Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rahman Rhapsody

A.R. Rahman is a "world" musician, but minus the banality -- devoid of personality -- that term implies. In that sense he is at the summit of various traditions of Indian popular (especially film) music, which have always been open to sounds, beats and tropes from all over the world. And in fact I would go so far as to say that "open" is too closed, too definitive a word (in that it purports to demarcate cleanly an inside and an outside), given that what we have is a process of creative appropriation, whereby that which might once have been imagined as foreign ends up by being the ne plus ultra of Indianness.

Rahman encapsulates this tendency nicely (though his technical virtuosity, his facility for "clean" sounds combined with raw and distinctive vocal medleys puts him in a class apart), ranging effortlessly as he does through qawwali (phillumy ones! but also Arabicized ones, as in "Zikr"), neo-classical melanges (as in the song "Alai Payuthey" or in certain tracks from Sangamam; "Chodo Mori Baiyyan" from Zubeida shows that Hindustani or Carnatic, all are equally grist for his mill), folk (the rest of the songs in the amazingly rich Sangamam) lyrical ballads, transcendent genre-benders (such as "Anaarkali" in Kangalal Kaidhu Sei), instrumentals, the sheer, unsurpassed cool of Kaadhal Virus (or unsurpassed only until I encountered the dazzling "Fanaa" from Aayudha Ezhuthu), heck even un peu de Mozart (mid-way through "Veerapandi Kotayilae"). It is thus not odd but fitting that Rahman loves to take singers "out" of their comfort zone (for instance, by using Hindi/Urdu singers like Udit Narayan, Adnan Sami Khan, and (perhaps even) Vasundhara Das in Tamil songs for films like Ratchagan; Boys and Aayudha Ezhuthu/Yuva; and Kaadhal Virus, respectively; and equally by having several Tamil singers sing in Hindi).  If the man has a musical schema, it is to hold up a mirror -- in which one beholds oneself in the image of another...

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