In Search of A.R.Rahman

There’s an interesting paragraph in Baradwaj Rangan‘s post about A.R. Rahman‘s music for “I“, Shankar‘s latest magnum opus where he tells how he feels that the album is wholly individual and free.   “Free from the constraints of Tamil cinema. Free from hewing to situations. Free to leap off a cliff and land on a passing cloud and float away for a while. Whatever you think of Shankar’s filmmaking, you have to give him this: he wields one hell of a hammer. He liberates Rahman.”

The greatest thing about art is that it affects everyone differently. It brings forth opinions and a deeper understanding of pop culture if not society as a whole. In many ways, A.R. Rahman is like Bob Dylan in the 60s. They both changed our general perception of a form of music till their arrival. Dylan changed songwriting, Rahman changed arrangements. And after a period of unparalleled adulation, they both became less prominent. If the last 3 years are any indication, Rahman’s throne has all but been captured by other musicians. 

In the early 90s, when Rahman first started composing for films, he brought forward a sound that was wholly something I’ve come to associate with Madras, the city I was brought up in. The sound was a beautiful eclectic mix of Michael Jackson, Ilaiyaraja and arrangement that could make John Williams proud. There was a sense of completeness to a Rahman album that was like a breathing actor in a film. Whenever “PudhuVellaiMazhai” played on the radio or TV, we could imagine the love of newly weds, the early morning cuddle and the snow filled mountains in Kashmir. Rahman was divine. He was doing things that were a mix of cultures, were he could bring the rustic “Indianness” of a Western Classical inspired Ilaiyaraja and combine it with his love for Michael Jackson. It was like having Diwali all year round. There was a celebration of music, the utter vividness of an album like “MinsaraKanavu” brighter than the sky lit up by rockets. Rahman was not just making music that was different, it was fun.

In Shankar’s “Kadhalan”, Rahman truly exploded. He used synthesizers, Suresh Peters (I am still amazed he managed to make “Pettai Rap” with him), composed the rollicking Urvashi, which is still relevant(ask Will.I.Am), gave the great “Mukkabla” whose catchy music was used in almost every restaurant and outlet in the country and remember, he started the album with the mellifluous “Ennavale”. This was Rahman having fun, set free by Shankar as Mr. Rangan tells. This was Rahman claiming his musical seat among the greats. Until 2002, he held his place without anyone really challenging him. Rahman was synonymous with greatness. He is still great but his music has alarmingly come down to the point of being ignorable. Yes, ignorable.

I listened to “I” and “KaaviyaThalaivan” over two weeks. I have a habit of listening to an album 5 times before I pass verdict on it. I did it with both and for the first time I was sure that I didn’t want to listen to a Rahman album again. Mr. Rangan points that “To complain that the songs are overdone, overproduced is to find fault with a Persian carpet for having too many colours, too many motifs. That’s what Shankar’s cinema is. That’s what Shankar’s cinema needs.”.

For “I”, I agree that one needs music that makes more colour than a Holi day in Mumbai. For a moment, AilaAila does just that. Natalia Di Luccio‘s operatic pop marries Rahman’s brilliant use of electronic beats and keyboards. You can imagine how it works in a Shankar film, with his penchant for gloss and grandeur. In “Ladio”, Rahman tries be Swedish House Mafia and Djebali while stripping the club sounds with the studio groomed voice of Nikita Gandhi. It doesn’t work. Yes, Rahman is having fun with this composition. It isn’t something we are used to hearing in Indian films and neither do our electronic musicians come up with something like this, their fusions are better, they have a more complete vision of how a club song works. One cannot consume too many GulabJamoons and not have a stomach ache the next day. Similarly, Rahman’s music for “I” is an array of too many things being tried but never really coming out well in the end. Yes, there’s some beautiful things too like the start of “Pookkale..”, the restrained build up of the usual Rahman kind of song sung by Sid Sriram “Ennodu Nee Irundal” and the brilliant “AilaAila” but there’s also the completely overdone EDM and autotune cringing “Mersalaayitten” and misconstrued “Ladio”.

