This is one debate, I’m sure has often crept into our conversations as to who among Ilaiyaraja and Rahman is a bigger musical genius; when some of us- who proclaim to know a little more about mainstream film music beyond “airchecks” -gather for collective slaughtering of idle time. And it is funny to see this seemingly inconsequential topic turn from being just an objective discourse to a personal war of affiliation à la “Believers vs Atheists” , with the passage of time .
I’ve always maintained the stance that both are greats in their own regards, not just diplomatically, but as a solicitous patron to both their creations.
To me this is similar to comparisons between Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan or Gavaskar and Tendulkar as to who among them is better. There’s always been this congenital curiosity among all of us to pit legends of a similar field from different eras against each other to derive a silver lining to our respective tastes.
When faced with the one-up manship conundrum – I’ve always picked Kamal over Sivaji, Sachin over Gavaskar and Rahman over Raja without having to ponder much.
I’ve revered Sivaji’s prowess in many a movies, my favourite among them being Rajapat Rangadurai that tugged at my heart in places that I didn’t know of till then. Who can forget the thespian’s that’s-how-it’s-done performance in Devar Magan alongside Kamal.
Everytime I’ve watched the highlights of Gavaskar taking the battle to the mighty West Indies of the eighties with sinewy craftsmanship, my respect for him grew manifold corroborating his placement among the “all time greats”.Ditto with Ilaiyaraja, everytime I’ve heard his evergreen background score from Johnny or the eternal Mandram Vantha Thendraluku from Mouna Ragam; I get an idea about the stuff legends are made of.
So there’s no discounting the contribution of these doyens to their respective fields and the sway they held over the imagination of an entire generation. So like Sivaji and Gavaskar, Ilaiyaraja in my head belongs in a little aloof “Hall of Fame”. And like Kamal and Sachin, Rahman’s music belongs in a personal space that resonates of familiar nostalgia. They were the Sun that rose on my horizon. They were the pied pipers that lured me into the charm of their arts. Their work was the walker the connoisseur in me held to take his baby steps .
PALLAVI-childhood and chinna chinna aasai
I’m just a little older than Rahman’s musical journey that started in 1992, the same year my younger sister was born; my first fondness for film music was born to the tunes of Chinna Chinna Aasai from Roja, with the visuals of Madhubala’s shenanigans in the village remaining etched indelibly in my head.
His music was my favourite toy back then that I used to play with. As I grew, it grew in stature too –from a toy to an inebriant. If Kanuku Mai Azhagu from Pudhiya Mugam was a balm to this thing I now acknowledge to be my soul, Chikku Bukku Raiyile from Gentleman was this anthem that fashioned railway stations and stalking as cool things for times to come.
My childhood was marked by fond anticipation for the release of the next album from Rahman, who used to be my Santa back then with goodies to the ears. Every album would play on infinite loop till such time the tape would come off the cassette in protest, by which time the lyrics would’ve registered into my parlance.
Kathirika Kathirika from Duet made an affable-cherubic uncle out of Prabhu who sounded like honey, like Urvasi Urvasi from Kadhalan put Prabhu Deva and Anorexic youngsters on the map.
That was a time when light music concerts were in vogue and there was a band that went by the name of Sadhaga Paravaigal, that performed Eduda Antha Sooriya from Pudhiya Mannargal as their curtain raiser. Hearing that was my first tryst with adrenalin and the ability of my hair on arms to raise.
Rahman has been notorious for single-handedly luring me and a lot others in my age group to buy tickets to many a crap-fest predominantly starring Prabhu Deva like Mr.Romeo and Love Birds on the sheer magnetism of the songs. But have to admit that watching Prabhu Deva simmer like butter on a pan to the tune of Romeo Attam Potal from Mr.Romeo was sheer goose bump giving catharsis.
This was a time, when audio cassetes and CDs came along with scrip that carried lyrics of every song in the album. It was part of popular culture back then to memorise songs by listening to them with an eager eye on the lyrics with a surgeon’s precision.
So when I was in the process of naively getting acquainted to lines like Nee Pogum Theruvil Angalai Vidamaten, Sila Pengalai Vida maten(I won’t let men come on the streets you parade, some women too) from Telephone Manipol in Indian or Pasuvinai Pambu Endra Satchi Solla Mudiyum, Kambinil Visham Enna Karakava mudiyum?(One could testify about a snake near a cow, not poison its udder) from Vidukathaiyo in Muthu, I really didn’t understand the poetry or the context of what I was parroting. To me they were mere scaffolding to song’s tune. I had to wait till puberty to appreciate the metaphorical perversion and the silk draped sorrow, woven intricately in the lines by wordsmiths like Vairamuthu and Vaali.
What ten years of schooling couldn’t manage to do, a few Rahman songs did. Hindi suddenly felt like zephyr on the ears, the articulation of every syllable seemed like music independently. It was no more the grumpy second language from school competing for my attention, courtesy Rangeela. I had to understand what a lovelorn Aamir Khan was moping about on the streets in Kya Kare Kya Na Kare.
