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From Roja to Rahmania

It was a rainy afternoon. But my friend Sanjay Zaveri insisted that I and my wife, should accompany him to see a film called Roja. He had seen it already but wanted to share its magic with me. The film played in the Advance Theatre in Ahmedabad. So we dutifully filed in to the theatre.

It was magic. The story wasn’t much, but the songs were enchanting and different. The music was composed by A R Rahman, an unknown name. But the songs remained in my memory.

‘Choti Si Asha’, a young girl’s aspirations; Minmini’s voice floating over mountains and rivers like a bird. The deft movements and the quick turns, eventually Rahman’s signatures, could be gently felt. Experts suggest that the song reflects a variant of the reggae form of music. In ‘Ye Haseen Wadiyan’, the melodic whispering evoked the snows of Kashmir. Another Rahman signature was present in this song with sudden bursts in scale changes. ‘Rukmani’, according to the Outlook magazine, was superb, raunchy urban folk. Rahman achieved the unique feat of receiving the National Award and Tamil Filmfare Award on his debut. Time magazine rated Roja as one of the ten all-time best soundtracks.

In 1995, Rahman gave us Bombay. Its album became the largest selling Indian film album. If Roja was subdued and soft, Bombay soared in scale and tempo. In flute and violin, the Bombay theme was Rahman’s tribute to his mentor, Ilayaraja. ‘Hamma Hamma’ by Remo Fernandez was another irreverent number.

Rahman uses the flute in a sudden move to soften the interlude, a unique trait. The contrast is a respite from the heavy orchestration. ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ wraps a qawwali inside a song. The agile, animated chorus (always an integral part of Rahman’s compositions) plays a companion to the music. More than a song, Tu hi Re is a prayer. Hariharan is down on his knees; his voice saturated with despair.

Rangeela has two songs with the Rahman touch. The earthy ‘Mangta Hai Kya’ by Sweta Shetty and Rahman, and the seductive ‘Hai Rama’ by Swarnlatha and Hariharan. Rahman’s sensual songs are very understated.

In Dil Se, of 1988, Rahman exploits Lata’s high range in ‘Jiya Jale’. ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ has a robust rhythm and is exotic in the folksy voice of Sukhwinder Singh. In 1947: Earth, ‘Ruth A Gayi Re’ brings in the joy of the season, while ‘Raat Ki Dal Dal’, in the backdrop of the horror of Partition where the train carrying the dead stops at the station of death, has great pathos.

In 1999, Rahman scored the hugely popular Taal. In Lagan (2001), for which Rahman won the National Award, recurrent rendering of ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ evokes a sense of rain clouds and cloudbursts in you. In 2000, Rahman crafted another qawwali, ‘Haji Ali’. In Tere Bina from ‘Guru’ the magic is the tarana, ‘Dum dara, dum dara, mast mast’.

Rahman’s music stood out because of his musical transposition of western and classical elements. Despite being an amalgam, these elements are distinctly heard, making his sounds a multi-layered phenomenon. There is no better case in point than his rendition of Vande Mataram, which was a virile declaration of patriotism.

Rahman’s music is a point in the natural trajectory of the evolution of Indian film music. By the mid-1940s, Hindi film songs had started infusing styles from various genres, including jazz, waltz and other western and Latin American genres, with established ragas from Hindustani and Carnatic classical music and regional folk genres. In general, non-Indian elements include Western orchestral accompaniment like that used by Shankar and Jaikishan in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The next phase of evolution in Bollywood music happened in the 1960s and 1970s when composers initiated a paradigm of music-making emphasising rhythm rather than traditional melodies. Music composers during this time incorporated traditional folk and classical songs with upbeat rhythms in tune with the changing trends in Indian society towards dance and other forms of expression. R. D. Burman was untrained in classical music and drew inspiration from world music exposure.

In the 1990s, Rahman composed songs inspired by Sufism. For example, he collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to create the piece “Gurus of Peace” (1997) labelled as “Indipop” in the Indian media. Rahman’s composition, “Khwaja Mere Khwaja,” is dedicated to the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Rahman’s Sufi music contains qawwali elements and is a unique blend of Bollywood and global pop music that sonically signifies modernity among transnational consumers of Sufi music.

A. R. Rahman’s adoption of technology was a strategic decision. With the ability to store and sample sounds using digital software systems, Rahman was able to control nearly all aspects of musical arrangements and sound production. In an interview with Apple Inc., Rahman shares how Logic, an Apple software, enables him to become a “programmer” who can manipulate sounds to produce a song. His on-the-spot compositional techniques promote creativity as musicians are encouraged to perform more freely during the recording process. Rahman prefers to record a single performer rather than an entire orchestral ensemble in a single go.

Due to a diverse musical background, Rahman appropriates numerous western and Indian styles and genres into his musical compositions that, in turn, appeal to Indian cosmopolitans, urban youth populations throughout the world and a wider global audience. The first opening moments of “Jai Ho” give listeners a sense that this song is not a typical western pop song. “Jai Ho” incorporates a string orchestra (comprised of an entire string section with basses, cellos, violas and violins) at sporadic moments in the song to emphasise certain melodic lines. Sometimes the strings can be hard to hear and are often mixed well within the overall texture of various instruments and drums.

Rahman’s songs for the Slumdog Millionaire challenge current notions of genre in India. It has been suggested that (1) Rahman’s music has many similarities with Indipop, born in the 1980s. Indipop emerged to challenge the hegemony of popular film songs and has a “preference for guitars and drums. Experts point out that Rahman adds simulated Japanese taiko drums and the dholak to create an overall thunderous rhythmic quality in “Jai Ho”. Rahman, unlike older film music directors, chooses to use musical aesthetics found in non-film based genres such as techno and rock, to create a highly synthesised, electronically grounded style for his film music and to attract younger, urban middle-class Indian audiences who are the vast majority of the “remix” dance music genre (and Indipop) fans of India. Rahman mixes sounds that include Indipop, techno, and melodic tunes from regional Indian traditions and a diverse array of traditional western and Indian instrumentation to produce desired effects.

As transnational listeners become increasingly familiar with Rahman’s music through Slumdog Millionaire, they join an expanding urban middle-class youth population in India and the diaspora, Rahman’s aficionados. Rahman was an unknown name in the American mainstream before the 2009 Academy Awards. British audiences were familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams of 2006. The Oscar success of Slumdog Millionaire made Rahman a star and gave him commercial traction in the US. iTunes and made Rahman’s music more accessible to western audiences. After the Oscar, Rahman’s older compositions were immediately redistributed on separate compilation albums. Rahman’s expertise in digital technology and synthesising sounds in ways to produce music that appeals to a global pop music audience makes his music less recognisable as a distinct genre. One editorial review for MTV describes the music for Slumdog Millionaire as a “hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind”. Rahman’s music is often described as a “fusion”, a term used to connote Asian-ness within American culture.

At the beginning of Jai Ho, a movie about Rahman, he says: ‘If music wakes you up, makes you think, heals you, I guess the music is working’. Listening to Rahman certainly makes you think that his music does more than work.

References 1. Master’s Thesis by Stephanie Lou Jackson, Submitted to the Bowling Green State University, August 2010

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