My complaint with Ladio isn’t about the things he tries but how what he tries doesn’t come as a complete package. I look at artists like Karsh Kale, Dualist Inquiry, Nucleya, Shaair and Func to see what electronic music can be now in our country, more than just EDM that House music employs. I am not even trying to bring the Westernised musicians like Nigel Rajarathnam to highlight what a rich and diverse music scene we are forming now. We are no longer novices when it comes to using the latest techniques and effects. We don’t have to laud experimentation for the sake of it.Rahman is like a child let free with his favourite toy but the child hasn’t made a truly fun album that’s comes packed with the kind of unabashed genius that he was once known for. It isn’t about the quality of these compositions but more about the experience of listening to them. There’s a limited zone that Rahman employs himself in, even when having fun, and in the constrained space there’s nothing wholly enjoyable from him off late. The reason “MaahiVe” grew on me was because it understood the nuances of bringing EDM into a ballad of a song. There was nothing else worth celebrating about Highway’s soundtrack. For some time now, Rahman has found himself curtailed by either a filmmaker’s inability to let him express himself or when like Shankar has let him free, an overproduced album that has somehow failed to bring an experience wholly individualistic of Rahman.

ARRThere is a perception that a Rahman album needs multiple listens to grow on one these days because it is different to what we are used to. Maybe. I won’t dispute that claim. He is one of the few mainstream musicians in the country who knows what great sound production can do to an album. But here it is – sound production only forms a part of what makes a song, it isn’t the only thing. It is the colourful wrapper over toffee and only rich caramel makes the toffee good enough, not the cover. Strangely and sadly, most Rahman songs today are only gloss with a lot of effects being thrown in, mixed generally well but the song itself is threadbare jeans that might just tear off at the slightest of stretches.

 KaaviyaThalaivan is a movie about a drama troupe in early 20th century but the songs are more groomed and studio produced with voices with no local flair in them for both the period and the culture. The caramel is never in the toffee. Even individualistically, it doesn’t work. It is just beautiful voices making love to a well orchestrated arrangement. There are many beautiful voices out there, that sound extremely good in the studio but then again I’d prefer listening to Anthony Dasansinging with flair than the “right amount of sugar in tea” singing in “VaangaMakkaVaanga”. Songs are more than just being able to hum and do a jig to or be engaging lyrically enough to alter life. No, songs are affecting if they dance on their own, if they can be poetry on a road trip or the waves of the ocean. This is the experience that one like me expects from songs. Rahman’s had them aplenty. Just not anymore.

I listen to Santhosh Narayanan now and I am reminded of what Rahman did in the 90s. He made two musical worlds, the Indian and Western, co-exist. I don’t mean the usage of sitars as Indian and cellos as Western. Like Satyajit Ray once told about contemporary American movies  as having a rhythm akin to Jazz, a musical form which is entirely theirs. When Bob Dylan started his musical journey, he took the blues from Mississippi and jazz from New Orleans, combined it with the usual folk lyrics of America and borrowed rock and roll from his British peers and Elvis Presley. He domesticated music when the Rock and Roll British Invasion was at its height. He gave America back to America. It was a musical experience. What Santhosh Narayanan is doing right now is something similar. He is using the American blues and jazz in our gaana songs, he is bringing Icelandic post-rock ambiance into a village girl’s pathos. There is a union of India’s unsophisticated beats and titillating rhythms with the production and strings from the West. He is on the road that Raja and Rahman travelled before him, a road on which Rahman seems to have taken the wrong crossroad in the last decade.

Rahman has still given quality albums like “Delhi 6”, VinnaithandiVaruvaya”, “Swades”, “Jodhaa Akbar” to name a few but this year, where he has worked on 7 films in all, the general decline of a Rahman album is too obvious to ignore. I know fans are already shaking their head and thinking that I’ve lost it and the ones who’ve already claimed Rahman’s death from his great heights are gleefully smiling but I am morose at what’s been churning out of Rahman’s hands these days. I grew up listening to Rahman, heralding his genius so the fall is even more painful to see and especially hear. 
If this is Rahman saying, “It is I”, then I’d be least bothered about selecting another Rahman album to listen because right now I find Rahman’s compositions either like a needle stuck in playback or unfinished paintings that have the scope to be a Jackson Pollock instead of  a 10 year old’s attempt to draw his mother. One could look at Alt J and Arcade Fire to see how one can unify computer era sounds with 80s pop/rock. They are doing it, they are doing it better and bringing it to people who can stare at murals in dilapidated restrooms and not in closed museums for the niche. It isn’t that Rahman is not capable. It’d be blasphemous to even consider that. It is just that the experimentation isn’t working. It’s a period where he doesn’t seem to have learned. The enjoyment of his music is rather very individualistic and not collectively coveted. I’d rather Rahman  rediscovered an “I” who gave the world the beautiful “ThangaThamarai” instead of the horrible “Mersalaayitten”.  The one good thing about “I” is that it isn’t as banal as his other works this year but I hope the guy who composed that beautiful ambient score for Highway” also finds the place where he is best – bridging the gap between us and Michael Jackson, Madonna and De La Soul. That’s Rahman screaming “I” for me.

