Sunday, April 28, 2013

Music a la Ilaiyaraja

Reproduced from 'Music a la Ilaiyaraja' - An interview of the Maestro published in 'Cinema in India' Magazine, September 1989 issue. 

BhaskarChandavarkar writes on the country’s most prolific composer – Ilaiyaraja – this year’s National Award winner for Best Music Direction.

It has rained some 70mm in four hours the previous day.  There were still small puddles on the road; but the dust had been washed away.  In the diffused sunlight, the streets looked cleansed as if in expectation of visitors.  Laxman of the NFDC said while I settled down at the hotel, he’d go and find out what time we could meet him:  I was to meet Ilaiyaraja, winner of this year’s Best Music Director award that afternoon.    I could detect a faint note of uncertainty in Laxman’s voice: “He is very difficult to get hold of, you know! He was back two days late from Singapore, and once in Madras, film producers take up all his time”.  I wondered if I should not then have met him in Delhi at the awards function.  A music director who works 29 days every month (except in February!) and is busy making music 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday was indeed a tough proposition for an interview.  It would have been wiser, perhaps, to catch him away from his workplace.

An hour later, Laxman, now reinforced by Parthasarathy also of the NFDC, came to tell me that our appointment for the afternoon ad been cancelled.  Reason: Ilaiyaraja had vanished from Madras.  No one knew where he had gone.  But the guess was that because that night was a Pournima (full moon) night, he must have gone to the Ramana Maharshi Ashram.  However, everyone seemed certain that he would be back at work in Madras on the morrow.  It would be best for me therefore to try and snatch a few minutes of his time before he began recording.  We worked out an alternate scenario in case he did not have the time: Mr. Parthasarathy would take my questionnaire to him and get the answers filled in.  Mystery, reverence, and awe already surrounded the whole issue before a word had been spoken or set on paper.  I could see that the people around him held him in such high esteem that they were almost scared to talk about him.  I resolved then to try and meet him and have no questionnaire between us.

Next morning, at the Prasad Studios, while Parthasarathy went to find out about the interview, Laxman and I were busy tracking down a cassette recorder.  Before we got anywhere, however, the message came, “He is ready to receive us – hurry”.  So we rushed to the special room reserved for the Maestro.  Ilaiyaraja was sitting cross legged on an Indian baithak.  The room was fragrant with incense.  There was a large close-up photograph of Ramana Maharshi and another, who, I was told, was the maestro’s guru, Guru Kodiswamy.  Ilaiyaraja wore a white kurta and a white dhoti, both looking starched and new.  He was freshly clean shaven, head and chin, not a hair anywhere on his head or face.  Tinted glasses that he wore, partly hid his shining bright black eyes.  He also wore a red tilak on the forehead.

“I liked your music in Rudraveena.  I am quite surprised by your ability to blend north Indian, south Indian and classical as well as pop traditions into a single homogenous while.  How do you achieve this?” – I began the question session.  He looked at me and pondered for a while.  Others in the room were sitting a good four meters away from us.  It was a sign of their respect, I decided, rather than their lack of interest in the proceedings.  “What is achievement? I don’t achieve anything – I just make what I think is music.  Where is the difference between classical and other traditions? Everyone uses notes.  No one can invent a new Shadjam.The classical musician as well as the folk musician has to use swaras. We give all these labels.  All music is in essence the same!” – Ilaiyaraja’s answer was at one simplistic and mystical.  “I do not believ ein any achievement in music.  For me there is nothing to achieve through music,” he stated baldly (in more ways than one).

BC: Is music more like sadhana to you?

       You may call it sadhana if you wish to, but I do not call it by any other name.  It is music to me.  Nothing less, nothing more.

          As Ilaiyaraja spoke, I had a funny feeling I had known him before.. that voice, those shining eyes.. surely this was no stranger? I had last recorded in Madras 11 years ago.. when even earlier, 16 years ago, when I had recorded songs by S. Janaki and Jesudas.  Was he there then?  The oeverwhelming personality that he had become made me think twice before I asked him.

BC: Where did you begin your career? Was it in Madras?

       Yes.  I learnt from Mr. Dhanraj who taught at his School of Universal Music.  I learnt the keyboard there.  I also started playing the guitar at a very young age.  I did my examinations for classical guitar through Trinity College.  And later entered the film industry as a combo-organ player – I also played the guitar.

