Ilaiyaraaja was born in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. Although not well known in the West, he is a phenomenon in his native country. Some film composers have been described as prolific if they have scored a hundred films or more. Even Jerry Goldsmith who has more than 300 credits on The International Movie Database over 50 years pales into insignificance compared with Ilaiyaraaja's credits of nearly 900 over just 30 years. That's an average of about 30 films per year! Note that Ilaiyaraaja's name has a number of different spellings in English, so you will sometimes see him credited as Ilayaraja or Illayaraja or abbreviated to just "Raja".
Raja initially learned to play Tamil folk music on traditional instruments and performed across the state with his family. He studied music further in Madras (now Chennai), the movie capital of Southern India, and obtained a music diploma from Trinity College in London. He has travelled to Europe and studied the works of European classical composers including Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and one of his main achievements has been to integrate elements from these disparate styles of music. This was clear from his first film "Annakili" which included simple Tamil songs modelled on traditional folk principles but orchestrated using the techniques of Western film music. He has also included, experimented with and adapted elements of jazz and pop music and Indian classical Carnatic music. His songs first heard on film became instant popular hits in the province, receiving much airplay and selling lots of records.
Not only is Raja's output prolific and his composition process rapid, but his composing technique is also quite remarkable. He conceives movie songs in his mind and directly writes out the parts to be copied for the instrumentalists to rehearse and record, and the duration is exactly as required by the film's director. Ilaiyaraaja has composed a symphony for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and has released a number of albums of non-film music. One of these albums is "Thiruvasagam" which takes the form of an oratorio. It is a collection of classical hymns on Lord Shiva witten by the sage and poet Saint Manickavasagar, though it includes some English lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who has worked with Alan Menken as composer and lyricist for a number of Disney animations. As might be expected, the work has a spiritual dimension but it can be easily appreciated by audiences from a broad range of musical tastes. Raja's official web-site seems to be no longer available but a complete database of his Tamil films and film songs (more than 5000) can be found at www.rakkamma.com.
The soundtracks of two recent films by Ilaiyaraaja are creating waves right now: "Naan Kadavul" and "Nandha Lala", though they are not available on the Amazon websites in the West. Here is a recent article about the composer on The Comment Factory with video clips of songs from his movies. It is good at this point to observe that Ilaiyaraaja has also played a role in nurturing the talents of many young musicians in India including the composer A. R. Rahman who has recently gained a huge success with "Slumdog Millionaire". The movie "Paa" is released in many countries this month (December 2009) and tells the story of a boy whose genetic disease causes him to age rapidly. The 13 year old boy is played by the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan who is 67. The soundtrack album is also on release and has songs either written or co-written by Ilaiyaraaja.
Revisiting a film from the 1980s, here is the song "Enna Satham" from the movie "Punnagai mannan" in two versions:
The song is based upon a classical Indian Raaga called "Sindhu Bhaivani" and if you understand music and tamil, here is full analysis of the song including comments about the use of C minor and D minor chords which would be unusual in Western music. And finally here are two videos on youtube: Ilaiyaraaja conducting a small orchestra and Irish choir in an advert for a well-known jewellery store, and an Italian programme showing the Maestro performing Live in Italy.
Ilaiyaraaja has three sons who all have careers in the film industry. His youngest son is Yuvan Shankar Raja who has shot to fame as a film score composer during the past decade. Here is a video of father and youngest son Ilaiyaraaja & Yuvan Shankar Raja performing and improvising live when the son invited his father to do a slot at one of his concerts.