An ode from a Common man to a music composer : Maestro Ilaiyaraaja

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

People say Music has a soul and most of us have experienced it in one context or another. So I wondered the other day: what makes some music delve directly into your soul and tug your heart strings whereas others remain merely a sensual experience for your eyes and ears but go no further? If you were to pose this question to a composer, I presume it must be difficult for him to elaborate on the “how” and for us as audiences it is difficult to articulate the “why”. The “how” and the “why” therefore, is a shared emotion and not a conscious construction that can be quantified objectively.

The gifted composer in my mind is like a narrator who shares his experience that flows through him in the form of musical notes and orchestration while we as listeners connect into this outflow of harmony: our minds conjuring up memories of a familiar tune that was long forgotten in the myriad journeys of the soul. That’s why some music hit our soul. We are in tune with the composer through some mystical strings that tie us all together as humans with a shared cultural background or history. It may just yet be another unsolved wonder of nature that has no explanation.

Whatever be the cause one cannot but agree that a composer who can find the right strings to resonate our soul with is truly “gifted” by nature and he/she is not manufactured. They are indeed born with this gift. Their manifestation in this world, their very purpose of existence is to evoke these emotions in us. One can elevate our human mind to ponder on things beyond material comforts through many paths: spiritual discourses, silent self -inquiry or by creating or listening to soul reaching music. The birth of such individuals who then uplift mankind through their wisdom , a “yogi” as we call it , is for humankind to revere and for me Maestro Ilaiyaraaja sir is one such person. We in Chennai (Madras) call him Isaignani (musical seer)

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja

I have never met him, never even set eyes on him in reality, but his music makes me feel like I have known him all my life. With the dawn of social media era, we do see more of him on virtual world than on the by gone days of the print and nascent TV that I was used to growing up. But this has only added to the allure and saintliness , amplified by his white attire and simplistic gaze that so often adorn the multifarious channels. Growing up in Chennai, like most of those around me, I learnt Carnatic music and when my vocal abilities proved inept, my teacher subtly switched me to Veena, goaded on by my grandmother who felt the need for some musical learning on her only grand daughter one way or another, talent or no talent.

For me, it was yet another class I had to attend and I did not realize it then but the wisdom I gained in those sessions, the seeds that were sowed by my dedicated teacher, sprouted and took shape secretly. The teacher was more than a teacher. For her music was not just an income but a knowledge and passion that needed to be passed on and preserved. She found in me unfortunately a restless student who didn’t share her passion at that time. I do wish she could know now that my brain has unconsciously preserved those lessons, safely tucked away for a later time when I would be more mature and wiser to savor it. Its those lessons that today make me appreciate Ilaiyaraaja sir even more. I had heard of Western Classical composers, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi but never spent time reading, researching, or listening to them. They were mere names to me and the music I picked up were more from TV ads, and other vague elevator sounds that kept playing them in loops. I didn’t understand western notations nor the concept of Scale. Indian music was all around me and western music was for the odd seeker who wanted to learn a piano or a guitar. But then I didn’t realize that Maestro had oriented me and practically all of us to Western music through his songs.

I didn’t know it then, and didn’t know it until much later when I started listening to Western Baroque and Classical in all earnest that he had our ears trained already to this , so that we could easily assimilate and digest like it wasn’t alien. It’s like taking an Italian cuisine and enhancing it with Indian flavors, not to disrespect the original intent of the Italian dish but to make it more palatable and acceptable to the Indian taste- so that it doesn’t get rejected outright.

So if today I listen to a Mozart or a Vivaldi and I feel drawn to it, I dont think I could have done it without the seeds strewn by Maestro. And what a blend it is- to compose something in a matter of minutes and seconds that can bridge two worlds that are poles apart. Can it be human? Yes- if Ramanujan can be human and conjure up Math solutions in his dreams and write them down as they appear, I guess so can Maestro. But for me neither are common mortals.

They are born once in a millennium with a purpose , a purpose to elevate the rest of human kind in terms of knowledge and whether the humans understand it to deliver themselves is up to them. One can throw a rope for a drowning man and show the way, whether one seeks to use it to get ashore or not is on the individual. History has shown glimpses of such men who appear now and then to transform like Adi Sankara who tried to bring conflicting and deteriorating views of then prevailing religious philosophy into one school of thought and propounded a path breaking view of liberation that attributed God or supreme being to a, formless, timeless and “attributeless” entity that’s everything and nothing at the same time. I see Maestro in those leagues who brought out Tamil music buried into depths of Carnatic classical and shook them to expose our sensibilities to a world beyond , both internal like folk and external like western.

And that’s why he will be timeless or so will his music. Mozart endures no matter how many bands come and go, Socrates and Adi Sankara endure no matter how many philosophers come and go and so will Maestro endure-no matter how many music composers come and go.

Maestro is also a non conformist. He speaks his mind without pretenses in front of a media for he doesn't feel the need to be otherwise. That is indeed a strength, for I believe that only a person who is secure and confident in his knowledge ,abilities and morality can afford to be this direct and be comfortable with it. He is not a celebrity who needs endorsement from a politically correct world to thrive but an artist dedicated to his art which he considers supreme. Therefore he doesn't need the world to give him credit. He creates music with an aim of enriching us, his audience, and he oozes a creative discipline that’s an example for us to emulate. In due time, this music and its soul will remain, not the people who threw the stone at a glass house or the stone itself.

We live in a world where everyone’s life is out there in the open , the more widely known a person, the more available it is for people to comment. I watched Amadeus — an amazing movie experience describing the life of Mozart from the point of view of Salieri who was awed by Mozart’s brilliance but couldn't fathom as to why God had chosen Mozart to be the music messiah when it was Salieri who had dedicated all his life to God. For those of you who haven't watched it, check out this epic scene where Salieri describes Mozart’s brilliance and one cannot help but draw a parallel with Ilaiyaraaja at this description. Anyway , in a fit of jealousy Salieri began to plot Mozart’s downfall, only to acknowledge his greatness in the dying years as he repents his deed. The story may be partly fiction but that made me wonder, if Mozart had lived in todays times, he too may have been called arrogant for he was a non conformist too- a non conformist for the traditions of that time and cared little for what the society thought of him. But 300 years later, today we know Mozart more than Salieri and that is the power of true music and its maker. They will endure more than the political correct pundits and their “cause célèbre”

This whole blog is a tribute from a common and mere mortal to someone she perceives higher. But am sure it reflects and echoes the views of a million like me , who have benefited from Maestro in the depths of despair or in the heights of excitement. I am like a plant that benefits from the rays of the sun day in and day out: whether the sun knows about the plant is immaterial, for the sun’s purpose was to shine. Maestro Ilaiyaraaja has carried us through tough times and he will continue to do so in years to come. And for that — Thank you, Maestro.



History buff, Coffee lover, Political aficionado, Wannabe writer but works for Life sciences!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Harini Gopalakrishnan

History buff, Coffee lover, Political aficionado, Wannabe writer but works for Life sciences!