My Favourite Music Director Ar Rahman Essay Topics

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"AR Rahman" redirects here. For the surah of the Quran, see Ar-Rahman. For other uses, see Al rahman (disambiguation).

Allahrakka Rahman ( pronunciation (help·info), born A. S. Dileep Kumar, best known as A. R. Rahman, is an Indian composer, singer-songwriter, music producer, musician and philanthropist. A. R. Rahman's works are noted for integrating Indian classical music with electronic music, world music and traditional orchestral arrangements. Among his awards are four National Film Awards, two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, fifteen Filmfare Awards and sixteen Filmfare Awards South. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, in 2010 by the Government of India.[1] In 2009, Rahman was included on the Time 100 list of the world's most influential people.[2] The UK-based world-music magazine Songlines named him one of "Tomorrow's World Music Icons" in August 2011.[3] Rahman's work have earned him the honorific nickname of "The Mozart of Madras", and "Isai Puyal" (English: the Musical Storm).[4]

With an in-house studio (Panchathan Record Inn in Chennai), Rahman's film-scoring career began during the early 1990s with the Tamil film Roja. In a notable two-decade career, he has been acclaimed for redefining contemporary Indian film music and contributing to the success of several films. Rahman has become a notable humanitarian and philanthropist, donating and raising money for a number of causes and charities. In 2017, Rahman made his debut as a director and writer for the film Le Musk.[5]

Early life

Rahman was born in Madras, India. His father, R. K. Shekhar, was a film-score composer and conductor for Tamil and Malayalam films; Rahman assisted his father in the studio, playing the keyboard.

After his father's death when Rahman was nine years old, the rental of his father's musical equipment provided his family's income.[6] Raised by his mother, Kareema (born Kashturi),[7] Rahman was a keyboard player and arranger for bands such as Roots (with childhood friend and percussionist Sivamani, John Anthony, Suresh Peters, JoJo and Raja)[8] and founded the Chennai-based rock group Nemesis Avenue.[9] He mastered the keyboard, piano, synthesizer, harmonium and guitar, and was particularly interested in the synthesizer because it was the "ideal combination of music and technology".[10]

Rahman began his early musical training under Master Dhanraj,[11][12] and at age 11 began playing in the orchestra of Malayalam composer (and close friend of his father) M. K. Arjunan.[13] He soon began working with other composers, such as M. S. Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, Ramesh Naidu and Raj-Koti,[12] accompanied Zakir Hussain, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan and L. Shankar on world tours and obtained a scholarship from Trinity College London to the Trinity College of Music.[7]

Studying in Madras, Rahman graduated with a diploma in Western classical music from the school.[14] Rahman was introduced to Qadiritariqa when his younger sister was seriously ill in 1984. His mother was a practicing Hindu.[15][16][17] At the age of 23, he converted to Islam with other members of his family in 1989, changing his name to Allahrakka Rahman (A. R. Rahman).[18][19][20][7][21]



Rahman initially composed scores for documentaries and jingles for advertisements and Indian television channels. In 1987 Rahman, then still known as Dileep, composed jingles for a line of watches introduced by Allwyn.[22] He also arranged the jingles for some advertisements that went on to become very popular, including the popular jingle for Titan Watches, in which he used the theme from Mozart's Symphony no.25.[23][24][25]

In 1992, he was approached by director Mani Ratnam to compose the score and soundtrack for his Tamil film, Roja.[26][27]

Rahman's film career began in 1992 when he started Panchathan Record Inn, a recording and mixing studio in his backyard. It would become the most-advanced recording studio in India,[26] and arguably one of Asia's most sophisticated and high-tech studios.[28] Cinematographer Santosh Sivan signed Rahman for his second film Yoddha, a Malayalam film starring Mohanlal and directed by Sivan's brother Sangeeth Sivan that released in September 1992.

