A tribute to Vienna

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Ilaiyaraaja with Loslo Kovacs, the conductor of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

From a 15-year-old boy singing along with mentor-brother Paavalar Varadarajan campaign songs on Communist Party platforms in the late 1950s to the 62-year-old maestro scoring classical music of a high order to a spiritual text, Ilayairaaja has come a long way, breaking barriers of all sorts. A phenomenal rise indeed! Entering the Tamil film world as a music director in the mid-1970s, he reigned supreme for nearly two decades and continues to have a significant presence. He has composed over 4,000 songs and background music for more than 750 films. He made several bold experiments and blazed new trails. He has attained mastery over different forms of music, ranging from folk to pop, through classical, Indian and Western. He received numerous awards and accolades, including honorary doctorate from a couple of universities.

At the turn of the century five years ago, during one of his regular visits to the famous Arunachaleswarar temple at Thiruvannamalai, about 150 km from Chennai, the maestro hit upon the idea of presenting Thiruvasagam, one of the all-time-great Tamil devotional literary works, in a musical form. This has now come into fruition. In a brief interview to S. Viswanathan, he said on July 3 that the significance of this musical task lay in the fact that Thiruvasagam had now been taken to new sections of people in India and abroad in the form of music, synthesising ideas from both Indian and Western classical traditions. He was happy that he had been "destined" to be instrumental in making it possible. In his perception, Thiruvasagam, with its highly emotional appeal to readers and listeners alike, lent itself to this kind musical treatment. Excerpts from the interview:

What prompted you to select Thiruvasagam for a musical venture?

Like most Tamils, I have great admiration and reverence for Thiruvasagam. It is one of our great treasures. Its unique feature is its emotional appeal to readers. Manickavasagar sings the praise of Siva and profusely thanks Him for giving him darshan. While doing so he calls himself "meaner than any dog", "man of evil deeds" and so on. Manickavasagar, who was the prime minister of a Pandya king, should have overcome his ego before doing this. In moving, bone-melting words, he makes a sort of confession to God. Because of their very emotional nature, his poems reach the people. All his works are highly emotional and are bound to appeal to every reader. If his songs were mere statements of facts, for instance, as in intellectual and moral works such as Thirukkural, without an appeal to your heart, they would have had no impact. Thiruvasagam, therefore, occupies a special place in Tamil literature. Hence the traditional saying, " Those who are not moved by Thiruvasagam will not be moved by any other work."

Was there any special reason for involving the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in this massive endeavour?

For the last three years, I have been doing some of my recording works there. The artists there are very talented. It is a renowned organisation with 100 yeas of experience and is among the world's best orchestra groups. The orchestra's best-known conductor, Loslo Kovacs, has been very close to me. I find it a lot easier to work with him than with even my brother. Another factor that influenced me in choosing Budapest was that it is just 200 km from Vienna in Austria. Vienna is the place where most of the world's great composers lived or worked. From the classical period to the romantic period, great figures such as [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart, (John) Strauss, [Johann Sebastian] Bach and [Ludwig Van] Beethoven had Vienna connections. Those veterans would have visited Hungary and conducted performances there. My attachment to and respect for that soil should have also influenced my decision in selecting the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

A significant aspect of the project is that a Chennai-based Christian organisation has helped you in this effort to popularise a Hindu text in the West through the project. How did it come about?

Fr. Vincent Chinnadurai (seated beside Ilaiyarajaa during the interview) will be the right person to answer this question.

Father Chinnadurai: After many people had met the maestro in connection with the project, I had the opportunity to meet him. He explained the project in detail. Thiruvasagam is a wonderful Tamil literary work that takes human hearts crossing the boundaries of religion to God. I realised how sincere and serious he was about the project. This work, I thought, could be taken by anybody. There is no place for religion in this. And so, we extended our support.

(Ilaiyaraaja took over again at this point): I started working on the project as early as 2000. When I approached big people for funds (I don't want to mention any name) many could not even understand the concept or its significance. They did not realise that it would get a place in history later. They saw it only as scoring music for some devotional songs and wondered why it should be so expensive. They did not respond. More than their refusal to participate, I was hurt by the way they approached the project. Generally I do not go for such help. About 10 years ago I undertook to construct the principal towers of the Siva temple at Thiruvannamalai and the Vaishnavite temple at Srirangam; I spent my own money for the projects. I did not collect money from others. I could have completed the Thiruvasagam project also without any financial assistance from others, but did not wish to do so. Because, when the project was conceived, I was reminded of a remark made by the late Kanchi Senior Acharya. He said that in the olden days, even if a king wanted to construct a temple tower, he would not do it with his own money, but collected funds from the people for the purpose. The idea was that there should be participation by the people. That was why I was keen that others should also join in this venture. Significantly, my fans have extended their help and Tamil Maiyam had taken their money only as loans to complete this project. Fr. Vincent Chinnadurai has been the key person in coordinating the entire work and I should thank him for this.

Do you have plans to take up more such projects?

There are many Tamil literary works such as Silappathikaaram, Thevaram, Nalayira Divya Prabandham and Thiruppugazh, which are suitable for such treatment. God willing, I can do this. Not only in Tamil, but also in other languages there is plenty of scope for this. If corporate bodies and organisations come forward to sponsor the projects, it is still possible.

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