From New World Encyclopedia
The cover of the Ilaiyaraaja album Thiruvasakam in Symphony (2005)
The cover of the Ilaiyaraaja album Thiruvasakam in Symphony (2005)
Background information
Born June 2 1943 (1943-06-02) (age 80)
Origin Tamil Nadu, India
Occupation(s) Film composer, music director
Instrument(s) Vocals (playback singing), guitar, keyboard/harmonium/piano
Years active 1976 – present
Website Official website

(Tamil: இளையராஜா, IPA: [ɪləjəɹɑːdʒɑː]) (born June 2, 1943 as Gnanadesikan), an Indian film composer, singer, and lyricist, has composed over 4000 songs and provided background music for more than 800 Indian films in various languages in a career spanning 30 years.[1][2] He lives and works in Chennai, India. Married, his family consists of his wife Jeeva and their three children. Their two sons, (Karthik Raja and Yuvan Shankar Raja), and daughter (Bhavatharini) work as film composers and singers.[3]

Ilaiyaraaja had been the most prominent composer of film music in South Indian cinema during the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.[4] His work integrated Tamil folk lyricism and introduced broader Western musical sensibilities into the South Indian musical mainstream. He has thrice won the Indian National Film Award for best film scoring. The source of his monumental appeal to the Indian people has been his ability to infuse the variety of India's religious and cultural traditions to express the heart of India.

Early life and education

Ilaiyaraaja, born into a poor rural family in Pannaipuram, Theni district, Tamil Nadu, India, as the third son of Ramaswamy and Chinnathayammal. Growing up in a farming area, Ilaiyaraaja enjoyed Tamil folk music,[5] such as the songs sung by farmers working in the fields. His formative contact with music-making and performance came at the age of 14, when he joined a traveling musical troupe headed by his elder step-brother, Pavalar Varadarajan, a propaganda musician for the Communist Party of India.[6][7] He journeyed through numerous villages, towns and cities in South India with his brothers for about ten years as one of the musical Pavalar Brothers. He first tried his hand at composing music during that period: he set to music an elegy written by the Tamil poet laureate Kannadasan for Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.[8]

Arriving in Madras (now Chennai) in 1968, Ilaiyaraaja enrolled under the tutelage of Dhanraj, a music teacher, as he became aware of the importance of learning music skills such as musical notation for a successful professional music career. He encountered Western classical music during his training, and the music and compositional styles of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, among others, proved influential in creating a motif in much of Ilaiyaraaja's compositions (such as the use of counterpoint). Ilaiyaraaja's classical music training culminated in his completing a course with a gold medal in classical guitar (higher local) with the Trinity College of Music, London.[9]

Career and music

In Chennai, Ilaiyaraaja worked in a band for hire involved in performing music for various stage shows and formal occasions. Ilaiyaraaja also worked as a session guitarist and keyboardist/organist for film music composers and directors such as Salil Chowdhury from West Bengal, who often recorded music in Madras.[10][11][12] Later, the Kannada film composer G. K. Venkatesh hired him as an assistant, an event that marked his entry into film music composition and directing. He assisted that music director in 200 film projects, mostly in Kannada.[13] During that stint, he learned the practical methods of orchestration, and would hone his compositional ability through frequent experimentation accomplished by persuading session musicians to play, during their break times, the scores that he wrote.[14]

Ilaiyaraaja's break as a full-fledged composer came in 1976, when film producer Panchu Arunachalam decided to commission him to compose the songs and film score for a Tamil-language film called Annakkili ('The Parrot'). The resulting soundtrack, together with others that quickly followed, earned Ilaiyaraaja recognition for his adaptation of Tamil folk poetry and music to popular film music orchestration.[15][16] Ilaiyaraaja helped reinvigorate Tamil film music which, by the mid-1970s, experienced a lack of creative ideas.[17] As demand mounted for his 'new' sound, Ilaiyaraaja emerged by the mid-1980s as the leading film composer and music director in the South Indian film industry.[18] Besides Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films, he has scored music for Hindi (or Bollywood) film productions such as Sadma (1983), Lajja (2001) and Cheeni Kum (2007). He has worked with noted Indian poets and lyricists such as Gulzar, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu and T. S. Rangarajan (Vaali),[19] and film directors such as K. Balachander, K. Vishwanath, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and Mani Ratnam.


