Ilaiyaraaja was born into a poor rural family in Pannaipuram, Theni district, Tamil Nadu, India, as the third son of Ramaswamy and Chinnathayammal. Growing up in a rural area, Ilaiyaraaja was exposed to a range of Tamil folk music. At the age of 14, he joined a travelling musical troupe headed by his elder stepbrother, Pavalar Varadarajan, and spent the next decade performing throughout South India.  While working with the troupe, he penned his first composition, a musical setting of an elegy written by the Tamil poet laureate Kannadasan for Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
In 1968, Ilaiyaraaja began a music course with Professor Dhanraj in Madras (now Chennai), which included an overview of Western classical music, compositional training in techniques such as counterpoint, and study in instrumental performance. Ilaiyaraaja specialized in classical guitar and had done a course in it with the Trinity College of Music, London.
Session musician and film orchestrator
In the 1970s in Chennai, Ilaiyaraaja played guitar in a band-for-hire, and worked as a session guitarist, keyboardist, organist for film music composers and directors such as Salil Chowdhury from West Bengal. After his hiring as the musical assistant to Kannada film composer G. K. Venkatesh, he worked on 200 film projects, mostly in the Kannada language. As G. K. Venkatesh’s assistant, Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the melodic outlines developed by Venkatesh. During this period, Ilaiyaraaja also began writing his own scores. To hear his compositions, he would persuade Venkatesh’s session musicians to play excerpts from his scores during their break times. Ilaiyaraaja would hire instruments from composer R. K. Shekhar, father of composer A. R. Rahman who would later join Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestra as a keyboardist.
In 1976, film producer Panchu Arunachalam commissioned him to compose the songs and film score for a Tamil-language film called Annakkili (‘The Parrot’). For the soundtrack, Ilaiyaraaja applied the techniques of modern popular film music orchestration to Tamil folk poetry and folk song melodies, which created a fusion of Western and Tamil idioms. Ilaiyaraaja’s use of Tamil music in his film scores injected new influence into the Indian film score milieu. By the mid-1980s Ilaiyaraaja was gaining increasing stature as a film composer and music director in the South Indian film industry. Besides Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films, he has scored music for Hindi (or Bollywood) film productions such as Sadma (1983), Mahadev (1989), Lajja (2001) and Cheeni Kum (2007). He has worked with Indian poets and lyricists such as Gulzar, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu and T.S. Rangarajan (Vaali), and film directors such as K. Balachander, K. Vishwanath, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Balu Mahendra and Mani Ratnam.
Impact and musical style
Ilaiyaraaja was one of the early Indian film composers to use Western classical music harmonies and string arrangements in Indian film music.This allowed him to craft a rich tapestry of sounds for films, and his themes and background score gained notice and appreciation amongst Indian film audiences. The range of expressive possibilities in Indian film music was broadened by Ilaiyaraaja’s methodical approach to arranging, recording technique, and his drawing of ideas from a diversity of musical styles.
Ilaiyaraaja’s music is characterised by the use of an orchestration technique that is a synthesis of Western and Indian instruments and musical modes. He used electronic music technology that integrated synthesisers, electric guitars and keyboards, drum machines, rhythm boxes and MIDI with large orchestras that feature traditional instruments such as the veena, venu, nadaswaram, dholak, mridangam and tabla as well as Western lead instruments such as saxophones and flutes.
He uses catchy melodies fleshed out with a variety of chord progressions, beats and timbres. Ilaiyaraaja’s songs typically have a musical form where vocal stanzas and choruses are interspersed with orchestral preludes and interludes.They often contain polyphonic melodies, where the lead vocals are interwoven with supporting melody lines sung by another voice or played by instruments.
The bass lines in his songs tend to be (melodically) dynamic, rising and falling in a dramatic fashion. Polyrhythms are also apparent, particularly in songs with Indian folk or Carnatic influences. The melodic structure of his songs demand considerable vocal virtuosity, and have found expressive platform amongst some of India’s respected vocalists and playback singers, such as K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubramaniam, S. Janaki, Sujatha, Swarnalatha, P. Susheela, K.S. Chithra, Malaysia Vasudevan, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Ilaiyaraaja has sung over 400 of his own compositions for films,and is recognisable by his stark, nasal voice. He has penned the lyrics for some of his songs in Tamil and other languages. Ilaiyaraaja’s film scores are known both for the dramatic and evocative melodies, and for the more subtle background music that he uses to provide texture or mood for scenes in films such as Mouna Raagam (1986) and Geethanjali (1989).
Ilaiyaraaja’s composition Rakkama Kaiya Thattu from the movie Thalapathi (1991) was amongst the songs listed in a BBC World Top Ten music poll. He composed the music for Nayakan (1987), an Indian film ranked by TIME Magazine as one of the all-time 100 best movies, a number of India’s official entries to the Oscars, such as Anjali (1990) and Hey Ram (2000), and for Indian art films such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s FIPRESCI Prize-winning Nizhalkkuthu (‘The Dance of Shadows’) (2002). Ilaiyaraaja has composed music for events such as the 1996 Miss World beauty pageant that was held in Bangalore, India, and for a documentary called India 24 Hours (1996). The pop/hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas sampled an Ilaiyaraaja composition called “Unakkum Ennakum”, from the film Sri Raghavendra (1985), for their tune “The Elephunk Theme” from their breakout album, Elephunk (2003). The alternative artist M.I.A. sampled his composition “Kaatukuyilu,” from the film Thalapathi (1991) for her song “Bamboo Banga” on the album Kala (2007).
Awards and honours
Ilaiyaraaja has won the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for the films Saagara Sangamam (1984), Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) and Rudraveena (1989). He won the Gold Remi Award for Best Music Score jointly with film composer M. S. Viswanathan at the WorldFest-Houston Film Festival for the film Vishwa Thulasi (2005).
He was conferred the title Isaignani (‘savant of music’) in 1988 by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and received the Kalaimamani Award, an annual award for excellence in the field of arts from the Government of the State of Tamil Nadu, India. He also received State Government Awards from the governments of Kerala (1995), Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (The Lata Mangeshkar Award) (1998) for excellence in music.
He was awarded honorary doctorates by Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu, India (Degree of Doctor of Letter (Honoris causa)) (March, 1994), the World University Round Table, Arizona, U.S.A. (Cultural Doctorate in Philosophy of Music) (April, 1994), and Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu (Degree of Doctor of Letters) (1996). He received an Award of Appreciation from the Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (1994), and later that year was presented with an honorary citizenship and key to the Teaneck township by Mr. John Abraham, Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, U.S.A.
He has received NTR National Award for the year 2004.