The Genius of A R Rahman
The Genius of A R Rahman

On his 48th birthday, we trace the creation of the legend that is A,R Rahman

How could A R Rahman become the first Indian musician to hold an Oscar? This rhetorical question arises from the signs, over the years, that if the genius from Chennai found his way to global recognition, it would be through the Grammies. That was the international award I thought he’d win first, this restless pop-rock explorer whose far-flung voyages of musical introspection have consistently reshaped the landscape of the film song. There was the unmatched finish in his albums, for instance — the kind of sonic spit-polish we’ve encountered only in international records. Then there were the influences that shaped Rahman — Osibisa, Jim Reeves, Switched-On Bach, Chick Corea, Vangelis and Dave Grusin, none of which appear, at least at first glance, capable of being co-opted into the traditional five-minute film song.


Even Rahman’s early days — the days leading up to August 1992, when the sounds of Roja exploded in Tamil Nadu, causing fissures and cracks in the existing compositional model (the symphonic orchestral model, exemplified by the monolithic might of Ilayaraja), and the eventual breaking away of a new musical subcontinent — pointed not so much towards a film composer as some sort of incipient rock star. First, Rahman’s classmates roped him into a band for inter-school cultural competitions, introducing him to rock and Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. Then came Roots, the band Rahman formed with musicians like Sivamani, where he procured sequencing gear and began to compose experimental pieces. Then L Shankar came calling, asking Rahman to back his band, Epidemics.


Rahman even complained in an interview to Rolling Stone India, a little over a year ago, about the lack of opportunity in the pre-Roja days, coming off like a sweaty little man whose palms were callused from pushing against a giant boulder. “It was frustrating. It was only film music. To liberate yourself from this and go to another space was impossible. A normal person would never relate to what we wanted to play.” And look at him now, cradling two Academy Awards in his arms in the manner of a proud father posing with newborn twins. It’s still only “film music” — but he has liberated it and gone into the other space he so desired, the global pop-rock space. And, miracle of miracles, the “normal people” he referred to, those  willing slaves to traditional models of film music, have snapped their shackles. They now wave cigarette lighters in unison with Rahman’s rhythms.


I would be lying if I said I saw this moment. It was the Eighties. Hindi film music was, for a large part, stricken by drought. But down in Tamil Nadu, the decade was marked by a ceaseless downpour, thanks to Ilayaraja, a benevolent monarch who doled out musical riches to his subjects with unstinting largesse. And yet, there was a question that hovered in the air — unasked, unanswered. M S Viswanathan, the magician before Ilayaraja, sprinkled fairy dust on the melody line, causing it to burst into miraculous shapes and forms. Ilayaraja, subsequently, breathed life into the interstices. With his staggering gift for arrangement, he ensured that no part of a song was left untended, even the parts behind the vocals, and especially the parts between the stanzas. So the question we were asking — even if we weren’t aware, then, that we were asking it — is what else could be done with the film song.


With his breakthrough in Roja, Rahman answered that question. And he did so by reshaping the dynamics of the acoustics, something that could never have been done in the era of live recording. No one had heard anything like it — not in Tamil Nadu, and not in India, as Roja went on to enslave a nation. It was a young sound, a modern sound, and — though we didn’t know it then — a global sound, even if, for a while, it appeared that Rahman’s music could only be cotton candy, spun sugar that’s sweet on the ears but with barely any nutrition. There was, for instance, ‘KangalilEnnaEeramo’ (Uzhavan, 1993), where the soaring melody lines were tethered to a bouncy, pizzicato percussion, or ‘UsilampattiPenkutti’ (Gentleman, 1993), where Rahman proved it was possible to rustle up a rustic ambience without invoking Ilayaraja. These were beautiful numbers, but they did not especially point towards a composer capable of true greatness. There was something almost antiseptic about these songs — they were too polished, too perfect. We loved these songs because they were a welcome change, but little did we suspect that Rahman was just warming up.


In 1995, with Rangeela, Rahman accomplished something no composer from the South had — he successfully crossed over to Hindi cinema with a set of original compositions. A number like ‘Kya Kare Kya Na Kare,’ for instance, sat perfectly in a Mumbai milieu, empathetically tuned to the tossed-off angst of a tapori torn between being in love and admitting to being in love. And back home, Rahman was dazzling fans with his facility with symphonic arrangements — in ‘Strawberry Kanne’ (Minsaara Kanavu, 1997), whose operetta texture was just right for the onscreen battle-of-the-sexes banter — and even swing jazz, in ‘Kannai Katti Kollaadhey’ (Iruvar, 1997). And then, sometime towards the end of the Nineties, Rahman’s music began to achieve the kind of burnished glow that only comes from the perfect balance of personal creativity and public satisfaction. Overnight, the composer got rid of the awkward pauses that would sometimes bring the mood of a song to a grinding halt (the suspended-in-time sitar strains after the mukhda of ‘Pyaar Yeh’ in Rangeela, for instance). He ironed out his tune transitions. He smoothened out his interludes, the one thing he never appeared to give much thought to earlier. I still recall how startled I was by the astounding ‘Jiya Jale’ (Dil Se, 1998), where a plaintive sarangi bracketed the opening line of the antara without interrupting for a second the rhythm of the piece, or ‘Rut Aa Gayi Re’ (1947: Earth, 1998), whose magnificent second interlude bristled with borderline-menacing strings that evoked Prokofiev’s ‘Montagues and Capulets’.



