The Ilaiyaraaja Top 20 Project

On Nirmal‘s request as a parallel to The ARR Top 20 Project, I set out to make this very nostalgic playlist. Most of these songs are mixed with the inseparable feeling of me fiddling with the music system in the ‘Orange room’ in our old home about 25 years ago, only to leave my father bewildered every evening at the weird things that the music system would do. I can almost feel the breeze from the balcony, as my sister and I would hear these songs, defining what my first memories of film music would be. Rahman was around the corner and Chinna Chinna Aasai would start reverberating in that room soon enough, but Raja had ruled those days with his unique sounds and unbeatable Carnaticness and sheer melody. I enjoy these songs even more today as I listen to the nuances in the music, enjoying each sangati, and the lyrics. As I type each of the song names, I can see in my mind’s eye their names inked by my father in Tamil on those good old TDK D90 cassettes. I only wish these songs are re-mastered in high quality and released again. Here goes the top 20 in no particular order:

1. Sundari Neeyum – Of all his avatars, I probably like the singer Kamal Hassan the best. A wonderful voice suited for Carnatic and the way he emotes brings alive the song in a beautiful way. Kedaram ragam is lovely by itself. Made lovelier by this song.

2. Manram vandha – If one song could define a movie, it is this one that basically encompasses the main emotions of Mouna Raagam. The proximity yet the unbridgeable distance. Water on lotus. SPB’s impeccable rendition.

3. Thenpaandi cheemayile – Another movie-defining song. The rustic rendition by Ilaiyaraja that echoes the plight of the boy Velunayakan, the classic Kamal rendition at different stages though the movie. Powerful emotions. At the end of the day, it is just a small boy’s angst who saw his father murdered in front of his own eyes.

4. Panivizhum malarvanam – Simple melody in Chalanattai. The deep tones of a ‘vivadi’ ragam transform into a romantic melody in the expert hands of Ilaiyaraaja. Inspiration enough for Sanjay Subrahmanyan to weave the landing ‘S S S S S S S S’ of Panivizhum malarvanam into his Chalanattai kalpana swarams.

5. Per vechchaalum – A fun song to hear and hilarious to watch. Dappankuthu beats, Malaysia Vasudevan in full flow.

6. Thoongaadha vizhigal – The flow of Amritavarshini. Yesudas’ deep voice. Brilliant picturisation by Mani Ratnam.

7. Idhu oru ponmaalai – Kedaram again. This song serenely flows in constrast to Sundari Neeyum, which lingers on with its mischief in every line. Beautiful lyrics – Vairamuthu’s first song.

8. Ninnukori varnam – Probably the peppiest song in Mohana ragam ever. Interludes with the quirky sounds only add to the charm.

9. Motta maadi – All songs in this movie are amazing, but this is my most favourite. More childhood memories of growing up with these songs. Mani’s magic comes through as well when we see how these songs are conceived completely interweaved with the movie.

10. Raakkamma – The catchy tune of Raakkamma, the ‘sodukkus’ to keep the beat, ‘jaangu jakku’ – all of these blend to take the song to a pinnacle and that’s when ‘Kunittha puruvam’ happens and takes it to an all-new level. And what a way to capture the first He-She meeting.

11. Nee oru Kadhal sangeetham – Beautiful romantic song. There is a great deal of discussion online about which ragam this is in. I am more in favour of ‘Shuddh Saarang’, as given here. Everything about this song (the voices, interludes, the sound of the instruments) is simple and mellifluous.

12. Poomaalai vaangi vandhaan – Yet another example of the genius of Ilaiyaraaja while dealing with classical ragams. There is an inherent depth in Kaanada ragam, and here Ilaiyaraaja wields it to show the desperation of the main character. Kaanada shines through it all.

13. Kanmani anbodu – An interesting song concept. A beautiful melody. The song starts off with just plain words written in a letter and moves into the wondrous La La Land πŸ˜‰ towards the end.

14. Mari mari ninne – I am sure this must have gotten a lot of backlash from the purist Carnatic community at that point. This original song by Saint Thyagaraja in ragam Kambhoji has been completely reinvented by Ilaiyaraaja in ragam Saramathi and only goes on to show his prowess in Carnatic music. A majestic song.

15. Maalaiyil yaaro – The beautiful Suddha Dhanyasi ragam flows in this song. Beautiful lyrics and the melodious-yet-strong voice of Swarnalatha adds to the beauty of this song.

16. Yelangaathu veesudhe – One of those songs hearing which you wonder whether it is coming from within or without. Like something that has always been a part of you but you never realised it until you heard it out aloud.

17. Endhan nenjil neengadha – Nalinakanti ragam. That suffices.

18. Valaiyosai – Wonderful combination of SPB & Lata Mangeshkar. That Pallavi line beats all tongue twisters. And at what a pace! A whirlwind of a song.

