Why A.R. Rahman is India’s first global rock star

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA writes from Bangalore: Many say A.R. Rahman‘s music for Slumdog Millionaire is “noisy but nice”. That phrase could come in useful when you look at his oeuvre as a whole, and try to put in perspective what he has come to represent to his fans in India.

In 1997, when India turned 50, Rahman gave Vande Mataram a new, aggressive musical interpretation.

A year on, Kargil fund-raisers used the song extensively at their shows.

His style won appreciation from the unlikeliest quarters: Swapan Dasgupta, then columnist for India Today, felt the young composer had finally freed the song from “Nehruvian distortions” by setting it to an attacking tune. Another columnist, Tavleen Singh, said Rahman’s song was the only cheering item at the 50th year Independence Day celebrations in Delhi.

Rahman’s fame seems to come from his ability to package Indian music for an audience slowly drifting away from an idiom rooted in its classical and folk music.

Perhaps his work represents the aggression of a post-liberalisation generation that’s largely sceptical about Gandhian pacifism. You may have noticed that Rahman is strong on rhythm, and his hit tunes are not usually touched by regret or sadness of any sort.

In Vande Mataram, Rahman is not awed by all the beauty Bankim Chandra celebrates—of the streams, the lush greenery and the grand mountains. He does not dwell in romantic subtlety. Rahman sees the song in military terms, and not as a prayer, as All India Radio’s interpretation does.

AlR has based its tune on Desh (‘country’), a raga that must have suggested itself when they set out to make a tune for a poem that almost became our national anthem. When he took up Vande Mataram, Rahman cut free of raga ornamentation and all the nostalgia it brings.

Rahman’s music may be no patch on what Naushad or Ilaiyaraja have accomplished, but remember, no one from their generation had got the world so excited.

Rahman is India’s first international rock star!

S.R. Ramakrishna is resident editor, MiD DaY, Bangalore, where this piece originally appeared