As A R Rahman turns 50, I think there are two things unique about his contributions in the field of Indian film music. One – he used human voice as just another instrument. He brought in the singers, had them record and used their voices as he pleased. Two – he started crediting musicians on the album labels. Musicians like flautist Naveen and drummer Sivamani had become household names.
First was his biggest and most disruptive contribution though. Human voice was considered to be pristine and divine in the film music until Rahman came in. One could not imagine playing around the vocals with the electronics. You could do that to guitar or violin, but not to the vocals. The singers could make sounds that are funny and weird which was considered to be a talent but no one was allowed to touch their voice and mix it electronically. Rahman broke those rules slowly and steadily. The monopoly of the singers were about to be crunched (and when I say vocals as an instrument, I’m not talking about harmonies or a’capella or western choir settings in the music; Ilaiyaraja had already done that).
Many credit Rahman for bringing in the elements of western music to the Indian film music, but he wasn’t the first do that. Again, there was Ilaiyaraja with whatever little exposure he had to the different kinds of music available back at a time when the world wasn’t this open. Maybe Rahman experiemented a bit too much with instruments and different styles of music that the musical identity that he consiously created was soon lost to others who followed this ‘technique’. As a result, in the initial days of Harris Jeyaraj, one could not tell apart the difference between Jeyaraj and Rahman. The arrangement and approach were just about the same. Which makes one wonder whether Rahman was more of a musical arranger than a composer, though the difference between the two is a fine thin line. There is no ‘Rahman sound’ in the film music, just as there is no Harris Jeyaraj sound or Yuvan Shankar Raja sound. They all seem to follow the same pattern and technique, and are failing to make a mark of their own (and I’m not talking about popularity here).
Post-Oscars, Rahman seems to be in a quest to find his own identity in his music. Off late, his music seems to be veering away from the populist lines, but it doesn’t look like he has found it yet. Maybe, the influence of sufism is the kind of identity that he should further explore, like Folk is to Ilaiyaraja, but he is not yet ready to take that up.
That said, I end this note with one of his songs, one in many years that is still ringing in my ears.