Rahman is a phenomenon not because of how commercially successful his music has been but because he makes every listener, very singer, every musician feel themselves. He helps them delve deep within and connect with something that can be termed god, soul or the recesses of one’s own heart. His music has layers which peal off one by one when played on loop, making it an eternal entry on every playlist. There is after all, so much more to discover every time a new discovery is made in the arrangement.
Naturally, Rahman is every playback singer’s dream come true. Those who have sung for him hungrily wait for another call. Those who have got a call from his office for a rendition can’t forget it. Others who haven’t, wait for it, as a milestone reached. Singers in Rahman’s studio are given full freedom to sift through every possible variation and Rahman records it all. Mohit Chauhan can’t forget the experience of recording Rockstar for Rahman. He says, “Rahman sa’ab would record the songs himself. There would be just him in the studio working on the console, Imtiaz and I. He would let you sing the way you wanted and from his console tell you that he had got what he wanted and now one could jam.” It was this jamming that resulted in the laughter included in Rahman’s Delhi 6 chartbuster Masakali, an idea improvised on spot and introduced in the song by the singer and retained by the composer. For many that became the distinctive feature of the song but for Chauhan it etched Rahman’s greatness who wasn’t insecure about his melody and allowed the singer to experiment with what he had created. Says Chauhan, “brilliance doesn’t come in close cut square boxes. No one understands that better than Rahman sa’ab which is why he is who he is.” Adding, “he makes you feel like singing and going on singing. What you hear on the headphones transports you to another world. Sometimes it even scares you but takes you somewhere else.” That ‘somewhere else’, is an uncommon impossible practice in contemporary Bollywood, chained to the pressures of commercial success.
But then Rahman is different from average Bollywood. Even in his wicked sense of humour. When Rockstar’s headliner, Sadda haq was recorded quietly in the wee hours by Mohit Chauhan in Imtiaz Ali’s presence and Rahman’s absence, Rahman is said to have kept that final take asking Chauhan, “what? Are you afraid of me to record perfectly behind my back?” During the recording of another hot seller from the film, Jo Bhi main, in Rahman’s still being finished studio in Mumbai when a perfectly functioning bulb started flickering suddenly, Rahman is known to have said, “what’s happening? This bulb just got possessed with your singing.”
n two other occasions Chauhan recalls being left speechless by Rahman’s wit. At the Rockstar concert in 2011 in Mumbai while rehearsing Nadaan parindey on stage, jut as the lyrics, “sab karam ke kapdey mailey hain” came up, Rahman had told Chauhan, “when this line comes you can tear your clothes on stage if you want” and laughed. In New York, again this July, in the green room, Rahman while updating Chauhan on how his two songs for the evening would travel from one to the other, said, “from Nadaan parindey we’ll go into Sadda haq and just before we finish Sadda haq we can both box each other.”
He makes you feel like singing and going on singing. What you hear on the headphones transports you to another world. Sometimes it even scares you but takes you somewhere else.
- Mohit Chauhan
On stage though, Rahman is a transformed man. There is no personal halo thrust upon the performance, nudging guest singers to the periphery. In fact, Rahman maintains such a low profile that he mostly sticks to his place behind the piano that he plays through the concert. If you were sitting at a distance from the stage there is every chance that you wouldn’t even notice Rahman at his own concert even on the life size LED screens put up on the sides of the stadium. You’ll look for him because you can hear him but he will not engage in banter like other artists, almost in a Bob Dylan way.
There’s no attempt to hog the limelight. There’s no long winding introductions for fellow singers. There’s no glorifying back stories about songs that they present together. And more importantly there’s no mention of, “when I did this.” On stage, Rahman let’s his guest artists be. They can sing, dance, engage with audiences and pretty much do what they want. For his part, Rahman introduces the artists in one line either from his piano stool or at times gets up to take the spot just one step ahead of his stool. At no point does he shove himself centre stage. So when Jonita Gandhi and Neeti Mohan, two regular acts in his concerts worldwide, step up, Rahman allows them to be up front in their designer gowns. Even actress Aditi Rao Hydari, making her stage debut with Tamil hit Vaan wasn’t guided or over shadowed. When Hariharan is invited to play his part, Rahman sticks to playing the piano as he does when Kailash Kher and Mika Singh take the stage. He only briefly leaves his place as the piano man when Mohit Chauhan sings Nadaan Parindey, straddling the stage with Chauhan.
But even this time, Rahman doesn’t dictate the stage, moving ever so softly around a dancing Chauhan ensuring there is no real head butt or “boxing each other” as he had earlier suggested. When Mika Singh starts crooning Heer, the LED screens on stage light up with bright motifs from trucks in Punjab. In his quintessential style Mika much like Kailash Kher address the audience directly, calling out as they enter and leave the lap. Rahman remains on stage as artist after artist performs and disappears in the wings. Some one in the crowd bellows, “Rahman, I love you,” carefully choosing to do so when the applause has died after a song. An embarrassed Rahman responds to him with just two words, “thank you” only after he is forced to acknowledge the fan’s repeated declaration of love echoing through the stadium. The audience breaks into a collective laughter and a resounding cheer. Rahman resumes his recital. The audience falls silent to drift into timelessness.
Simply because Rahman's music is ageless since it gives his audience a sense of discovery, where each layer is a world in itself like waves in the ocean. Incidentally, One Heart has shots of Rahman wading through sea water with only the crashing of the waves serving as its musical backdrop. There is nothing you can do to not dive deep in Rahman’s music. There is a hopeless enchantment when he composes or performs, almost like an induced hypnosis. The spell of which can only break with another Rahman composition.
In 1992 when Rahman first challenged the order of conventional Indian film music with Roja, he reversed many long established prescriptions in the music world. It took the Time magazine 13 years to name Roja’s music as the “10 Best soundtracks of all time, but by that time, in 2005, the Rahman sound had been established worldwide.
In Rahman’s own words there can be no true music without heart. That evening in New York, what Rahman offered to his audience was all heart. Clearly, if in days, there are day dreams and then there are those others, days full of dreams, for Rahman believers the IIFA Rocks concert was a fulfilled day of dreams.
(Author tweets at @prattyg)
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