The following year, Rahman received the Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus) award for best music director at the National Film Awards for Roja. The films' score was critically and commercially successful in its original and dubbed versions, led by the innovative theme "Chinna Chinna Aasai". Rahman followed this with successful scores and songs for Tamil–language films for the Chennai film industry, including Ratnam's politically-charged Bombay, the urban Kadhalan, Thiruda Thiruda and S. Shankar's debut film Gentleman (with its popular dance song, "Chikku Bukku Rayile").[29][30][31][32] Rahman collaborated with director Bharathiraaja on Kizhakku Cheemayile and Karuththamma, producing successful Tamil rural folk-inspired film songs; he also composed for K. Balachander's Duet, which had some memorable Saxophone themes.[33][34] The 1995 film Indira and romantic comedies Mr. Romeo and Love Birds also drew attention.[35][36][37]

Rahman attracted a Japanese audience with Muthu's success there. His soundtracks are known in the Tamil Nadu film industry and abroad for his versatility in combining Western classical music, Carnatic and Tamil traditional and folk-music traditions, jazz, reggae and rock music.[39][40][41][42] The soundtrack for Bombay sold 15 million copies worldwide,[43][44] and "Bombay Theme" would later reappear in his soundtrack for Deepa Mehta's Fire and a number of compilations and other media. It was featured in the 2002 Palestinian film Divine Intervention and the 2005 Nicolas Cage film, Lord of War. Rangeela, directed by Ram Gopal Varma, was Rahman's Bollywood debut.[45] Successful scores and songs for Dil Se.. and the percussive Taal followed.[46][47]Sufi mysticism inspired "Chaiyya Chaiyya" from the former film and "Zikr" from his soundtrack album for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (which featured elaborate orchestral and choral arrangements).[21]

Rahman's soundtrack album for the Chennai production Minsaara Kanavu won him his second National Film Award for Best Music Direction and a South FilmFare Award for Best Music Direction in a Tamil film in 1997, the latter setting a record of six consecutive wins; he later went on to win the award three consecutive additional times. The musical cues in the soundtrack albums for Sangamam and Iruvar used Carnatic vocals, the veena, rock guitar and jazz.[48] During the 2000s, Rahman composed scores and popular songs for Rajiv Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain, Alaipayuthey, Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades, Rang De Basanti[49] and songs with Hindustani motifs for 2005's Water. Rahman has worked with Indian poets and lyricists such as Javed Akhtar, Gulzar, Vairamuthu and Vaali, and has produced commercially successful soundtracks with directors Mani Ratnam and S. Shankar (Gentleman, Kadhalan, Indian, Jeans, Mudhalvan, Nayak, Boys, Sivaji and Enthiran).[50]

In 2005 Rahman expanded his Panchathan Record Inn studio by establishing AM Studios in Kodambakkam, Chennai, creating the most cutting-edge studio in Asia.[51][52] The following year he launched his own music label, KM Music,[53] with his score for Sillunu Oru Kaadhal.[54] Rahman scored the Mandarin-language film Warriors of Heaven and Earth in 2003 after researching and using Chinese and Japanese classical music,[55] and won the Just Plain Folks Music Award For Best Music Album for his score for 2006's Varalaru (God Father).[56] He co-scored Shekhar Kapur's first British film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in 2007[57] and received a Best Composer Asian Film Award nomination at the Hong Kong International Film Festival for his Jodhaa Akbar score.[58] Rahman's music has been sampled for other scores in India,[59] appearing in Inside Man, Lord of War, Divine Intervention and The Accidental Husband.

His score for his first Hollywood film, the 2009 comedy Couples Retreat, won the BMI London Award for Best Score.[60] Rahman's music for 2008's Slumdog Millionaire won a Golden Globe and two Academy Awards (a first for an Asian), and the songs "Jai Ho" and "O... Saya" from its soundtrack were internationally successful. His music on 2008's Bollywood Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na was popular with Indian youth; that year, his score and songs for Jodhaa Akbar won critical acclaim, a Best Composer Asian Film Award nomination and IIFA awards for best music direction and score.

In 2010, Rahman composed the original score and songs for the romantic Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, the sci-fi romance Enthiran and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, composing for the Imtiaz Ali musical Rockstar; the latter's soundtrack was a critical and commercial success.[61] In 2012 Rahman composed for Ekk Deewana Tha and the American drama People Like Us,[62] and collaborated with director Yash Chopra on Jab Tak Hai Jaan.[63] all were positively received.[64] By the end of the year his music for Mani Ratnam's Kadal was critically acclaimed, and the album topped the iTunes India chart for December.[65] In 2013, Rahman had two releases: Raanjhanaa and Maryan. Both were successful, with the former nominated for a number of awards[66][67][68] and the latter the iTunes India Tamil Album of 2013.[69]

The year 2014 was one of the busiest years for Rahman, with him claiming to have worked in 12 films in various languages.[70] While his first release for the year was the Imtiaz Ali's road movie Highway which garnered positive reviews, his very next release was the performance captured animation film Kochadaiiyaan, a Rajinikanth starrer directed by Soundarya Rajinikanth. The film's score and soundtrack garnered huge critical appraise with its score being long-listed at the forthcoming Academy Awards.[71] His next were the scores for the two back to back Hollywood films, Million Dollar Arm and The Hundred Foot Journey, both of which got into the contended list for the original score category nomination at the Oscars.

