Recently I was asked to write a piece on A.R. Rahman for the New Indian Express' Sunday edition, as part of a year-end issue on famous "South Indian" personalities. The article may be found here (see here too), and I paste it below as well. Many thanks to Baradwaj Rangan for giving me this opportunity: your gifts in reviewing films are matched by your generosity.
New Indian Express on Sunday
Online timestamp: Friday December 29 2006 15:25 IST
I had never listened to a Tamil song when I walked into a Tower Records store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the summer of 2002 — not because I didn’t want to but because the thought that this was something I might enjoy doing had never occurred to me. Tamil film songs — and more generally, Tamil or any other “regional” cinema — were simply invisible to me. More broadly, Indian films and the music associated with them were pretty invisible in New York, patronised almost exclusively by the city’s large desi population, itself segmented into audiences for one’s “own” language. The “India” section of the “World Music” category at mainstream music stores and chains like Tower Records or Virgin consisted of the usual suspects: Zakir Hussain, Ravi Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (often misclassified with Middle Eastern music), and other assorted classical musicians. One might also have found various lounge and club refugees, straddling the border between ambient music and traditional song, the “world” part of their music consisting of allegiance to a global — and often rather generic — club/lounge musical culture.
Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but what was unusual about this trip to my neighbourhood Tower Records store was that the “India” section included an album called Mondo India — AR Rahman. Clearly designed for an audience unfamiliar with Indian film music, and with explanatory liner notes, the CD contained about ten Rahman songs — from Tamil films like Sangamam, Iruvar, Alai Payuthey, Thenali, and the odd Hindi song from Zubeidaa. Needless to say I bought the CD, and the sounds in my apartment have never been the same, bearing witness to a continuing love affair with Tamil (and Malayalam, and to a limited extent Telugu) cinema and its music, by now encompassing not only every Rahman album in whatever language, but also the work of other contemporary composers, such as Yuvan Shankar Raja, Harris Jayaraj, Devi Sri Prasad, and of course the ageless grand-daddy of them all, Ilaiyaraja.
But it’s worth returning to the thought that first struck me when Varaga Nathi from Sangamam started playing: how could this music possibly be heard across cultural barriers? Or more accurately: what about this music rendered it accessible not only to Hindi and Urdu-speakers like me but to people who had never heard a film song, let alone ones in languages they didn’t understand (to the point that Time Magazine's Richard Corliss named Roja to his list of all-time great soundtracks)? It is often noted that Rahman’s strengths are great orchestration and outstanding production values, almost as if his technical wizardry were somewhat of an interloper in the realm of “pure” film music. But the truth of the observation about Rahman’s technical wizardry, far from diminishing the extent of his achievement, highlights it. For Rahman took what was essentially a tunefying art, traditionally dependent upon legendary vocalists like Rafi, Yesudas, Mukesh, Kishore, Lata, Asha, S Janaki and others to imbue a pleasing tune with musical unforgettability, and in his best work transformed it into a piece.
That is to say, Rahman saw himself — perhaps always but doubtless increasingly so from the mid-1990s onward — not as a creator of songs but as a maker of music. The songs shaded into soundscapes, and the characteristic multi-layered feel rendered the best of them susceptible to a sort of auditory archaeology: each layer possessed its own musical logic and instrumentation, and the net effect was a smorgasbord of sound. If the above sounds like something one might say for a classical or other “high brow” musician rather than the guy who gets Vasundhara Das to croon so sexily in Hey Hey Enna Aachi from Kaadal Virus, it is so by design. For Rahman is no “mere” purveyor of songs — and not because there is anything slight or trivial about Indian culture’s vast heritage of popular, film or folk songs — but because, by this late date, “tunefication” is played out, perhaps exhausted, but certainly brought to its logical conclusion by Rahman’s illustrious predecessors. Faced with the prospect of mere repetition and replication of a great tradition, it is not surprising that Rahman chose to adopt a different path.