BC: Were you then a disciple of Ramana Maharishi?

       Oh no.  Not then.  I used to be with the boys (of the orchestra) here, dressed like everybody else, played in various orchestras… Sometimes I assisted music directors, most often, the Kannada music director G.K. Venkatesh.

I sensed that the time had come to broach the question that had been nagging me ever since the meeting began.

BC : Did you play for any music director from outside Madras?

       Yes.  I played for Salil Chowdhary and… and some others – now wait a minute… there was this Bhaskar Chandravarkar from – Are you the same man?... You have changed a lot! (Eyes laughed and danced!)

          For a moment I could see that face of sixteen years ago.  A young guitarist, very bouncy, very eager to play his bits.  In those songs of Jesudas and S. Janaki, the sparkling solos of classical guitar were played by Raja.  This Raja who was now sitting in front of me – and who had changed a lot.

          “I have grown older…” I said.  Now the mood changed.  Do you have time?”, he asked me.  “Let us go into the studio, we will talk there.  I am doing some background music – I hope you can stay while the recording goes on.”

          “Excellent idea,” I told him, “I will be able to see you at work and meet the others of your team.”

          We moved to Prasad’s recording theatre.  As Raja entered, a hush descended on the place.  Musicians went to stand near the double glass windows of the voice rooms, or some stood back by the wall.  Everyone lowered their voices to soft whispers.  Two chairs were placed in the centre of the hall by a table with a harmonium on it.  Raja drew out a music sheet paper.  I could see his score, written very neatly in dark pencil.  The music was not a draft of the score as I had expected – it was the final score.  Instrumentation and chords had been completely worked out.  The neat handwriting made it look like a printed score.  He also took out an exercise book.  On the page he checked, it said Reel 6 at the top.  Below that there were only dashes, dots, brackets and some other punctuation marks.  Only Raja would know what these meant.  He looked at the pages, placed the score on a stand, and gave a nod of approval in the general direction of a group of musicians.  Most of them moved up to the stand on which the sheets were.  Not a word was spoken.

          While the musicians copied their parts from the composer’s score, he turned to me.  “These same musicians, when they play for others, they talk and make a lot of noise, but here they are quiet”, he whispered.  “Nobody shouts here – I don’t even have to raise my voice.  Everyone is so involved.”

          “Why do you think they are noisy elsewhere? Have you ever scolded them for it?” Even I had started speaking in whispers by now.  “I don’t know how it happened.  This is the way I like it and they too like working with me this way,” he said.

          After the music was rehearsed once in Raja’s presence, we moved to the recording booth.  The projection started.  The film was Ashok Chakravarty and seemed to me a typical Bond film – Madras style.  A big six foot-seven inch bully with a shaven head and striped T shirt was busy beating a baby-faced man to jelly.  In about 75 seconds, there were about as many blows with an exaggerated ‘Dhoosh Dhoosh’ sound.  The crowd around took bets.  Before the baby face turned to pulp altogether, the hero appeared.  A 10-seconds pause later, the second fight sequence started.  This time the giant bully was at the receiving end: somersaults, kicks, Tai Quando, Jijutsu, Karate and what have you and after two minute sof Dhoosh, Theesh and a bottle or two of tomato ketchup spewed over the scene, the hero naturally won.

       I do not like to compose music for fights, but what to do?  In this business, you have to give the public what it wants.  I’d much rather compose nice slow movements.

BC: Have you done any independent work? I mean something unconnected with films?

       Yes, of course.  There is a CD (Compact Disc) called Nothing but Wind.  You should hear it.

BC: CD is not the most popular medium.  We do not have a very large audience for these laser played discs.  I haven’t had a chance to listen to any Indian music on CD.  I think only fusion efforts have been recorded on this medium.  And, of course, Western music.

       I will arrange for you to listen to the piece today.  The sound is very clean – I like the medium for that.  Hariprasad Chowrasia has played the flute in this album.

BC: I think I read a review of this somewhere, in a Bombay paper.

       Oh, don’t pay any attention to those reviewers.  Most of them do not know what they are talking about.  They use terms like ‘ostinato’, ‘staccato’ etc. to dazzle the poor reader.  You are a composer yourself – tell me, have you ever met a knowledgeable critic? They say this music is good and someone else’s music is bad.  How can any music be bad?  I may like or not like a person, but I should not say that somebody’s music is bad because I do not like that person.  Many critics write against me because they think I use music they don’t like me to use.  That is unfair, isn’t it?