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13 thoughts on “In Search of A.R.Rahman

  1. Hithesh, this post shows that you are such an asset to MAM. Though i may not be as passionate as you about music, i certainly agree with you here. There isn’t any other musician i have followed and loved as much as Rahman. And it is quite apparent that he is currently at a low. Hope he regains his magical touch soon.

    You and Badri are our two music aficionados. Looking forward to reading more on music from you.

    • Thank you Rasik 🙂

      I grew up admiring him like you did too, so the lack of genius in his latest compositions is more difficult to handle. I am sure you are gong through a similar thing with Rahman’s music.

  2. Another Rahman album, and we are back at over analyzing his works and comparing it to his glorious past!

    Even his past works post the huge success of Roja/ Thiruda Thiruda/ Pudhiya Mugham had to go through a similar kind of reception akin to the one received by this particular album. Those ‘disappointments’ are referred to as ‘classics’ and ‘gems’. Today’s disappointment could prove to be a winner for a whole new generation out there tomorrow (if not particularly for us). We in turn become those uncles who used to look at us and go ‘what kind of music are you listening to?’

    My take on it…Let Him Be!
    He deserves the space and right to do his kind of interpretation and experimentation. We do not want him to create factory made duplicates of the tracks and arrangements that worked in the past. If that was the case, he could just be another Harris Jayraj or Yuvan Shankar Raja or Anu Malik or Himesh Reshammiya.

    (And if you are asking about my personal opinion about ‘I’ …I will keep it on hold till I see the movie. The Rang De Basanti soundtrack I heard on tape pre-release and the one I listen to today are two different experiences. So you know, what I mean! )

  3. Hi,
    An Eloquent write up barring few grammar checks. Congrats on that! However,

    1)Why is there a lack of depth when it comes to musicality of the write up? What was your source? What was your gear? You say we are not novices about tech? How about what player you used for this, with what kind of DSPs and so on, you know where I am going. Next up is,
    2) How did you come to the conclusion Ladio doesn’t work? 😀 Its a huge claim what you just did there. Again, How can you compare “this” with mainstream EDM artists and their works?
    3) What do you mean by “sound production”? Do you really think Rahman is good with sound production ( again what do you mean)?
    4) You like Santhosh Narayanan, ok! He is trying to establish himself in the industry. Do you expect Rahman to repeat things what he did in the 90s to re-establish himself? How do you relate something like a santhosh narayanan & the likes of Raja or Rahman?
    5) I loved your references & anecdotes but Rahman is not them. You say Rahman changed arrangements? What is your claim there? How has his arrangements changed now? Have you seen him complete a song?

    I am not a troll! If you do have answers, I would be glad that I read your column and will visit again!
    Thanks for reading.

  4. I agree with some points, other points very exaggerated and way too generalized.

    He has not lost his throne to other composers. Who are they? That is laughable. And his music is not ignorable. Topping the charts and still getting awards is not being ignored. And his music is not all gloss with effects. There have been some outstanding compositions lately with great song writing and use of brilliant, organic arrangements.

    What I do agree with is that his music is not as impactful and of a complete, satisfying feeling as it used to be. Songs too often are too short, interludes are too short compared to before, and there is a “light weight” feeling to most of his modern albums compared to earlier days when his albums felt heavier, grander, and more majestic…..with exceptions here and there. His melodies are still beautiful, his arrangements and sounds still brilliant, but his songs and albums on a whole do not feel as satisfying. Recently, I only found his Coke Studio album and Hundred Foot Journey as satisfying as his 90s work.

    Why the difference? He does not spend as much time in the studio due to commitments he did not have earlier involving traveling, concerts, music school, and film makers seem to prefer shorter soundtracks with less elaboration. And that is my opinion, but I know shared by others too.

  5. There is a serious problem, ofcourse not with rahman. It is with you my dear pathetic soul. Go get a good counsellor and take some. Probably this happens when you don’t sleep properly and start floating in an imaginary world. Tch Tch.

  6. Ajit : I am glad you brought up Coke Studio. That was typical Rahman greatness.
    I also agree that the due to a lack of time, his songs are not wholly satisfying as before. Which is why I specifically mention that it might be because of filmmaker’s inability to let him express himself.

