C H I P O F F T H E O L D B L O C K
'He sets boundaries with every venture'
- Karthik Raja talks about his father, maestro Ilayaraja, and others to.
You can hear the music even as you step in through the doorway. From the
lobby, a large semi-circular hall is visible. The facing wall is covered
with portraits of singers past and present. Probably this is where this
family of prodigies practises its melodies.
Karthik Raja, son of maestro Ilayaraja, emerges from within. Diminutive
and slightly built, he has his father's looks. Given time, he will be as
famous as his father. Sober and dignified, Karthik says he is not into
partying and spends most of his time at home.
Karthik Raja is 23, born on 29th June 1973. Music is his pre-occupation,
apart from a liking for video games. His brother, Yuvan Shankar, 19 and
sister Bhawatarani, 20, are also extremely talented.
Yuvan Shankar has started composing music for films and Bhawatarani is
making a name for herself as a singer. She sang the Mastana song in the
movie Raasaiya scored by Ilayaraja.
As for Karthik, it seems almost unfair that one so young should have
achieved so much. He has scored music for three Tamil movies and has plans
to cut two pop albums - one on his own and another with a label he would
not like to name now.
Both brothers studied at St. Beads and Bhawatarani in the neighbouring
Piano classes at 'Musee Musical', Chennai, which is a branch of Trinity
College, London, gave him his grounding in instrumental music. Yuvan
Shankar also attended classes there.
Weekend trips with his father and helping out on the keyboard while still
in school provided Karthik with the initial exposure to orchestration. He
left high school in mid-1992 and joined his father full-time.
Karthik started out by scoring the background music for some of his
father's movies: Rajnikant's Uzhaipali and Sathyaraj's Amaidhippadai. He
also composed songs for Pandian and Atma which went down very well with
Panchu Arunachalam's Alexander which was released this Diwali was his
first movie as music director. He also composed music for two other
movies released in August this year: Manickam and Enakona magan Pirappan.
For the latter, he completed the score in July. Alexander took much
longer. He scored background music in a week's time. The songs took two
"It is difficult for me to break out of my father's shadow. So important
is his contribution to music in general," says Karthik.
"He sets new boundaries with every venture. Most of what future
composers will produce belong to the territory my father would have
covered much before in his career. His strength is his ability to
comprehend the spirit of the movie."
"My father gained his experience and feeling for the Tamil music psyche
when he travelled through the state in his younger days, with his elder
brother, Pavalar, who sang while he played harmonium," says Karthik.
He is now working on Ulhasam, which will be produced by ABCL (the firm's
first venture in Tamil movies). An urban love triangle scheduled for
release on Pongal (January 14), it has Ajith Kumar in the lead. Karthik
has worked with S.P. Balasubramaniam, Hariharan and Unnikrishnan.
Also on his agenda is Jackie Sheroff's first production, Grahan in
Hindi, directed by Shashilal Nair. The tunes will be ready in December.
R. D. Burman is the music director of his choice. "He changed film music
for all time. He gave it a different colour altogether."
"A. R. Rahman has great awareness of sound. He has succeeded in
introducing a new sound regime. Roja left a big impression on me."
The two pop albums he is working on have not been named yet. Both are
different projects; there will be videos for both. Initially scheduled
for a January release they will probably be available in April or May.
At present, Karthik is learning Carnatic music. Jazz his special
interest and he wants to learn jazz piano.
He has not made any advertisement jingles yet. But he is willing to if
he is offered any.
Date: 18-04-1997 :: Pg: 22 :: Col: d
Kartik Raja, the son of maestro Ilayaraaja, is a rising star in the
world of film music. Sudha Umashankar talks to the young artiste.
He is the new kid on the block in the firmament of film music. Rising
star and son of maestro Ilayaraaja, 23 year old Kartik Raja is a name
to watch and to listen to.
The latest audio released under his baton as music director is
``Ullasam'', a forthcoming ABCL production and its first Tamil venture
starring Ajith and Maheswari and directed by JD and Jerry. ``Ullasam''
is in some ways a barometer of Kartik Raja's style and spirit and like
the jacket of the cassette says is a celebration of youth.
