The Dravidian “Uncanny” in Mariyan; The “Detour” Taken in A. R. Rahman’s Ontological Arc

Author’s Note: Aakriti, a writer who has already been creating ripples in the online-writing circles and is destined for greater things, out of sheer kindness, asked me if I could do a “piece” for her blog. I use this opportunity to thank her and Sukanya- who deserves a special shout-out for her writings here, many of which I find quite instructive; she can also double up as a fine interviewer- for allowing me to blather nonsensically on music, a subject in which my opinions amount to really nothing. Also a drum roll (or better still “mridangam-roll/”ghatam-roll”) for Varun because of whom I decided to open my arms to one of the best tracks of this strangely affecting album. This haphazard, quick-fix extended note (call it an exercise in self-indulgence) written exclusively for this blog, comes out of fondness for the two lovely (and lovely-looking) girls who are doing a stupendous job of maintaining this space. I hope the blog continues to go from strength to strength and becomes an important cultural hotbed for all things music. The piece’s disjointed nature reveals its short, but rather “eventful” evolutionary history; a lot of pyrotechnics (!) were displayed during its conception (and once they catch the drift, I can see the blog admins either breaking into a guffaw or eliciting a sneer). The more courageous members of the ever-burgeoning readership of “A Humming Heart” should feel free to read the entire ebonics here , the saner ones are recommended to simply stop at the top still and feast their eyes on the nose-ring of the very likeable (and equally lick-able) Ms. Menon. I had fun writing this one. Kaadhal!

 

I say this with a tinge of sadness that the ways in which A. R. Rahman appeared revolutionary, when he first burst onto the scene, simply cannot be replicated today no matter what he produces. Because the revolution was ‘institutionalized’ a long time ago; his traces survive in so many talents in both Tamil and Hindi cinema. He cannot represent the “shock of the new” the way he once did. That being said, Rahman is a rather crafty customer- he is never too burdened by history. In other words I don’t believe that every time he takes on a new project he starts out thinking that he needs to better each of his great collaborations with Rathnam!

In hindsight, albums like “Delhi-6” (perhaps his finest work in Hindi after “Dil Se”) probably inaugurated a mellow(er) phase in Rahman’s career (of course with the all-important exceptions of the soundtracks of the Shankar films. “Endhiran”, for instance, hearkens back to the vintage Rahman from the 90’s, the one whose presence can still be felt in the compositions of “Gentleman”, “Jeans” and my personal favourite “Padayappa” even if the last one isn’t a Shankar film. To a lesser extent Shankar’s upcoming “I” also belongs to the same wheelhouse). The last couple of years have given us a number of albums (“I”, “Kaaviya Thalaivan” and “Lingaa” being the most recent Tamil ones, and “Highway” and “Raanjhanaa” the Hindi ones) to confirm the impression that the master has, where the subject gives him rein, shifted gears: the qawwalis have become more reflective [contrast Arziyan (“Delhi-6”) with Noor-un-Alaa (“Meenaxi”) from a few years earlier]; the love songs increasingly suffused with a murmuring longing [Moongil Thottam (“Kadal”)], and even a jazz bent [Aaromale (“Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya”)]; the sounds have become a bit less ornate, but remain just as rich.

The album of 2013’s “Mariyan” (loosely translated as “The Immortal”), a Dhanush and Parvathy “Poo” Menon starrer and helmed by Bharat Bala (the man behind Rahman’s very fine Jana Gana Mana music-video), falls smack down the middle of this mellow, tranquil vein. At its best (which is to say in its four slower songs) Mariyan is extremely reflective, almost unsettlingly so: you really miss it when the music stops playing. But more importantly, there is this element of “uncanny” running in the bloodstream of this album, something you can’t really put a finger on. This is, quite simply, Rahman’s best album (including both his Tamil and Hindi works) in years for any director not named Mani Rathnam. To put it differently it’s his best album since “Kadal”. And while I sadly do not follow Tamil (wish I did, both given the high quality of Tamil lyrics at their best, and the wealth of Tamil literature stretching back over a millennium. I don’t believe there is any other living language with such a continuous literary tradition; perhaps Greek, but there are some grave discontinuities there too) which compromises my appreciation and understanding of the songs to a major extent (sometimes there are subtitled lyrics in the film or on the video, on other occasions I look up for the translated lyrics on the net, but also very many times one has to do without them and live with this irreparable loss), for Mariyan I was able to make do with the subtitled lyrics present in the transfer of the film which I have- I must say I was enormously pleased with this, for the fact that the for the two songs here- Naetru Aval and Sonapareeya– the wordsmith was none other than the recently deceased Vaali, who is quietly simply one of the seminal figures of Tamil literature, and a poet and lyricist par extraordinaire.

