’t just giving us just ‘a’ groove, he was writing THE grooves, the mother of all grooves that we wouldn’t have heard any other way in 80s India.

If you think the above is excessive hyperbole from a fanboy, surely, Vaanengum Thanga from Moonram Pirai will crush any resistance!

OR, if even that doesn’t do it, Paatu Inge will!


The greatness of Raja’s work does not lie so much in the mechanics. He could write straight fair copy at impossible speeds and do forty films a year and still have been making crap. He could know how to write counterpoint and still make very garish music, say something like the noisier, over-orchestrated numbers of Shankar Jaikishan (A Gale Lag Ja prelude is exhibit A).

The brilliance lies in how well he understood how these pieces fit. These pieces being pieces that had never been brought before together in many cases. He made juxtapositions sound like marriages because his sense of taste was so finely refined…without going all the way into high art snobbery and always being grounded in an endearing earthiness.

And the thing I said about his openness to arcane stuff, this is what I still don’t get from Yuvan or even Rahman and maybe very occasionally from Santosh Narayanan. The arrangements are fine and very professionally done, far be it for me as an amateur to sneer at them. Why, on Taare Ginn, Rahman showed that working within well defined conventional boundaries, he can orchestrate a song to the same standards as Raja.

It’s the choices that sound, for want of a better word, boring, at least to me. The most exciting thing they are able to appropriate is hip-hop and I like it when they go there. But all this daring, ‘dangerous’ rebellious music, it’s as if it never existed when I listen to their music.

Of course, it’s all subjective. But that, if you will, is what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja. No, he was not a classical stuffed shirt. He was not a hit machine vomiting garbage that just happened to work in the short term. He was and is a magician who took us on magic journeys of adventure into daring new frontiers while still retaining a grounding in good taste and discretion that kept the ship from sinking. He is the Pete Sampras or Lewis Hamilton of composers, living life in the fast lane, nay, THE fastest lane, but never missing a beat. Never.

UPDATE: My book Raga 2 Rock has a sub chapter devoted to this very topic – what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja. You can read it here.

6 Responses to “What makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja”

  1. Raja the riffmaster | Pictured life Says:

    […] wrote this really long post on Raja’s music here. In it, I mentioned that his music wasn’t just meant to be melodic or soothing (while there […]

  2. Anonymous Violin Says:

    I was listening to Ilamai Idho Idho today, and it actually reminded me of what I read in this article a while back: the busy drum parts without necessarily making it loud.

    Also, if you don’t mind, what are some other “unconventional” choices Raja makes compared to his contemporaries/successors?

    • Madan Says:

      Yup. Ilamai Idho Idho is as such a good example of encapsulating the essence of how Raja handles a ‘hero’ song like that differently from many others while still keeping it within the ‘box’ so that it becomes a huge hit. There is a fusion-like solo violin part in the first interlude. You don’t expect that in the format. Also, it was 80s and disco was everywhere. So Raja fitted it within the disco format but used a lot of guitar to give it more of a rock flavour. This is why I hate the karaoke track for Ilamai :D, it uses straight up dance beats. That’s not what the song is about at all.

      So that right there is one of the unconventional aspects of Raja’s music. It made him both cutting edge and old school at one and the same time and I think that is generally a good description of his approach. The way he was mixing multi channel tracks (with the music sometimes darting from let to right, Thoongadha Vizhigal second interlude for eg) was way ahead of his peers. At the same time, he was rooted in more of a 70s rock/funk/fusion aesthetic and even when he appropriated 80s-isms, he took the hard, blunt edge off those sounds to fit it into his generally more dynamic instrumentation.

      Compared to his contemporaries…well, in Tamil, his contemporaries were basically also rans like Shankar Ganesh/Chandra Bose/SAR who followed his lead more or less. And in Hindi too, it was either stalwarts like LP or Kalyanji Anandji wallowing in the disco mud of the 80s or Bappi/Rajesh Roshan and later Anand Milind who freely acknowledged their ‘debt’ to Raja. I think his contemporaries weren’t even in the same ballpark.

      Compared to his predecessors…basically, he broke out of the boxes that they believed in but, unlike ARR, always fitted his music into the general film music box. Say, when R D Burman did a classical based song, he stripped it clean of Western except for violins and guitar (and those used in a very Indian way). Now compare that to a song like Poothendral Kaatre Vaa:

      The tune itself is very Carnatic based and whenever the vocals come in, he only uses tabla/mridangam. The song itself starts with mridangam (maybe ghatam too). But that part gives way to a catchy guitar groove and then to an abrasive tenor sax that George Adams would have loved and quickly onto more smooth jazz-like flute. All this has happened just in the prelude! To Raja, the old distinctions were irrelevant and he concocted the most unthinkable combinations. It’s not just Indian and Western; if you’re aware of Western music, you find that he often combined different Western genres in very creative ways too.

      So…compared to THAT, I would say from Rahman onwards, the approach has once again been to make the differences obvious. Like, Malargale (Love Birds) has a very standard fusion-like mandolin part in the second interlude. Again, Kadhalan – the veenai in the second interlude is VERY Carnatic. Compare that to the veenai in the first interlude of Poomalayeh (Pagal Nilavu). Or the shehnai in second interlude of Radha Azhaikkiral. One song where Rahman did a very seamless blend, where he wasn’t just pointing out this is Indian, this is Western, but combined them organically into his own ‘new’ style was Humma Humma. The first interlude itself is incredible. And then he introduces a very Bombay/North shehnai part in the second interlude which he brings back for the coda (even as the keyboard from the first interlude comes back). That was brilliant, the sort of fusion that sneaks up on you without saying, “look ma, I am doing fusion”. So in the same breath as I say that Rahman brought back the distinctions, I would also say that the one composer who did approach or seem capable of doing fusion in the way Raja did (not in style, but in spirit) was Rahman. I think he understood what Raja’s music was about at a deep level and then chose a completely different path, which I find quite fascinating. Must have taken a hell lot of confidence for an adolescent to do that in the early 90s when Raja was the undisputed king.

  3. Madan Says:

    To add to the above point, I would also differentiate Rahman from Raja in the sense that Rahman thinks heavily about sound design and constructs his songs accordingly. Raja thinks in terms of notes (and, well, he does write the instrumental parts breathlessly without even having to play them once on his own). So if you compare say Poothendral with Humma Humma, what you see is Poothendral uses harmony to evoke a plethora of emotions. Raja is organising the music to evoke those emotions. Rahman is trying to evoke a mood and an ambience, maybe even an attitude, rather than a specific emotion. You could say that about Mustafa Mustafa. Yes, it’s a simple reggae song, nothing special on the surface, but it’s about the attitude it conveys.

    I guess this is why both fanbases feel deeply convinced their favourite is clearly better than the other. But they just have very different approaches to how they compose. And like Sid Sriram said, they both know exactly what they want. They just have different modus operandi to get there.

    • Anonymous Violin Says:

      Wow. That was a lot of info to take in, and thanks so much for sharing it. I now see what you’re saying about the more seamless fusion of Raja.

      Side note:
      I just got into B. B. King, and I was hoping you had some recommendations (artists and songs) similar to him

      • Madan Says:

        I am not really your go to guy to suggest albums of bluesmen because I just listen to great live videos of theirs.

        I suggest the following artists, among many others – Albert King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore, Derek Trucks. And also the Allman Brothers.

        And check out these videos:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: