Ilaiyaraaja in five songs 

One finds in Ilaiyaraaja’s music immense variety and love for instrumental phrases. The flute, the sitar, the piano, for instance, stand out individually


Kartikey Sehgal

I have had good conversations with Tamilians over Ilaiyaraaja. He is a popular music composer, yes, but he also stands as a symbol for ‘those good old days’. For instance, an Ola driver told me that ‘Raaja’s’ music had meaning and melody; today’s music is a little noisy.

He is now Padma Vibhushan Ilaiyaraaja. In many conversations on social media, you will find his admirers complaining that the honour has been bestowed too late in his life. You’ll find that these admirers are not just Tamilians, but also come from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh... every South Indian state.

You will easily find details about him on the web (scores for over a thousand films, 7000+ songs...). I intend to bring to you some of his music and make you hum along with me. Let’s find him in these five songs.

Yaar Veetil Roja

In whose house has this rose blossomed,

Why does it wither in autumn wind...

... There is a melody now, a new melody,

But why is it filled with sadness

The aforementioned Ola driver slowed the vehicle when I hummed this song. I had hummed the ‘ultimate song’ of his favourite composer. Indeed, this Tamil song is passionate and even somewhat noisy. It doesn’t give you much space to breathe as a listener. There’s always something happening on the screen, whether through the visuals or through the sounds.

At certain places you may not like the sounds and choice of instrument. Perhaps you can set that aside and see the complex orchestration and how the composer matches it to the plight of the woman. This is a quite difficult song to sing. It’s restless. And it’s memorable even years after its release.

When you see the video, notice the visual of the many violins playing. They are an indication of the composer’s love for western classical music. Yes, Ilaiyaraaja is also a composer of symphonies, and that aspect of his life deserves a separate story.

Tumbi Vaa

Come butterfly, let's swing on the tip of the "tumbakudam" flower.(The implication is probably a call to a little child to come, play, and have fun).

In Kerala, I hummed this tune to a group of fifty people – crew of a film I was a part of. They were noisy and even rowdy until they heard this familiar tune.

This is a very melodious song, picturised on happy faces – an innocence often missing from today’s musical scene.

I urge you to listen to it carefully, including the interludes. There is an instrument or two that may sound jarring – as ‘synth’ sounds often did then. However this song brings to light a unique feature of Raaja’s music – memorable instrumental phrases. One can imagine the instrumentalists enjoying playing the phrases during the recording.

Notice how the tabla is an integral part of the vocals, as opposed to being there just for the beats. Listen to the melody of the flute!

This composition also has versions in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi.

The Hindi version is called ‘Gum sum Gum’. What do you think of the Hindi version? Do you enjoy the tabla in the original or the electronic beats in the Hindi version? I find the former richer!

Ae Zindagi Gale Laga Le

In a year’s time this song has amassed 7.1 million views on YouTube, thanks to the popularity of Shahrukh Khan, singer Arijit Singh and others from the film Dear Zindagi. The Hindi song from which it is adapted (Sadma, 1983) has 3.7 million views over 8 years. I leave it to you to tell me which one you prefer.

You’ll find several YouTube comments on the original video admitting that the original is better.

Still, Dear Zindagi has done good service in directing millennials towards Ilaiyaraaja. The creativity he exhibits in this composition is markedly missing from present day songs. A participant of a recent workshop on music remarked ‘kahan kahan se le jaate hain’ implying that the song has so many twists and turns.

Indeed, it keeps you on your toes. Once again, certain sounds will seem jarring to you and you could wish they were replaced by softer sounds. However, what you can pay attention to is the variety in the musical phrases. The first thirty seconds of the song offer varying moods; they’ll make a first time listener wonder about the feel of the song.

This is one of the most popular Hindi songs of the composer.

Mandram Vantha

The breeze that came until the entrance of the house (or wedding podium), doesn’t it have the heart to come until the couch? (from

You have heard this tune in the song Cheeni Kam featuring Tabu and Amitabh Bachchan. The original is a Tamil song that was wildly popular on its release. In the song ‘Yaar Veetil Roja’, mentioned above in this story, I had asked you to note the influence of western classical music on Ilaiyaraaja repertoire. In this song, I ask you to notice the soft jazz influence in the interludes. Indeed, this song was very modern for its times.

A chance meeting with a gentleman from Chennai, on a beach, led us to discuss this song. We discussed how if this song were recorded today, with the exact same music but modern sounds, it would be a musical masterpiece that would eclipse other songs. And no, Cheeni Kam did not meet this man’s standards. In fact, with its computer sounds, Cheeni Kam should be considered a step backward. Even the beats in this ‘modern’ song are regular. Whereas Mandram Vantha is full of innovation. Which is why, once again, I’ll ask you to let go of certain unappealing sounds and look at the larger picture.

The old Tamil song is far more progressive than the modern Hindi one.

Janmon ki jwala

This time, listen to the piano weave magic in this composition. There’s no instrumental experimentation like in the songs above. The vocals, the piano and small pieces of flute make this a very melodious song that got lost somewhere in the annals of music.

It helps that the song has been shot vividly and you don’t need the words to tell you the story.

And if you want to go on from here to his work for the guitar, you can refer to En Iniya Pon Nilave.

You’ll find in Ilaiyaraaja’s music immense variety and love for instrumental phrases. The flute, the sitar, the piano, for instance, stand out individually and are also a vivid part of a passionate orchestration.

I hope he uses actual instruments and not computer generated sounds for his future songs. I also hope he continues to experiment and brings in more of his Western classical influence into the Indian compositions.

(Song translations provided by Sathish VJ)

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Published: 29 Jan 2018, 6:45 PM