The earliest usage of the nickname ‘Mozart of Madras’ I could find was in 2004 — a TIME magazine article titled the same. A rather short piece about AR Rahman’s Bombay Dreams that said ARR’s name stood in unison with “melody, quality, energy, instant hummability — a sound both personal and universal, devouring many older forms and transforming them into something gorgeously new.” The description of Rahman’s brand of music is perfect, except for the phrase ‘instant hummability’. In fact, there is a three-step penance to savouring the legend’s music; the phase of dissatisfactory shock (the what is this phase), the phase of the indulgent listener (I know I don’t like it but let me hit the play button one more time.) and then, epiphanic addiction (Why didn’t I like this before?). The penance has become so customary that we don’t instantly reject a song that has the AR Rahman tag. Take the 2.0 album for instance. The unanimous verdict was ‘Give it time, we will see it’.
The Isai Puyal himself had a similar cycle with Michael Jackson. In an interview with Baradwaj Rangan for the Rolling Stones, Rahman observes that his consumption process was similar. He said, “I used to wait for Michael Jackson’s albums, and the very first time, I used to say: Oh, I don’t like any of the songs.” Three days later, he’d (Rahman) find that a song was actually good. Then he’d watch the videos, and one by one all the songs would make it to the list. “Because so much hard work goes into an album, and when something is new, you can’t judge it. The expectations are too high,” Rahman said in the interview. But sometimes with Rahman, we don’t really see the full picture all the time. There is no bad Rahman song — only compositions you comprehend or don’t. Lately, his compositions have become abstract paintings where Rahman colours with sounds. We know Rahman can work wonders with sounds, but you tend to miss the simple spell his tunes cast on you. It is also probably why I loved how “Nallai Allai” was used in Kaatru Veliyidai by Mani Ratnam. Amid all the multilayered centrepieces he was orchestrating, that simple tune with no instrumental backing was haunting. A throwback to some classic tunes he has produced from yore. It is also probably why I miss the Rahman of 90s and early 2000s.
Rahman has always brought in new elements: newer technologies, talent (Naresh Iyer, Karthik, Sid Sriram, Sathyaprakash to name a few). After more than two decades in the industry, his quest to push himself or the listeners hasn’t faded. For example, I wouldn’t have known about the free hugs campaign if it wasn’t for ‘Jiya Se Jiya’. Rahman is known for his exploration. In fact, in an old article of Prem Panicker’s, he mentions Rahman layering a melody with 118 tracks and then reverse it down to eight tracks. Why? Just to see what he could do and to keep boredom at bay.
It is marvelous to witness unbridled talent no matter the form or the year. Rahman’s musical career was three years old when I was born. So for me, Ilayaraja was the discovery that Rahman was for the older generations. Simply because Ilayaraja was the musician who defined their era and Rahman is ours. We have a Rahman song for every mood and time, don’t we? If we probably do what Ayushmann and Parineeti do in ‘Meri Pyaari Bindu’, the cassettes would be filled with ARR’s songs. That’s what happens when you grow up listening to a musician. Their songs work beyond their functional space; they become part of our memories. And what better occasion than his birthday to say ‘Thank you for the memories’.