Understanding AR Rahman’s fascination for nurturing vocal traditions and cultural music

Amazon Prime Video rolled out ‘Harmony with AR Rahman’ last week; a five-episode exploration of traditional forms of music, instruments and voices, from the perspective of its host, composer-singer AR Rahman. The series in a way is a mantelpiece of his continual efforts in surfacing less-known, regional/cultural music forms. The soundtrack to ‘Mom’ that recently turned one is a fitting example in the mainstream format. Two artists featured in the soundtrack share their experiences working with and recording niche forms of music with the composer.

At a running time of an average Coke Studio season, Harmony with AR Rahman packs interesting themes, sounds and visuals; it teases out nuances, sanctity and characters of traditional art forms; it celebrates the sounds and the artists alike. Above all, it showcases the host-composer’s passion for upholding Indian musical heritage.

The soundtrack to the multiple national award-winning Hindi film Mom (2017) recently turned one. Shashaa Tirupati who has sung two songs in the album shares her perspective on working with the composer and especially in light of the Amazon series. In ‘O Sona’, Shashaa sings an ethereal interlude humming and the verse that follows. She says, “The most humbling and distinct part was the fact that it was my first duet with AR Rahman Sir, a lifelong dream.”

In the album, Shashaa also renders ‘Chal Kahin’, a composition that rivals her National award-winning song, ‘Vaan’ (Kaatru Veliyidai, 2017). She regards that it is “an ingenious composition which simultaneously challenges the singer in you due to the intricate changeovers and graph that the song has sentimentally and compositionally. In addition, when you know you are voicing a Sridevi ji film, it all together becomes a piece of work with two profound childhood associations.”

‘Chal Kahin’ also draws an interesting parallel with ‘Vaan’ in that both the songs are soliloquies. Shashaa acknowledges and adds that AR Rahman supervised both the recordings as there were constant modifications while they were tracking. She adds, “He would improvise on the spot and come up with perhaps a dozen variants for the same line/phrase.” Other versions of ‘Vaan’ were also part of the background score; she reminisces about the different kinds of melodies he created at the time.

“‘Chal Kahin Door’ and ‘Vaan’ were absolutely soul-transporting experiences, no understatement,” says Shashaa Tirupati

Pertinent to the theme of the Amazon series, Shashaa recollects an instance of a traditional piece, a thumri, ‘Sunn Bhavara’, that she recorded for another film OK Jaanu (2017). “It was recorded over 4-5 hours of sitting and jamming on Bihag with him on the harmonium where I was given pads/keys and asked to improvise on a single line, ‘Sunn Bhavara, Kaisi Baatein Banaaye‘. Sir would come up with additions to what I was doing, and take the improv to a different parallel,” recounts Shashaa. She considers this one of her most enjoyable and fulfilling recordings till date; AR Rahman gave her carte-blanche on this to work as a singer with a classical music background.

Acknowledging and blending various niche forms of music is a familiar turf for AR Rahman. ‘Be Nazaara’ that featured in Mom is another remarkable composition in this regard. Mumbai-based singer Sudeep Jaipurwale, who has sung the song in the soundtrack, shares some interesting facts and anecdotes. “The traditional tappa is one of the most difficult singing styles to master; it literally means to bounce. There are no holding notes and it incorporates a variety of jumpy notes.” He quickly breaks into a rendition of the opening line from ‘Be Nazaara’ to demonstrate the bounce in the notes. “They (tappas) invariably feature the composer in the lyrics… bartendi shori sha matwale nein…”, he quotes-sings enthusiastically. He also notes how the singers touch their ears when “shori sha..” is uttered in this tappa or more generally, the composer’s name, as a mark of respect.

Sudeep relates an interesting story of how the song came about. AR Rahman was on a popular singing show as a guest promoting Mom on which Sudeep’s father Pt. Bhavdeep Jaipurwale, whom the composer holds a lot of respect for, was a vocal coach. It was his father who had introduced Sudeep, who was then assisting him, to AR Rahman. A mesmerized AR Rahman listening to a recording of Sudeep’s grandfather Pt. Govind Prasad Jaipurwale’s singing of the tappa casually asked the grandson to sing the eleven-and-a-half minute song.

AR Rahman must have liked Sudeep’s singing because four months later the tappa was recorded in his studio in Mumbai. Sudeep had no clue that this was for a film. “I had to go to the studio to record another time soon after when I got a call that the director had liked it”, adds Sudeep.

“There was no one else but the composer in the mixing room this time. It was only a Tanpura that served as the background. I kept on singing for several minutes,” recounts Sudeep Jaipurwale.

The seventh song of the Mom soundtrack was conceived in about 45 minutes. Sudeep says he was thrilled to hear the final production of the song when it came out. He says that it had a world music feel to it. He also notes the composer’s creativity in the repetitive ‘…Zaalim Zor...’ at the end of the song.

That brings us to the first episode of Season 3 of Coke Studio, which is perhaps the closest independent effort of AR Rahman in line with the recent Amazon Prime series. Like ‘Be Nazaara’, ‘Aao Balma’ is another instance of a fresh arrangement of a traditional Hindustani composition. Notably, AR Rahman managed to assemble singers from three generations to render this bandish: Padmabhushan Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, his sons and grandson. A decade ago, AR Rahman re-created Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s Hindustani classical composition ‘Bhor Bhaye’ for the film Delhi 6. Here, he actually overlays the original vocals with Shreya Ghoshal’s.

Sudeep instantly nods in agreement with these two connections, and renders a couple of lines from the Todi that is ‘Bhor Bhaye’. “There (Bhor Bhaye) AR Rahman used the original artist’s voice, but I’m grateful I got a chance to sing the lines in ‘Be Nazaara’ for him. It is impossible to match my grand father’s singing”, Sudeep puts humbly.

In ‘Harmony with…’, we get to see an inquisitive AR Rahman thrilled by the prospect of discovering and re-imagining traditional instruments and art forms. The jamming sessions of the host with the artistes are wildly imaginative, juxtaposing otherwise contradictory sounds, but the synergy that entails is a delight to listen. In a collapsed timeline, it gives form and structure to and substantiates his continual efforts in surfacing less-known, regional music forms.

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