By now the musicians were ready with their scores.  Purushottam, the assistant who conducts the music for Raja, was ready and I heard the first bit of the ‘fight music’.  The Orchestra consisted of 24 strings: eight first violins, eight second violins, viola, four cellos and a bass.  A drum machine was being used: the latest model which IR had imported very recently.  There were synthesizers and samplers two brass, and two guitars; a tom-tom and a choke cymbal were also being played live.  The piece by itself was very ‘modern’ with its share of dischords and tension-filled, tortuous, synthesized brass.  A strong beat provided the driving force to the music.  The strong and pointed jabs, short staccato notes on brass reminded me of the James Bond movies.

BC: This sounds like a John Barry arrangement; the brass and all that?

       You cannot compare our orchestras with those westerners.  You know the kind of equipment they have.  Take strings.  Our violins here use Indian strings.  They don’t give us the right colour.  Our musicians are willing to pay more for the imported strings but you can’t get good imported strings at all.  Similarly for guitars – I cannot get the tone I want.  The strings are of poor quality – so are the brass instruments you find in India.

BC: I was referring to the musical concept, more than the actual sound.  What I felt was that this music, conceptually at least, is comparable to that in American thrillers?

       I do not think music should be compared at all! 

The actual recording of the piece began.  In Madras, the tradition is that background music is recorded on one track, ready for the final mixing.  This is done on 35mm magnetic tape on a rock-n-roll machine.  This means, the music editor there does not have to lay tracks.  The music editor and the music director are rolled into one.  Raja was instructing the associate director of this film all along.  “Put the crowd noise here… The train sound should be louder here… don’t use the car horns in this bit”, he would tell the associate director who quietly wrote down whatever Raja had to say.

Before we moved on to the next reel, I asked Raja, “Do you think it is necessary to learn composing before one composes for films? Or do we learn by trial and error?”

       Composing cannot be learnt.  You can teach people to play music, teach them to play instruments or sing but how can you teach composing? Composers are born; you have to have it in your blood.

BC: In Europe and America they do have courses to teach composition: they have composition graduates in their conservatories; I know that people like Richard Rodney Bennet have taught film music composition in music academies.

       Europe and America have a long tradition of music teaching.  Every child learns to play some instrument in school.   Many have a piano at home.  Even if you ask a child, he can tell you which three notes are there in A minor.  Here nobody knows what is a B flat or A minor – How can you teach composition to someone who does not know these simple basic triads?

BC: Does that mean that unless you know some Western music, you will not be able to learn composition?  I do not think I agree with you all the way… Anyway, who are your favourite composers?

       Bach and Mozart are my favourites.  I think Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest composer the world has ever produced.  You know why? There are these four kinds of counterpoint: canonical, modal, strict, and invertible or double counterpoint.  I can write counterpoint for eight bars music in anything from 5 to 15 minutes but only of the first three kinds.  When I have to write invertible counterpoint for eight bars I would have to spend four times that period.  And most of Bach’s work used this very, very difficult thing.  I find it extremely complex; I don’t think there will ever again be another composer like Bach.  In my Album How to Name it, I have a piece called ‘I met Bach in my house’.

BC: What about Mozart? You also have a piece called ‘Mozart, I love you’

       Yes, of course, I love Mozart.  These composers have inspired me.  I often use their ideas too.

By now reel seven of the film was ready for viewing.  A spot boy was distribution cups of tea and coffee.  A man entered the sound booth with two glasses filled with sweet-cool coconut water.  Take this. Very healthy!” said Raja (I could not have disagreed) “I rarely drink tea or coffee.”  

Reel Seven rolled.  Raja made those intricate code markings in his small notebook.  After the reel was over, he took out his sheet paper and started writing the score.  He did not touch any instrument – I watched him carefully.  He did not even hum a single bar of music.  The dark pencil moved across the sheet with relentless speed, neatly ‘printing’ notes.  In something like eight to 10 minutes, he was through.  I thought even copiers might take longer to write this music down!  This man worked unbelievably facilely.  He used no arranger.  All instrumentation, all harmonies, the entire orchestration was worked out single handed! When he put the paper aside, he said to me, “You hear the music now, tell me if you don’t like anything – I will change it.” “Why ask me?” I asked.  Then he turned to me again, “You are a composer, how long would you take to write for this reel?” I said, “I am sure several times the time you took, and it would not be nearly as complex as your work.” All of us have our own style; I did not think the visuals needed a very complex score anyway.  But was Ilaiyaraja’s pen a shade too facile – even dangerous to his art?  Was he not afraid he might run dry of ideas?

