On Rahman

My friend Surendar, being a huge fan of A R Rahman asked me if I could write about him. Hence, this piece is dedicated to him.

If you are from Tamil Nadu, when you talk about Rahman, it is also inevitable to talk about Illayaraja. While I detest this comparison, it has become imperative now that we speak of each other in unison. Here I go.

Those who came in late, here’s the flashback. Before ARR stormed into the scene, Illayaraja was the unquestionable king of South Indian film music scenario. There was Raja and then there were none. Even some of the best directors in Tamil had to wait in the queue and if Raja delivers some crappy stuff to them, they had to grudgingly take it and use it in their films. I felt Raja often delivered crap just to feel important. Since 1977, Illayaraja had been composing music for 40 movies on average every year. That’s about 1.3 songs per day. That’s a lot of hardwork.

In this backdrop, came one young, chubby Allah Rakha Rahman. Many didn’t even notice the audio release of Roja. The movie was released and suddenly people heard new sounds around them. Overnight, Chinna Chinna Asai (Choti Si Asha) became a sensation.

Then came Gentleman, then came Thiruda Thiruda and finally Kadhalan (of Muqabala fame) and the final nails on the coffin of Raja’s domination were laid. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

But what became of the youthful sensation called Rahman and its social implications is another story. Rahman brought true world music to India’s door steps. Before him, music was clearly divided between classic and filmi music. Even the ardent promoters of Indypop didn’t have much hope on its future. Filmi music in Bollywood were rehashed tunes and the composers were traversing in already beaten and damaged path. In Tamil, it was Raja and no one else.

Rahman took a lot of time to compose each song and didn’t want to treat it as a factory output. This was evident in the result. Rahman brought sufi in ‘Kehna hai kya’ of Bombay, Ghazal into Tamil folk in ‘Kizhakku Seemayile’ and pure Jazz in Iruvar. Apparently, it seems, he meticulously researched on Gujarati folk music before ventured into composing Lagaan. He dabbled heavily with Hindustani in ‘Sarfarosh ki tamanna’ where he made Hariharan and Sonu Nigam perform a sort of Jugalbandi. He mingled lounge music into a love theme in ‘Kadhal Desam’ and Jacksonish hiccups into a folk song (Oorvasi).

Such experiments and mix and match of international sounds with deeply embedded Carnatic or Hindustani created new unheard of sounds to Indian audience used to listening only to filmi numbers. He liberated the film music from the tranditional confines of Pallavi, Anu Pallavi and Saranam and injected vocals in place of interlude and whooshing guitar pieces in place of song endings.

However, people who were familiar with Rock and western pop dubbed Rahman as mere imitator or some called him as a good sound engineer and not a composer. Some criticised him of compiling songs out of a computer and dubbed that he is incapable of writing real music. Rahman was too busy to pay attention to these critics.

And the serious fans of Raja desperately waited for him to fall. Unfortunately, they only saw Raja tumbling down and not seeming to go anywhere. When his achilis heel, the much hyped and famed symphony couldn’t see the light of the day, the fans lost even the faintest hope they had. We, in India, don’t retire our legends. We simply kick them out of their throne. Raja was no exception.

Back to Rahman. To me, Rahman’s highlight has been the surprises he packages in his music. He inserts a bell, a base chord or just an half-beat of tabla when the song reaches a higher octave. These always come up at places where you least expect any change in the tempo. Personally, I like this ‘surprise’ aspect of Rahman because that shows he focuses on even such miniscule aspects and also because he is intelligent.

Image sourced from: www.theage.com.au

Rahman opened the floodgates of the music scenario and brought limelight on legends such as Hariharan, Shankar Mahadevan and Shivamani. He printed his crew on the album covers, which made people like Keith Peters, his bassist and Sridhar, his DTS Engineer famous. Suddenly people began talking about some unknown sax player or a Hindustani vocalist about whom you’ve never heard of.

Rahman didn’t see the difference between Bollywood, Tamil or any other culture. He saw them as single culture and wrote music for India. His Vande Mataram, which, to a purist, would sound like a screaming remix of a very emotional chant, captured the imagination of millions of youth and coupled with the right timing of 50th year of Independence, the Gen Now sang, rather screamed Vande Mataram on their way to patriotic nirvana.

Socialogically, Rahman represents the post-90s, new generation youth. He is successful, proud of his achievements, humble, yet very comfortable with his riches. A post-modernistic youth sees people such as Rahman, Sachin, Arundati Roy, Farhan Akhtar, Karan Johar and Narayana Murthy in the same lines. Though they hail from different backgrounds they are very succesful and more importantly, wear their attitude at right places. Rahman is the Gen Now representative, who is as comfortable hanging around with a B-grade director in Tamil as with Andrew Llyod Webber. However, I only hope that he shrugs off his Tamil roots and moves up the value ladder. I would like to see more of Bombay Dreams or Warriors of Heaven and Earth rather than working
with sleazy Tamil directors. Raja made this mistake. I hope ‘Isai Puyal’ (Musical Storm), as his fans fondly call him, doesn’t repeat that.