Rahman’s solo, Nenje Yezhu, which leads off the soundtrack has a few delicate strains reminiscent of water and journeys giving way to soaring vocals that, in their sense of wonder and consciousness of a new landscape beheld, preserve a link with a very early composition of his, Ye Haseen Waadiyaan (Roja). Over two decades and dozens of albums have barely dimmed the composer’s freshness (while it is definitely clear to the ears that Nenje Yezhu has a “past”, it doesn’t really feel “dated” either; as if someone pulled it out of a cryogenic chamber where it was sleeping soundly for decades)- while the listener is aware of too much history to lend his encounter with the later work the same aura of discovery that forever tinges “Roja”, Nenje Yezhu shows that Rahman remains willing to start all over again. The traveller is now older for sure, but his ardour for the journey is as bright as ever. The song does what it sets out to do bloody well, with Kutti Revathi and Rahman himself work in tandem as lyricist to string together some of the best lines in the album:

When 1000 suns burn you,
When compassion’s sheen wears off,
When injustice rises up to the skies,
When man forgets love,
When your body starts breaking down in pain,
Even then your love won’t die,
Oh heart rise, heart rise….

The same sort of bucolic strains that begin Ay Hairathey (Guru) lead to Vijay Prakash’s vocals in Innum Konjam Naeram; Shweta Mohan joins a bit later, and the result is a melodious, if conventional, love duet, but one that is immensely satisfying – a reminder, if any were needed, that Rahman comes at the end of a long tradition. In the final analysis, to take this most hackneyed of film music genres and keep making music that sounds soulful, not jaded, might be one of the composer’s greatest achievements. I should hereby slide in a confession that it was only after Varun Rajasekharan’s (a good acquaintance, and an exquisite percussionist and songwriter. He specialises in Carnatic music and is already rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of the Indian music scene) endorsement of the song that I finally hunkered down and gave it another try. And boy was it worth it!

Naetru Aval Irundhal is apt as the next track: it takes Innum Konjam Naeram a step further, and begins with the low notes and erotic intimacy of Vijay Prakash and Chinmayi (the simple contrast between the two voices – Prakash’s resonant bass in the words “Naetru Aval Irundhal”, reminiscent of Hariharan; followed by Chinmayi’s higher pitched, “thinner” voice, as she playfully croons “Hey…mariyaan” – is instantly compelling), before taking slow flight into less joyous climes. Love here isn’t just the balm for the soul, but it is also suffused with melancholy, as that which will be lost!

 

My favourite from this album, a song of heart-breaking loveliness, Yenga Pona Raasa is intensely romantic, taking you to a place that is familiar, sad and filled with meaning. A song of love and loss, but not, perhaps, of loneliness (merely solitude), it brings Kannathil Muthamittal to mind, although the later song sketches the contours of a soundscape that is nowhere near as lush, but marked by a trace: the afterglow of a lover’s absence. Shaktishree Gopalan (quite simply my favourite singer from her generation) had already soared with the outstanding Nenjukkulle (Kadal), and is unforgettable in this far more introverted track – her pairing with Rahman looks set to give us magic for years to come. As for now, this song is an absolute gem and an instant classic.

Sonapareeya is charming without quite being memorable, the requisite “catchy number” rendered somewhat interesting by the retro – and vaguely Hindi film-sounding (only someone like Vaali can “inflect” Tamil with such a word and get away with it) — Sonapareeya refrain that should jar, but doesn’t. That seamlessness is testament to Rahman’s skill, but the song is pretty modest and is a bit of filler between two outstanding tracks. I have long been critical of Rahman’s bland rap efforts, but Sofia Ashraf’s vocals here [as, of course, MIA’s outstanding ones in “O Saaya” (“Slumdog Millionaire”)] suggest that perhaps Rahman’s problem is male rap artists.

