Its sublime! It’s moving! It’s simply beyond words! That’s how I describe AR Rahman’s music. Honestly, I think that no language in the world has the appropriate vocabulary that cam shower enough praise on his works!
I have been a fan of Rahman from his Roja days. Of course, by then, he had given music to quite a few advertisements, but I didn’t know that. But somehow, I distinctively remember my first encounter with his music.
This must have been way back in 1992, because that’s when Roja released. I remember the one-room house we had. Actually, the house had several rooms, but I, my mom and my dad were given one single room to live. The house actually belonged to my grandfather, but my father and his brothers had occupied different parts of it. But that’s beside the point now. It’s all about what I remember about that fateful night.
I must have been about just eight years old back then. There were only two television channels then: Doordarshan (DD 1) and the Metro channel (DD Metro or DD 2), the latter being the more entertaining of the two.
It was on DD 1 that we first saw a programme called Superhit Muqabla, initially hosted by Baba Sehgal. I remember that I was helping my parents (my mother was alive then) put up a mosquito net around our bed when I heard that totally different song. It didn’t seem like a song at first. The melody was intriguing, but it was different from every other song till then. And I was hooked!
It was the song Rukmani Rukmani from the film Roja that had set the tone. Years later, when one of my maternal uncles told me that he found the song vulgar, I put forward to him the song Yeh Haseen Wadiyan from the same film. It was equally ’vulgar’ in picturisation, but much more melodious. He was almost forced to concede defeat!
Then came Bombay, the film, and I was almost moved to tears by Kehna Hi Kya. Only later did I learn about Tu Hi Re, and it increased my admiration for Rahman. Apparently, he had asked his sound engineer to remove all the sounds of breathing from Tu Hi Re, and after this had been done, had heard the song, and felt that its soul had gone out of it! He then asked his sound engineer to re-incorporate all of those sounds!
And then there was Dil Se, the film. Chhaiya Chhaiya was such a big hit that it was chosen as the ninth song among the Top 10 Songs of the Century by BBC Radio in a poll! The song Dil Se became my dad’s favourite, and for several years, served as one of the few common factors between an adolescent boy (me) and his father. Just for him did I, from the time caller tunes were introduced till sometime in mid-2010, keep the song as my caller tune.
Somewhere in between came Rangeela, Rahman’s first entirely original Hindi score, and it scored with me too! I remember Asha Bhonsle speaking in an interview of how Tanha Tanha, the song that almost reinvented her voice, was recorded.
I’m almost paraphrasing her interview here, because I don’t remember the exact words she used, but this is what she roughly said. "(Ram Gopal) Varma brought to me the music composer [Rahman] and introduced us. The music composer then told me about the song, took me to the bathroom, played a single track with just a flute playing in the background, and said, ’Amma, gao’. And amma sang."
A few days later, Asha Bhosle apparently went on a world tour for a month or two. When she returned, she was inundated with messages congratulating her for the success of her new song. However, when she heard Tanha Tanha for the first time, she didn’t even recognise it as her own voice, she later confessed!
By this time, and especially by the end of the 20th century, his detractors had begun saying that Rahman’s music had become cliched, that he could only produce ’westernised’ music, that he had no touch with his Indian roots. My rebuttal was to just get these people to listen to Hai Rama from Rangeela. The music of this song was so deeply rooted into Indian classical music that I easily won the argument.
I didn’t have to stand up for him in the 21st century. His music did most of the talking for him.
However, I still have a regret. I do not know Tamil or Telugu, two languages in which Rahman composes most of his music. Without any understanding of these two languages, I have half the access to his songs. And yet, I happen to enjoy the songs from Kandukondain Kandukondain, Alaipayidhey and Rahman’s other creations. I guess this is how music transcends the language barrier!