And where Rahman’s earlier numbers were (mostly) merely catchy and fun, his work at this point became gifts that kept on giving. Each time you heard a song, you’d unearth a new layer, and yet, if you didn’t want to dig much, they were still, well, catchy and fun, which translated to off-the-charts popularity. And there was always a balance. For every upbeat ‘Kahin Aag Lage’ (Taal, 1999), there was a wistful ‘NahinSaamne,’ with a gentle tom-tom rhythm adding to the melancholia.


And now, it appears Rahman has completed his transition to the other extreme, with albums that are increasingly more personal, more idiosyncratic, and, therefore, infinitely more fascinating. Towards the end of ‘Barso Re’ (Guru, 2007), the low-throbbing hum of a lightsabre made an unexpected appearance, and in ‘Style’ (Sivaji: The Boss, 2007) — an instance of Rahman’s experimentation at its eccentric best — the mood was as if an Eighties electro-pop band like Kraftwerk were slowed down to a crawl and layered with raucous bursts of hip-hop before the whole thing were rendered in Japanese (thanks to the layering of the lyrics, which were all but incomprehensible). There’s very little in his music that’s instantly catchy and fun anymore, because Rahman is no longer just making soundtracks; he’s painting soundscapes.


Over the years, our concept of the Film Album has been a collection of songs of five to six different moods, and the skill of the composers was revealed in the way they worked around these limitations. It’s not that they never experimented, but these experimentations seldom interfered with the surface of the song — and so the casual listener still came away with something to hum after one round of radio play. But Rahman doesn’t seem to care about any of this — which is really the only way for a pure musician to work. (Of course, you could argue that a music director for a movie can’t afford to be a “pure musician,” and you would be right in a way.) The sound of Rahman, today, is the sound of a musician trying to break free. (Now you see why I thought he’d bring home a Grammy, rather than two Oscars?)


And that’s why, unsurprisingly, the only constant of a Rahman album is the difference. In one youthful romance, you could get a sprightly sparkler of a love song, something relatively traditional like ‘KabhiKabhiAditi’ (JaaneTuYaJaane Na, 2008), whose surprise lies mainly in the rhythm, which kicks in like an afterthought, well into the second line, changing, in an instant, the texture of a number that you thought was going to be coloured primarily by whiny pickings on an acoustic guitar. Whereas in another youthful romance, Rahman could spring, out of nowhere, a song like ‘ParavaigalSeyyudhe’ (SillunuOruKadhal, 2006), setting the words to spunky, sprightly, bite-sized bebop riffs, as if a brassier version of his own ‘Vennila’ (Iruvar) were routed through Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Oh-Sho-Be-Do-Be.’


Even when Rahman’s music isn’t what you expect, even when it doesn’t find its way to that sweet spot, you almost always catch a whiff of creative restlessness, that refusal to settle for easy reconfigurations of past hits when that could be all that the marketplace demands — and in that respect, he is the true successor of R D Burman, another restless experimenter whose sound defied the sameness of much of his competition. That’s why it’s surprising that Time labelledRahman the Mozart of Madras, instead of going with someone like Schoenberg — to pick a name out of the classical music canon — who did much to veer music away from pre-established styles. That is Rahman’s great achievement, that he pioneered a style that’s entirely his own.


Rahman finished what R D Burman began, but couldn’t complete because of the times he lived in. One of the reasons Rahman’s genius has shone through so unfettered is that he arrived on the music scene when the country was expanding, when the world was shrinking, and when he could be exactly who he wanted to be without worrying if enough listeners would get his music — whether in the North or in the South. During the age of MSV and Ilayaraja, Tamil film music was for Tamil Nadu and the Tamils scattered worldwide. Very few non-Tamils had a clue what this music was all about because the film industry, the music industry, the country, and indeed the world, was split up into isolated pockets of locally consumed culture.


But today, thanks to the internet and a gaggle of news channels traversing the breadth of the nation in search of stories,  the world is clued into what is happening at our doorsteps, and when we raised a toast to Rahman, it was only a matter of time before rest of the nation, and subsequently the world did too.


