There’s an interesting paragraph in Baradwaj Rangan‘s post about A.R. Rahman‘s music for “I“, Shankar‘s latest magnum opus where he tells how he feels that the album is wholly individual and free.   “Free from the constraints of Tamil cinema. Free from hewing to situations. Free to leap off a cliff and land on a passing cloud and float away for a while. Whatever you think of Shankar’s filmmaking, you have to give him this: he wields one hell of a hammer. He liberates Rahman.”

The greatest thing about art is that it affects everyone differently. It brings forth opinions and a deeper understanding of pop culture if not society as a whole. In many ways, A.R. Rahman is like Bob Dylan in the 60s. They both changed our general perception of a form of music till their arrival. Dylan changed songwriting, Rahman changed arrangements. And after a period of unparalleled adulation, they both became less prominent. If the last 3 years are any indication, Rahman’s throne has all but been captured by other musicians. 

In the early 90s, when Rahman first started composing for films, he brought forward a sound that was wholly something I’ve come to associate with Madras, the city I was brought up in. The sound was a beautiful eclectic mix of Michael Jackson, Ilaiyaraja and arrangement that could make John Williams proud. There was a sense of completeness to a Rahman album that was like a breathing actor in a film. Whenever “PudhuVellaiMazhai” played on the radio or TV, we could imagine the love of newly weds, the early morning cuddle and the snow filled mountains in Kashmir. Rahman was divine. He was doing things that were a mix of cultures, were he could bring the rustic “Indianness” of a Western Classical inspired Ilaiyaraja and combine it with his love for Michael Jackson. It was like having Diwali all year round. There was a celebration of music, the utter vividness of an album like “MinsaraKanavu” brighter than the sky lit up by rockets. Rahman was not just making music that was different, it was fun.

In Shankar’s “Kadhalan”, Rahman truly exploded. He used synthesizers, Suresh Peters (I am still amazed he managed to make “Pettai Rap” with him), composed the rollicking Urvashi, which is still relevant(ask Will.I.Am), gave the great “Mukkabla” whose catchy music was used in almost every restaurant and outlet in the country and remember, he started the album with the mellifluous “Ennavale”. This was Rahman having fun, set free by Shankar as Mr. Rangan tells. This was Rahman claiming his musical seat among the greats. Until 2002, he held his place without anyone really challenging him. Rahman was synonymous with greatness. He is still great but his music has alarmingly come down to the point of being ignorable. Yes, ignorable.

I listened to “I” and “KaaviyaThalaivan” over two weeks. I have a habit of listening to an album 5 times before I pass verdict on it. I did it with both and for the first time I was sure that I didn’t want to listen to a Rahman album again. Mr. Rangan points that “To complain that the songs are overdone, overproduced is to find fault with a Persian carpet for having too many colours, too many motifs. That’s what Shankar’s cinema is. That’s what Shankar’s cinema needs.”.

For “I”, I agree that one needs music that makes more colour than a Holi day in Mumbai. For a moment, AilaAila does just that. Natalia Di Luccio‘s operatic pop marries Rahman’s brilliant use of electronic beats and keyboards. You can imagine how it works in a Shankar film, with his penchant for gloss and grandeur. In “Ladio”, Rahman tries be Swedish House Mafia and Djebali while stripping the club sounds with the studio groomed voice of Nikita Gandhi. It doesn’t work. Yes, Rahman is having fun with this composition. It isn’t something we are used to hearing in Indian films and neither do our electronic musicians come up with something like this, their fusions are better, they have a more complete vision of how a club song works. One cannot consume too many GulabJamoons and not have a stomach ache the next day. Similarly, Rahman’s music for “I” is an array of too many things being tried but never really coming out well in the end. Yes, there’s some beautiful things too like the start of “Pookkale..”, the restrained build up of the usual Rahman kind of song sung by Sid Sriram “Ennodu Nee Irundal” and the brilliant “AilaAila” but there’s also the completely overdone EDM and autotune cringing “Mersalaayitten” and misconstrued “Ladio”.