Sadly my impression that almost all of the composer’s rap-songs with male voices turn out to be rather bland is vindicated by the next number: I Love My Africa is unworthy of Rahman (although pretty much what I would expect from Blaaze), and sounds like something cobbled together for the 2010 football World Cup, with bits of heavy percussion, Brian Kabwe’s “Africa…Africa” refrain, and some generic mambo beats – in short, an advertiser’s idea of what an “African sound” might be like. I wish it were the last song in the album, and thus could more easily be skipped.

Kadal Raasa Naan is actually the last song on the soundtrack, and the opening ten seconds seem to flow from Yenga Pona Raasa (refracted through a Middle Eastern prism), before resolving into a fast-paced, and very Tamil, number sustained by Yuvan Shankar Raja’s (Ilaiyaraaja’s son and a leading Tamil music-director, who has been disappointing me with his work ever since the stunning Pudhupettai) soulful vocal, combined with occasional neo-shehnai strains. This song isn’t new, but it is pitched at an urgent level, and is stealthily addictive: I dismissed it as trivial for weeks before realizing that I couldn’t stop listening to the soundtrack until I’d heard its last track.

As is often the case with Rahman, Mariyan’s soundtrack has simplistic “hooks” to lure you in, but once you are “hooked”, you are rewarded with a bouquet of melodies (if one does not work, another surely will!) over thickets of busy instrumentations that beg to be teased apart – how many rhythms and sounds are in the crashing of waves exactly?! What is also very pleasurable to my sensibilities is the intense, native Tamilian feeling of many of the sounds, instruments, voices and tunes which come across as such a welcome relief after hearing the mostly slick, pop sound (programmed beats, Westernized vocals) of most mainstream albums. I think this album is proof enough that we are on the cusp of witnessing a truly important director-composer partnership (between Bharat Bala and Rahman) in the making.

I think it’s important to highlight a point by juxtaposing Mariyan with a recent solid Hindi album of Rahman, say something like Raanjhanaa (which is a fairly strong album no doubt, but is also a poor man’s “Delhi-6” in some ways). That there is a certain spontaneity that Rahman can truly summon up only in his Tamil albums (check out some of the “I” songs or even something like “Oh Nanba” from the recent “Lingaa” in this regard). The Hindi albums are usually much more ‘controlled attempts’. This is roundabout way of saying that Rahman is never as ‘playful’ doing North Indian music (by and large). There are exceptions but they’re rare and when he tries to do authentically North Indian strains in a more precise sense I’m not sure if there’s a true exception; which is not to say that the Hindi albums are always lesser by default, just that they sometimes lack the spontaneous zest and propulsive energy of his Tamil works.

 

Finally I think one should say that Rahman’s Tamil works are his “original” works, the “primitive” works. Tamil really is his “Ur-text”! There is also quite often a “rough cut” element involved in the Tamil albums. So his Tamil tracks reference his own past music but equally the North Indian elements aren’t really out of ‘classic’ Bombay film-music, but owe more to either his ‘qawwali-esque’ mode (Behne de– Raavan) or the more earthy elements that he’s done a lot more of in Tamil but to an extent in Hindi as well (in “Mangal Pandey” for example). Or better still in his Hindi albums, the Bombay film-music tradition is mostly present not as a whole, but in “shards”; some of these shards once found their way in the songs of “Taal” But the kind of very strong folk element in say something like “Raavan/Raavanan” (I am thinking of Ranjha and Kataa-Kataa, perhaps also Thok De Killi) has never been part of Hindi film music canon till very recently. Earlier you had the obligatory folk song in a female voice relegated to a corner of the film. But it never defined film music in that earthy a vein even if obvious it does inform Hindi film music. Much as percussion in the true sense really begins in Tamil music with Rahman. The rustic elements of course have a history. In any case I like his music most (both in Tamil and Hindi) when he is more informed by this ‘event’, which is to say music that sounds not very self-referential but builds on that ‘initial impulse’. These are the kind of works which give me the most “unalloyed pleasures”. When he departs more profoundly from this structure there are still some very strong works, but which to my mind are ultimately ‘lesser’ ones.

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