Article Tamil

AR Rahman @ 51: Genius who came to symbolize our times

The composer, who celebrated his 51st birthday on the weekend, is a truly global and yet intensely local artiste.

R Mahadevan

Say AR Rahman and almost the first thought you get is Roja. That was his first movie as music director, and it gave him a reputation like few first films do.

For the wider world, the music of Roja (1992) was indeed a revelation, and its popularity showed the universal acceptance of a new musical style, almost a new world view, indicative of the way the world was becoming smaller.

But Rahman's ability to bring together different musical styles was evident even in the jingles that he produced in the years before his entry into the domain of movie music.

His father, RK Shekhar, was also a respected music director, especially in Malayalam cinema, and Rahman, who was then Dileep, had assisted him since childhood. Later, Rahman worked with other music directors such as KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja.

By the time he came to compose his own music, Rahman had a well-formed aesthetic that summoned an audience that was ready for it.

The tremendous success of Roja was followed in quick succession by other movies such as Gentleman (1993), Pudhiya Mugam (1993), Duet (1994) and Kadhalan (1994), which established Rahman as not just the new kid on the block but a serious talent.

One of the notable features of Rahman’s music, at least in his early films, was the underlying theme, whether it was instrumental or generic. The movie Duet was suffused with saxophone music and Thiruda Thiruda (1993) by some wonderful Western and symphonic compositions in 'Thee Thee', 'Veerapandi Kottayile' and 'Chandralekha'.

In spite of the obvious Western orientation of his music, all his initial movies also had romantic tunes that showed an easy fusion of the Indian and Western. With his Western training, his wide exposure to ragas and to Sufi music, and his penchant for experimentation, the songs reflected exotic combinations of tunes and instrumentation that, with Rahman, somehow sat just right. Add to this his background as a sound engineer and his insistence on getting the smallest detail right, and the result was a faultless mix of music and recording quality.

Rahman’s command of rural and folk idioms was established by movies such as Kizhakku Cheemayile (1993) and Karuthamma (1995), with the latter showing his ability to seamlessly cross genres and produce hypnotic music, as with 'Thenmerku Paruva Katru' and 'Porale Ponnuthayi', the tune of which reappeared in his phenomenally successful album, Vande Mataram.

Rahman has seemed, over the years, to reserve some of his best work for Mani Ratnam, whose next movie, Bombay (1995), took Rahman to the top of the Indian film music firmament. The album sold 15 million copies and was followed later that year by Rahman’s first original Hindi movie, Rangeela, which sold over 10 million copies.

This was the time when with virtually every movie, Rahman produced music that was not just eclectic and catchy but worthy of deep analysis. With every movie, he moved things forward in ways previously not done. Over the years, he has produced memorable music in films such as Minsara Kanavu (1997), Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), Zubeida (2001), Lagaan (2001), Yuva (2004) and O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), to mention just a random handful.

However, even today, to those who have listened to Rahman’s music from the beginning, the music of the 1990s remains his best, what with the continuous inventiveness in terms of music ideation, creation and production.

Rahman has never been one to mechanically produce music. His work is characterized by his slow pace and attention to detail. He has generally preferred to work on one album at a time. His music for Iruvar (1997), Mani Ratnam’s classic on the MG Ramachandran-M Karunanidhi dynamic, remains stunning even today for the way it uses totally modern instrumentation to produce the aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s.

His work has over the years been heard and appreciated all over the world, especially after his Oscar-winning exploits in 2008's Slumdog Millionaire (though many would insist that his early work was better and more deserving of the award!).

In recent years, Rahman has focused his attention on his international projects, taking his uniquely syncretic approach to both the West and the East. There is this less known album of his, for the Chinese movie Warriors Of Heaven And Earth, which captures the Chinese idiom and places it in an international context that makes it possible and easy for everyone to appreciate. Search YouTube, and you will find videos of Rahman performing his own compositions in Western classical settings that seem as natural as can be.

And that is probably it — his ability to universalize the local and free the rooted in a way that doesn’t put off the familiar or confuse the initiate. Rahman’s music, especially in the Indian context, has a revelatory quality that seems to change the moment. Not that it hadn’t existed before him, but it appears accentuated in him.

It has been a kind of trope that AR Rahman’s music grows on you. Whether one goes with that or not, it is certainly true that there is a quality to his compositions that makes them seem fresh and relatable even on the hundredth hearing more than two decades later.

In a sense, Rahman has been history’s child. His advent coincided with the multimedia boom, when people were beginning to get to know the larger world and be receptive to outside influences. But it perhaps took a Rahman to get to grips with it. The variety of instruments he has used, the way he has so effortlessly embraced technology, the way he has brought singers into unfamiliar settings to produce acceptable layers of discomfort — in all these, he has often been the flagbearer.

The journey continues inexorably and beautifully in different directions. And to not just a few, a turn towards an older direction would be equally welcome!

R Mahadevan is a journalist and music aficionado. He was with WorldSpace Satellite Radio and now runs the online music service RadioWeb (