Why Ilaiyaraaja is the Linchpin of Tamil Cinema?

The idea for this post germinated because of a thought experiment. What would have happened if there was no Ilaiyaraaja? Can we imagine an alternative world without Ilaiyaraaja’s music? Although it’s impossible to live without his music, I thought it would be interesting to see the transformation of Tamil film and music industry because of Ilaiyaraaja.

A primer on Linchpin Theory

The controversial linchpin theory was proposed by Seth Godin. He describes Linchpin as someone in the organisation who is indispensable and irreplaceable as their work or position is too valuable or indispensable. There have been criticisms and acceptance of this theory. This linchpin needn’t be a CEO or a prominent member of the top management, it could be even an admin guy who runs the daily operations.

John Casti extended this idea in X Events: The collapse of Everything and identifies specific “linchpin” events that triggered significant problems in the world. For example, the murder of Arch Duke Ferdinand triggering the First World War. The idea was used in many TV series and the famous one being Castle.

I am reducing this theory to a specific industry (in this case Tamil cinema) and probably for a particular time. But the impact of this “linchpin” has resonated in the future, and it’s a ripple effect that has created a lasting impact in the industry and Tamil culture.

A short history of Tamil film music

The Tamil stage drama and plays are primarily song based. The actors were required to sing in high pitch open throat voices. Initially, the songs were Carnatic music based as the trained singers were the first one to take organised stage drama. The folk song and dance forms were confined to temple festivals. Theodore Baskaran identifies there was clear class differentiation in the way these art forms were produced and consumed. Later stages, Hindustani music made it stage plays due to the intercultural transfers.

When Tamil talkies started, the company drama artists moved to cinema and tradition continued. So the majority of the songs were Carnatic based or Hindustani classical. Songs from Hindi movies were directly lifted and reproduced with Tamil lyrics or when in need of a western tone, it would be an English song. It was the same with folk.

This particular changed a bit with the advent of MS Viswanathan and Ramamurthy. The duo popularised the idea of “cinema music” that comes from different genres. MSV especially experimented with western tones, Hindustani classical and sometimes folk but these experiments were far and few.

The rise of Raaja

When Ilaiyaraaja was working as an assistant to GK Venkatesh, the influx of Bollywood music was taking over Tamil world. There are multiple reasons to this — Hindi music world was endowed with RD Burman who was defining Hindu music with his unique orchestrations, and he was making inroads in Tamil world primarily through the younger generation. Bollywood also saw the rise of new stars — Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and whereas in Tamil MGR got into active politics and Sivaji was reducing the number of movies he was acting. Post Anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, the central government was trying to make inroads for Hindi through cultural activities, and Hindi songs were an integral part of it.

Circa 1976. Tamil cinema world saw the advent of Ilaiyaraaja. It was interesting to note that he didn’t orchestrate the first song with minimal instruments. He created a full string section, percussions and electric guitars for a movie that was rural based. It should have been baffling for the producer, but the final output created a revolution in Tamil cinema.

Nobody knew that this man would become one of the indispensable people in Tamil cinema world. Nobody knew he is going to usher in a paradigm shift in Tamil film music.

I consider Ilaiyaraaja as the linchpin of Tamil cinema because of the following reasons.

Reason 1: The birth of Ilaiyaraaja genre

I do not deny the fact that MS Viswanathan tried to bring-in western music sensibilities to Tamil film music. But these were rare glimpses. Ilaiyaraaja fused western music with Carnatic and folk to bring a new genre that his fans call “Ilaiyaraaja Genre”. He nonchalantly mixes the different musical forms that you wouldn’t even identify while listening to his song. He will start with a traditional Mridangam bit and continue it with a gummi style romantic duet, or he travels into a folk bit right in the middle of a western new year song. He is a magician who can bend genres, and he could do it because he doesn’t care for rules. He was willing to break every pre-accepted convention in music.

TM Krishna in his book notes that

“Though composers like MS Viswanathan and T.K. Ramamurthy had used Karnatik ragas as the basis for melodies in the new film music context of the 1960s, their instrumentation did not have this Western classical approach. Ilayaraja was largely successful in this bringing together of unconnected elements from different musical traditions.”

He didn’t think twice before using Saramati for Mari Mari Ninne instead of the original Kambhoji (many Carnatic musicians including TM Krishna are critical of this particular deviation). He uses Graha Bedhams in Tamil film music much to the surprise of traditional Carnatic musicians. It was the same with western classical music. The voice counterpoints (En Kanmani), fugue (Manjal Veyyil from Nandu), polyphony (Pani Vizhum Malar Vanam — a perfect blend of Chala Nattai with western polyphony orchestration), rap (Vikram Vikram), techno (many songs) and what not. I don’t think anyone can adapt Mozart’s 25th Symphony into a folk song like Veetukkum Veetukkum Vasapadi or complete a Schubert’s symphony with Idhyam Poguthe and without any precaution bombards you with operatic singing that morphs into a sad folk song (Vanam Thottu Pona). The pinnacle is in “How to Name it” where he blends Hamsadvani and Bach’s Partita 2.