This was followed by the highly successful soundtrack album for the period drama Kaaviya Thalaivan teaming up with director Vasanthabalan for the first time. His next release was Shankar's supernatural thriller I and K. S. Ravikumar's period action film Lingaa, both of which were highly acclaimed and appreciated upon release.

Background scores

Apart from successful soundtracks, he has also received acclaim for his background scores and is considered one of the finest background-score composers in India.[72] His background scores are often characterised by the usage of subtle orchestration and ambient sounds.[72] Trained in western classical music, he often employs contemporary instruments such as Guitars, Cello, Flute, Strings, Keyboard, Finger board, Harpejji, Santoor and traditional Indian instruments such as Shehnai, Sitar, Mrudangam, Veenai & Tabla to create scores.

Apart from getting favourable reviews, several of Rahman's background scores have earned him many prestigious awards ranging from Academy awards to Filmfare awards.[72][73] Some of the films which fetched him appreciations for background scores include Roja, Bombay, Iruvar, Minsara Kanavu, Dil Se.., Taal, Lagaan, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Swades, Rang De Basanti, Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Guru, Jodhaa Akbar, Raavanan, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, Rockstar, Enthiran ,Kadal, Kochadaiiyaan and I. Among his Hollywood scores, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Million Dollar Arm and The Hundred-Foot Journey received rave reviews. A. R. Rahman received two Academy Awards for Slumdog Millionaire and two Academy Award nominations for 127 Hours. Recently, his scores for Kochadaiiyaan, Million Dollar Arm and The Hundred-Foot Journey have been nominated in the long list released by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.[74][75]. In 2017 his Mersal_(film) music's background score has impressed one and all. [76]

Performing and other projects

Rahman has also been involved in non-film projects. Vande Mataram, an album of original compositions released for India's 50th anniversary of its independence in 1997,[77][78][79] is one of India's bestselling non-film albums.[80] He followed it with an album for the Bharat Bala–directed video Jana Gana Mana, a collection of performances by leading exponents and artists of Indian classical music.[81] Rahman has written advertising jingles and orchestrations for athletic events, television and Internet media, documentaries and short films,[82] frequently using the Czech Film Orchestra and the Chennai Strings Orchestra.

In 1999, Rahman partnered with choreographers Shobana and Prabhu Deva and a Tamil film-dancing troupe to perform with Michael Jackson in Munich, Germany at his Michael Jackson and Friends concert.[83] In 2002 he composed the music for his first stage production, Bombay Dreams, which was commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.[84] The Finnish folk-music band Värttinä collaborated with Rahman on the Toronto production of The Lord of the Rings, and in 2004[85] he composed "Raga's Dance" for Vanessa-Mae's album Choreography (performed by Mae and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra).[86]

Since 2004 Rahman has performed three successful world tours before audiences in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Dubai, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and India,[85][87] and has been collaborating with Karen David on her upcoming studio album. A two-disc CD, Introducing A. R. Rahman (featuring 25 of his Tamil film-score pieces), was released in May 2006[88] and his non-film album Connections was released on 12 December 2008.[89] Rahman performed at a White House state dinner arranged by US President Barack Obama during an official visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 24 November 2009.[90]

He is one of over 70 artists on "We Are the World 25 for Haiti", a charity single to raise relief funds in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[91] In 2010, Rahman composed "Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat" in honour of the 50th anniversary of the formation of Gujarat State,[92] "Semmozhiyaana Thamizh Mozhiyaam" as part of the World Classical Tamil Conference 2010,[93] and the theme song for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, "Jiyo Utho Bado Jeeto".[94] Rahman began his first world tour, (A. R. Rahman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour) on 11 June 2010 at Nassau Coliseum in New York; 16 cities worldwide were scheduled.[95]

Some of Rahman's notable compositions were performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in April 2010.[96] In February 2011 Rahman collaborated with Michael Bolton on Bolton's album, Gems – The Duets Collection,[97] reworking his "Sajna" from Couples Retreat.[98]