The primacy of “music” over “song” goes a long way toward explaining Rahman’s growing acclaim among far-flung audiences. Some have posited a Western sensibility on Rahman’s part — at odds with some imagined Indianness — but it would be fairer to say that Rahman’s focus on a musically “total” experience straddles the (always problematic) divide between “high-brow” and “popular” music. The latter is far more likely to be culturally specific, inaccessible to those who are unfamiliar with the language or cultural context; the pleasures of the former are more difficult, but at the same time the combination of musical virtuosity and the comprehensive nature of the experience offered is impressionistically appealing, even to those (like me) who have no firm grounding in classical music. It is thus no surprise that Indian classical musicians have acquired a far more substantial audience in the West than Bollywood music ever has. (Bollywood’s recent profile in the West is partly a result of people like Rahman, and cannot meaningfully be said to be a cause of Rahman’s growing, albeit niche, appeal.) The qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is an even better example of a difficult yet holistic — and utterly compelling — musical form in rhythmic sync with contemporary tastes beyond just those of “native” audiences. Rahman partakes of this ethos, and while he is not the first of India’s popular composers to do this — RD Burman comes to mind, and also Ilaiyaraja — he is the most consistently devoted to it.
And then there is the question of Rahman’s cosmopolitanism — the open texture of his music, inviting in newer ears rather than shutting them out. He is truly a “world” musician, but minus the banality — devoid of personality — that the term implies. This catholicity itself shows that he has imbibed an awful lot, indeed more than from any other source, from the 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 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. He ranges effortlessly through qawwali (filmi ones, as in Noor-un-Aala from Meenaxi, but also Arabicised ones, as in Zikr from Bose), neo-classical mélanges (as in the song Alai Payuthey from the film of the same name, or in certain tracks from Sangamam; add Chhodo Mori Baiyyan from Zubeidaa and it is clear that Hindustani or Carnatic, all are equally grist for his mill), folk (the rest of the songs in the amazingly rich Sangamam), lyrical ballads (Ye Jo Des Hai Tera from Swades), transcendent genre-benders (such as Anaarkali in Kangalal Kaidhu Sei; a remixed version of Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se opens (and closes) the proceedings in Spike Lee’s The Inside Man), instrumentals (Rahman’s haunting Bombay instrumental recently showed up in the Hollywood film Lord of War, as well as in some unlikely places, such as the French Volvic ads featuring Zinedine Zidane), the melodious (just about anything in Karuthamma), the singular (the unforgettable Raasaathi from Thiruda Thiruda, and more urgently — but less radically — the Mangal Mangal triptych from Mangal Pandey, the album itself a primer on masala music), the exotic (Mayya Mayya from Guru), the pop (Vande Mataram from the album of the same name), the frankly foreign (Warriors of Heaven and Earth), heck even un peu de Mozart (midway through Veerapandi Kottayilae from Thiruda Thiruda).
Just about everyone may find something recognisable in Rahman’s music, a hook to latch on to, and it is hard not to attribute at least some part of Rahman’s popularity to his alchemist’s ability to take what we already know — or think we do — and transmute it into something rich and strange. And there’s a recording studio analogue to this too: Rahman loves to take singers “out” of their comfort zone (for instance, by using Hindi/Urdu singers like Udit Narayan and Adnan Sami in Tamil songs for films like Ratchagan, Boys and Aayitha Ezhuthu; and equally by having several Tamil singers sing in Hindi). Be it in the sounds or in Rahman’s choice of vocalists, if the man has a musical schema, it is to hold up a mirror — in which one beholds oneself in the image of another, not oneself so much as another.
When not deriving great pleasure from Hindi and Tamil cinema or blogging at qalandari.blogspot.com, the author makes a living as a lawyer in New York City
[Note: The bolded portions above did not appear in the print edition of the piece, and were subsequently added, because they make the point about Rahman's crossover appeal nicely].