Fusion music is not about playing music from one style with a traditional instrument from another form. Most people think playing “Shape of you” in Veena is fusion. No, it’s not, but re-tuning “shape of you” in Abheri is fusion. Ilaiyaraaja went one notch up when he blended different styles of music in one single song. There are multiple examples of this particular aspect, but I will not tread into that.

The impact of Ilaiyaraaja genre is manifold. People who were listening to monotonic music and stereotypical orchestrations got introduced to a different realm of music. It touched people irrespective of class, creed or economic status. The advent of audio cassettes and low-cost radio devices helped to propagate music to even the remotest places in Tamil Nadu. And Ilaiyaraaja was in the centre of this revolution.

Reason 3: The rise of new-age directors

Ilaiyaraaja broke out as a phenomenon in 1976, and certain directors started few years before he began working with him. It includes SP Muthuraman, Devaraj-Mohan, GN Rangarajan, A Jagannathan and most importantly CV Sridhar. Sridhar had given substantial musical hits with MSV and Ilaiyaraaja refused to work with him as it would be a disrespect to MSV. MSV had to intervene to make Ilaiyaraaja work with Sridhar. Such was his respect towards MSV and his music.

But the real breakthrough for Tamil cinema happened because of the proliferation of new age directors into Tamil cinema. Most of these directors were from interior parts of Tamil Nadu, some of them college educated and more importantly passionate about Tamil cinema. 16 Vayathinile by Bharathiraaja is one of the most important movies of Tamil cinema as it broke every rule in the Tamil cinema rule book and inspired young directors to make movies. On the other side, there was Balu Mahendra and Mahendran who were willing to experiment with their, and they needed a partner in crime. There were also new age producers who were ready to make movies with new directors unlike in the past where productions were restricted to few big studios.

The number of new directors who were introduced by Ilaiyaraaja is enormous. There was a time when all the director needs to do to impress Ilaiyaraaja to make the music. Ilaiyaraaja knew this and he worked at a speed that nobody could match in this world. 2 to 3 songs a day and a background score in 1.5 to 2 days was unheard of at that time. There were many instances during which Ilaiyaraaja was instrumental in introducing new directors to the producers as he had seen them working as assistant directors.

Here is a short list of directors who worked with Ilaiyaraaja in their debut movies. It’s not an exhaustive list, and the names are enough to show the importance of Ilaiyaraaja.

80s Tamil movie directors and their debut movies with Ilaiyaraaja
90s Tamil movie directors and their debut movies with Ilaiyaraaja

I have left out directors from other South Indian languages ( Ram Gopal Varma) and directors who started with some other music composer but collaborated with Ilaiyaraaja extensively — Fazil, Balu Mahendra, Singeetham Sreenivasa Rao, Bhagyaraj, Parthiban, Subash, Rajasekhar, Balki and many more. Their biggest box office hits were under the collaboration of Ilaiyaraaja.

Reason 4: The impact on Tamil culture

When Ilaiyaraaja started his career, Tamil Nadu was almost taken over by the Hindi film music. Music composers like RD Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji, Salil Chowdhury were making some scintillating music while MSV’s popularity was dwindling. If you have someone in your house who did their college studies during the 1970s, you can inquire them about how Hindi music was prevalent in Tamil Nadu.

Ilaiyaraaja changed this equation by bringing a oneness to music. He wasn’t tied to a genre or class or film grammar. He created his own genre of music that appealed to across class and generations. This stopped the onslaught of Hindi film music into Tamil world. He inspired the next generation of musicians and made a platform for them to express. I can say that he did anti-Hindi protests in his own way.

Imagine this scenario, what if Ilaiyaraaja wasn’t there. What if he was never allowed to make music because of the strong casteism that prevailed in the Tamil music world. The Tamil movies would have stayed in the hands of the few. I am not saying that these directors wouldn’t have emerged, but it wouldn’t have been that easy. They would have fought more demons than what they were. We would have been listening only to Hindi songs or Tamil versions of Hindi Songs. AR Rahman and other next-generation music composers would have started their career with Hindi music rather than regional music. I am not declining the fact that there were other talented music directors in that period but they didn’t have the breadth and depth of Ilaiyaraaja’s music. 30 years, 1000+ movies, 5000+ songs, 1000+ original scores and many more independent albums — sheer magnitude of this brilliance is unimaginable. Compare this with any other musician in this world; you can’t find these numbers anywhere.

We could have lost the identity of Tamil cinema music. We might have survived, but we wouldn’t have had this glory it was not for Ilaiyaraaja. Ilaiyaraaja is the most indispensable man and the linchpin of Tamil cinema.


  1. Fine Fugue Fete — Genius Raja
  2. A Southern Music — The Karnatik Story — TM Krishna
  3. Ilaiyaraaja, the maestro who hears unheard melodies — The Hindu
  4. Madhura Sudha — The Legendary album — How to Name it
  5. Linchpin — Are you indispensable — Seth Godin