On 20 May 2011 Mick Jagger announced the formation of a supergroup, SuperHeavy, with Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, Damian Marley and Rahman;[99] its self-titled album was scheduled for release in September 2011.[100] The album would have Jagger singing on Rahman's composition, "Satyameva Jayate" ("The Truth Alone Triumphs").[101]

In January 2012 the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg announced that it would join KM Music Conservatory musicians for a 100-member concert tour of five Indian cities (Germany and India 2011–2012: Infinite Opportunities), performing Rahman's songs. The marked the centennial of Indian cinema and Babelsberg Studio, the world's oldest film studio.[72]

In Summer 2012 Rahman composed a Punjabi song for the London Olympicsopening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, part of a medley showcasing Indian influence in the UK. Indian musician Ilaiyaraja's song from the 1981 Tamil-language film Ram Lakshman was also chosen for the medley.[102]

In December 2012 Rahman and Shekhar Kapoor launched Qyuki, a networking site which is a platform for story writers to exchange their thoughts. Cisco invested ₹270 million in the startup, giving it a 17-percent share. Qyuki uses Cisco's cloud infrastructure for the site.[103][104][105] On 20 December he released the single "Infinite Love" in English and Hindi, commemorating the last day of the Mayan calendar to spread hope, peace and love. Rahman's 2013 tour, Rahmanishq, was announced on 29 July 2013 in Mumbai. Beginning in Sydney on 24 August, the tour moved to a number of cities in India.[106]

In January 2016, after a long break A. R. Rahman performed live in Chennai and for the first time in Coimbatore & Madurai, with a complete Tamil playlist. As the name suggests, Nenje Yezhu (which means rise up) began 2016 with a positive note and with music from the heart. The proceeds of this concert will be used for flood relief in Tamil Nadu and also for creating awareness against cancer, supporting VS Medical Trust outside Chennai.[107][108][109]

He was interviewed by Arnab Goswami of Republic TV on 9 September 2017 for his outstanding achievements.[110][111]

Musical style and impact

Skilled in Karnatic music, Western and Hindustani classical music and the Qawwali style of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahman is noted for film songs amalgamating elements of these and other genres, layering instruments from different musical idioms in an improvisational style.[21][112] Symphonic orchestral themes accompany his scores, occasionally using a leitmotif. During the 1980s Rahman recorded monaural arrangements in common with his musical predecessors, K. V. Mahadevan and Vishwanathan–Ramamoorthy. In later years his methodology changed, as he experimented with the fusion of traditional instruments with new electronic sounds and technology.[21][113]

Rahman's musical interests and outlook originate in his love of experimentation. His compositions have an auteuristic use of counterpoint, orchestration and the human voice, melding Indian pop music with a unique timbre, form and instrumentation. With this syncretic style and wide-ranging lyrics, the appeal of Rahman's music crosses classes and cultures in Indian society.[114]

His first soundtrack, for Roja, was listed on Time's all-time "10 Best Soundtracks" in 2005. Film critic Richard Corliss said that the composer's "astonishing debut work parades Rahman's gift for alchemizing outside influences until they are totally Tamil, totally Rahman",[115] and his initial global success is attributed to the South Asian diaspora. Music producer Ron Fair considers Rahman "one of the world's great living composers in any medium".[116]

Director Baz Luhrmann said:

I had come to the music of A. R. Rahman through the emotional and haunting score of Bombay and the wit and celebration of Lagaan. But the more of AR's music I encountered the more I was to be amazed at the sheer diversity of styles: from swinging brass bands to triumphant anthems; from joyous pop to West-End musicals. Whatever the style, A. R. Rahman's music always possesses a profound sense of humanity and spirit, qualities that inspire me the most.[117]

Rahman introduced 7.1 surround sound technology to South Indian films.[118]

On 21 May 2014 Rahman announced that he has partnered with former Black Eyed Peas’ to recreate an early popular track 'Urvashi Urvashi'. Track is 'Birthday'.[119]

Personal life

Rahman is married to Saira Banu (not to be confused with actress Saira Banu) and has three children: Khatija, Rahima and Ameen.[120] Ameen has sung "NaNa" from Couples Retreat, and Khatija has sung "Pudhiya Manidha" from Enthiran.[121][122] Rahman is the uncle of composer G. V. Prakash Kumar, the son of his older sister A. R. Reihana.[123] Rahman's younger sister, Fathima, heads his music conservatory in Chennai.[citation needed] The youngest, Ishrath, has a music studio. A.R.Rahman is the co-brother[definition needed] of film actor Rahman.[124]