My complaint with Ladio isn’t about the things he tries but how what he tries doesn’t come as a complete package. I look at artists like Karsh Kale, Dualist Inquiry, Nucleya, Shaair and Func to see what electronic music can be now in our country, more than just EDM that House music employs. I am not even trying to bring the Westernised musicians like Nigel Rajarathnam to highlight what a rich and diverse music scene we are forming now. We are no longer novices when it comes to using the latest techniques and effects. We don’t have to laud experimentation for the sake of it.Rahman is like a child let free with his favourite toy but the child hasn’t made a truly fun album that’s comes packed with the kind of unabashed genius that he was once known for. It isn’t about the quality of these compositions but more about the experience of listening to them. There’s a limited zone that Rahman employs himself in, even when having fun, and in the constrained space there’s nothing wholly enjoyable from him off late. The reason “MaahiVe” grew on me was because it understood the nuances of bringing EDM into a ballad of a song. There was nothing else worth celebrating about Highway’s soundtrack. For some time now, Rahman has found himself curtailed by either a filmmaker’s inability to let him express himself or when like Shankar has let him free, an overproduced album that has somehow failed to bring an experience wholly individualistic of Rahman.

ARRThere is a perception that a Rahman album needs multiple listens to grow on one these days because it is different to what we are used to. Maybe. I won’t dispute that claim. He is one of the few mainstream musicians in the country who knows what great sound production can do to an album. But here it is – sound production only forms a part of what makes a song, it isn’t the only thing. It is the colourful wrapper over toffee and only rich caramel makes the toffee good enough, not the cover. Strangely and sadly, most Rahman songs today are only gloss with a lot of effects being thrown in, mixed generally well but the song itself is threadbare jeans that might just tear off at the slightest of stretches.

 KaaviyaThalaivan is a movie about a drama troupe in early 20th century but the songs are more groomed and studio produced with voices with no local flair in them for both the period and the culture. The caramel is never in the toffee. Even individualistically, it doesn’t work. It is just beautiful voices making love to a well orchestrated arrangement. There are many beautiful voices out there, that sound extremely good in the studio but then again I’d prefer listening to Anthony Dasansinging with flair than the “right amount of sugar in tea” singing in “VaangaMakkaVaanga”. Songs are more than just being able to hum and do a jig to or be engaging lyrically enough to alter life. No, songs are affecting if they dance on their own, if they can be poetry on a road trip or the waves of the ocean. This is the experience that one like me expects from songs. Rahman’s had them aplenty. Just not anymore.

I listen to Santhosh Narayanan now and I am reminded of what Rahman did in the 90s. He made two musical worlds, the Indian and Western, co-exist. I don’t mean the usage of sitars as Indian and cellos as Western. Like Satyajit Ray once told about contemporary American movies  as having a rhythm akin to Jazz, a musical form which is entirely theirs. When Bob Dylan started his musical journey, he took the blues from Mississippi and jazz from New Orleans, combined it with the usual folk lyrics of America and borrowed rock and roll from his British peers and Elvis Presley. He domesticated music when the Rock and Roll British Invasion was at its height. He gave America back to America. It was a musical experience. What Santhosh Narayanan is doing right now is something similar. He is using the American blues and jazz in our gaana songs, he is bringing Icelandic post-rock ambiance into a village girl’s pathos. There is a union of India’s unsophisticated beats and titillating rhythms with the production and strings from the West. He is on the road that Raja and Rahman travelled before him, a road on which Rahman seems to have taken the wrong crossroad in the last decade.

Rahman has still given quality albums like “Delhi 6”, VinnaithandiVaruvaya”, “Swades”, “Jodhaa Akbar” to name a few but this year, where he has worked on 7 films in all, the general decline of a Rahman album is too obvious to ignore. I know fans are already shaking their head and thinking that I’ve lost it and the ones who’ve already claimed Rahman’s death from his great heights are gleefully smiling but I am morose at what’s been churning out of Rahman’s hands these days. I grew up listening to Rahman, heralding his genius so the fall is even more painful to see and especially hear. 
If this is Rahman saying, “It is I”, then I’d be least bothered about selecting another Rahman album to listen because right now I find Rahman’s compositions either like a needle stuck in playback or unfinished paintings that have the scope to be a Jackson Pollock instead of  a 10 year old’s attempt to draw his mother. One could look at Alt J and Arcade Fire to see how one can unify computer era sounds with 80s pop/rock. They are doing it, they are doing it better and bringing it to people who can stare at murals in dilapidated restrooms and not in closed museums for the niche. It isn’t that Rahman is not capable. It’d be blasphemous to even consider that. It is just that the experimentation isn’t working. It’s a period where he doesn’t seem to have learned. The enjoyment of his music is rather very individualistic and not collectively coveted. I’d rather Rahman  rediscovered an “I” who gave the world the beautiful “ThangaThamarai” instead of the horrible “Mersalaayitten”.  The one good thing about “I” is that it isn’t as banal as his other works this year but I hope the guy who composed that beautiful ambient score for Highway” also finds the place where he is best – bridging the gap between us and Michael Jackson, Madonna and De La Soul. That’s Rahman screaming “I” for me.