Monday, June 07, 2004

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja in the US - a factual account

[Since most of the conversations were in Tamil and there could be errors in translations, paraphrasing in some places. Apologies in advance. You are encouraged to listen to the audio version of the speeches to get the full import of Raaja's message.]

Maestro Ilaiyaraaja was in the US from Monday, May 17th till Sunday, May 23, promoting his latest project Thiruvasakam in Symphony. He attended 4 events in Morrisville (NC), Washington DC, Connecticut and New York during this trip. The following is a factual account of his trip.

Wednesday, May 19 - Morrisville, North Carolina

Click here to listen to Maestro's speech at NC.
Click here to see the photos from the event.

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja made his first public appearance of his trip at the Hindu Temple in Morrisville, NC. The evening began with a brief but heavy shower, which seemed to have followed IR from Italy to New Jersey, to North Carolina. There were a little more than 100 fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Maestro. IR arrived at the temple around 7:45pm in his usual all-white kurta and dhoti and after a small puja, the program began with with a prayer for peace - Shanthi Nilava Vendum - in Tamil sung by Ms. Devasena. This was followed by the song Azhagaana Num Paandi Naatiniley (from Pudhupatti Ponnuthayee) by Aavarthana - a local light music troupe.

Welcome address and felicitations - Since one of the objectives of the NC event was to spread the word about this project to more than a Tamil audience, there were speakers in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi. Dr. Sankar Kumar opened with a welcome address and briefly introduced the Thiruvasakam in Symphony project. He was followed by Mr. Suryanarayana from the local Telugu association, who wonderfully weaved several of Raaja's Telugu compositions in his lively speech. Mr. Ganapathi from the Kannada association spoke next and recited a poem in Kannada about Ilaiyaraaja. Mr. Rangan spoke on behalf of the Tamil association, and the feliciations ended with a short address by Mrs. Yash Garg (representing the Hindu Society) in Hindi. The Maestro was then presented a shawl by Mr. Jawahar Muniyandi, on behalf of all the Triangle Music fans.

Maestro speaks - The Maestro first thanked the Lord for giving him the opportunity to meet the enthusiastic audience. He then said in a light-hearted way that it was a little embarassing for him to hear others blowing his trumpet instead of him. Earlier in the evening Mr. Surya had started out his felicitation in Telugu with the words "Endaro Mahananubhavu". Raaja mentioned that there is a Thyagaraja krithi starting with the words "Endarao Mahanubhavu" and went on to sing and explain the meaning of the first couple of lines - "My salutations to ALL the music masters that have appeared on Earth" - Raaja remarked that only a person born in our land could have the humility to say such words.

Raaja on his motivation in doing this project - He was not doing this to showcase his talent nor to just do a "grand" musical project. His motivation in doing this project was to bring masterpieces from our rich but forgotten spiritual traditions to today's youth. He mentioned the "thalAtu" (lullaby) as an example of forgotten traditions. He still remembers the thalAtu sung by his mother which has been passed on over countless generations, which is not the case with the current youth. He stressed that it is important to remember, if not all, but at least the higher values from our traditions and culture. He then added that our (audience's) purpose of coming to the US may have been acheived, but questioned us whether our purpose on earth as a human being had been acheived. He has asked himself this question and as a consequence decided to do this project - his purpose being, to bring to the notice of the younger generation great works like the Thiruvasakam.

Raaja on Thiruvasakam - Raaja gave a very brief background on the Thiruvasaam. The Thiruvasakam was composed in the 10th century by Manickavasagar. Manickavasagar was a prime minister in the Pandian kingdom, who later became a saint and composed the 51 verses in the Thiruvasakam in praise of Lord Shiva. Raaja recited the first verse from the Thiruvasakam "namachchivAya vAzga nAdhan thAL vAzga.....imaippozudhum en nenchil nINgAdhAn thAL vAzga", and explained the meaning of the line "imaippozudhum en nenychil nINgAdhAn thAL vAzga" - I bow to you Lord Shiva, who even for a brief moment of a blink of an eye, does not cease to reside in my heart, though I may have forgotten that You are in me. He added that it is not even necessary to set the Thiruvasagam to tune, just reciting the verses is good enough. He was going to set it to tune only to make people recite the Thiruvasakam; to bring this great spritual work to the attention of the people who listen to his songs.