       Once Usha Uthup was in town – she was singing in some hotel here.  She came down to see me at the studio.  I was then composing a background score like today.  She first saw the reel without music and then saw what my music could do to the picture.  I finished the reel very quickly.  “How can you write such great music in such a short span of time” she said.  She was on the verge of tears!

BC: Frankly, I am equally surprised at your speed.  How do you manage it? Do you plan anything at all? Do you work with the chords first and melody later or the other way round?

       I don’t really know how I write or compose.  My mind is blank when I come to the studio.  I see the film and when I put the pencil to paper, the music seems to flow out.  I know what I have put in here (indicates his head) but I don’t know how it comes out!

BC: That is probably true of all creative processes.  It is extremely difficult to describe, let alone analyse, the act of creation.  Do you feel that you can work better under pressure?  I see that you are making music for 13 to 15 hours a day – does that produce any strain?

       No.  I don’t feel any strain at all.  Music is my life.  I feel that the more I create the better I feel.  It is no different from my life itself.. Let me ask you a question in turn.  Have you seen Amadeus? The film on Mozart!

BC: Yes.  I saw it three times.  On the big screen, only once though!

       I have seen it not less than 25 times.  Did you notice the way the director uses the voices of Mozart and his wife in a scene where he asks her to go to bed?  The wife says that he is too weak and sick and should not be writing music late in the night and he snaps back at her.  The rhythm is the rhythm of the music that follows the scene, remember that?  And that beautiful piece where everyone walks to the rhythm of the fourth movement of the 41st Symphony – some taking a step every beat, some going in triplets and yet others in 2/4s – I noticed these things when I saw the film the 15th, 16th or 17th time.  Each time I would find something new in it.  I wish Indian directors were half as perceptive.

We were now on to the next reel.  Reel eight had a song in it.  Shot at the Gateway of India in Bombay, the Taj Mahal Hotel, Nariman Point, etc.  It was a breakdance sequence with Bhanupriya and Balkrishna, son of the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister.  Both going through the most unlikely body contortions to the rhythm and melody of Ilaiyaraja’s ‘Soovi soovi’ – a folk song transformed into breakdance number.  The song had too much in it.  It was played very loud in the studio too.

I find Ilaiyaraja’s songs are close to Salil Chowdhary’s.  Especially, the introductory musical pieces and the interlude music resemble Salilda’s.  The obvious link is W.A. Mozart.  The song here sounded very different from his songs in Mahadev.  Mahadev has three songs sung by Asha Bhonsle.  These were recorded in Bombay.  All have very clear sound.  Raja has composed music for three Hindi films so far, Sadma, Kamagni and Mahadev.  Of these, I like the songs of Mahadev.  I asked him if he used any live percussion in the songs.  “No – how can I get such precise accentuation with live performers?  Everything had to be programmed.  With programmed, computerized rhythm and music, I always get much better results,” he said.  He selects all rhythms, tempi, colours himself!

The Mahadev songs have a freshness in arrangement that is rarely found. ‘Dilwaale  or ‘Fikar Na Kar Pyare’ suggest an extraordinary blend of Mozart, rock, raga and folk rhythms.  Also Ilaiyaraja has not cluttered these songs with too many sounds many Bombay the way music directors would have.  Personally I felt, had the words or the lyrics not let him down that badly, these songs might have been international chart busters on the pop music scene.  Comparatively, the Telugu songs of Ashok Chakravarty (a remake of the Malayalam Aryan) seemed run of the mill.  In Rudraveena, once again I was very impressed – I told him so – by his use of operetta-like declamation and singing in the film’s lighter sequences.  Rudraveena also deals with sociological aspects of classical music.

“Why do they (the National Jury) award only the movies with classical music year after year? Don’t they realize that films need another kind of Music?” Raja asked.