Born Hindu, Rahman converted to Islam when he was in his 20s. After the early death of his father, his family experienced difficult times; Sufism influenced his mother who was a practicing Hindu[15] and, eventually, his family.[19][125] During the 81st Academy Awards ceremony Rahman paid tribute to his mother: "There is a Hindi dialogue, mere pass ma hai, which means 'even if I have got nothing I have my mother here'."[126] He said, "Ella pughazhum iraivanukke" ("All praise to God" in Tamil, a translation from the Quran) before his speech.[127]


Rahman is involved with a number of charitable causes. In 2004 he was appointed global ambassador of the Stop TB Partnership, a WHO project.[85] Rahman has supported Save the Children India and worked with Yusuf Islam on "Indian Ocean", a song featuring a-ha keyboard player Magne Furuholmen and Travis drummer Neil Primrose. Proceeds from the song went to help orphans in Banda Aceh who were affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.[128] He produced the single "We Can Make It Better" by Don Asian with Mukhtar Sahota.[129] In 2008 Rahman opened the KM Music Conservatory with an audio-media education facility to train aspiring musicians in vocals, instruments, music technology and sound design. The conservatory (with prominent musicians on staff and a symphony orchestra) is located near his studio in Kodambakkam, Chennai and offers courses at several levels. Violinist L. Subramaniam is on its advisory board.[130] Several of Rahman's proteges from the studio have scored feature films.[131] He composed the theme music for a 2006 short film for The Banyan to aid poor women in Chennai.[132]

In 2008 Rahman and noted percussionist Sivamani created a song, "Jiya Se Jiya", inspired by the Free Hugs Campaign and promoted it with a video filmed in a number of Indian cities.[133]


Main article: A. R. Rahman discography

Part of this section is transcluded from A. R. Rahman discography. (edit | history)

The following table lists A. R. Rahman's known soundtrack album sales in India, including Tamil and Bollywood music albums.

YearSoundtrack albumSalesNote(s)
1998Dil Se..6,000,000Hindi-Urdu[135][136]
1993 /
Gentleman /
The Gentleman
4,300,000Gentleman (Tamil) – 300,000[137]
The Gentleman (Hindi) – 4,000,000[134]
Once Upon a Time in India
1992Roja3,000,000Tamil – 200,000[140]
Hindi – 2,800,000[138]
2000 /
Alaipayuthey /
2,600,000Alaipayuthey (Tamil) – 600,000[141]
Saathiya (Hindi) – 2,000,000[142][143]
1994Humse Hai Muqabala2,500,000Hindi[138]
1996Indian /
2,400,000Indian (Tamil) – 600,000[144]
Hindustani (Hindi) – 1,800,000[138]
2008Slumdog Millionaire:
Music from the Motion Picture
2005Rang De Basanti1,900,000Hindi[142]
1999 /
Mudhalvan /
Nayak: The Real Hero
1,700,000Mudhalvan (Tamil) – 300,000[146]
Nayak (Hindi) – 1,400,000[142]
2008Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na1,500,000Hindi[142]
Kisna: The Warrior Poet1,200,000
2008Jodhaa Akbar1,100,000Hindi-Urdu[147][142]
2010Komaram Puli760,000Telugu[148]
2000Kandukondain Kandukondain400,000Tamil
2002Bombay Dreams150,000English[139]
Total sales200,000,000[44]


Main article: List of awards and nominations received by A. R. Rahman

Rahman was the 1995 recipient of the Mauritius National Award and the Malaysian Award for his contributions to music,[150] and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for his first West End production. A four-time National Film Award winner and recipient of six Tamil Nadu State Film Awards, he has fifteen Filmfare Awards and sixteen Filmfare Awards South for his music.[150] Rahman has received a Kalaimamani from the Government of Tamil Nadu for excellence in the field of music, musical-achievement awards from the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and a Padma Shri from the Government of India.[151]

In 2006, he received an award from Stanford University for his contributions to global music.[152] The following year, Rahman entered the Limca Book of Records as "Indian of the Year for Contribution to Popular Music".[153] He received the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Madras.[154] In 2009, for his Slumdog Millionaire score, Rahman won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score,[155] the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and two Academy Awards (Best Original Score and Best Original Song, the latter shared with Gulzar) at the 81st Academy Awards.

