Am I talking about a marriage here? Sort of. Has this got something to do with the latest ruling on marriages in the United States? Absolutely not! Nevertheless, this has been a marriage that stood the test of time and keeps surprising us with the energy, enthusiasm and of course, the creativity.
I am talking about none other than the AR Rahman Mani Ratnam combination here. I heard the sound track of Roja sometime in 1992 when I knew absolutely nothing about music. Not that the situation is any different now! But boy I was hooked to the guy who made music for Roja. Those days, Puthu Vellaimazhai, Kaadhal Rojave, Chinna Chinna Aasai and Rukumani were on a loop. Everyone says that AR Rahman’s music grows on you and you wouldn’t like any song at your first hearing. I must say that it is true to some extent, but more than that, as you listen carefully, you will see (see or hear?) that there is a lot of layering in his arrangement. At each hearing, you are bound to discover something new in the composition.
Though not from the ARR-Mani Ratnam parnership, another delightful soundtrack that ARR had composed was May Maadham (1992) with Marghazhi Poove having everyone hooked. That track mixes the omnipresent Venkateshwara Suprabhatham with some amazing percussion and melodious singing to please the ears.
These tracks and the other tracks that ARR came up with kind of influenced the way I thought about music. I would like to reiterate that my knowledge of music is zero apart from singing a couple of times in the church. Having said that, in those days I was an avid listener of music with a growing affinity towards Devarajan, P. Dakshinamurthy, Salil Chaudhary, Bombay Ravi, Shyam, Johnson and Raveendran.
It was at this time that Roja was released. The soundtrack became immensely popular and I began to think there was something more to music than Carnatic or what we used to call at that time ‘English music!’ This is because there is a deliberate attempt on ARR’s part to make each song unique. In this quest, he tries to go where no other composers have gone before. Thiruda Thiruda would be a fine example to further this point. After listening to the track, I realized that some of them sounded like Western Classical Music and two of the tracks had A Capella (extensive use of human vocals for instrumental notes).
The point here is that as I listened to ARR’s music, my understanding of music improved a little though not by much! In the growing up years, I began to look forward to the release of an ARR album to find out what’s new this time around. And in that process, I found out that there are more genres to music than I thought and Indian film music is just the tip of the iceberg.
Soft rock, hard rock, glam rock, punk rock, classic rock, death metal, trash metal, alternative rock – these were things that I found out after listening to ARR’s music. I also discovered artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher, George Michael, Elton John, Sting, Prince, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Richard Marx, Dr. Alban, Snow, Phil Collins, Toni Braxton, Lenny Kravitz, Lionel Richie, Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson and Bryan Adams. I began to see music in a different light with exposure to popular pop groups like REM, Duran Duran, Genesis, Police, Wham!, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Snap, Take That (the band Robie Williams belonged to), Charles & Eddi, Boyz 2 Men, Color Me Badd, The BeeGees and Inner Circle (has anyone ever heard of a band called Shakespeare’s Sisters?!).
In those days, it was rap and not hip hop or the subculture that comes with it. Most of them have quit the scene or faded away like Vanilla Ice, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Ice T, Scarface, late The Notorious B.I.G. Of course, some of them turned out alright like Jay-Z, Snoop Lion (or Dog) and if 2Pac was still alive, he would have been more popular than all of them.
Miley Cyrus’ dad, Billy Ray Cyrus was a popular country singer and topped the charts in the early 90s with a single called ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’ Some of the rock bands I explored were Guns’N’Roses, Pearl Jam, Meat Loaf, Nirvana, AC DC, Aerosmith, Air Supply, Queen, Pin Cushion, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eagles, Dire Straits and Scorpions.
Having said all this, when I hear ARR’s music, I still think my exposure in music is very limited. The soundtrack of Kadal reiterates this fact. I don’t know what’s with ARR and Mani Ratnam. Because when they team up, you get gems like Puthu Vellai Mazhai (Roja), Rasathee and Veera Pandi Kottaiyile (Thiruda Thiruda), Kannalane (Bombay), Chaiya Chaiya (Dil Se), most of the tracks from Alaipayuthe, Kannathil Muththamittal and Vellai Pookal (Kannathil Muththamittal), Sandakkozhi and Jana Gana Mana (Aaydha Ezhuthu).
And Kadal is full of those gems you discover and you are more than pleasantly surprised. Adiye is a track you would want to remember for the rest of life. This blues and gospel music-influenced sound track is sung by the wonderful Sid Sriram. He is too good. Moongil Thottam is another track that will stay on your lips for a long time to come. I don’t know how ARR spots these talents. Abhay Jodhpurkar is versatile and from what I know of the language, his pronunciation is great. Elay Keechan is another wonderful track with a bit of reggae, a lot of harmony, country music and some timely kuthu beats thrown into the mix! Nenjukkulle is soothing to the ears and Shakthishree has done a marvelous job of it, but the track that really gives you the goosebumps is Anbin Vaasale sung by the incredibly talented Haricharan, heavily influenced by Christian gospel music with a church choirish feel. I haven’t seen Kadal yet, but I should just watch it for the visualization of the songs.
I think it is unique to Indian music directors that they can mix and match so many genres into a single song because all the directors and producers want chartbusters. But ARR has reached a position where he doesn’t have to worry about commercial compulsions. Or worry about people saying silly things like “Isn’t Amit Trivedi better than AR Rahman?” during watercooler conversations or smoke break between boring meetings in the office.
Since Roja, Mani Ratnam hasn’t worked with any music director apart from ARR and the reason is very obvious. ARR’s best is always reserved for Mani Ratnam, who gave him the first opportunity to compose music for a film. Be it Carnatic, Hindustani or Western classical, sufi, pop, rock, reggae, R&B, soul, blues, jazz, gospel, EDM or house, just listen to the soundtracks of the films ARR and Mani Ratnam collaborated on. In some of them, you will find tribal music or Middle Eastern music. And yet-to-be-discovered genres even! The mix is eclectic.
23 years on and I still haven’t lost the curiosity around an AR Rahman album release. Says a lot about the influence he has on me. And also the influence he has had on the film music scene in India all these 23 years. Only AR Rahman can set the benchmarks higher in terms of compositions, arrangements, sound engineering, production quality of tracks, technology, innovative singing techniques and discovering new singers and generally delighting music lovers in the process!
OK…Kanmani is in my loop as we speak!! Maybe it will pave way to discovering the works of an Aretha Franklin, a Janis Joplin, a BB King, a Jimi Hendrix or a Bob Marley while I am at it! Or those awesome Indian singers like Hariharan, Shankar Mahadevan, Unnimenon, Unnikrishnan, the late Shahul Hameed, Javed Ali, Abhay Jodhpurkar, Benny Dayal, Haricharan, Naresh Iyer, Karthik and the fantastic Sukhwinder Singh. Maybe even queens of melody like Minmini, the late Swarnalatha, the evergreen Chitra, Sujatha, Madhushree, Chinmayee, Shweta Mohan, Harini, Anuradha Sriram, Vasundhara Das and some more. Like I did over the last 23 years.