Ilayaraaja was born to a poor family in Pannaiapuram, Tamil Nadu. Although he did not have any formal education, he completed a course in classical guitar (higher local) with a gold medal at the Trinity College of Music in London.
Ilayaraaja has composed for more than 700 films. His first movie,Annakilli changed the way music was composed in the Tamil film industry.
He won the national Best Film Music Composer award three times for Saagara Sangamam (1984), Sindhu Bhairavi(1986) and Rudra Veena (1988). He is the first Asian to compose a fully-fledged symphony for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
Besides scoring music for Tamil and other Indian films, Ilayaraaja has written two fusion albums, blending western classical with Carnatic raagas. The first,How To Name It?, was dedicated to Carnatic composer Saint Tyagaraja, and to Johann Sebastian Bach. The second, Nothing But Wind has a final conclusion that suggests music is nothing but wind.
While he developed associations with Carnatic musicians like Mangalampalli BalaMuraliKrishna and T.V. Gopalakrishnan, he also came in for some flak from conservative Carnatic music fans for retuning some of Tyagaraja's compositions.
He is currently working on a symphonic project about Thiruvasakam.