Ilaiyaraaja's arrival onto the scene of film music composition in South India broke some new ground in the industry including increased efficiency in the film scoring process and a greater centralization of expressive control in the hands of a musical director.[20][21] The Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam illustrates:

"Ilayaraja would look at the [film] scene once, and immediately start giving notes to his assistants, as a bunch of musicians, hovering around him, would collect the notes for their instrument and go to their places. When the orchestra played out the notes, they would be perfect, not just in harmony but also in timing—the background score would commence exactly where it should and end at the exact place required…. A [film] director can be taken by surprise at the speed of events."[22]

Ilaiyaraaja became the first film composer to extensively employ within the Indian film music framework the harmonies and string arrangements intrinsic to Western classical music.[23] That allowed him to craft a rich tapestry of sounds for films, and his themes and background score gained notice and appreciation amongst Indian film audiences.[24] Ilaiyaraaja's methodical approach to arranging, recording technique, and his drawing of ideas from a diversity of musical styles broadened the range of expressive possibilities in Indian film music.[25] According to musicologist P. Greene, Ilaiyaraaja's "deep understanding of so many different styles of music allowed him to create syncretic pieces of music combining very different musical idioms in unified, coherent musical statements".[26] Ilaiyaraaja has composed Indian film songs that amalgamated elements of genres such as pop, acoustic guitar-driven Western folk, jazz, rock and roll, disco, funk, doo-wop, march, bossa nova, flamenco, pathos, native folk, Afro-tribal, and Indian classical. By virtue of that variety and his interfusion of Western, Indian folk and Carnatic elements, Ilaiyaraaja's compositions appeal to the Indian rural dweller for its rhythmic folk qualities, the Indian classical music enthusiast for the employment of Carnatic ragas, and the urbanite for its modern, Western-music sound.[27]


The use of an orchestration technique that is a synthesis of Western and Indian instruments and musical modes characterized Ilaiyaraaja's music. He pioneered the use of electronic music technology that integrated synthesisers, electric guitars and keyboards, rhythm boxes and MIDI with large orchestras that also featured the veena, venu, nadaswaram, mridangam, and tabla.[28][29] His flair for catchy melodies, and to his employment of subtle nuances in chord progressions, beats and timbres accounts for the popularity of Ilaiyaraaja's music.[30][31][32] Ilaiyaraaja's songs typically have a musical form where orchestral preludes and interludes layer vocal stanzas and choruses. They often contain polyphonic melodies; the lead vocals interweave with supporting melody lines sung by another voice or played by instruments. Polyrhythms, particularly in songs with Indian folk or Carnatic influences, have prominence. The melodic structure of his songs demand considerable vocal virtuosity, and have found expressive platform among some of India's respected vocalists and playback singers, such as K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubramaniam, S. Janaki, P. Susheela, K.S. Chithra, Malaysia Vasudevan, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.[33] Ilaiyaraaja has sung his own compositions for films,[34] recognizable by his rustic and nasal voice. He has penned the lyrics for some of his songs in Tamil and other languages.[35][36] Ilaiyaraaja has become famous for his evocative film themes and background music,[37] and examples of those include his work for Pallavi Anupallavi (1984), Punnagai Mannan (1986), Mouna Raagam (1986) and Geethanjali (1989).

Non-cinematic output

In Ilaiyaraaja's first two non-film albums, he explored the fusion of Indian and Western classical music. The first, How To Name It? (1986), dedicated to the Carnatic master Tyagaraja and to J. S. Bach, features a fusion of the Carnatic form and ragas with Bach partitas and fugues and Baroque musical textures.[38] The second, Nothing But Wind (1988), performed by flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and a 50-piece orchestra, takes the conceptual approach suggested in the title—that music constitutes a natural phenomenon akin to various forms of air currents (e.g., the wind, breeze, tempest, etc.) He has also composed a set of Carnatic kritis, recorded by electric mandolinist U. Srinivas for the album Ilayaraaja's Classicals on the Mandolin (1994). Ilaiyaraaja has also composed albums of religious/devotional songs. His Guru Ramana Geetam (2004) consists of a cycle of prayer songs inspired by the Hindu mystic Ramana Maharishi, and his Thiruvasakam in Symphony (2005), an oratorio of ancient Tamil poems transcribed partially in English by American lyricist Stephen Schwartz, had been performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.[39][40] Most recently, Ilaiyaraaja's released a world music-oriented album called The Music Messiah (2006).[41]