Raaja on Thiruvasakam in Symphony - Raaja clarified that the current project is not a Symphony in the true sense, but for lack of a better phrase - Thiruvasakam in Symphony - was chosen. Music played by a symphonic orchestra will only be backing the vocals. One interesting experiment he is trying is to have the English translations of the verses sung as a counterpoint to the Tamil verses. Raaja had finalized the day before, the English translations with Mr. Stephen Schwartz, the award winning lyricist of Pocahontas and Prince of Egypt. Mr. Schwartz was apparently thrilled when Raaja sung a few phrases to show how the English verses would be placed with respect to the Tamil lyrics.

Raaja on why this project is a publicly funded effort - Raaja said that he could have done the project by himself - he has done similar things before - he had contributed huge amounts of money to the Srirangam Rajagopuram and the Tiruvannamalai Temple too. But for this project done with larger social objective (of taking the message of the Thiruvasakam to the masses, especially the youth) it is important that as many people participate as possible. He has therefore decided that this project will be completed with the contributions of people who have full faith in the project should participate, at the same time not everybody will have the opportunity to participate in this noble project either - only the truly fortunate will have this opportunity. He then asserted that this project will happen irrespective of whether people contribute or not and added in jest that people should not use this as an excuse not to give. The dates for the recording have been fixed and it is Raaja's aim to release this CD in September. Raaja concluded his address by thanking Dr. Sankar Kumar and all the youngsters who have been helping him coordinate the project in the US.

Contribution time - After Raaja's speech Dr. Sankar Kumar appealed to the audience and encouraged them to contribute generously to the project, by quoting a poem from Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. Fans interested in contributing were invited to come on to the stage and personally hand over their checks to Raaja. One of the people who came on to the stage asked him why this project was not done by himself in a personal capacity (though Raaja had clearly answered the question before). Raaja restated the points he had mentioned earlier and continued to talk about a variety of other topics in the next five minutes which are translated and paraphrased in first person below.

Raaja on music - Music is not work for me. If somebody says I have composed well it is like saying I am breathing well. There is something wrong if somebody says I am breathing well. Music should be natural just like how a bird flies or a river flows. Music has to happen (by itself) you cannot make it happen. If somebody says I will "compose" music then that music will be a reflection of what is there in his mind - there will be no purity in it. Mozart's music just flowed spontaneously - there was no thinking involved. The music has to reach the heart of an oridinary man - all men are ordinary - and not his head. He should not think about how it was composed or how many people played in the orchestra. The music must reach deeper inside and only if it does could you call it music.

Raaja on classical music - Classical music is "classical" because it has to be rehearsed, otherwise it will fail you. You get fast food and pop corn here. You cannot ask why pop corn sells more - it will because it is in the nature of popcorn. But popcorn cannot and will not become food.

Raaja on different kinds of music - Mr. Surya had mentioned about "Telugu music" in his speech. There is no Tamil, Kannada, Telugu for music - it is all the same 7 notes - no more no less - like the 7 days, and 12 chromatic semi tones like the 12 raasis. Recently I had performed in Italy in a music festival (Angelica). The organizer of this festival (Mr. Massimo) had listened to just one of my songs several years ago and became a fan instantly. He has been trying to get me to perform at this music festival for the past 5 years now and I finally agreed to do it this year. At this festival I had mentioned the same fact - even our music has the same 7 notes, only the patterns are different. We classify the same music as folk, classical, rock, pop etc only because of these different pattern. [Raaja then went on to explain this by singing the same tune in three patterns - folk, pop, and carnatic. Till he sang the carnatic version people were clueless as to what song it was - it was actually the popular Thyagaraja krithi Nagumomu Ganaleni.]

The contributions on stage continued after this. Several fans took this once in a lifetime opportunity to get up and close with the Maestro and made their contributions personally to Raaja and got his blessings. The proceedings came to an end after this and Dr. Sankar Kumar thanked all the people who helped him organize the event, and the audience one last time for making the evening a memorable one - which it was indeed, for at least the hundreds gathered there.