    The reason I say I find Rahman’s work almost ignorable is solely on the basis of the overdose from this year. 7 albums this year and not one that makes me want to come back to it and say, WOW, what a beautiful album. This year I’d be hardpressed to take another Rahman album with anticipation and expectations.

    The way music is being marketed and promoted these days, I would be hardpressed to find a composer who’ll last as long as Rahman has. The longevity of any music director is not going to be like MSV. Raja, Rahman. 5 year periods are highly laudable. That way, Vidyasagar, Yuvan were more appealing for some time and then now we have Santhosh Narayanan and Ghibran doing some very good work. There’s no single king now. In the north, there’s Trivedi, Mithoon, SEL in the past who could be put up as people who’ve done compelling work.

    The reason I say that his experimentation is just gloss and effects an not great compositions is because they don’t feel complete. If the sounds are great, say like “Pookkale..”, then his vocalist has failed him. If his vocalist is doing a great job, say like “Ladio”, which seems like something on a runway of a fashion show or a club song. Nikita Gandhi is giving it her all, never does her voice go out of place for it. though the pronunciation could be better. Rahman’s Pallavi is brilliant but then it is stripped down, a barrage of beats and a keyboard with her voice. Once he has stripped it down, the song is an entirely different one. It doesn’t appeal to me, maybe with Amy walking the ramp it will fit in but on the soundtrack, it doesn’t. The song

    His arrangements are not just the instrumental and effects but also the vocal choices and the way he uses them 🙂

    Arun : My intention was not to write about which effects and gear Rahman is using now and what he used to use before. For that to be accurate and detailed, I’ll have to talk to Mr. Rahman himself. Hopefully, sometime in the future 🙂 The experience of listening to a Rahman album has changed now, which I wanted to put up.

    Ladio doesn’t work for me on a personal level.

    Oh, I think Rahman is the best when it comes to how to make his songs sound. It is the whole use of computer sounds, mixing the song and mastering it. He knows how to best make use of effects.

    No, I don’t mean to say Rahman has to do the same things that he did in the 90s, then he would find himself doing the same things and there would be no joy 😀 What I mean is that Santhosh is doing similar things to Rahman in the 90s. What Rahman has to do is invest time because I honestly believe that with once again given time to express himself, he’ll deliver better and more beautiful albums.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks for the reply. I think you’re mistaken. The gear I was speaking about was yours and of course not Rahman’s 😉 I know what is being used there 😀 What do you use? Your listening gear!

      Quoting you:
      “Oh, I think Rahman is the best when it comes to how to make his songs sound. It is the whole use of computer sounds, mixing the song and mastering it. He knows how to best make use of effects”.

      This is what I wanted to know! What was your perception about his sound production. You should get in touch with his closer aides, in the form of now Ranjit Barot or the senior staff @ KMMC or Srinivasa Murthy himself to know more about his sound production. I am not here to lecture anything 😀

      If you find Santhosh doing better things which attract your listening senses, You are more than welcome to stick to Santhosh. Similarly, to say Rahman is inexpressive or ignorable or other adjectives to your liking is plain absurd.

      As I said, the article is heart warming when it comes to the execution but lacks musicality as a whole. Maybe you should dig deeper to know few technical details about Music, Sound, Listening gear, Sound production. It will add up to your writing expertise which will deliver decent true to the form articles rather than trying to be decent sounding articles 🙂

      Good Luck!

  7. I would have agreed with you, if you had written the same back in 2009 or 2010! But not the POST-ROCKSTAR era!!

    You almost said that, ARR’s early sound was a juxtaposition of MJ and Ilaiyaraaja! There was no ILAIYARAAJA at all in the early ARR ‘sound’!

    You also say that the early ARR sound would have made John Williams proud! That was very very lame! You probably don’t acknowledge the depth of John Williams’ scores! ARR only tried to sound like Williams!! Yes, there were definitely efforts to sound like him!! But John Williams’ music was light years ahead of what ARR did in the background scores of ‘Thiruda Thiruda’, ‘Yodha’ or ‘Roja’. The harmonic and contrapuntal depth of Williams is still a subject of study for his contemporaries. ARR himself would find those efforts lame, looking back now!

    However, the ARR of 2014, may succeed in getting a compliment from Williams for ‘Rana’s Dream’ (Kochadaiiyaan). The brilliance in Rana’s Dream is a product of ARR’s study over the years! It proves how phenomenally ARR has evolved as a composer since from 1993 (Thiruda Thiruda days)

    Secondly, ARR’s perception of film music has changed over the years.ARR completely surrenders to the script and delivers accordingly, instead of being selfish about the way the songs shapes up!