He has received honorary doctorates from Middlesex University, Aligarh Muslim University,[156][157]Anna University in Chennai and Miami University in Ohio.[158] The composer has won two Grammy Awards: Best Compilation Soundtrack Album and Best Song Written for Visual Media.[159] Rahman received the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian honour, in 2010.[160]

His work in 127 Hours won him Golden Globe, BAFTA, and two Academy Award nominations (Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song) in 2011.[161][162][163] Rahman is an Honorary Fellow of the Trinity College of Music.[164]

On 24 October 2014 Rahman was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music during a concert paying tribute to his music featuring an international cast of students. Upon receiving his award he commented that being honored by Berklee illustrates how his life has come full circle, as at the start of his career, he had planned to study at Berklee before being offered the opportunity to score Roja.[165] During his 7 May 2012 acceptance speech of his honorary doctorate from Miami University in Ohio, Rahman mentioned that he received a Christmas card from the family of the President of the United States and an invitation to dinner at the White House.[166] A street was named in his honour in Markham, Ontario, Canada in November 2013.[167]

On 4 October 2015, the government of Seychelles named A. R. Rahman Cultural Ambassador for Seychelles in appreciation of the "invaluable services contributed to enhance Seychelles' Arts and Culture development."[168]

See also


Rahman (left) receiving a platinum award at the MagnaSound Awards; MagnaSound released his first film soundtrack, Roja, in 1992.
A. R. Rahman at Sufi Concert in Dubai

Let me, right at the very outset, clarify that an essay on AR Rahman’s use of Indian classical music is not a commentary on Ilaiyaraaja’s use of classical music. In fact, my writing about Rahman does not, in any way, suggest that I have a preference for him over Ilaiyaraaja. This seemingly silly disclaimer is quite necessary on the interwebs. The South Indian web has collectively and furiously typed more words online defending their favourite composer than all the words that describe Indian classical music in totality.

The second of my disclaimers has to do with me. I am primarily an instrumentalist who, as a young boy, was put in a Carnatic gulag that annually produces thousands of kids who hate music from the bottom of their hearts. This preponderance of instruments in my life has left me with a rather strange disability – words don’t register when I listen to music. All I hear are melodies and how they fit into chords and how these chords move within a larger harmonic tapestry.

So, if you are a normal human being who is moved by the beauty and power of the voice and powerful poetry, you might find my analysis rather oddly limited. But I understand music theory and instruments, not poetry or voice, so that’s what I will focus on.

It’s important to realise that Rahman’s use of Indian classical music doesn’t necessarily fit any standard formula or genre. Dividing music into genres has always been a very reductive Western thing. Indian film music has historically never bothered with hard boundaries between genres. It’s only here that it’s perfectly acceptable for a country western style banjo interlude in a song that features dubstep beats with a tabla and sarangi playing alongside a cello.

Historically, this was hard to do before the advent of digital music because you couldn’t play instruments with a wireless mouse back then. I really think Indian film music is breaking more ground musically than we tend to give it credit for.

So with that in mind, I like to categorise Rahman’s use of Indian classical music into three broad categories.

Category 1: Minimalist

Quite often, Rahman will take a traditional classical composition and present it with very little embellishment other than pristine vocal clarity, superb production values and spare background arrangements. Two examples that epitomise this kind of Rahman song are Manmohini Morey from Yuvvraaj and Alaipayuthey from the movie Alaipayuthey.

Manmohini is a Bandish in Raga Bhimpalasi (Raga Abheri in Carnatic music). As Vijay Prakash sings the Bandish in Manmohini with breathtaking fluency and phrasing, with dizzying improvisations at every line, the background is nothing more than the electronic rhythm played very much in the background so that it does not get in the way of the vocals at all. Once the bandish is done, we then hear a string orchestra play the main theme and the song ends.

Alaipayuthey is a rather short song, clocking in at about two minutes, but it’s how Rahman chooses to structure the song that is interesting. Alaipayuthey in the Raga Kaanada is even more minimalist than Manmohini. The genius of the original composition is how the melody almost “speaks” the lyrics. The choice of note shifts fits in beautifully with some of the visual metaphors the words represent. So all Rahman does is add a rhythm track that manages to get out of the way while yet providing a foot-tapping anchor for the lay listener.

