It was in 1992 when I first met A.R. Rahman, then known as Dilip. One afternoon, after managing to fix an appointment, I reached Panchathan Recording Studio near Kodambakkam, the hub of Tamil cinema and studios. After a chat with his assistant Noel, I was ushered into a recording chamber to meet Rahman, then only 25. He was sitting behind a recording console that had 16 tracks, digital mastering stations and computerised soundtracks. “All that I earn goes back into this,” he said proudly. It wasn’t out yet that he had just completed his first feature film, Roja. Before he hit the big league with it, he had composed ad tracks for Boost, Usha Lexus and Pepsi. I found him pleasant but painfully shy; he even refused to be photographed.
In the 1980s, Rahman was a part of a rock group, Nemesis Avenue. It was also the time when top musicians in Madras were making different kinds of music. The maestro, Illaiyaraja, had already made a mark in Bollywood. Pop music was looking up.
Some musicians were also experimenting with folk music and heavy percussion beats. The music scene seemed poised for something new.
I would often end up at the studio to interview musicians or to meet artistes landing from Bombay. But in between something had changed, the wait for an appointment started taking longer. He would often come out and speak haltingly but quickly, answer pertinently, and disappear in a rush into the studio. Work was piling up on his plate, fame came knocking, and he was sought after like never before. “I work through the nights,” he told me once. Later, as the national awards piled up, he’d tell me with that trademark unassuming smile: “Allah ki dua se.”
What made Panchathan different were the ‘unfilmi’ kind of atmosphere and the presence of new singers and their fresh voices. I remember bumping into Baba Sehgal, crooner Jasmine Barucha, local talents like Mano, Subhaa, Anuradha Sriram, Anupama, Sujatha, Hariharan and Sivamani. They all had vibrant, fresh voices and they were there to work with the man who was making different kinds of music.
Rahman can be credited with liberating the Indian popular singer’s voice profile. Film music in India encompasses only
popular music, unlike in the West where music business exists independent of cinema. Till Rahman broke the mould, the voices that captured India’s imagination were often homogenised, even though each of the singers was enormously talented.
Rahman is truly a man of sound. A new voice, a new sound challenges him, helps him layer what he calls a, “fat, chunky soundtrack”. He loves introducing different musical instruments, some unusual, some regular to produce different sounds. He has taken this to Bollywood too. He must be credited for introducing the feverish vocals of a Chaiyan Chaiyan Sukhwinder Singh to a Punjabi-dominated Hollywood; the vocal gutso of a Shankar Mahadevan; the recent warbling of Karthik, Tanvi Shah, young Naresh Iyer and many more. His search for new vocals and fresh sounds led him to assimilate popular and marginal sounds with the latest techniques in music to produce “international” music. “Melody is the key,” he often says.
Thanks to his repertoire, it was natural that that operas in Britain came calling and Tolkein plays wanted to make use of his orchestration talent. And yes, it’s only fitting that he lifted the Golden Globe this week.
(Sudha G. Tilak is a Delhi-based writer)