Accolades and notable works

Ilaiyaraaja's composition Rakkama Kaiya Thattu from the movie Thalapathi (1991) made the BBC "World Top Ten" music poll in 2002. He composed the music for Nayakan (1987), an Indian film ranked in 2005 by TIME Magazine as one of the all-time 100 best movies. Ilaiyaraaja has composed music for events such as the 1996 Miss World beauty pageant held in Bangalore, India, and for a documentary called India 24 Hours (1996).[42]

Live performances

Ilaiyaraaja rarely performs his music live due to heavy commitments to composing. In his last major live performance, the first in 25 years, he performed a four-hour concert held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai, India on October 16, 2005. The show had been widely televised both in India and abroad. Less well-known, he performed live in Italy at the Teatro Comunale di Modena, an event-concert presented for the 14th edition of Angelica, Festival Internazionale Di Musica, co-produced with the L'Altro Suono Festival. He had done a few small-scale shows early in his career in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and performed in a charity concert to raise funds for the construction of a Hindu temple in India. A television retrospective titled Ithu Ilaiyaraja ('This is Ilaiyaraja') chronicled his career.[43]

Awards and honors

Ilaiyaraaja has won the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for the films Saagara Sangamam (1984), Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) and Rudraveena (1989). He won the Gold Remi Award for Best Music Score jointly with film composer M. S. Viswanathan at the WorldFest-Houston Film Festival for the film Vishwa Thulasi (2005).

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi conferred on him the title Isaignani ('savant of music') in 1988, and the Government of the State of Tamil Nadu, India presented him with the Kalaimamani Award, an annual award for excellence in the field of arts.[44] He also received State Government Awards from the governments of Kerala (1995), Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (The Lata Mangeshkar Award) (1998) for excellence in music.

He received honorary doctorates from Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu, India (Degree of Doctor of Letter (Honoris causa)) (March, 1994), the World University Round Table, Arizona, U.S.A. (Cultural Doctorate in Philosophy of Music) (April, 1994), and Madurai Kamarajar University, Tamil Nadu (Degree of Doctor of Letters) (1996). He received an Award of Appreciation from the Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (1994), and later that year Mr. John Abraham, Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, presented him with an honorary citizenship and key to the Teaneck township.

Partial discography

* For extended discographies, see external links.


Year Album Year Album
1978 Sigappu Rojakkal 1989 Karakattakaran
1981 Tick! Tick! Tick! 1990 Mannan
1983 Moondram Pirai 1991 Thalapathi
1985 Muthal Mariyathai 1992 Guna
1985 Sindhu Bhairavi 1997 Kadhalukku Mariyadhai
1986 Mouna Raagam 1999 Sethu
1986 Punnagai Mannan 2002 Azhagi
1987 Nayakan 2007 Ajantha


Year Album Year Album
1982 Olangal 1992 Pappayude Swantham Appoos
1983 Sandhyakku Virinja Poovu 1996 Kaalapani
1984 My Dear Kuttichathan 1997 Guru, Kaliyuunjal
1985 Yatra 2000 Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal
1986 Poomukhapadiyil Ninneyum Kathu 2001 Friends
1988 Moonnam Pakkam 2003 Manasinakkare
1989 Adharvam 2005 Achuvinte Amma
1991 Ente Sooryaputhikku 2006 Rasathantram
1991 Ente Sooryaputhikku 2006 Rasathantram