BC: I agree with you.  The pseudo-classical music of films seems to have fooled the Jury into awarding even a moderately good score in, preference to a brilliant ‘real film score in the past.  I too feel sad that some really good film music has gone unacknowledged!

       This is the problem here you know.  Once a lady journalist-musician came to me and said, “You are so popular and Carnatic music is dying! You should use it in films.  Only people like you can revive it”.  I told her that I was not the founder of Carnatic Sangeet! Let people who feel superior to us because they sing classical music try to save it.  They want to call us names, treat us as if we are polluting their music and then want us to save their music too?

BC: I think you replied rightly.  That snobbish attitude has to go.  There are different genres of music but one of them cannot be inherently inferior to the other.  When that happens, it is like the caste system – superiority being decided by birth! What did the journalist say?

       She could not say anything.  She fumed and she fretted.  I think, being popular should not be held against anyone or any kind of music!

BC: Indeed! (I noticed something) what is this number I see on the top of every music score sheet? It says ‘470’.  Is it a sacred number to you?

       No – this is my 470th film! The first film I composed for was in 1975 and it was released in 1976.  Producer Panju Arunachalam heard four of my songs – folk songs – and liked them very much.  He financed their recording.  A story was later woven around these songs and a film made.  That was Annakili and it was very successful.  After that people started coming to me for music.  They like me because I work fast.  Distributors are also happy.

BC: This means in 13 years you have made music for 470 feature films.  This must be a record!  You must be averaging 40 films a year?

       Yes, between 30 and 40 - and in different languages.

Prasad’s sound studio is permanently booked for Ilaiyaraja.  Legends grow around the Maestro.  One of the musicians told me that Prasad has built this hall entirely for Ilaiyaraja – which, of course, was a myth.  But then Raja is perhaps the highest paid music director in the subcontinent.  From what I gathered, he seems to charge at least three to four times as much as the Bombay music duo considered to be at the top of the list.  And then consider his output; a film roughly every week; three days for six songs; four days for 16 to 18 reels of background music.

       Twenty years ago, I was trying hard to save money to be able to buy an album of Hariprasad Chowrasia.  That Chowrasia not only played for my CD Album but asked for my blessings when he found out how difficult yet beautiful that music was.   He accepted it as a challenge, stayed with me right here, rehearsed and practiced four hours and finally recorded – bit by bit.  Music like this (Nothing but Wind) has never been played by an Indian flautist – and I can say with confidence, neither will the like be played again by anyone in this country!

BC: What are your future plans? Do they cover projects other than films?

       I want to write a concerto for the sitar.  I had begun it but gave up half way.  It did not seem to turn out as I wanted it to.  But I will work on it again next year, perhaps.  And I want to do a piece for the stage as well.  This will be a philosophical piece that urges human beings to see their own role in the world.  With a 75 piece orchestra, singers and dancers, I will guide and rehearse them till they can perform on their own.

BC: A reviewer mentioned your fusion music was like L. Subramaniam and Ravi Shankar’s?

       These reviewers write what they please – they don’t understand. (Please include that when you write this interview) Do you think my music is like L. Subramaniam’s or Ravi Shankar’s?

BC: No. I don’t think so.  I see you are much more conscious of instrumentation, orchestration, colour, dynamics… To me Ravi Shankar and Subramaniam are much more preoccupied by ragas and melodic material as well as Indian taals.  You seem to have more contemporary concepts.

       That is right – and you know why.  L. Subramaniam is a violinist and Ravi Shankar is a sitarist – they are not really composers.  A composer has to pay attention to many other aspects.  You are a composer ; you would know what I mean.

BC: I think I do.  But I wonder how many people who claim to be composers can really stand up to such a test – including me! I think we must wind up now – thank you very much for your time.

       It was a pleasure.  I wish you could stay with me and we could talk some more.  Perhaps next time you visit Madras?

BC: Yes. Thank you – I hope it is not after another 16 years! By the way, how did you get this S.D. Burman photograph? I’ve seen it at Film Centre too, in Bombay?

       I like the picture.  See… it’s not a posed photo: the musician composer is in a trance, you can see his real devotion to art!


Thanks: 'Cinema in India' – September 1989

Thanks for sharing: 

Shri. Jeeva Nanthan, Coimbatore & Shri. Dhinakar Rajaram, Chennai

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