In the sixteen-plus years I have been writing about cinema, one thing has remained constant. Whenever I have run into (either casually or for the purposes of an interview) someone who's worked with Ilayaraja, I've asked them about the maestro. On record, no one will say much, but "off record", the beans will start to spill. One director (not the one you are thinking of) told me about the time he took a walk with the composer in the mid-1980s, and he was startled when Ilayaraja sweepingly declared, "Like there was a Bach era and a Mozart era, this will be known as the Ilayaraja era." The director, who is not usually given to self-praise, said he was startled. "How can someone say something like this?"
But then, why not? That period was the Ilayaraja era, right? Any artist worth his salt—let alone a paradigm-altering genius like Ilayaraja—is going to be able to see the other artists around him, compare their work with his own, and make such an assessment. The point isn't whether any other composer of the time made "good" music. Of course, they did. (And I say this as someone who thinks many of them have been unfairly forgotten, given the relentless focus on Ilayaraja.) But you don't need to be a genius to see that none of them is able to match your output (in terms of number of albums per year), your hit rate, the fact that all the top directors want to work with you, and the fact that yours is the sound that has come to define the period.
Where the director (a huge Ilayaraja fan, BTW) was coming from, of course, was the modesty angle. "How can someone say something like this?" is really another way of saying "Shouldn't one be careful about what you say in public?" And that's where a lot of people who have chosen to outrage over Ilayaraja's Cinema Express interview are coming from, as well. It's okay if we call a genius a genius. It's not okay if the genius himself calls himself a genius. It's a result of what I like to call the Roger Federer-isation of celebrity, which has become the dominant mode of engagement and judgment. Federer is not just a genius. He's also nice. I don't know what Federer is like in real life. Maybe all that effort of smiling and keeping a game face in public means that he goes home, melts his racquets and performs voodoo rituals in front of the posters of his opponents. But outwardly, at least, he is a celebrity whom we love to love. For one, he doesn't say nasty things about the new-generation players.
Ideally, yes, I would love it if Ilayaraja posts regular Instagram pictures while making googly eyes at his pet kittens. But if the man isn't like that, well, what can one do?
Unlike Ilayaraja. But then, Ilayaraja has always been this way. There's always been a cheerful lack of filter, whether you want to call it "arrogance" or whatever else. But I prefer this brutal attitude to that of others who harbour different opinions of the maestro in private but praise him in public. He's basically saying, "This is who I am. Take it or leave it." This is unlike the top music composer who dismissed Ilayaraja as someone who worked with the same set of "rural beats"—and yet, went on to praise the maestro on a stage. It's unlike this other director who told me how Ilayaraja insisted on changing the lyrics of a song, which left him very upset—and again, went on to praise the maestro on a stage.
The disrespectful attitude towards lyrics is one of the most baffling aspects of the Ilayaraja persona, given that he grew up venerating Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy and SD Burman. Ilayaraja has often said one of his favourite songs is 'Maalai Pozhudhin Mayakkathile', from Bhagyalakshmi. It's one of the great sakhi/thozhi songs, gorgeously written by Kannadasan. And yet, Ilayaraja so often settled for maane/thaene filler-words, almost as if saying, "No one gives a crap about the words. My music is all that matters." But that's why Great Men are so fascinating, with all their complications and contradictions.
One word that kept coming up in light of the recent outrage is "gracious". Ilayaraja needs to be "more gracious". But why? We cannot impose our views of "good behaviour" on others. Why do we care if he is likeable if his music (which is what we are concerned about) is? I'm not saying what he said is right. I'm also not saying I liked the tone, or the words he used. But then, I also don't expect composers—or any artists, really—to behave the way I want them to. Ideally, yes, I would love it if Ilayaraja posts regular Instagram pictures while making googly eyes at his pet kittens. But if the man isn't like that, well, what can one do?
It's the old art-versus-artist thing, and I know people have differing views on this thorny subject. My view is that if you want the man to measure up to his music, it's a tough call. No one can be that… godlike. There's the person, the persona—and this is important only to those who are around the man. I am not his family (who may outrage about how little time Ilayaraja gave them). I am not a director who has worked with him (who may outrage about, say, how Ilayaraja didn't listen to their brief and did his own thing). I am not a lyricist who's been spurned by him (who may outrage about a loss of a chunk of a career). I am not a beloved singer who was hauled up for a royalties issue (who may outrage about the behaviour of someone he thought a friend).
These outrages are valid, but they are issues to be sorted out between the concerned parties. I am just a fan, one of millions. My only "relationship" with Ilayaraja is through his talent. My only (legit, valid) outrage is if the music doesn't live up to expectations. Because for me, the art is always greater than the artist. Because for me, the truest things Ilayaraja says is through his songs. For a second, forget his thoughts on new composers. You want to know the real Ilayaraja? Listen to, say, 'Uravenum Puthiya Vaanil', from Nenjathai Killadhey. Or listen to 'Paataale Buthi Sonnaar', from Karagattakaran, which he wrote the lyrics for. That's his autobiography. That's who he is. And that's enough. Happy birthday, Ilayaraja. Just be yourself. And once again, thank you for the music.