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April 4, 1997


"My goal is to learn all I can about music"


Kartik Raja>The pressure on me is going to be enormous," the teenager says. "Even if I do good work, they will only say that it is because of my father's guidance."

The words are already proving to be prophetic. For when his debut music score for the recently released Tamil film Maanickam hit the music shelves and proved an instant hit, the carping whispers went that his famous father had actually scored the tunes, then put his son's name to it in order to counter the challenge of the hot young brigade of composers headed by A R Rehman.

Inevitable, perhaps, if your name is Karthik Raja. Son, in case it needs mentioning, of the doyen of southside composers, Ilayaraja.

"Sure, they say my music is inspired by my father's," shrugs Karthik. "And perhaps it even is, who knows? But this is something that happens not just to me, but to every composer. The thing is, my father has composed in so many idioms, his work spans such a wide spectrum of styles, that no matter what you do, there will be some resemblance to something he has done earlier. I guess it is inevitable, these comparisons," says the youngster with calm acceptance.

But there are enough people who apparently recognise the teenager as a composer in his own right - foremost among them a certain Amitabh Bachchan. The Bollywood icon first commissioned Karthik to score the tune for the launch announcement of the Big B range of music cassettes, and followed that up with a commission to score for ABCL's first Tamil venture, Ullaasam.

"I guess my interest in music began when I was around seven," recalls the youngster, relaxing in the Raja home in suburban Madras. "That was when I began accompanying my father to the studio for recording sessions, and I got hooked. By the time I entered junior college, I was pretty certain that commerce and economics was not for me, so I dropped out. And here I am..."

with father IllyarajaIntrospection appears to be one of the traits he has picked up from his father, and Karthik's mood is definitely introspective as he talks of the differences he perceives between his musical taste and that of his famous father. "Dad is the classicist, the perfectionist. He believes in proper scales, does not like to deviate from the rules. He does compose in a wide variety of idioms, but always taking care to stick within the traditions of music. As for me, I love Hindustani, Carnatic, Western classical, even pop and heavy metal which my father disdains. And I don't like to stay within the limits of the rule book when composing," he smiles. "I like to innovate."

And if that sounds iconoclastic - especially given that his father is himself the icon of southern composers - then Karthik hastens to point out that he holds his father's ability in enormous respect. "He has done everything there is to do," Karthik says, simply. "The rest of us can only follow along paths he has already charted."

The father-son relationship is equally strong, Karthik admits, though he quickly adds that he is not overly fond of the "we are more like good friends than father and son" type of relationship. "That becomes too casual, I don't like it," he says firmly. "But dad and I are very close. In fact, I am closer to my father than to my brother and sister."

For the record, his sister Paavadharani recently debuted as a playback singer with the hit song Mastaana Mastaana in the Prabhu Deva starrer Rasaiyya (Chaila, in the Hindi version). And brother Yuvanshankar will debut as a composer in his own right in the soon to be released Tamil film Aravindan.

While on the Raja family, it is surprising that critics of Karthik's musical efforts thus far do not even mention his famous uncle, Ilayaraja's brother, Gangai Amaran. Who, after establishing a musical identity distinct from that of his younger and more famous brother, moved on in recent years into the realm of producing and directing his own films. But then, the relative obscurity of Amaran is probably just another indicator of the enormous shadow Ilayaraja casts on the field of film music, especially down south.

Karthik is only too aware of the enormous struggle his father and uncle had to undergo before making it big, he recounts with awe the stories that are already part of Tamil folklore - of how his father and uncle walked miles, from studio to studio and producer to producer, looking for a break, their harmoniums carried on their heads.

In fact, a Tamil actor who hails from Ilayaraja's own village in interior Tamil Nadu recalled in a recent television interview that "Raja used to go everywhere with the harmonium on his head, and maybe the music just seeped straight into him because of that. Even today, he scratches his head, and promptly comes up with a fresh tune."

