I wanted to write something to commemorate the Ilayaraja 75 concert, but I kept getting stuck. Given that an orchestra from Hungary will be playing, should I make a list of my favourite non-vocal parts (i.e., the preludes and interludes) from his songs? Should I make it even more personal, recalling how I used to record his songs on cassettes in five-year groups (because the '76-'81 songs sound different from the '81-'86 songs, and so on)? I thought about listing some of the popular songs that don't work for me (like 'Vandhaal Vandhaal Rajakumari') and yet I admire at various levels, but that was negative-sounding and hardly celebratory.
And then, the recent Sid Sriram interview gave me the idea. He's an entire generation removed from me, and when I asked him to talk about Ilaiyaraaja's music, he picked 'Kanne Kalaimaane' and 'Thenpaandi Cheemayile'. It's fantastic music, of course – but it felt a little like remembering Beethoven only through the 'Fifth Symphony' or The Police only through 'Every Breath You Take'. It's a bit of a paradox. The reason these songs/compositions spring instantly to mind is because they are so legendary, so defining, so popular – and yet, they "restrict" the perception of an artist (or a band), when the work contains so much more than just these Greatest Hits.
Take Kann Sivanthaal Mann Sivakkum. Everyone knows the fire-spewing anthem, 'Manidha Manidha' – but what about the gentler 'Vandhaale Alli Poo?' (See clip below.) I don't know if this is true for some of you, but the songs that are too familiar, the ones that you've heard some 5000 times, they are lodged in your mind in their entirety. 'Manidha Manidha' was such a hit during my schooldays, it was played so often that I sometimes feel I don't need to actually listen to it anymore. I know its every bend, every nook and corner. And sometimes, you need to stay off a song – so that the listening gap makes it sound even better when you return to it. But the (relative) lack of exposure of something like 'Vandhaale Alli Poo', still allows for little surprises and discoveries.
So in this piece, I wanted to talk about some of these lesser-heard songs. But there are so many films with such songs. That wouldn't be an article, but a book. How to whittle down an oceanic oeuvre? Here's how I did it. Let's pick a few Tamil film heroes, so many of whose careers were bolstered by Ilaiyaraaja's songs. Let's list them chronologically. Let's focus on the older leading men – in the sense that if a Suriya or Vijay or Ajith are not here, it's because their careers are not instantly identified with by the maestro's music, even if there are the odd hit songs/albums. (Plus, there's a good chance you'd have heard those songs anyway.)
Clearly, old-timers and long-time Ilaiyaraaja listeners will know many of these songs, but I am thinking about the Sid Sriram generation. If you're game, dive in and discover a rarer kind of magic.
I can easily expand this list to twenty. Or thirty. There's Pandiarajan, who directed and acted in films like Kanni Raasi. His defining song would probably be 'Saan Pillai Aanalum' (Manaivi Ready). There's Bhagyaraj, with 'Yerikkarai Poongaatre' (Thooral Ninnu Pochu). There's Murali. You've surely heard the Idhayam songs or the mind-boggling 'Poo Malaye' (Pagal Nilavu), but look, also, at the superb title song of Poovilangu , or 'Thulli Ezhundhadhu Paatu', one of my most beloved "night songs" ever. (No, not in that sense, you perverts. In the sense of still and calm, like the night.)
What about Suman? You get 'Dhaagam Edukkira Neram' (Enakkaga Kaathiru), Nee illadha podhu (Ilamai Kolam; oh, the prelude). There's Nizhalgal Ravi and Oru kunguma chengamalam (Aaradhanai). There's Prathap Pothen and 'Adhikaalai Nerame' (Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kadhai). There's Sathyaraj and 'Uyire Uyirin Oliye' (En Bommukutti Ammavukku). Sudhakar and 'Vaadai Vaattudhu' (Sakkalathi). Suresh and 'Unnai Kaanum Neram' (Unnai Naan Santhithen). By the time we get to Ramarajan, I guess the chances of not having heard a song decrease considerably.
I could go on to the next generation, too (say, Prashanth and at least one song from Vanna Vanna Pookkal), but as I said, this is just an article. The book will have to wait.