A R Rahman: The Alchemist | Verve Magazine
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August 06, 2010

A R Rahman: The Alchemist

Text by Supriya Nair. Photographs by Bajirao Pawar / RollingStone Magazine

There are those who bring the world home to India, and those who take India out to the world. But no one has done both as successfully as Allah Rakha Rahman. In a profile that looks back at over two decades of his music, Verve examines just how his work became a soundtrack for a changing country – and a film industry

The search for the emblematic global Indian should be long over. It should have ended the moment we heard the words ‘Mere paas maa hai’ from the stage of the Kodak Theatre on a spring evening in 2009. ‘I may have nothing — but I have a mother.’ That was our man, speaking our language, quoting a line we have long accepted and parodied as one of our definitive homilies, from Bollywood’s mouth to India’s heart. Could anything be more us?

There are two major reasons why the verdict on that search – a verdict that says, ‘This is the One True Indian, the face of the nation to all the world’s intents and purposes’ – hasn’t been signed, sealed and delivered yet. One reason is the global inconvenience of constricting the idea of India to the stereotype of a single achievement on a single stage. The other, more compelling one, is our candidate himself. From the very outset of his career, AR Rahman –elusive, publicly shy, even somewhat aloof – has resisted every notion of his ever delivering a definitive product, whether it is of his music, or of himself. Lazy media pegs of the emblematic devout Muslim are circumvented offhand: orthodox expectations haven’t hampered the creation some of the last decade’s most memorable bhajans (as an unauthorised biography carelessly suggests it would) – or working with those paragons of impropriety, the Pussycat Dolls and Akon. Rubber-stamping Rahman is no longer an option. But not for him the chameleonic reinventions of other pop icons. Not, either, the cosmetic applications of ‘versatility’ that we use for other artistes who play with genres and disciplines.

The truth is that Rahman can never stand outside that ongoing story of the Indian transformation long enough for us to stop and pin him down to any single moment of change, any simple notion of a presiding icon. You have to have a pedestal on which to put an icon, and this one has always been a work in progress. “He can only ever raise the bar for us,” says composer Amit Trivedi (Dev D., Aisha) of his effect on film music. “His music brought in a technological revolution. It changed the way he we listen to Hindi film music, the way we respond to it, maybe even the way we buy it, forever.”

This is widely, if not always openly acknowledged in an industry where, as Trivedi says, “everyone wants to get the Rahman sound.” Like the rest of India, Trivedi first heard the maestro on Roja (1992), then Thiruda Thiruda (Mani Ratnam’s almost-simultaneous Tamil release, dubbed in Hindi as Chor Chor), and Kaadhalan/Humse Hai Muqabla (1994). “The way the tracks were laid down, the arrangements – they were totally new. And the music totally engrossed and engaged you. It made you think: yeh asli cheez hai. This is real; real like nothing else.”

Mr Synthesiser, known and even briefly derided for his extensive use of what laymen called ‘computer music’ – recordings technically once-overed with studio equipment – was to electrify all of India. It was one transformation for which the time was right. Rahman’s music, instead of falling through the crack of that age-old tension in the film music industry between ‘melody’ and ‘technology,’ bridged the gap with all the ease of someone producing, well, a jingle. Rahman didn’t just bring the CD into that piping, treble-ish tape-recorder world of ours – he brought the iPod, too.

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, who has also written extensively on Rahman’s music, believes that the composer’s sound is the confluence of his genius with the vision of those who have mounted an appropriate stage for his talents. “If another composer had a project comparable to Lagaan or Rang De Basanti to work with, then we’d have a proper basis for comparison,” he says. But there isn’t. Trivedi, a composer whose smash-hit debut album Dev D. was forged in creative partnership with another Bollywood visionary, Anurag Kashyap, also emphasises that collaboration “plays a major role, if you share a certain vibe with the director. Creative freedom always shows.”

But if Rahman has an unprecedented share in the creative vision of his directors, it is because he has repaid their confidence in his genius many times over. It becomes difficult to tell whether the multiplex mentality of the 2000s – the unified, complex, subtle narrative – came before the Rahman era of music, or whether the music influences the way we respond to these new modes of film-making. Can Rahman’s sound be pinned down to the requirements and advantages of the multiplex era of film music? Veteran writer on Hindi cinema, Nasreen Munni Kabir, who is currently working on Rahman’s official biography, finds this a fallacy. “All that is very well, but if the music doesn’t deliver, none of the celeb hype would matter. I don’t believe his recent music is less accessible to the Indian moviegoer. Simpler tunes may have their place, but they come and go. Think of the great composers like SD Burman, Roshan, Naushad and others. Sophistication and layering in music is what lasts.”