By the time Dilse came, I knew where to and on whom to use Mein Yahe Tukudoon Me Jee Raha Hoon(I’m living as broken pieces here?) from Ae Ajnabi. Such was the influence of my Rahman on my life. I almost learnt a language out of the curiosity to appreciate a tune’s contours effectively.
ANUPALLAVI-adolescence and acquaintance to the heart of a song
As I grew, so did he. I had by then bookmarked every important chapter in my life with a Rahman song. I was no more the star struck kid who was too smitten by the bout of magic received, to effectively deploy it. I had learnt to respond and react to a mood of a song. I started making my own playlist of Rahman songs, that I exactly knew when to play to rig an emotion. Rahman turned from being a Santa, to a favorite uncle like figure who would gift me with relevant things according to the phase I was in.
So the chocolates and teddy bears made way for geometry boxes and Enid Blyton books.
I started appreciating nuances of neglected gems in every album. I wasn’t swept by the wave of a super hit song to overlook the better song of an album. With Rahman, this was all the more relevant, for the gem of the album would often be hidden among instant hits of popular appeal.
Take for instance the case of Minsara kanavu, it was a blockbuster album with all saccharine songs that the arabianesque-uniquely rendered Thanga thamarai Magale got neglected at the time of its release. Same with Luka Chuppi from Rang De Basanti that went under the debris of other immensely popular tracks. These earworms are much like cult classic films that went unnoticed during their time, to only find eternal reverance from another generation much later.
There is this popular perception about the impact of Rahman’s songs, that they initially go above one’s head on the first listen and with every passing listen, they stick to you like a tick for time to come.
Rahman’s song are structured like concentric circles with the core held in the center. At first listen, one feels like so many things are happening in the song, apart from the vocal course and meaning beheld. But with every listen, every layer tends to peel away as an artifice letting you a little closer to its core. Once the pulp of the core is reached, the hitherto artifices seem to feel organic to the progress that they don’t feel like isolated blasts of sounds anymore, but a catalyst to the listening itself.
Dil Gira Dafatan from Delhi-6 being a fine example to this phenomenon.
CHARANAM-adulthood, musical massages for the soul
Like in the case of every long pursued habit, my taste for music became seasoned. It was no more just an exorbitance-a cool thing to flaunt but a customized utility that marked my persona. From being merely a pair of dancing shoes, it had turned a balm to the soul.
Rahman was no more a soft spoken outsider from his interviews, he was a friend, philosopher and guide through his music that would befriend, philosophize and guide. He turned from being a favorite uncle to a confidante in the family who I could go to, hopeful of empathy.
So the geometry boxes and Enid Blyton books paved way for relationship perspectives and soul searching trips.
Since the mid-2000s, Rahman frequently started coming up with divine songs of Sufi flavor that were deviced as qawalis or mass chants that invigorated a lot of serenity within. From mainstream numbers I had started to acknowledge the impact they were having on this entity within, objectified to be my soul.
So when Hrithik’s Akbar broke to that transcendental dance in the finale of Khwaja Mera Khwaja from Jodha Akhbar, I exactly knew what he was going through. Notwithstanding the fact they had a strong Islamic undercurrent, they made it to a playlist called “Divine”, that I would listen to on my daily trips to my pet temple.
There’s this common misconception that a creation has to be watered down to permeate to the lowest common denominator of patronage i.e a song has to be simple for it connect with the masses. Because for a song to become popular, it must be imitable by a layman. Trust Rahman’s to find this middle ground between being popular and purist, without having to subvert the chastity of a genre.
Like in the case of Ay Hairathe Ashiqui from Guru – a seamless wedding between a succulent tune and a Hindustani ghazal or with the dandy sounding Omana Penne that lets Malayalam recitals and techno vocals coexist in an inimitably addictive blend from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya.
What my unflinching patronage to Rahman made me was a more creative and perceptive person than I would’ve turned out. So by the time I started to use trimmer on my face, I had a fair idea about the syntax of a song, the ability to deconstruct it to Pallavi and Charanam, sieve counterfeits from counterpoints and relate one song to its close doppelganger.
By now what I was looking for in Rahman’s albums had moved beyond mainstream appeal. Not sure, If I was looking for music to mimic mood or mood to mimic music.
When during a tumultuous time after break-up, I would ensconce in the serrated lines-Meri Bebasi Ka Bayan Hai, bas chal raha na is gadi from Aur Ho in Rockstar or resort to the warm confines of Tu Khuja from Highway on a mind trip of self-discovery.
These songs stood like mirrors before my soul, making me familiar to myself.
Law of averages is this dispassionate diktat that doesn’t even spare the greatest of men, dragging them from highs to lows to average them to reality. And like with the case of every other legend, Rahman’s prowess now seems to have dwindled with time. Was it a result of chopping off his long locks, change in sensibilities or the fact that he had set the bar too high in my head. Only time will tell.
For now, every time I listen to an abysmal offering of his from his recent outings, say Lingaa or 24, I keep comforting myself that he’s the same man who’s work features in my G Drive in a folder called “Work of God”.