Ilaiyaraaja is known by many names. Some have called him a maestro, notably the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London. Others refer to him as Ragadevan (Lord of the Ragas) or even Isaignani (Saint Musician), a title conferred by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu. For his legions of fans, he is lovingly known as Raaja.
The film composer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, orchestrator, conductor-arranger and lyricist’s extraordinary career has spanned more than four decades, encompassing over 7000 songs and 1000 films in at least seven languages. His music might now share radio and television airtime with others during the day, but it still monopolises the night. Over the decades, his music has become an intrinsic part of Tamil life.
However, while there is little dispute about the genius and craftsmanship of Ilaiyaraaja’s music, his politics have often been a matter of contention.
Adherents of various ‘progressive’ political ideologies—whether they are communist, Periyarist or Ambedkarite—have been critical of Ilaiyaraaja’s politics, or rather their interpretation of it.
The comrades feel a sense of betrayal that he seems removed from the times when he set his tunes to songs written by his brother Pavalar Varadarajan (described as ‘left-leaning’). The Periyarists, on the other hand, are miffed that in spite of his music representing the Tamil masses, he hasn’t willingly claimed his space in the Dravidian movement. Plus, there is the allegation that Ilaiyaraaja refused to compose music for a biopic on Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. The Ambedkarites too are utterly disappointed in Ilaiyaraaja for apparently disavowing his oppressed social identity (he was born into a Scheduled Caste family). Indeed, he has been accused of having Brahminised himself and cut off ties with his roots.
At the same time, the Brahminical hegemony has been fiercely trying (rather unsuccessfully) to discredit or reject the greatness of his work,...