Ilaiyaraaja and the Incubator

It was quite some time since I heard any Ilaiyaraaja songs. So I was a bit excited when Dhoni audio was released. Whilst the songs weren’t even pale imitations of his 80s chartbusters, they were listenable just for the loyalty sake. However, I stumbled upon something else when I Googled on Dhoni songs.

My fascination for Ilaiyaraaja, apart from his sheer genius, has always been the statistics. At his peak, i.e. in the late 70s and 80, he was composing music for 35 to 45 films a year. Even keeping 35 as an average and five songs per film, he was composing at the rate of one song per day. This excluding the background music he had to provide for all these films and his non-film ventures like How To Name It?, Nothing But Wind and devotional albums. That’s really a super-human effort and requires some paranormal powers to even comprehend. To put in perspective, in their entire career, Beatles have recorded 275, Pink Floyd 158 and Grateful Dead 184 songs in total. Iliyaraaja has composed over 4500 songs!

I’m digressing. This blog is actually not about Ilaiyaraaja. The thing that I stumbled upon was the fact that Ilaiyaraaja is still composing for about ten films per year, and most of them in Malayalam. I then went onto check out his Malayalam collection and found that some of them were really good. If you are keen, check out Rasathanthram, Achuvinde Amma, Sneha Veedu, Katha Thodarunnu, and Manasinakkare, to sample a few.

‘Malayalis are like incubators. They keep talent alive until the rest of the world is ready for them,’ one of my friends commented a while ago. He’s obviously a Malayalee but this point begs attention. He said it in relation to the Tamil actor Vikram who, when he was struggling to get a foothold in Tamil film industry, was being offered variety of roles in Malayalam. Ditto Kamal Hassan. And many wouldn’t know AR Rahman’s first film is, technically, not Roja but a little known Malayalam film called Yodha.

It could be argued that the Malayalam industry couldn’t afford Ilaiyaraaja in his heydays and when his market in Tamil fell, and consequently became cheaper, began to sign him. Whilst this is true, they didn’t hurriedly run after Deva to sign him even though he went out of business in Tamil. And what’s the common thing between Smitha Patil, Tabu and Shabana Azmi? All of them have acted in Malayalam films. Now Tamil Industry signed Aishwarya Bacchan and Deepika Padukone, mainly because they can afford them. And let it be understood that Malayalam industry signed Smitha Patil not because she came cheap. So there’s a message in there.

Now, returning to Ilaiyaraaja: I was appalled to realise that a composer of his stature doesn’t even have an official website. He did have one until 2008 or 2009 but it was pulled out and now we don’t have any site where we can get any authentic, official information about him. Whilst it’s pitiable, he has absolutely no one else to blame but himself. In the 80s, he was revered like god. He took it seriously and behaved like one. Not the all-merciful and compassionate god but the temperamental, vengeful, and jealous; the Old Testament variety. And when he fell from his altar, he had no friends left. He further alienated even the ardent fans by bad-mouthing contemporary music directors and their techniques. He was not one of those troubled geniuses but a genius who troubled others. In case of Vikram and Kamal, the incubator logic makes sense. In Ilaiyaraaja’s case it doesn’t, except that Malayalam industry must be the most compassionate incubator in the world.