The sounds may not be entirely new but the mood created by the music
is happy and pleasant and the compositions are in tune with the tastes
of today's youth. There is a marked Western influence in the music
(not surprising given Kartik's classical background) and the
instrumental interludes ring out clear.
``Ullasam'' has quite a host of popular voices S. P. Balasubramaniam,
Hariharan, Kamal Hassan, Harini and Kartik's sister Bhavatharini. It
even has Ilayaraaja singing a bit song.
Directing his father was quite a different experience. ``When I used
to sing each note I would feel scared wondering if I was doing it
right. He is very fast. We have to learn from him. It is great working
with him. He just told me to tell him what I wanted.
Showing signs of talent early on, Kartik Raja used to fiddle around
with the piano at home and try composing with brother Yuvan and sister
He began piano lessons at age six and though he had acquitted himself
creditably in many of the examination, conducted by the Trinity
College London Kartik wanted to create his own music. ``I joined my
father's troupe as a key board player and I used to help him
orchestrate his music''. One of the first songs he orchestrated was
``Kanmani anbodu'' in ``Guna''.
``While composing my father and I would discuss the basic pattern and
whenever he was busy I used to compose the music for any song sequence
the director briefed me about''. Like ``Athma'' starring Ramki and
Kasturi in which he has done a few songs. It went under my father name
because I was just an orchestrator or arranger.''
Some of his earlier compositions include ``Pandianin Rajyathil'' in
the film ``Pandian'' and the background score for ``Uzhaipali'',
``Amaithi Padai'' and some music for ``Chinna Vathiyar''.
As an independent music director he made his debut with ``Enakoru
Magan Pirappan'' followed by ``Manickam'' and ``Alexander'', a
What is it like being a celebrity's son and toeing the father's line
professionally? ``Most of the time people recognise me easily because
they have seen me working in the field.
I don't have to go anywhere asking for chances. But expectations are
high _ they straightway compare me in my early stages to my father.
Though the pattern of the movie and the sequence dictate his
compositions, pop and rap are more up his street though ``I don't get
too many chances to do them. I am not interested in Carnatic music.
I like mod contemporary stuff (Michael Jackson is a favourite) besides
Mozart and Bach. Sentimental stuff is boring. People want to enjoy
themselves. We have to give them what they want _ that is this why we
are in this field.
``What he has figured out about the audiences tastes is that'' people
don't want to feel sad or worry about the world. They want to be
entertained and movies should not lag or stretch.'' Naturally he
feels, ``Music is very important for the success of a film.
''Even in places where the director has committed mistakes, we can
cover it up with music. I have seen my father doing it. If you see
``Kaalapani'' without the background score it would seem too long.
Maybe you would understand the overall theme but the emotion the
director feels is brought out through the music.''
Does ``Ilayaraaja'' compare notes with his father? ``He just gives me
ideas at times.'' The only piece of advice his father has given him is
to provide what the director wants and make it more catchy. the muse
strikes Kartik any time and he keeps recording in his head.
He can compose on demand but ``I don't want to do it that way' I want
to take time and experiment.''
Kartik is sensible enough to admit that ``whatever music is there has
already been composed. The only thing we can do is to get inspired and
recreate the same things in some other form.
With all the electronic equipment there are lot of new sounds and you
can recreate the sound you imagine. You don't even need a string
orchestra. With just a keyboard you can make it sound like a big
Just like writers facing the editor's blue pencil, Kartik too has
faced his share of cuts. In the last reel of `Manickam'', where the
character freezes like a statue, goes into a trance and sets out to
kill someone, `` I had (after a lot of reworking) painted the scene so
that one gets a real feel of what was happening.
I took one day for that reel. But when I saw the film there wasn't any
music. Maybe the director wanted the performances to stand out and cut
this out, I did not have the chance to speak to the audience.
# Adapted from an article written by Rajitha of Rediff
"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
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..."
Introspection 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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
In 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
"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."