Saturday, Nov 1st, 2014

Indian composer Ilaiyaraaja is a genius; how long can the West ignore him?

Vignesh Subramanian can’t understand why Indian genius composer Ilaiyaraaja has not been recognized by the music world in the West.

By on Monday, February 16th, 2009 - 980 words.

ilaiyaraajaMost people would agree that John Williams is one of the greatest film music composers of all time. He is one of the few — maybe the only — who can blend the classical school of thought and render it relevant to a modern context. Although he grew up and lives in the US, he is talented enough to have found an admirer in someone like me who hails from India.

If I am to imagine a similar adulation interchanging the continents but the other way around, this time a westerner admiring an Indian composer, I have no problem in finding the subject. Ironically though, I may have a problem finding any admirers. The reasons for this peculiarity are many but the worthy contemporary from the East who could stand shoulder to shoulder with John Williams goes by the name of Ilaiyaraaja. The best kept secret of South of India, Ilaiyaraaja is idolized by the 200-odd million people from the region.

The objective of this article is not to promote the popularity of a man who himself shuns advertisement and leads a spiritual life. It’s more about alerting listeners across the world who appreciate good music to a hitherto unknown composer whose achievements are noteworthy by any yardstick.

Ilaiyaraaja is an unusual and extraordinary talent.

Unusual, because of his humble peasant background with no formal education in music that he plays. Unlike many classical composers who started early and were child prodigies, he was introduced to Western classical music as late as the age of 25. Yet his musical acumen is so sharp that in the decades that followed he took to it like a duck to water. He is a rare phenomenon in India, someone capable of writing the sheet music for each instrumental part just by imagining the final sound in mind. He is a visionary who has found common ground in various forms of music.

It’s an extraordinary talent because he has scored music for more than 840 movies and more than 5,000 original numbers. His prolific output of background scores becomes an even greater accomplishment when you realize that an average Indian movie lasts at least an hour longer than its Hollywood counterpart. At the peak of his career he was composing for about 40 movies a year. Yet the quality of his work remained above par with the films being critically acclaimed and a huge commercial success.

In his colorful and lively career of more than three decades he has produced a couple of experimental albums which combine eastern and western classical music (How to Name it, Nothing but Wind). He also earned the distinction of being the first Asian to be commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, and released an Oratorio which is a musical cross-over (Thiruvasagam in Oratario) with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. He still regularly employs the Budapest Symphony Orchestra for the scores of select movies (such as Guru, Hey Ram, Lajja and Nandhalala). He has also released an authentic south Indian carnatic classical album played by a notable mandolin artist.


This talent is not widely known outside India primarily because of the domain in which he operates. About 99 percent of Ilaiyaraaja’s works are composed for films in regional languages such as Tamil and Telugu. Unlike Hollywood movies that have a worldwide reach, these movies are exclusively made for local audiences and are not marketed in regions outside South India. While the theme and content of these movies may not be appealing for people outside the region, it’s the technical wizardry in such movies, in the fields of music and photography, that are sadly deprived of the attention that they deserve.

The genre of fusion music is practiced world over, by simply mixing two types of music in their raw form. For so long, it has merely been an art of leveraging the beauty of two genres of music. As alluring and experimenting it may sound, it’s been a marriage of two liquids whose viscosity doesn’t match. If you switch off the track from one genre, the other half would still be distinctly classical of its own. This is the case with the previously well known collaborative efforts involving Indian and western music artists — such as L. Subramanian and Stephen Graphelli or Ravi Shankar’s experiments with George Harrison or Philip Glass.

It’s in this context that Ilaiyaraaja’s works scream for attention. He has the gift to understand the building blocks of each genre at its grassroots and he doesn’t produce a musical piece by stitching various genres together as such. Instead he interweaves a new fabric whose threads are assimilated at its genesis. Pick any random song of Ilaiyaraaja and you are bound to find a melody strictly based on the Indian raga system backed by a western classical string ensemble arranged in parts to a south Indian folk rhythm played by a North Indian classical Tabla complimented by a jazzy bass guitar arrangement. And for not one moment does any of it sound out of place.

Even though the musical forms of his songs are constrained by the pattern of Indian film songs in which vocal choruses and stanzas are presented with orchestrated preludes and interludes, he breaks free in his own style. He embellishes the vocal melody with meticulous bass guitar parts and imaginative chord progressions while he experiments in the interludes with western classical harmonies and counterpoints using a plethora of instruments without losing the color or the texture of the whole song.

I think it’s a fair and honest assessment of Ilaiyaraaja’s work that he has invented his own genre of music. But ironically this fact may explain his relative obscurity outside India, as his music cannot be pigeon-holed as Ethnic music or Fusion music. So unless the global musical fraternity comes forward with an open mind to unlock his huge potential, this treasure trove will continue to be hidden for years to come.


  1. Sylvian says:

    Why can't we start a movement or a co-ordinated drive to popularize his music to the Western world, through our blogs, websites, Social media etc… I am really sad at the way this Genius being treated both in India and the world. He was not even recognised with a Padma Award , when comedians are getting it.

  2. Srinivas says:

    this is the great article about genious Ilayaraja Sir, why we are comparing his music with others, his style of music is outstanding, dont compare Raja Sir with other composers, his knowledge about classical including indian and western classical music is un comparable with any music directors in India since 1950, he is a master crastsmen, there are some tough carnatic ragas he has detfly nandled for film music. ragas like Reethigowlai, Hamsanatham, Bilahari, Abehiri, Abhogi, Chakravagam, Lalitha,Chalanaatai used for film music, he is not isaignani, he is swaragnani, thats why Ilayaraja SIr is the greatest musician in the world.

  3. Vijay says:

    Well said … Ilayaraja is more or less like Srinivasa Ramanujan… His works were remained untapped till the late 90s. Now every single equation of him is a research paper. It is the same fashion, Ilayaraja's music will be deciphered by the westerners in the coming years…. I look forward to the day when this happens

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  6. dr n muraleedharan says:

    I totally agree with you mr sylvian, I think it's high time for us to act. It's our bound duty to make the world recognise the great man's brilliance.

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Vignesh Subramanian

Vignesh, originally hails from India and currently lives and works in the Netherlands. A Software test engineer by profession, he is also a trained musician in South Indian classical music; Vignesh plays Keyboard and violin and when in India he regularly performs with his college band. Besides he writes independent analytical articles on Ilaiyaraaja's music (a living south indian film composer) in his blog ( as well as various other social networking forums of Ilaiyaraaja

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