Thursday, May 20 - Washington DC area

On Thursday May 20, Ilaiyaraaja met with a small group of about 20 people in a restaurant in the Washington DC area. This event was a more informal one. After a brief round of introductions Raaja explained the details of the project as he had done so in North Carolina. After dinner, there was more informal conversation. An American lady who was present there asked Raaja about his views on "divine" music. Raaja explained that to him all music was divine and it is upto the listener to classify it as divine or not. He repeated what he had said in NC - that all music is only 7 notes, only the patterns are differnt and elaborated it by singing Nagumomu Ganaleni in folk, pop and carnatic style. One person remarked that bad lyrics could make the music less divine. Raaja said that if the lyrics are bad you should not pay attention to it. In his own words "Kuppaiya kootanum, araitchi panna koodadhu" which literally means "trash should be discarded, not researched". Another person added that good or bad lyrics depends on the individual's taste to which Raaja agreed by saying "Ethu kuppainu kozhiya poruthathu" (what is trash depends on the hen). One of the ladies present then recited a portion of the Thiruvasakam. The event concluded with the people present making pledges for the Thiruvasakam in Symphony project.

Friday, May 21 - Connecticut

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja presided over a public function at the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Sociey in Middleton, Connecticut on Friday, May 21. This event was sponsored and organized by the Connecticut Tamil Sangam.

The event followed the same structure as the one in North Carolina. Raaja was received at the temple and after a small archanai to the main deity Sri Satyanarayana he headed to the Temple hall where the meeting happened. The event began with song recitals by Ms. Kala Prasad and Mr. Balasubrahmaniyan. Incidentally Mr. Balasubrahmaniyan is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Music at Wesleyan University, where Anuradha Sriram did her Masters thesis on Maestro Ilaiyaraaja. Her advisor and a couple of other faculty from the Music department were also present in the audience.

Mr. Vijayasekar, the president of the Tamil Sangam, delivered the welcome address (in English) and this was followed by speeches by Mr. Socrates and Mr. Rajaravivarma (in Tamil). The content of Raaja's speech was pretty much the same as the one in North Carolina. One additional interesting topic he spoke on was about the power of a musical tune to enhance the meaning conveyed by the lyrics. This was in the context of the need (or rather the lack of it) for setting the Thiruvasakam to tune. He used the song "Nenjam Marapadhillai" to illustrate this. He then recited the following lines from the song in a plain fashion (without the tune) and then sung the song to show how much meaning the tune has added to the song.
     thaamarai malaril manadhinai eduththu thaniyae vaiththirundhaen (2)
     oru thoodhumillai un thoatramillai kannil thookkam pidikkavillai
     kannil thookkam pidikkavillai

During this event Raaja was also conferred the title of "Legend of Music" by the Connecticut Tamil Sangam and a plaque was presented to him to honor him.

Saturday, May 22 - New York

Listen to Maestro's speech at NY here

[Portions of this writeup are by Dr. Pinchi Srinivasan from New York and was originally posted on]

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja attended the last event of his trip at the Ganesha Temple in Flushing, New York. The event was organized primarily by the NY Tamil Sangam and Raagachitra. The Maestro was received at the Temple premises around 6:15 PM, and after a brief introduction, he was taken for a complete temple darshan and an archanai in the temple. A special archanai was done since it was Ilaiyaraaja's wedding day. After the temple tour Raaja proceeded to the adjoining Temple hall. Prof. T. V. Gopalakrishnan who was the other special guest at the event had already arrived by the time. Raaja greeted TVG exchanged pleasantries and were invited to the stage.

Invocation and Welcome address - The program started with a small prayer song by Ms. Samyukta Shivraj which followed by a formal welcome address by Mrs.Nivedita Shivraj. Ms. Devi (singer and daughter of TVG who was introduced by the Maestro to film music) sang the Thevaram "Kurutha puruvamum" (set to tune by Raaja in Thalapathi) and another of Raaja's compositions "Enakkoru Annai" from his devotional album on.

Prof. T. V. Gopalakrishnan on Raaja - TVG started with great praise and admiration for Maestro. TVG mentioned that Raaja used to learn carnatic music from him at his house but he never felt he was the Guru or IR was his Shisyan. TVG spoke about IR’s extra ordinary hardwork, dedication and of all his greatest quality of being very simplistic, he appreciated IR’s humbleness despite great success - "ellam senjum naan edhuvum seyyaliye engira panivu". TVG continued the praise for IR's music, on how it reached every person in TN, how his music has occupied everybody's heart and soul and would forever stay as some of the greatest music. He remembered how Raaja used to invite him and other Carnatic musicians to his house during Navarathiri to treat them with great hospitality. When he expressed that he wanted to tell in front of audience about something more about Raaja's work, Raaja quipped, "Ungalukku manasule irukkaradhe appadiye sollunga. Namba thaniyaa meet pannum bodhu music thavira vera edhuvum pesaradhillaye. Musician manasule irundhu veliye varadhu thooymaiyaanadhu, yaenna anga Isaiyai thavira vere edhuvum kudi-irukkaradhulle" [Please say whatever is there in your mind. When we meet we discuss nothing but music. The thoughts of a musician are very pure since nothing but (pure) music exists in his mind].

