Like the ascending and descending notes of ragas and scales Ilaiyaraja uses to compose his tunes, his relationship with his song tracks has seen many ups and downs through the decades. The maestro known for moving fans with his music has been forced in recent times to move courts to protect his copyright.
For a few years after making a redoubtable debut with Annakili (1976), when Ilaiyaraja was just another composer, albeit brilliant and promising, he made no claim of ownership on his tracks and music labels like Inreco and HMV purchased the audio rights from the producers.
This is why the tracks of such all-time classics like the Rajinikanth-Shobha starrer, Mullum Malarum, the blockbuster Kalyanaraman featuring Kamalhasan in two roles, the musically vibrant Rosappu Ravikkaikaari and Annakili are with HMV. And Inreco has the tracks of the nationally awarded Nenjathai Killaadhe featuring some truly memorable hits, Sigappu Rojakkal in which Kamalahasan played a psychopathic killer and Priya, the first Tamil film with stereophonic recording.
Such films signalled a bright new cinema of fresh faces, talented directors and a newer approach to cinema. Ilaiyaraja’s scintillating music proved to be the anthem of this breed of films. By the early eighties, Ilaiyaraja was on the way to achieving a status that no music composer had attained in Tamil cinema, the name above the title.
The start of the eighties saw a greater democratization of film music through the proliferation of cassettes. Film production too peaked from around 60 in the mid seventies to well above a hundred. Ilaiyaraja had about forty films a year – a huge vindication for a composer who had been challenged in the field about his capacity to arrange music!
It was then that Ilaiyaraja took charge of his audio tracks, propping up the Echo label through his Pannaippuram boyhood friend Subramaniam. It was a business that could not go wrong. Ilaiyaraja got his audio rights as part of his payment for composing music for films and there was a huge demand for his songs.
Yet, the enterprise did not do very well as it could not meet the huge demand, and pirates made a killing. Echo was then made over in 1988 to ‘New York’ Parthasarathi, an erstwhile music director who had moved over to the US and made a mark with his music company there. Parthasarathi and Ilaiyaraja released the latter’s first compact disc of hits in Singapore but the celebration lasted for a few years only till the producer of the mega pic Thalapathy (1991) sold the audio rights to a another label (Lahiri) at a huge price. This opened Ilaiyaraja’s eyes to the commercial potential of his work yet again and he stopped giving films to Echo. He started his own company, ‘Raja Cassettes’, but as Ilaiyaraja’s elder brother R. D. Bhaskar put it then, ‘We should not have entered a business we had no idea about’!
By this time there was a halo round Ilayaraja, and he was being hailed as Ragadevan, a musical god. Eknath, a prominent video library owner was drawn into the circle of devotees and given the audio rights for a price. He gave up after a score of films saying the money he paid for the tracks could not be recouped from cassette sales. AVM came in on the 61st year of its audio business but let go after a crop of releases as the humungous hype was not converting into profits. These tracks, which had been given for five years were then transferred to Pyramid Audio which has about 150 Ilaiyaraja films now.
In the new millennium, when audio rights include a spectrum of digital rights like downloads through mobile networks, rings tones, caller tunes, internet streaming and the like, Ilaiyaraja had sounded the warning bugle against piracy and named some companies as copyright holders. Now, he has restrained a few of them from infringing his copyright. The problem in this muddle is that even law-abiding retailers have no foolproof means of ascertaining a legal Ilaiyaraja track! A high end retailer in Chennai, who was chagrined at being raided for selling illegal Ilaiyaraja CDs wanted to know of some foolproof method of doing just that!
But despite all the discordant notes that have attended its sales, Ilaiyaraja’s music is still a sought after product by his fans. The sad note is that rather than scoring music, a composer has to spend his time scoring out those selling his music without his permission.
The latest in the series of issues over use of Ilaiyaraja’s film songs is old friend and colleaugue SPB, who himself sang scores and scores of the maestro’s songs being served a lawyer’s notice for performing Ilaiyaraja’s songs without his permission.
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music with many acclaimed works to his credit)
(Most part of this article was originally published in the Times of India, Chennai)