When you think about how traditionally classical music is performed or recorded, there has always been a historical lack of production values and attention to detail in sound engineering. Till very recently, every live classical concert had terrible equalisation and mixing levels and no sensible use of tools like compression or delay/reverb. What Rahman has done with his minimalist renditions is present the sophistication of classical music in a truly accessible and beautiful sounding way while avoiding overly lengthy and complex improvisations that are common in live classical concerts and targeted at the “elite” listener.

Category 2: Indian++

The second category is what I call Indian++ and is the most interesting and unique aspect of Rahman’s use of classical music. It’s also unfortunately the one kind that he seems to have stopped doing since the 1990s.

It’s important to understand that what we consider to be “Western music” is largely harmonic music, where melody is subservient to the larger harmonic structure of a song. In simpler terms, there is less diversity in melodic experimentation because not all combinations of notes will fit into the few easy-on-the-ears popular song formats. This is also why most pop songs tend to sound a bit alike. It’s also why genres like jazz or Western classical, which are an order of magnitude more improvisational than your typical Lady Gaga song, have historically found it more natural to jam with Indian classical musicians.

So long story short, Indian classical music is not harmonic in nature, which means that melodies are free to roam like the wildebeest whereas popular Western music likes to keep vocalists and soloists herded like sheep. The sum of the parts is what matters there, not solo virtuosity.

And here is where I think the ’90s Rahman exhibited a kind of genius that was able to take really hard-to-harmonise ragas like Panthu Varali and still build an ethereal and immersive soundscape without the need to fit it into any typical Western pop song harmony. In these songs, the typical Western idea of a chord structure forming inviolable scaffolding for the overall composition is dispensed with. Instead, an ensemble of instruments plays individual virtuoso elements while being stitched together with some really creative percussion.

Rahman added layers of sonic grandeur without having to dumb down the sophistication of the raga too much. A good example is Hai Rama from Rangeela.

Hai Rama sounds so much more expansive and lush than you would expect a typical classical composition in raga Panthu Varaali might. And amazingly, it uses so many western instruments and yet sounds entirely Indian in a way typical fusion music does not. Your run-of-the-mill fusion piece is a buffet of western dishes with the occasional Indian dessert. This specific kind of ’90s Rahman song managed to sound Indian classical despite the grandness of the arrangements.

Category 3: Fusion

And finally, we get to the third kind of use of Indian classical, which is fusion. I use that word despite loathing it with an unnecessary amount of vehemence. The problem with the word is that it’s rather lazy and generalises everything from hipster California surf rock played over a tambura drone while a sadhu-type chants Om to the Madras String Quartet’s brilliant adaptations of popular Carnatic songs.

A lot of “fusion” with Indian classical music over the years has involved a western/rock/jazz band laying down a basic structure into which the Indian virtuoso shows off his magical skills in small bits. An additional constraint is that not all ragas fit nicely into harmony, so the usual approach is to just wing it and hope the less knowledgeable listeners don’t notice. After all, a big part of the appeal of Indian classical music is a fanbase that is regularly willing to appear more knowledgeable than it is.

But just once in a while, Rahman demonstrates how to do this with an astounding level of depth. The title track from Kandukondain Kandukondain is my favourite example. He takes a rather catchy raga, Nalinakanthi and weaves it into a tapestry of flutes, nu-jazz synth and percussion, and a really inventive bass line.

In general, the more sophisticated the song’s harmonic arrangements, the more likely that the main melody of the song is non-Indian classical in feel. Nice ragas and nice chords don’t go together that regularly. Some of my favourite Rahman songs such as Rehna Tu, Dil Se Re, and songs from Thiruda Thiruda all avoid any kind of Indian classical feel for that very reason.

Rehna Tu is brilliant and has no Indian classical influence in it. Manmohini Morey is perfectly minimalist and has very little sophistication in arrangements. Hai Rama is gorgeous and has little or no harmony. Kandukondain Kandukondain has a little bit of everything and that makes it special for me.

There’s nothing inherently special about using Indian classical ragas in film music. Ragas are after-the-fact abstractions and this sense of “one must observe the purity of the raga in a song” is largely pointless. Creative geniuses like Rahman or Ilaiyaraaja regularly alter ragas in between songs if it makes the harmony work better. It’s what the song feels like in your headphones that matters, not whether or not it is “pyoor Mayamalavagowla”.

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