TVG continued saying that Raaja is a perfectionist - only God is considered to be a perfectionist - but Raaja is a perfectionist in creating his music. At one point, he went on to say that - "Kadavul padaitha adhisaya piravi avar" [He is a unique creation of God]. TVG concluded his speech by saying this will be a historic project for Tamil/Tamilians, and he is extremely confident that Thiruvasakam in Symphony will be very successful and remain as a treasure for all of us.

Raaja's speech - The Maestro began with his customary thanks to the Lord - "Naadu vittu naadu vandhu vazhandu kondirukkura ungalai sandhikka, Naadu vittu naadu vandhu inge indha medaiyile ennai niruthi vaitha Iraivanukku nanri seluthi-kollugiraen". Inspired by the presence of his Guru TVG, Raaja spoke brilliantly for the next 20 minutes.

Raaja on TVG - He expressed his happiness in meeting TVG on this occasion. He said that though TVG may not like to treat him as Sishya, he will always consider him as his Guru. He added that the lakshana of a Guru is not to see any difference between him and sishya - there is no duality in a Guru's eyes. Right after coming to Madras from his village he had realized that his notions about music and cinema music were drastically different, so he gave up his original idea of becoming a music director and decided to first learn music - and till date he has not been able to do this. Raaja then narrated what his schedule used to be like when he was learning music from TVG (which was after he started composing for movies). He then explained that word "katru" (learning) becomes meaningful only if the sisha must be capable of understanding what the guru says, and the guru must be able to convey what he wants to teach in a manner appropriate for the sishya.

Raaja on his motivation to do this project - Raaja briefly explained the purpose behind the project. His motivation in doing this project was to bring masterpieces from our rich but forgotten spiritual traditions to today's youth. He mentioned the "thalAtu" (lullaby) as an example of forgotten traditions. He still remembers the thalAtu sung by his mother which has been passed on over countless generations, which is not the case with the current youth. Raaja then went on to describe the greatness of our land. A flower which grows in our land will lose its fragrance if grown elsewhere. He continued on the greatness of our country and Indian soil (punniya bhoomi) which has produced countless rishis, yogis, gnanis, sidhhas, alwars, and nayanmars, Raaja almost broke out into tears while mentioning his feelings when he sees India from the plane as it is landing - seeing our land as the home of Goddess Saraswathi though she is supposed to be all pervading. It is his objective to set to tune the Thiruvasakam written by saint Manickavasagar born in our great land, to remind people of the existence of such great spiritual works.

Raaja on Thiruvasakam - Raaja gave a brief background on the Thiruvasakam and the life of Manickavasagar. He added that it was not even necessary to set the Thiruvasakam to tune - just reading the verses would melt us. He then recited a song he had written on Manickavasagar, wherein he describes him (Manickavasagar) as the composer of the Thiruvasakam, which even when read by somebody like him (Raaja) with just one buddhi, opens the gates of Sivapuram (the abode of Siva), outside which even great saints and devas are made to wait. He also sang his compositon "Yen Ooru Sivapuram" (my home is the abode of Siva) in which he laments on his existence on Earth, leaving his home Sivapuram.

Raaja then elaborated on the power of music in enhancing the meaning of even ordinary lyrics, using the songs "Sundari Kannal Oru Seithi" and "Nenjam Marapathillai". He also clarified that the current project is not a Symphony in the true sense, but for lack of a better phrase - Thiruvasakam in Symphony - was chosen. Raaja then concluded his speech by thanking all the organizers for giving him the opportunity to present this project to the people present.

Dr. Sankar Kumar spoke next about the project specifics. The audience was then invited to make their pledges or donations directly to Raaja on the stage. The evening ended with a vote of thanks by Dr. Pinchi Srinivasan.

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