19. Chinnakkannan azhaikkiraan – The legend Balamuralikrishna. Reethigowlai ragam. The joy with which Balamuralikrishna sings is infectious. Though many recent songs in this ragam have appeared in movies, this still remains one of the best.

20. Akashe Jyotsna/Nee paartha paarvaikkoru – Hariharan. Asha Bhonsle. Piano. Magic.

Bonus (Non-film): Pooveru konum – Thiruvasagam – Orchestral music always sounds grand. Here the beauty of Suddha Dhanyasi (in the first half) combines with it to create this masterpiece. Ilaiyaraaja and Bhavatharini have sung this with a lot of bhaavam.

There are many more gems to discover in Raja’s music and hopefully, we will get to hear more from him, but nostalgia of my early childhood shall always be synonymous with his magical music.

2 thoughts on “The Ilaiyaraaja Top 20 Project

  1. Thank you, thank you!

    I was not a “music person” until 3 years back. I cared only for ARR songs, though not in a serious way. Shyamala, and through her Super Singer Season 5, changed all that for good. I no longer heard music, I began to listen. In doing so, I awoke for the first time to Raja’s genius. Like many who grew up in Tamil Nadu, I was well familiar with all of Raja’s hits and even knew some by heart, but in this new lease of fandom, I was astonished by how regularly he created an unbelievable tingling in my central nervous system.

    Since I don’t know the technical aspects of music, Raja is pure wizardry to me. The closest “key” to his work I found is this article, which also happens to be my favourite article on musical topics: It gave me consciousness of the instruments in Raja; I have been slowly making a “mixtape” of beloved instrumental bits.

    Kamal Hassan is my favourite singer! Especially the late-80s-to-present Kamal: I can die in the rich molasses of that baritone. Along with SPB, Kamal is the king of expression, a happy side-effect of his thespian gifts. On the day I turned 30, I (and S) listened exclusively to my Kamal playlist. Thrilled to see him make three appearances in your 20.
    In 01, I totally love how he sings in Kameshwaran’s accent yet remains true to the classicality of the tune. As though there aren’t enough things in the song to make it timeless, they also put in the whole slow-motion-but-correct-lip-sync innovation. There’s always something magical and different about the Kamal-Janaki combination, which is perhaps why it appears twice in your list — and once in mine (I’ll do a quick write-up of my list here tomorrow).

    Great to see all the usual Raja suspects among the voices: Yesudas, Janaki, Swarnalatha, Chitra, Mano, Raja himself, SPB, and SPB’s killer laugh in 04 & 10. I had no idea Balamuralikrishna sang 19, or for that matter that he sang for Raja. The Mangeshkar sisters, Hariharan, Ghoshal all made the cut — even Premji Amaran πŸ˜‰ — which makes one ache for a world in which a certain A R Rahman would have appeared in these lists.

    I love all the songs in your quite informative list. There’s a couple, though, that I am yet to fully embrace due to unhelpable comparisons. 14 is lovely, but to me Chitra’s “Paadariyen Padippariyen” eclipses it, not the least because she gives an equally powerful rendition of “Mari mari” to finish it off. And 15 is for me so inseparable from “Maasi Maasam” — also a Swarnalatha — that when I recently heard “Maalayil Yaaro” I was surprised to learn that it was a song by itself. And it just so happens that I like “Maasi” more…

    Thanks again for making and sharing this. From now on I trust I’ll be listening to Raja’s music with a heightened awareness of its Carnaticity.

  2. Here’s my 20. The main criterion I applied for selection is how much I tingle all over, squirm in delight, and gasp. Another criterion unconsciously used was repeatability: how do I feel when I listen for the 50th time?

    01 Andha Nilaavathaa Naan

    The most romantic song in the world! Beautiful “call and response”, Raja’s singing at its best, and Janaki showing off her rustic dimension. Near the end the line “Adi podi pulla ellaam dooppu” lands with such comic timing that it tickles every single time.

    02 Elangaatthu Veesudhe

    On occasion Raja delivers a number that has no connection to anything else you’ve heard; it exists in its own realm of pure creativity. Your wonderful description says everything: “You wonder whether it is coming from within or without. Like something that has always been a part of you but you never realised it until you heard it out aloud.”

    03 Inji Iduppazhagi

    Another otherworldly, genius number. Perhaps the zenith of Kamal Hassan’s discography, and certainly my favourite Janaki song. Every inflection drawing out the Southern accent is gold. The notes of “Un kazhutthil maala ida”/”Vannakkili kaiya thoda” come out of nowhere.

    04 Isaiyil Thodangudhamma (bilingual version)

    The Tamil-only version would have made this list, but last winter I chanced upon the bilingual version and had tears in my eyes. What a voice Ajoy Chakraborty has, and what expression! The percussion and the chorus make for a hypnotic experience.

