Converted to Islam because of my mother, says Yuvan Shankar Raja

Yuvan Shankar Raja
Yuvan Shankar Raja, 34, called lovingly Yuvi at home, is not just the legend Ilaiyaraaja's younger son, but is also India's youngest composer, who did his first Tamil film music at the age of 16.

While Yuvan in his name stands for young, Shankar was added by a pandit and Raja, his family name, when he became a composer. After giving music in 100 Tamil films, he makes his Bollywood debut with Raja Natwarlal. Over an hour-long conversation, the otherwise inaccessible composer opens up to Bombay Times about why he sung for AR Rahman, what made him convert to Islam and why no one can replace his mother in the world. Excerpts:

Being Ilaiyaraaja's son, was becoming a composer the obvious choice for you? I grew up in a musical environment, but I always wanted to become a pilot. When I was 13, my mom sent me to learn piano from Jacob John, who has also taught piano to AR Rahman and my elder brother and sister. As a child, I used to listen to English music and kept hitting some chords on the piano by myself. When he asked me to play something, he said to me, 'What will I teach you? You are on the right track. I will teach you some basics and then, you are on your own.' Slowly, I started composing at 13 and did my first film with both background score and songs at 16, and became the youngest composer to do that.

Talk about your connection with AR Rahman? Rahman used to play the keyboard for my dad, when he was a kid back in the day with the orchestra. So he knows me since I was six and has seen me growing up. I know Rahman, but am not close to him. I have sung just twice for him, whereas I have sung at least 10 times for my father. But being Ilaiyaraaja's son, singing for Rahman became a big deal. Actually, I sung for Rahman as I don't have any ego, so I wanted to set an example for future composers to not have an ego and boundaries with other composers. My dad asked me, 'What made you sing?' I said, 'I just felt like singing.' After that, I started getting calls from lots of composers to sing, but to maintain exclusivity I said no except once I sung for Dharan.

Talk about your father? My dad thinks about music 24 x7. Even at home, if you see him, he will be writing. He still goes to classes to learn writing. I respect his drive and dedication to work, where, despite his age, he is still doing 5-6 films a year and has recently completed composing for 1,000 films. Once I remember when I was small, he was really sick but even though he couldn't even walk, he went to work. His life is centered around his music. He is not an expressive person and doesn't show his emotions. If I play a song, he will not show it. Max to max he will laugh and ask, 'What did you do?' His laughing is a sign that he appreciated it. We all live together but I don't like his temper. I was very close to my mom and my older brother Karthik is very close to my father. He knows that I am a rebel and will do what I have to and that I will not listen to anybody. I am guessing that he doesn't like how I decide everything on my own without any discussion with anybody.

My brother was a gold medalist from Trinity, whereas I was a school drop out after Class IX, so I know that my father would not have imagined that I could have done so well. I am the underdog in my family. And while I know that my father is proud of me, he is even more proud of my brother due to the knowledge of music he has. I do love my father, but my respect for him is even more.

Who do you love the most in the world? My mom. She died of a heart attack all of a sudden in 2011. She was a housewife and used to run the entire show. We have a large, extended family, but she held all of us together and was the singular pillar. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that she was no longer there. I would cry a lot till 2013. I had a lot of work, but after her, could not concentrate. People started trashing my work. It was the worst time of my life. She was my force as it was she who always pushed and motivated me. After her, there is a vacuum in my life and I now need to push myself. She was most attached to me and prayed the most for me. She liked me for being a rebel, who was emotional and affectionate. She knew that I am a giver, who, given an opportunity, would do any thing for my family. I had composed a song titled Aarariraro from the film Raam that was her favourite. It is a generic lullaby for kids. In the song, the son sings the lullaby for his mother to sleep as his mother is about to die. He tells her, 'Come, lie in my lap. I will sing for you. In my next birth, I want you to be my daughter.' Four days prior to her passing away, I came back home around midnight. I was hungry and was cooking Maggi in the kitchen, when she came in. She opened the door and I asked her, 'Aren't you sleeping?' On TV that same song was playing and she said to me, 'Yuvan, whenever I listen to this song, I cry. How much you have sacrificed to come to this level.' That stuck with me. Being the son of a legendary composer is not an easy job. Bollywood is a bigger platform and to see me compose my debut film, she would have been very happy.

How did you get Raja Natwarlal? Pritam not only suggested my name to Kunal Deshmukh, but was persistent that he sign me. It's rare for a composer to recommend another in the way Pritam did.


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