“If you read the script, for example, of Delhi-6,” says film maker Vijayeta Kumar, who doubles up as Rahman’s stylist, “what’s on the page might make you hear something very traditional, very typical of old Delhi.” Let the record show that the soundtrack Rahman produced was anything but typical. Trivedi thinks it’s one of the best albums he has ever done, and a fitting answer to the ‘multiplex’; Rangan hears echoes of ‘Sting-meets-Steely-Dan’ in it; Kumar hears house and funk. And all this of the album that caused Rekha Bhardwaj, the vocalist on its biggest hit Genda Phool, to once remark, ‘Rahman is one of those composers who is bringing the traditional sound of India, the folk sound, back into the mainstream.’ Whew.

In many ways, rethinking music has always been the film industry’s job, both in the South and in Bollywood. Our popular music has always been mongrel, assimilating both the grand classical traditions of the subcontinent, and alien, inaccessible genres from other parts of the world, to transmute them into a unique Indian film vocabulary. But Rahman’s was no one-way tracking of the present into the future. As his career progressed, his enormously complex talent annexed and revamped not just one sound, but whole traditions of popular music. At first, his use of non-standard playback voices took us aback, but eventually taught us to appreciate the pleasures of hearing songs in the voices – to take just a random sample – of old ladies, children, singers without classical educations, and folk artistes otherwise relegated to the margins of the typical Bollywood number to provide regional colour.

Who in the days of carelessly racist ‘tribal noises’ endlessly reproduced in Bollywood’s nightclub and kidnapping scenarios would have dreamed of the world of ‘jungle’ rhythms, African percussion and folk choruses Rahman incorporated into his work? Who, indeed, might have imagined that a day would arrive when Bollywood’s signature orchestral arrangements would allow room for the light-filled, almost Baroque waltz scores in Lagaan and Guru? The film score, in Rahman’s hands, was still a creation of magic, beaming across celestial frequencies in the voices of angels. It’s just that the angels now warbled in different keys.

Rangan says that the true departure from the past is one of atmosphere. “The old songs had great singers like Lata Mangeshkar carrying you through the melody with the force of their voice. In Rahman’s work, the stridency of an instrument, or the force of a great vocal, will come through filtered, in a way that makes it very pleasing to hear. That ambient sound – whether you want to call it the ‘multiplex’ sound or not – is consistent through his work.”

Take that cherished old staple of Hindi cinema, the fusty, reliable, instantly stereotypical movie qawwali. The ‘Sufi’ sound, as it is broadly defined, is very much Bollywood’s current flavour, embraced and celebrated in everything from the thumping popular hits of Himesh Reshammiya and Pritam, to the brighter, more resonant sound of Salim-Sulaiman. But it is in the work of Rahman that this most powerful of subcontinental musical modes has acquired a deeper resonance. Spurred by the cross-border resurgence of popular Sufi music in the 90s, influenced by his own spiritual inquiry, Rahman has produced some of the most astonishing pieces of Hindi film music in this form. Today, the film qawwali does not signify any one narrow cultural context: it sounds, not in the key of earthly celebration, but in that of contemplation and discovery.

And perhaps this is the best way to understand how Rahman is India’s resident alchemist. He is a man whose work functions as a two-way conversation between this country and the rest of the world because the brass tacks of musical transformation – of technology, genre, even tradition – are simply the bases for his artistic experiments. Rahman’s music doesn’t simply offer us change: it offers us transcendence. “People in the West, right since 2002’s Bombay Dreams musical, hear fabulous melodies and spiritual energy in his music. That’s why they like it,” says Kabir. “My favourite of all of Rahman’s modes is his soulful one,” Trivedi concurs. “It’s when he comes closest, quite literally, to divine inspiration.”

For a country who thinks its time has arrived, India is sometimes accused of being too invested in its cultural successes abroad – cricket records, Nobel Prizes, Oscars for films set in our slums. Rahman is one of the very few whose crossover has been so successful that he rises above those dubious spurts of patriotic adrenalin. When his work is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, or British Prime Minister David Cameron signs up to felicitate him with an Asian Award for his musical achievements, we now shrug – it’s no longer out of the ordinary. The legendary Milos Forman film about Mozart’s life was called after the maestro’s second name, ‘Amadeus,’ Latin for ‘beloved of God.’ It’s a moniker that Indians would thrill to, in a country where music, both in its high classical forms as well as its rustic, earthy registers is so extensively dedicated to praising deities across forms and religions. It is incredible but true that Rahman, the ultimate product of these decades of change, was never really the architect of a schism between the old and the new – he turned out to be the architect of its ultimate union, the evangelist of a new, sublime dialect. Perhaps it’s time to give the ‘Mozart of Madras’ a more fitting name, and start calling him India’s Amadeus.

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