    Thirdly, I feel, the whole point of the article was to highlight Santosh Narayanan. When I started reading the article itself, I sensed that you would certainly mention Santosh Narayanan somewhere! And Oh God! My guess was absolutely right!

    Oh yes! I too enjoy Santosh Narayanan’s music; he does try to experiment! But in no way, he is in the path of succeeding ARR or IR!! Santosh’s experimentation is just plain juxtaposition of billboard influenced sounds with ordinary, above average and sometimes dreary tunes! The music is ‘produced’ well! This deceives the normal listener!! You are contradicting your OWN examples about the TOFFEE cover by praising Santosh!

    You have contradicted your statements more than once! You have mentioned ARR’s ‘Ennavale’, ‘Thanga Thamarai Magale’ and ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai’. But there is NO Santosh Narayanan melody on the lines of these!! But you still claim that Santosh is on the same road as ARR and IR were!! Probably, Santosh’s ‘TOFFEE COVER’ has done the trick on you!

    No offense to Santosh! I really enjoyed what he did in ‘Jigarthanda’ and ‘Madras’. I also like ‘Prabalamagavey’. But he is no way, in the league of ARR and IR who have meticulously studied classical music (Both eastern and western) and employed them to produce timeless masterpieces!

    Not being on the league of IR and ARR does not make him bad! Santosh is good and will definitely have an excellent run in Tamil Cinema.

    I have no offense against you too! Reading your article, I understand how big a Rahman fan you are, and like many of us, how you have grown up with his music!! I agree with your views on ‘Mersalaayitten’, but not on ‘Ennodu Nee Irundhaal’ , ‘Highway’ and ‘Kaaviya Thalaivan’.

  8. This is quite a read. But the criteria you demand from ARR is, I feel, way too high. His current run cannot be expected to match up with his early works, for reasons that are already discussed here. I think what has changed from the 90s is is his entire album used to be awesome, now it’s been reduced to one or two songs in it, that much is apparent. I’m sure there are only very few artists in history, maybe like the ones you referenced, who’d always lived up to the standards they set themselves early in their career. It’s not like every album they ever released was a work of genius, is it? I’d say we may have to critique it for what it is rather than asking the artist to dish out instant classics like he did once. Not sure about I, but Kaaviya Thalaivan might hold up well in coming years. Ignorable, horrible are too harsh a word to describe Rahman.

    Plus, your piece works fine on its own, you need not have Rangan’s piece quoted here whose opinions are occasionally a little more than lofty.

  9. Great write-up!
     
    I felt everything you have mentioned in the article.. EXCEPT.. Santosh Narayanan
     
    I am hearing so much about SN and also trying so hard to loop and listen to his albums to love something. The novel experimentation is commendable, but I just don’t find a spiritual soul to any of his songs. As I am writing, I am struggling to recall names of any songs I listened to in the 4-5 albums I have gone through.
     
    The only other composer apart from Rahman who has caused that spiritual “knock-out” feeling inside when listening to the song is Amit Trivedi (listening to Udaan is like a pilgrimage to Heaven and back!). Not sure how to describe the feeling you get when you listen to AR or Amit. You just close your eyes and float away and some angel is holding you and guiding you and then you open your eyes when the song fades out and see the jarring ordinariness of the real world. THAT is how powerful Rahman’s music used to be!
     
    That introvert, shy man that liked to go into his own shell and prayer and call upon his Sufi spirit to guide his tunes and setting the heart of a song. Where is that Rahman? Where is that brilliance in “Oh Palanhare” that could make one weep?? Whatever happened to him that things like “Oru Koodai Sunlight” and “Mersalaitten” can be made? Is it too much mingling with L.A friends? Is it too much Auto-tune reliance? Is it the stepping away from a Sufi inner soul to guide tunes and rather letting bizzare collaborations (Mick Jagger) guide his tunes into the next generation? Or is it just us caught in some romantic sentimentalism of that early Rahman sound and unwilling to accommodate departures?

  10. AR Rahmans throne has been captured by other musicians…the fall of Rahman….. such absurd statements !!!! No other composer has kept on reinventing like this all these years…. watched I and fell in love with all the songs including mersalayitten which you termed as horrible…that song is one of the best aspects of the film… Rahmans works deserves to be judged by those who are extremely proficient in music… what he creates today is absolutely loved by the majority and will be celebrated by all in years to come

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