Year Album Year Album
1983 Mantrigari Viyyankudu 1988 Rudraveena
1983 Sitaara 1988 Swarna Kamalam
1983 Saagara Sangamam 1990 Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari
1985 Swathi Muthyam 1992 Abhinandana
1987 Kondaveeti Donga 1990 Rudranetra
1987 Maharshi 1990 Rakshasudu
1992 Prema 1991 Nirnayam
1983 Sitara 1984 Challenge
1988 Swarnakamalam 1983 Abhilasha
1989 Geetanjali 1999 Antahpuram
1989 Chettukinda Pleader 1989 Shiva
1987 Anweshana 2007 Anumanaspadam
1989 prema 1985 aaraadhana


Year Album Year Album
1978 Maathu Tappada Maga 1981 Geeta
1981 Nee Nanna Gellalaare 1981 Janma Janmada Anubandha
1981 Shikaari 1981 Bharjari Bete
1983 Accident 1983 Pallavi Anupallavi
1995 Shivasainya 1996 Nammoora Mandara Hoove
1996 Gulabi 1997 Bhoomigeeta
1998 Hoomale 2003 Usire
2004 Namma Preetiya Ramu 2007 Ajantha
2007 Aa dinagalu


  1. M. Allirajan, Musical journeys The Hindu, June 10, 2004.
  2. S. Beha. Melodious music. The Hindu, July 23, 2006.
  3. K. Sangeetha Devi, "Music from the past." [1]. The Hindu, Jan 13, 2007. Accessed 3 March 2007.
  4. P. D. Greene, "Film music: Southern area." (542-546) in B. Nettl, R. M. Stone, J. Porter and T. Rice, (eds.). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Volume V: South Asia—The Indian Subcontinent. (New York: Garland Pub., 1997), 544.
  5. A. Mohan. Ilaiyaraja: composer as phenomenon in Tamil film culture. (M.A. thesis, Wesleyan University, 1994), 106-107.)
  6. G. Ramnarayanan. "Matchless in quality and speed!" The Hindu, May 26, 1989. [2] Accessed 13 October 2006.
  7. Ilaiyaraja. Sangeetha Kanavugal, 2nd ed. (Chennai, India: Kalaignaan Pathipagam, 1999).
  8. M. Rangarajan. Memorable evening in many ways. The Hindu, July 9, 2004.
  9. "No point in classifying music, says Ilayaraja,". The Hindu, Sunday, June 19, 2005.
  10. S. Gautam, 'Suhana safar' with Salilda. The Hindu, Nov 13, 2004.
  11. S. Chennai. "Looking back: flawless harmony in his music." The Hindu, Sunday, Nov 20., 2005. [3]. Accessed 15 November 2006.
  12. R. Choudhury. "The films of Salil Chowdhury: Introduction." [4]. 2005. Accessed 16 November 2006.
  13. R. Vijayakar, "The prince in Mumbai." Screen, July 21, 2006. [5]. Accessed 6 February 2007.
  14. G. Ramnarayanan. "Matchless in quality and speed!" The Hindu, May 26, 1989. [6]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  15. P. D. Greene, "Authoring the Folk: the crafting of a rural popular music in south India." Journal of Intercultural Studies 22 (2) (2001): 161–172.
  16. A. Sivanarayanan, "Translating Tamil Dalit poetry." World Literature Today 78(2) (2004): 56-58.
  17. S. T. Baskaran, Music for the people. The Hindu, Sunday, Jan 6, 2002.
  18. Greene, 1997, 544.
  19. RaajaNGAHM Online. 2000. Discography: Film database—Lyricist list. Available from: [7]. Accessed 7 February 2007.
  20. A. Mohan. Ilaiyaraja: composer as phenomenon in Tamil film culture. (M.A. thesis, Wesleyan University, 1994), 106-107.
  21. Greene, 1997, 544.
  22. R. Rangaraj. Mani Ratnam on Ilayaraja, Rehman. ChennaiOnline, March 9, 2005. [8]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  23. S. Venkatraman. "Film music: the new intercultural idiom of 20th century Indian music." 107-112 in A. Euba and C.T. Kimberlin, (eds.). Intercultural Music Vol. I. (Bayreuth: Breitinger, 1995), 110.
  24. Venkatraman, 1995, 107-112
  25. Venkatraman, 1995, 110.
  26. Greene, 1997, 544.
  27. Greene, 1997, 545.
  28. Greene, 1997, 544.
  29. R. S. Balaji, "Lessons from Maestro Ilayaraja: Lesson 10, expressing moods through music—2." [9]. Accessed 15 November 2006.
  30. V. Subramanian, "9th chords in Rajaa's music." [10]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  31. Subramanian, "The boss of bass." [11]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  32. Balaji, "Lessons from Maestro Ilayaraja: A case study on Maestro Ilayaraja's style of music." [12]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  33. RaajaNGAHM Online. 2000. Discography: Film database—List of singers. [13]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  34. RaajaNGAHM Online. 2000. Discography: Film database—List of singers: Ilaiyaraaja. [14]. Accessed 19 November 2006.
  35. M. Rangarajan, "From Texas to tinsel town." The Hindu, Oct 15, 2004. [15]. Accessed 1 February 2007.
  36. S. R. Ashok Kumar, "Variety fare for Pongal." The Hindu, Jan 9, 2004.
  37. S. T. Baskaran, "Music for the people." The Hindu, Sunday, Jan 6, 2002. [16]. Accessed 15 November 2006.
  38. Greene, 1997, 544-545.
  39. S. Viswanathan, "A cultural crossover." Frontline 22 (15), July 16-29, 2005.
  40. D. Parthasarathy, "Thiruvasagam in 'classical crossover'." The Hindu, Nov 26, 2004.
  41. S. Soman, "The Music Messiah." The Hindu, Dec 30, 2006. [17]. Accessed 27 February 2007.
  42. A. Dongre, and R. Malik, "A day in the life of India." Hinduism Today, (February 1997) [18]. Accessed 19 November 2006.
  43. The Hindu Online. Ithu Ilaiyaraja. The Hindu, July 1, 2005. [19]. Accessed 13 October 2006.
  44. M. Rangarajan, "Music magic on a rewind." The Hindu, April 5, 2004.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Ilaiyaraaja's books

