Why is it becoming increasingly difficult to instantly embrace Rahman’s songs? Thalli Pogadhey (Achcham Enbadhu Madamaiyada), Omana Penne (Vinnathaandi Varuvaaya), To Koi Aur Hai (Tamasha), Mahi Ve (Highway), Phir Se Udd Chala (Rockstar), Oscar Sangamam, Theera Ula (OK Kanmani), Prelude of Parade De La Bastille (Tamasha), recital parts in Sindhu Ma (Mohenjo Daro), Whisper Themes (Mohenjo Daro) — all of these have something in common, they didn’t make any sense to me on first few hearings. Though, I have embraced all of these songs a while later, they needed a warming up phase.
From our past listening experiences, all of us who have an opinion on music, have an instinct of how a melody that starts in a certain way would flow to reach a point of inflection before arriving at a smooth resolution at the end, and even if it meanders for a while, we know that it would follow a certain comforting path to come back to the main melody. You could always sense, even if not very consciously, a mathematical precision in such melodies, but in some of Rahman’s melodies, there is no evidence of comfort, convention and an effort to balance the left and right side of the mathematic equation in music. The melody doesn’t present a problem, and even if does, there is no resolution provided. The melodies don’t seem to take their destined, innate paths on its course. Rahman doesn’t do film music as we know it anymore in these experimental songs. Melodies take a twisted and convoluted path; they feel like some scattered, disjointed, short, independent phrases strung together.
Rahman would still not completely avoid including instantly pleasing songs. He would ensure a Sarsarsariya follows an oddly structured Sindhu Ma or a Avaalum Naanum is placed soon after a Thalli Pogadhey in a soundtrack, the kind of songs that sticks to the grammar of a film song as we know it. I wondered if the strange flow in the melody is the effect of Rahman trying to set a lyricist’s new age non-metric poetry to tune. Even that doesn’t seem to be the cause. I was shocked when lyricist Thamarai revealed in her Facebook page that she was given the complete tune of Thalli Pogadhey in Rahman’s voice, and that she thought it was a weird tune to write lyrics for. Not a thing in the tune was changed to fit her lyrics.
When I listen to a Sindhu Ma (or the incredible Whisper themes) I wonder if that is how a melody would naturally take shape, if it were to flow intuitively from the mind of a composer at that absolute, elusive moment of creation. It felt so random, unintuitive and unnatural. But, who decides what the natural flow in a melody is or should be?
Do you remember the prelude of the song Take is easy from Kaadhalan (Humse hai Muqabala)? The Marhabba prelude from Take it easy song is the key to understand Rahman’s current journey in music. The way Rahman croons Marhabba with a spiritual fervour is not something a composer would sit and compose on a Piano. You just close your eyes and let you voice wander in a void, and at some point, randomly out of nowhere there is a big bang and Marhabba happens. And that I believe is what Rahman’s doing for many of his songs these days.
What if an entire song is made with Rahman singing Marhabba like an Azan sung as a call to prayer in the place of worship? The DNA of the structure and form of many of his recent melodies, perceived as meandering, fragmented, random and unnatural, are derived from the musical idioms of his faith. Rahman doesn’t go for the most obvious melismatic phrases in all of these experimental pieces, but I could sense a lot else come from there — the pauses, the non-linearity, magical possibilities in non-metric, irreproducible improvisations. I don’t know if Rahman is consciously attempting all of these. To Rahman, the form of music he used in the Marhabba prelude in Take it easy song is as natural a flow in melody, as it is in any of melodies based on Carnatic or Hindustani or Western classical music. Rahman just hums or chants away melodies for hours in gibberish and picks and chooses the best bits to form a song, and unifies everything with his orchestration and a seductive soundscape.
What Rahman served as a pickle for eclecticism in Take it easy, he is serving as a full meal is some of his songs now, and not everyone has a stomach to digest it. It is disorienting and confusing initially. Rahman doesn’t use these unusual idioms just in quirky situations in films; he uses them in any kind of song and in most conventional of situations where we use songs in Indian films.
Whispers of the Mind and Whispers of the Heart - Two themes which sound like a solo vocalist meandering a jungle of random phrases, have a very well defined melodic structure (all flautists out there, enough of Bombay theme, cover this one, like right now) and transcendental possibilities, for those who have the will to find the path and closely follow it through to the end. I still don’t know if I have that unwavering will, but I keep going back to these two tracks of all the songs in the soundtrack. They are immersive, mystic, hypnotic and other worldly. Sindhu Ma - a song sung apparently in a temple, has an intriguing structure. She is praying to Sindhu River and he is praying to her reciting lines like a sloka in a pooja ritual and the song moves on to become a filmy romantic ballad. I like how the phrases in the stanza get shorter after each line as the two get closer. Sarsarsariya is simple and a charming beauty that saves the soundtrack from being entirely weird.
Mohenjo Daro soundtrack is experimental and a successful one, even if not phenomenal. There is a consistent musical texture and soundscape through all the celebratory folk tunes, tribal chants and romantic ballads. It is a crazy mishmash of elegantly stacked layers of instruments, exotic sounds, haunting hymns and exuberant choir chants. What the soundtrack probably needed more is fresher and weirder sounds like the one in the main theme in which Rahman is gargling while singing the tune. Rahman prefers weirder melodic structures to weirder new sounds these days, and that is the new Rahman sound. He probably feels a combination of weird sound and a weirder melody might be a little too alienating and complicated for the listeners. A time might come, when we would hear that too from him. That would probably be Rahman 3.0 phase. For now, I am thoroughly enjoying Mohenjo Daro music.