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.
I have high regards for composer Ilaiyaraja. Of late, however, the maestro has begun to show some sort of musical sterility in his works. There is no variety or fresh approach in his music anymore. His music doesn’t move you or excite you much these days, even in his trademark melodious tunes. Perhaps this could be one reason why A R Rahman got more popular than Ilaiyaraja, because ARR kept improvising throughout his career. Also Ilaiyaraja has been recycling his old tunes for new movies. His Hindi music scores for the films like “Cheeni Kum” and “Paa” are good examples of this.
When I heard the songs from the movie Pazhassiraja, composed by Ilaiyaraja, it did not move me a bit. Ilaiyaraja’s music for this epic movie was disappointing and average. Usually the movies directed by Hariharan would have some great songs. But this one was a huge let down.
But now the composer is blaming the lyricist over one particular song from Pazhassiraja. Ilaiyaraja said that he is dissatisfied with poet ONV Kurup’s lyrics for the film and he spoke about it at the audio release of the Tamil version of the film at Chennai.
According to the music director, ONV was unable to write the lyrics for a tune that had been selected by Hariharan, from among several tunes that Ilaiyaraja had presented before him. A few months later, the director had approached Ilaiyaraja again with lyrics that had been written by the famous lyricist, and had asked him to compose a tune for the same.
Ilaiyaraja said that the lyrics had the manner of a march past anthem. It had none of the anguish experienced by the warrior. Probably the lyricist must have had a different picture of Pazhassi in his mind, he added. [via]
I think it is up to the director and script writer to decide what kind of lyrics they want for a situation in the film. In this case, it seems that both the director and script writer do not have any problem with the lyrics penned by ONV. Then why should the composer have any issues? Or is it his way of covering up his inability to come up with a good tune for the lines that ONV wrote?
PS: The song Gum Sum from the Hindi movie Paa is a tune composed by Ilaiyaraja for an old Malayalam song (Thumpee Vaa). The original Malayalam lyrics for that song was written by ONV and most of us Malayalees listen to that song equally for it’s poetic beauty.