It’s been 20 years since A.R. Rahman burst onto the scene with Roja. Here’s a look at the man who brought a new idiom and vocabulary to Indian film music.

They say that music affects the way we live. Our thoughts, our joys and sorrows, the way we think and the way we dance; all of it moving to the unending melodies and patterns of the soundtrack of our lives. In our country, this particular soundtrack has been crafted by a master magician over the past two decades. This particular individual has achieved certain things unimagined, constructing a web so expansive that the entire world has now been moved by his music. You can hear his music everywhere — from little villages in the Indian countryside to some of the most expensive performance venues in London’s West End. His musical output can present itself to you in little-known commercial jingles or even the incidental soundtrack of “An Accidental Husband”.

Most of us willingly search for his music, craving its warmth, its musical richness, its subtlety and its uncanny ability to reach deep within our hearts. A.R. Rahman is undoubtedly one of the few Indians who has achieved that critical transition from being a national icon to being a globally bankable musician. And all this for a reticent, deeply focussed composer ensconced behind a studio console in Kodambakkam.

Rahman is one of those composers who require little analysis. Every aspect of his oeuvre has already been examined and written about. He is among the few composers who has had books written about him while still in his 40s. His collaborations are far too many for one article to encompass but include the world’s best known musicians. The Roja man has come a staggeringly long way since that classic soundtrack emerged in the early 1990s. The dizzying heights of international stardom and multiple accolades aside, this analysis looks at his musical trajectory to comb for insights into that beautiful mind.

Game changer

To visualise Rahman’s music is to be cushioned by a ‘bed of sound’ — a hitherto unpredicted marriage of electronics with aesthetics. The music assails your senses, calming the mind in one magnificent sweep of transcendental sound. Each layer of carefully woven musical texture subsequently unfurls. An instinctive craftsman, each layer of instrumentation and voice is carefully proportioned. For instance, close your eyes and think of the theme song from Bombay for a delectable moment. The ‘bed of sound’ formed by string instruments in the lower registers open the first few bars, while a seductive flute softly announces itself slightly later. The piece broadens to herald the arrival of a welcomingly understated percussion before the entire string section takes over, each element enjoying adequate deliberation. To some extent, this loyalty to sonic proportion has proven highly popular to a global audience and continues to be one of his greatest assets.

This quest for elegance in sound and avoiding excess in every aspect has also prompted this master musician to introduce new voices into our lives. Indeed, Rahman can be credited with an entirely new paradigm where the voice becomes an ingredient to the whole, rather, being the basis of the composition. Who can forget Minmini’s ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ from Roja or Shahul Hameed in ‘Usilampatti’ from Gentleman? Or Chinmayi’s haunting rendition of ‘Oru Deivam Thantha’ (Kannathil Muthamittal), Naresh Iyer’s brilliance in ‘Roobaroo’ (Rang De Basanti), Rashid Ali in ‘Aditi’ (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) or Benny’s youthfully exuberant style across multiple tracks?

Rahman’s talent for variety has seen the use of some of our best known classical vocalists: Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashri, Nithyashree Mahadevan and Kalyani Menon to name a few. Neither has he ignored the iconic Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and K.S. Chitra who can all be heard in multiple albums.

Significantly, classical music finds its place in Rahman’s compositional graph quite frequently. From early forays using classical motifs in songs such as ‘Narumugaye’ (from Iruvar, featuring the voices of Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayashri) or the soulfully melodious ‘Uyirum Neeye’ (from Pavithra, featuring Unnikrishnan’s voice) his tryst with classical music continues with the use of Hindustani elements overlayed with Sufi overtones in Jodha Akbar. Indeed, Rahman could possibly be credited with acclimatising today’s GenNext to a contextualised version of Indian classical sound.

Rahman’s strength in picking a phenomenally gifted team of professionals and fostering team play is another hallmark of a leader. His stable has catapulted several instrumental talents to the fore — Naveen (flute), Navin Iyer (flute), Keith Peters (bass guitar), Sivamani (percussion), Sanjeev Thomas (guitar) and Rashid Ali (guitar) among others. Sound engineers such as the late H. Sridhar, K.J. Singh and Resul Pookutty have also become personalities in their own right; the last being an Oscar winner himself.

Exploration and adventure

Perhaps a striking feature in Rahman’s music is the boldness of its design. In combining sounds, instruments, effects and voices that are unconventional and unique, Rahman proves himself to be a true explorer and adventurer. In ‘Masakkali’, a strident accordion embeds itself on rapidly ascending strings acoustically treated to be reminiscent of the sort of orchestral accompaniment that characterised the 1960s and 1970s film scores. In ‘Rasaathi’ (Thiruda Thiruda), instruments disappear completely and the entire song is rendered by voices singing a capella. As the real protagonist of Raavan (by Mani Ratnam) falls down a ravine to his death, a slow and haunting refrain winds its way into our ears, breaking our hearts with its unexpected softness. As crowds succumb to brute force and political injustice during a peace rally in Rang De Basanti, soft chords on the piano welcome the painfully beautiful ‘Khoon Chala’, surprising us once again with its complete avoidance of melodrama.

Rahman’s ability to work endless hours (there are several stories on the beat about meetings that take place in the wee hours of the morning), multi-task and visualise musical realities that transcend boundaries are perhaps just a few contributory factors to his success. For him, being innovative is a pursuit rather than a trait. Indeed, it takes a very rare mind to conceptualise each project as though for the first time, shedding ego and preconception so completely.

The Oscars, the Grammys, the BAFTAs notwithstanding, Rahman’s presence in the public consciousness of nearly half of today’s world has justified his inclusion into the list of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine. In recent times, he is among the handful in India who has achieved such pre-eminence.

It is difficult to fault Rahman. Driven compulsively to discover new sounds and meanings, he seems invincible. Rahman competes only with himself, constantly resetting the rules of his own game.

And still continues to grow, a feat that only he renders possible.