In his interview with the BBC some years ago, Raja quoted the example of his experience at the Calcutta Music Academy. It almost reflects the secret of his success. He speaks about a well performing student who is judged by a panel of luminaries from the music world. While the student does an outstanding performance, he is asked a question that takes him by total surprise – what’s your contribution? Raja seems to approach every form of music with the same approach – he adds his unique contribution to it. The garden variety tools of jazz, pop, WCM, CCM etc. is available to everyone – the genius in this man is how he adds his signature to each one of them. Example, jazz piano – if you hear the track Nee Paartha Paarvaikoru Nanri from Hey Ram (2000) or Niram Pirithu Paarthen from Time (1999) – both employ jazz techniques with the Raja signature.
As music researcher A.S. Paneerselvan puts it: Is Ilayaraja a classical Western musician? Or is he a folk musician? Is he just a successful film music director? Or is he an experimenter in Carnatic music? Is he a proponent of popular culture against elitist culture? Or is he simply a cult figure? The honest answer to each of the above questions is a simultaneous yes and no. A prolific and versatile composer, Ilayaraja has generated an impressive corpus of work: some 900 film scores, an album of Carnatic music, three of devotional songs, an album of Vedic renderings, two of instrumental music released internationally and, an hour-long symphony
Even the most knowledgeable music researchers stumble trying to typecast and categorize him. Nor is it easy for others to define his depth and breadth of musical experiments – something even Raja accepts is hard for himself to do! Technically, is he a music composer, a music arranger, a music conductor, a voice conductor, a percussion arranger or all of the above? The answer to this question is that he has done all of this for most of his compositions.
Like most geniuses, Raja maintains that he does not fully understand music and is still a student of music. He did not invent harmony, nor did he invent counterpoints, nor did he invent any of the ragas of Carnatic music that he uses, or the jazz, rock, piano work, or folk or the symphony that he composed. Nor was he the first to compose an oratorio. However, with this wide body of musical knowledge, he ensures that his compositions are original and also leaves behind his unique signature on every form of music he touches. With about 5,000 original compositions, it is easy to recycle without getting caught, if you apply cleverly some interlude variations to the main melody. Unless he is forced by circumstances, he has stayed clear of repetition in the last 3 decades. For the most part, he is able to make his contribution to every piece of music that he composes. He continues to experiment and update his technique to change with the times.
He has continued to achieve all this dealing with the limitation of the format that he had to operate with. Raja chose to be a commercial film music composer and he had to operate within the limitations of film music format. He does not have the freedom of Mozart or any other orchestral music composers of the West. He has made several attempts outside film music and though they have been critically acclaimed, they have not been commercially successful. As a super crossover musician who could easily fuse Western and Indian classical music, his contributions are astounding both in films and outside it. Few living musicians today have this unique ability to fuse two varied systems so easily – example Thiruvasagam in Symphony.
There are several million followers of his music who appreciate and enjoy his music without knowing anything about the techniques of such a creation. The end product stuns the listener who has a good taste for music – the design and development process is unimportant for most of his listeners. Unlike a standard product, every composition has a different design and development process and most of end results are very pleasing! It is impossible to predict the next creation of Raja at any point in time (he says he cannot do it himself!) and he refuses to go with any ‘industry trends’ – example, he does not do remixes, he sticks to his WCM/CCM/folk paradigms and works thru modernization of musical arrangements. Even in 2008, he does a full blown Carnatic classical based film music score – Uliyin Osai not worrying about its consequences. None of these qualities are found in any of the Indian music composers today. Is he just many times better than most Indian composers, or is he beyond that? In my view he is beyond what most Indian music composers can even aspire to be. He is ‘perspiration’ type (no Indian composer has worked so hard in the last 30 years) and the ‘inspiration’ type genius (no Indian composer has offered so much variety/originality and raised the listener’s bar in the last 3 decades).
As they say, genius is the fire that lights itself and everyone around can best wonder at the lights or comfort themselves in the heat!