    05 Janani Janani

    Raised an atheist, I never knew how “bhakti” felt, never got to have a religious experience. I began craving for one. This song delivered it, lock, stock and barrel. Someone told me this was originally supposed to have been sung by Yesudas. Would it have worked this well? I doubt it. (In any case we got “Amma endrazhaikkadha” from him.)

    06 Kaadhal Kavidhaigal Paditthidum Neram

    The most playback-y of melodies! Spectacular beats. The finish with SPB & Chitra going “mmm” and finishing each other’s lines always makes me smile.

    07 Kanne Kalaimaane

    A reliable sandman in IIT-M days. Yesudas, flute, tambura (?), Kaapi, Kannadasan — too overpowering a combination.

    08 Maanguyile Poonguyile

    The piano has no business in folk, yet here it is, elevating the whole song. SPB going “yammmmaaaaaaa” is a melter.

    09 Oh Butterfly Butterfly (SPB solo version)

    SPB becomes a butterfly. The long-sustaining notes are designed to destroy the human heart. The piano flows like a brook. What is not to love and surrender?
    (The only complaint I have about the duet version is I that I don’t like the way Janaki says “butterfly”; she must be thinking of a moth.)

    10 Oliyile Therivadhu

    Such poignancy — tugged my viscera since the first time I heard it. Only recently did I learn that the voice is Karthik’s, which makes it even more special.

    11 Onna Vida Indha Olahatthil

    Every time a vehicle speeds by or sounds a horn in the distance this song gets triggered. Kamal and the wondrous Shreya Ghoshal perfectly capture the mood of the newly-wed elopers. Creative use of dialogue before Kamal goes “Nooru senman namakku podhuma”. [He goes on to ask for mutual saagaavaram, but recently asked “Saaraavaram pol sogam undo?” in Utthama Villain. Is he trying to throw shade at marriage? ;)] A “gliding” quality through the entire song.

    12 Paadariyen Padippariyen

    My favourite of all Chitras, and one of the most meta of meta-songs. The notes in “sangeetham dhaaa … aauaa… aaauaaauaaan” and especially the exquisite “thappaa thappaa … aaaaauaaa” always re-orient the blood in my brain. Totally love the brilliant lyrics, with which I strongly resonate.

    13 Panivizhum Iravu

    Deeply haunting, and never ages. Beautiful tribal touches.

    14 Poongaatru Pudhidhaanadhu

    My absolute favourite Raja — the one Raja I would take aboard a spaceship when fleeing from an apocalypse. One timeless Yesudas seems to have been not enough for the album. The violins invariably make me go mad.

    15 Poove Semboove

    Hard to tell the boundary between Yesudas and the violin in the end. The instrumental pieces preceding the 2 charanams are my favourites in all of Raja. The electric guitar piercing through this most melodious of songs is a mini-seminar on what Raja is all about for me.

    16 Poattu Vaittha Kaadhal Thittam OK Kanmani

    On the day of recording they must have removed all the glass from the studio windows lest they shatter. The orchestration is bonkers, Kamal goes all out, up there on an octave of his own, and the lyrics fall fresh, boyish, joyous, original. All of which are just what you need for a song that celebrates the success of love (a song type that’s a rarity).
    If I have a heart attack, in lieu of a CPR I want this song blasted in my ears.

    17 Raja Rajadhi Rajan Indha Raja

    Raja doesn’t experiment as much as ARR, but when he does it comes off fantastically. He sings and speaks here at the same time, producing a brilliant effect. The lyrics are unabashedly self-promoting — horrifically charming. A percussion set-piece; I love every variation and every species of drum used, but the drums that accompany “Nilavum malarum chediyum kodiyum kadalum nadhiyum kavidhai sollum” are my favourite.
    This is one of the 2 songs (the other being Pudhu Vellai Mazhai) with which I test every new earphone or speaker.

    18 Thendral Vandhu Theendum Bodhu

    Yet another “Where did you go and come back with this, Mr Raja?” kind of song. A mesmerizer, with every bit of chorus enhancing the experience. One of the very few Raja songs whose picturization I truly enjoy.

    19 Valayosai

    How cruel of Raja to fly the great Lata Mangeshkar in, give her tough and rapid lyrics, get her diction perfectly right, and then fail to make all that the centrepiece of the song by virtue of introducing the most phenomenal guitar beats! My parents’ favourite.

    20 Vizhiyile Mani Vizhiyil

    I can’t put my finger on why I love this song so much. I even hate the artificial laughter of Janaki. But the progression of every little tune, the transitions from charanam to pallavi (“Ival kaaaaaman vaaganam… isai sinnnnndhum moganam… azhagai – paditthai – O Brahmmma devane — Vizhiyile”), the violins, Ilayaraja’s (?) voice in between — they all add up to something unusually beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s