Rahman is the product of a generation that never existed earlier — the global Tamilian, if you will, and by extension, the global Indian. And when it came to the “sound” of his music — rooted yet not specifically so, Indian yet not alienatingly so — he had the extraordinary latitude of not having to depend on the earlier top-down model, the vertical model of listeners inside a state. He could, instead, get the same numbers of listeners (and perhaps more) thanks to a horizontal model, spread out across the surface, the cream, the upper crust of the state, the country and the world. He can, today, afford to appeal only to the equivalent of the consumers of multiplex movies. Because even if there aren’t enough buyers for his kind of global music — think ‘Hey, Goodbye Nanba’ (AayithaEzhuthu, 2004) — inside Tamil Nadu, the numbers are more than made up for by music enthusiasts across the country, and around the world.


This global market has allowed Rahman to experiment with his sound, and it has allowed his genius to unfurl on his terms. Today, Rahman need not concern himself about the pan-Indian viability of — to take an example from his outstanding soundtrack for Delhi-6, released this February, the Sting-meets-Steely Dan ethos of ‘Rehna Tu.’ This is a global sound that is not going to find favour in the interiors of an India whose films (at least from Bollywood) have increasingly oriented themselves towards the tastes of upscale urbanites — and Rahman wouldn’t have been able to put out such a tune, say, 20 years ago. (Even if he wanted to, the director would have balked.) Such phenomenal freedom — to do exactly what one wants to do, and to be accepted and celebrated for the same — is a consequence of the global age Rahman is in.


Before Rahman, when composers wanted to stretch, when they wanted to exercise the muscles atrophied by the monotony of film music, they branched out into non-film albums. In the mid-eighties, for instance, Ilayaraja came out with How To Name It and Nothing But Wind, and R D Burman collaborated with Jose Flores on Pantera. But today, (multiplex) Bollywood has become so experimental that Rahman can explore non-film-style music within the context of a film album. I suspect an interesting trend will emerge if we move away from the cities and conduct polls on the kind of music the people in the interiors are really swaying to, but the fact is that Rahman doesn’t need to factor these considerations into his compositions. He can just be himself.



The evolution of Bollywood is the other factor that has aided the evolution of Rahman. Considering that he is among the most collaborative of composers, the most accepting of the humbling notion that one needn’t always know everything, it is fortunate that a significant portion of his energies are channelled towards gilding the visions of Bollywood film-makers who are ambitious, who understand the value Rahman brings to their films, and who do not mind giving him the space and the time and the collaborative creative inputs to bring out the best in him. Where a composer from an earlier era may have burned out because of having to conjure up, for the millionth time, a generic love song or a generic estrangement number, these directors have kept Rahman’s creative fires burning.


Then, of course, there’s the dizzying panoply of technology that’s taken for granted today, which has helped the recording style become a part of Rahman’s sound. Earlier, the tabla was just a tabla, and a voice was available in just one timbre. But today, a tabla is simply an input for a console that can render it practically unrecognisable, practically a spanking new instrument. The composer can, quite literally, play God — and no song need ever sound like an earlier one any more. In ‘Masakali’ (the hit track from Delhi-6), for instance, there’s a periodic flight of violins, which adds a fantastic, out-of-nowhere texture to the number. But it’s not violins. It’s not a full-bodied string-section sound, in that it’s been tempered (and tampered with), using technology. Rahman’s vocabulary — and by extension, the vocabulary of those who followed — is completely different from that of earlier composers from the live-music generation (and subsequently, more in tune with a global market).


There’s, of course, a flip side to this global sound, and that’s that everyone in the globe has access to its building blocks, something that Rahman acknowledged while speaking to Rolling Stone. “[At the time of Roja], that sound was just mine. Now people are sharing that sound. So to do something is not just about a different sound anymore.” Perhaps inevitably, today, the lines between the top composers (Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar) are increasingly beginning to blur. When the compositional style is “Indian,” it’s easier to identify, say, ‘Arziyaan’ (Delhi-6) as a Rahman creation, for no other composer whips up such a spiritual fervour. But it becomes murkier when we’re talking pop-style compositions — like ‘KabhiKabhiAditi,’ or ‘Kahin To Hogi’ (also from JaaneTuYaJaane Na, which sounded like a throwback to Eighties’ acts like Paul Young and Peter Cetera).


But Rahman’s best compositions are uniquely his, if only for the dense (and daringly ingenious) layering. In another approach to his craft that is light years distanced from those before him (where the entire composition needed to be envisioned in advance), Rahman approaches music like an editor would approach a movie, or a precocious child a Lego set. He records all the takes, picks what he wants, and splices the bits into the final composition. It is, perhaps, no accident that Rahman is the first Indian musician to get global recognition – because his is the first instance of a truly global sound, from global processes engineered with global technology. Earlier, in the case of pioneers, the oft-employed cliché was East-meets-West, but the genius of Rahman is that, in his hands, East is West. The twain has met.

contact us :
Follow US :
©2024 Creativeland Publishing Pvt. Ltd. All Rights Reserved