  • Ilaiyaraaja. 1998. Vettaveli Thanil Kotti Kidakkuthu. (trans.: My Spiritual Experiences) (3rd ed.). Chennai: Kalaignan Pathipagam. A collection of poems by Ilaiyaraaja.
  • Ilaiyaraaja. 1998. Vazhithunai. Chennai: Saral Veliyeedu.
  • Ilaiyaraaja. 1999. Sangeetha Kanavugal (trans.: Musical Dreams) (2nd ed.). Chennai: Kalaignan Pathipagam. An autobiography about Ilaiyaraaja's European tour and other musings.
  • Ilaiyaraaja. 2000. Ilaiyaraajavin Sinthanaigal (trans.: Ilaiyaraaja's Thoughts). Chennai: Thiruvasu Puthaka Nilayam.

Secondary Sources

  • Caṅkaivēlava. Iḷaiyarāja Cakōtararkaḷin̲ icaippayaṇam. Cen̲n̲ai: Niyu Ceñcuri Puk Havus, 1987. OCLC: 22983087
  • Greene, P.D. "Authoring the Folk: the crafting of a rural popular music in south India." Journal of Intercultural Studies 22 (2)(2001): 161–172.
  • Mohan, Anuradha. Ilaiyaraja Composer As Phenomenon in Tamil Film Culture. Thesis (M.A.)—Wesleyan University, 1994, 1994. OCLC 32570202
  • Pirēm-Ramēṣ. Iḷaiyarājā, icaiyin̲ tattuvamum al̲akiyalum. Cen̲n̲ai: Cempulam, 1998.(trans.: Ilaiyaraja: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Music). OCLC 42763953.
  • Sivanarayanan, A. "Translating Tamil Dalit poetry." World Literature Today 78(2) (2004): 56-58.
  • Venkatraman, S. "Film music: the new intercultural idiom of 20th century Indian music." 107-112 in A. Euba and C.T. Kimberlin, eds. Intercultural Music Vol. I. Bayreuth: Breitinger, 1995.

External links

All links retrieved February 25, 2018.


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