True, Ilayaraja does have a habit of scratching his head while composing - but the rest could well belong in the realm of apocrypha. One more thread in the fable of part fact, part fiction, that today shrouds the living legend of film music. But Karthik, for one, is deeply aware of his father's long years of struggle. "I sometimes think," the lad muses, "that my father underwent even my share of struggle. I've had it all handed to me on a platter," he says, simply.

Whether or not the youngster has inherited his father's musical abilities is debatable, but the resemblances between father and son go much deeper than mere facial similarities. Karthik, for instance, is like his father deeply religious, and a constant pilgrim to the temple of Goddess Mookambika in Kerala. This religiosity extends even to his pleasures - his idea of a holiday, the teenager says, is to travel to "places that haven't been spoiled by tourism, and where I can see old temples and maybe palaces."

Another point of resemblance between father and son is a tendency towards introspection, a penchant for long, thoughtful silences. An erstwhile film journalist recounted to me his own experience when he once went to interview Ilayaraja. "He invited me into his room at Prasad Recording Studio (in Kodambakkam, in central Madras). It is a bare room, with just one straw mat to sit on and piles of the special, personalised notepaper Raja uses to compose on.

"After sitting cross legged on the floor for a bit, he suddenly got up and switched off the airconditioner - in August, mind you, when it is hottest in Madras. Then he sat, in the lotus posture, eyes closed, while I sweltered in the heat of that enclosed room. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and in his trademark soft voice, said, 'The best music can be heard in the sounds of silence', and then closed his eyes again to listen some more..."

Karthik may not have reached such extremes yet, but he does admit that he is a loner by nature. "I prefer to talk to elderly people, with them you are always learning something," says the youngster whose conversation is often at sharp variance with his years. "With the guys in my age group, it is fun but it is also trifling with time."

Where Karthik, whose favourite instrument incidentally is the piano, appears to differ from most other composers is that it is not composing film songs that he finds the ultimate turn-on - he would rather do background scores. "That is where the challenge is," he says simply. "It is the score that breathes life into a scene, there is a lot of psychology involved in making the music fit the mood. And sometimes, in an emotion-charged scene that is visually static, it is the composer who has, with his music, got to infuse the emotions into the audience - and that is the ultimate challenge."

Not surprisingly, Ilayaraja himself acknowledged this penchant of his son when he allowed Karthik to compose the background for nine reels of director Priyadarshan's recent hit film on the freedom struggle, Kaalapani - a film which, incidentally, picked up four national awards early last month.

Karthik is very clear that he does not like interference while composing - and equally quick to point out that his father, for one, never interferes.

"It is alright for the producer and director to tell me what their requirements are, but after that they should leave me alone to compose," he says firmly. "I don't like someone sitting on my head, saying change this, change that. If they don't like what I produce they can say so, and I will try to come up with something else to suit their requirements. But I don't like being constantly interfered with when composing."

Kartik RajaIn this respect, Karthik is all praise for Amitabh Bachchan. "He listened to my tunes (for the ABCL film), approved the ones he liked and was very encouraging, without ever intruding," says Karthik, obviously impressed by the Bollywood icon who, he says, he found surprisingly down to earth.

On his slate, at the moment, is Alexander, which will hit the Tamil marquee in August. And then there is the ABCL project, work on which is already well underway. And a few other projects which, he says, it is too premature to speak of as yet.

And then there is his studies. Karthik is, as of now, learning Carnatic vocal from noted singer and composer K Dakshinamoorthy. And - more points of resemblance - his voice, which is almost a carbon copy of his father's, prompts the question of whether Karthik will, some day, begin singing as his father has done in several films. "Yes, maybe someday I will," smiles the youngster.

Karthik Raja has what appears to be a ponderous way of speaking. He listens to your question in total silence, then thinks for a bit before answering in calm, measured tones. And the pause for thought is longest when, just before leaving, I ask him what his goal in life is.

"My goal," he says, the voice soft yet assured, "is to learn as much about music as I can. And, someday, to be acknowledged as a good composer in my own right."

Photograph of Illayaraja with Karthik : Sanjay Ghosh