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25 years with A. R. Rahman

The composer, musician and vocalist has been at the fore of shaping the contemporary Indian film music scene

25 years with A. R. Rahman

Allah Rakha Rahman (A. R. Rahman) has completed 25 years as a composer, musician and vocalist, a very long time given the nature of the capricious nature of popular music of whose off shoot or principal offshoot film music is. No subcontinental composer has been more acknowledged or has been more successful internationally.

If one looks at the span of the other popular film composers in the subcontinent, that is about the maximum that a person has enjoyed the popularity of his fans; probably Lakshmikant Payarelal’s lasted three decades — ending with his death in 1998. In contrast, R.C. Boral, probably the first film composer to have hit the headlines in Calcutta in the 1930s was a forgotten man within a decade and as Naushad recalled in his autobiography, the attempt by Boral to re-launch himself in Bombay in the 1950s failed miserably.

Naushad himself so popular and sought-after since the 1940s was almost a spent force by the 1960s and any attempt at a comeback was not really successful. Rather, people criticised him for catering to popular taste which was found distasteful to those who had seen and heard Naushad in his prime. Anil Biswas was at the height of his prowess in the 1950s but then faded away and one only heard of him with the news of his death about 50 years later. O.P. Nayyar too, once a very popular composer, lived a life of anonymity and of being not creatively or gainfully employed for many decades after the first flush of his popularity had been blown over in the 1950s and 1960s.

There have been many composers who died young at the prime of their creative powers and one does not know how they would have fared if they had lived longer. Madan Mohan died young at 51 and did not suffer the indignity to being forgotten. S. D. Burman, who was probably more attuned to the changing taste in music, that is film music, did bring about many drastic changes in the compositions and did live to be sought-after almost till his death. He was not very old either and had spent almost three decades in the humdrum of the filmdom in Calcutta and Bombay. His line of music innovation, albeit in more simplistic terms, was carried on by his son R.D. Burman.

At that time it was considered anathema to be unduly influenced by the trends of western music. Certain composers like C. Ramchandra, Shanker Jaikishen, O P. Nayyar and even S.D. Burman were seen to be influenced by western scores. But it was said that it was Salil Chowdhury who introduced a non-Indian , non-local method of film composition by paying more attention to the chords in line with the western concept of harmony in the delineation of the structure of the raags or the scales.

By the time he was growing up, the terms world music, and as a consequence fusion, had become the buzzword and he did not turn his face away from it but added greater depth to it rather than just being a coming together of traditions.

The other innovations used to be the introduction of western orchestration or instrumentation, that was more inevitable than not, because the background score and its theoretical foundations were spelled out more clearly in the vaulting growth of cinema in the west that included the Americas and Europe. It was not possible to escape the overwhelming influence of the western film technical and theoretical innovations and experiments, then as it is now.

Allah Rakha Rahman belonging to a family of musicians was the first Indian composer to wholeheartedly embrace and adopt the various changes that were taking place in the world of music. These changes besides the changes in sensibility, were also driven by the changes in technology and these were both fundamental and fast-moving. By the time one settled for one change the second one was upon you and only those composers, vocalists and instrumentalists could benefit from it who were adaptable, welcomed change and saw it as an opportunity to realise their creative abilities.

It was the first time that technologically-driven musical values were heard of and then made a virtue of in the Indian films. Technological values in sound engineering like monaural arrangements, auteuristic use of counterpoint and leitmotif were heard quite often in the making of his music.

In the beginning, Rahman was totally taken in by the changes in technology that were sweeping the sonic taste but gradually, with the passage of time, he experimented and successfully in bringing the traditional Carnatic and Hindustani music within the range and sweep of those technological innovations and ushering in a new sound culture in the subcontinental. The various instruments, technologically-driven and not producers of natural sounds, became a permanent feature and occupied centrestage as compared to their marginalised existence in the earlier film compositions. He brought the two together and created a new sound that was not totally alien and untraditional. He was thus able to create a strong connection with the local and the contemporary.

There was a fuzzing of definitions as a result between these new innovations and technologies. It became difficult to distinguish between a composer and an arranger; it then became even more difficult to tell one players managing a lot of instruments, through let us say the synthesiser or the keyboard and being an instrumentalist himself. These technical devices interchanged as instruments like workstation, synthesisers, midis, concert harp, harpejii, continuum, fingerboard , goblet drum and accordion to name only a few.

By the time he was growing up, the terms world music, and as a consequence fusion, had become the buzzword and he did not turn his face away from it but added greater depth to it rather than just being a coming together of traditions. Unless a new musical value was created, it all would just have ended up as yet another experiment. It must be said that despite all the western and technologically driven means that were used, there has been something very typically subcontinental about the flavour of his music.

In the usual subcontinental films, music was not incidental or carried a marginal tag only in augmenting the interaction of the plot and character but much more fundamental. Actually, it determined the scope to be assigned to the character and the plot. The resolution was not arrived at dramatically through the interaction of character and plot but through music, or its overwhelming presence. The resolution so to say rested not in reality, but in the realm of music where all antinomies dissolved.

This primacy of music with the passage of time lost its position and it became more integrated or subservient to plot and character. In this transition that took place in the last three decades, A. R. Rahman has played a leading role.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore


  • R S Chakravarti

    The history of Rahman’s family is quite unique. It was Hindu but after his father’s early death, following a dream they converted to Islam. The Wikipedia page doesn’t mention any dream but says they were influenced by Sufism.

  • He is the one who made India proud for winning various awards across the globe. He is the only Indian to win not 1 but 2 Oscars for India and we’re damn proud about it. He has produced some massive hits which has made some amazing records.
    I’ve some of its greatest hit in recent times together.
    To listen to them click on the below link:


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