Gnanathesikan (born 2 June 1943), known as Ilaiyaraaja, is an Indian film composer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, orchestrator, conductor-arranger and lyricist who works in the Indian film industry, predominantly in Tamil and Telugu. He has also worked in Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi films. Widely regarded as one of the greatest Indian music composers of all time, he is credited with introducing Western musical sensibilities in the Indian film musical mainstream. Reputed to be the world’s most prolific composer, he has composed more than 7,000 songs, provided film scores for more than 1,000 movies and performed in more than 20,000 concerts. Being the first Asian to compose a full symphony, Ilaiyaraaja is known to have written the entire symphony in less than a month. Ilaiyaraaja is nicknamed “Isaignani” (musical genius) and is often referred to as “maestro”, amongst others by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London.
He is known for integrating Indian folk music and traditional Indian instrumentation with western classical music techniques. Composed by Ilaiyaraaja, the critically acclaimed Thiruvasagam in Symphony (2006) is the first Indian oratorio. He is a gold medalist in classical guitar from Trinity College of Music, London, Distance Learning Channel. His scores are often performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.
Ilaiyaraaja is a recipient of five National Film Awards—three for Best Music Direction and two for Best Background Score. In 2012, he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest Indian recognition given to practising artists, for his creative and experimental works in the music field. In 2010, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour in India and the Padma Vibhushan in 2018, the second-highest civilian award by the government of India.
In a 2013 poll conducted by CNN-IBN celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema, Ilaiyaraaja was voted as the all-time greatest film-music director of India. American world cinema portal “Taste of Cinema” placed him at the 9th position in its list of 25 greatest film composers in the history of cinema, the only Indian in the list. In 2003, according to an international poll conducted by BBC of more than half-a million people from 165 countries, his composition “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu” from the 1991 film Thalapathi was voted fourth in the top 10 most popular songs of all time. One of his compositions was part of the playlist for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
According to Achille Forler, board member of the Indian Performing Right Society, the kind of stellar body of work that Ilaiyaraaja has created in the last 40 years should have placed him among the world’s top 10 richest composers, somewhere between Andrew Lloyd Webber ($1.2 billion) and Mick Jagger (over $300 million).