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Friday, August 21, 2009

A.R. Rahman - One up on his illustrious predecessors

After sweeping a litany of awards, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ managed a most eclectic slice of an a la carte spread at the Oscar feast - zipping off an enviable 08 trophies in a treasure chest of honorifics. Even as the nation erupted, the channels were choc-a-bloc with the images of Danny Boyle and his effusive band cavorting in style, one of whom was an unassuming character who did a quiet promenade across the red carpet to collect his ‘twin tango delights’, to the wonder of the boisterous Hollywood glitterati. Allah Rakha Rahman, as Indian cinema’s true-blue composer created history of epic proportions as he stormed the international music bastion like none before.
If one looks back at the history of Indian film composers, there have been sporadic instances of a euphonic cross-over without anyone quite managing to leave a strong imprimatur. The legendary Shanker-Jaikishan recorded the first ever English number for the film, ‘Sangam’ in 1964 that went, ‘Eich Leibdisch, I Love You’ sung by Vivin Lobo that made considerable waves. In the years ahead, the duo performed a daring feat of coming up with an album, entitled, ‘Raga Jazz Style’ where different Indian ragas were strung together, embellished in Western Orchestra to create a unique ensemble of sound, beat and rhythm. What stood out prominently in the album was the combo of the Saxophone by Manohari Singh and the drums by Kersi Lord, both legends in their respective fields. This was one of the first attempts at creating a hybrid style of the West and the East. Another credit to the S-J duo was when one of their funk and garage rock numbers - 'Jaan Pehchaan Ho...' from the film 'Gumnaam' (1965) was used in a Terri Zwigoff’s film, ‘Ghost World’. Yet, in the 1960s in India, such sporadic instances just about skimmed the surface of the boundless creativity of Indian composers in an international perspective. We also had instances of Salil Chowdhury creating something out of Mozart’s G-Minor symphony or employing innovations of scale progression based on Western classical music principles. RD Burman’s rise in the 1970s was quite phenomenal and it could so easily be concluded that as a composer he was way ahead of his times. He was often compared to Dave Brubeck for his innovative methods and a penchant for breaking the traditional boundaries of composition. It was in the latter stage of his career that he did an international album called ‘Pantera’, his private collaboration with Jose Flores, an out and out heavy metal attempt, which sadly did not create any musical ripples back home. For all his genius, RDB never quite managed to break the chain of Bollywood fetters to go blazingly international, something he was quite capable of doing. In the 90s, we had Illaiyaraja, of the ‘Cheeni Kum’ fame, recording his first major work in Western classical music, named Symphony No.1, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London under the baton of John Scott; the first Asian to do so. But again, back home, his achievement went unsung and the album is yet to be released in the Indian market.

All of these instances, make Rahman’s achievement all the more noteworthy for here is one composer who has made world critics and jury members to sit up and take note of the unbridled magic that Indian composers can weave for an international audience. The man who had his basic grounding in the Trinity College of Music, started off as a keyboard player and arranger in a band called ‘Roots’ before graduating to jingles, until Mani Ratnam and ‘Roja’ catapulted him to instant fame. As his film career galloped along, Rahman had begun to measure his strides across global frontiers, first with the film ‘Warriors of Heaven and Earth’ followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s neo-opera, ‘Bombay Dreams’. This was followed by ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in association with a Finnish folk-music band ‘Vartinna’ and Shekhar Kapoor’s ‘Elizabeth’ before his melismatic sounds struck a precise note in mainstream Hollywood, even as a ‘slumdog’ managed to rake in a ‘millionaire’s’ shekels, so to speak. The hallowed fortress has finally been breached and how! Rahman has succeeded where all his predecessors somehow proved unsuccessful – to become the global face of Indian cine-music.

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