Film Music composer Ilayaraja, who ruled chartbusters in an era preceding AR Rahman’s, has courted controversy by likening Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dalit icon BR Ambedkar. In the foreword for the book, Ambedkar & Modi — Reformer’s Ideas, Performer’s Implementations, Ilayaraja wrote, “Both these striking personalities succeeded against odds that people from socially disempowered sections of the society face. Both saw poverty and stifling social structures from close quarters and worked to dismantle them, but both are also practical men who believe in action rather than mere thought exercises.”
In the book published by Delhi-based Bluecraft Digital Foundation, the maestro wrote, “Pro-women legislation such as the banning of triple talaq and the rise in sex ratio due to the historic ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ movement, which has brought in social transformation, is something that Dr BR Ambedkar would have been proud of.”
The foreword has given rise to the expected speculation that the BJP may nominate him to the Rajya Sabha, and this did not go down well with those who practise Dravidian sub-nationalistic politics.
Asked about the controversy the foreword has engendered, a source close to the composer, said requesting anonymity that left-liberal groups calling the musician a “Sanghi” were cruel. The source said that Ilayaraja had no political ambition.
“We have information that his name is being considered among the three names from Tamil Nadu, there is no clarity about that. His younger brother may have a better idea about this,” the source said, giving the example of Gangai Amaran, also a musician and lyricist who joined the BJP in 2017.
A leading Tamil musician said Ilayaraja should not be blamed even if he were to be offered a Rajya Sabha seat. “When Rahman wins Grammy and Oscar, Ilayaraja cannot be blamed for exploring something new, he too has dreams… If at all there is an offer of a Rajya Sabha seat, he will see it as recognition, not a party seat. So, attributing political motives to this may be a little too much. Who wouldn’t like recognition when it comes from the top powers in the country?” said the musician.
Defending the music maestro, Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai said those upset with Ilayaraja were powerbrokers and claimed that the “ecosystem created by the DMK” in Tamil Nadu would not be able to throttle the composer’s voice.
“What crime did Ilayaraja commit?” former state BJP chief and union minister L Murugan asked. He said that the “DMK-led attacks” were anti-Dalit and anti-constitutional as the constitution ensured freedom of speech.
Ilayaraja, the political artiste
Ilayaraja is not new to stirring the political hornet’s nest, though. Born in 1943 in Village Pannaipuram near Madurai, ‘Raja sir’ was noticed first when he composed tunes for lyrics written by his elder brother Pavalar Varadarajan, a CPI activist. In the era of CN Annadurai’s efforts to build a Dravidian cultural and literary front for the DMK, Ilayaraja was part of the communist cadre.
As communists, Pavalar and Ilayaraja Varadarajan, referred to as the “Pavalar Brothers”, travelled across Tamil Nadu and several parts of Kerala in the late 1950s and early sixties as part of political work and election campaigns. The stopovers in the tours included Munnar, a hill station bordering Tamil Nadu with a strong population of Tamil plantation workers.
By the mid-1960s, Ilayaraja moved to Madras (now called Chennai) to learn music. Dhanraj and TV Gopalakrishnan were his first tutors. The future composer won a gold medal in classical guitar from the Trinity College of Music in London.
The legendary Ilayaraja is a composer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and the first symphony writer in Asia. He has about 7,000 songs in several Indian languages to his credit. In 1988, the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi conferred on him the title of “Isaignani”, or “Saint Musician”.