A. R. Rahman: My Childhood (Kinda)
Written By Rohan Mehta
We all have a favourite A. R. Rahman song. I remember listening to ‘Roobaro’ when I was 7. Yelling ‘Yun hi challa chal’ when I was 4. My mother used to hum ‘Dil hai chota sa choti si asha’ when she used to be dropping me to the bus stop.
Personally, I've grown up on an exceptionally strict diet of western music from a young age. My early pre-teen years were accompanied with purchasing Pearl Jam’s ‘Live on Ten Legs’ from Rock and Raga and listening to the Dead Kennedys or Massive Attack while walking around my society.
My attachment with Hindi and regional music is a thin sliver, left through my many trips with my father from Mumbai to Goa. I wasn’t allowed to play my own music so dad would be playing the soundtrack to Rockstar while I played Rockband unplugged on my PSP on the backseat as we drove through the Western Ghats.
From there on, the music I listened to kept falling into greater cages and labels of genres - me listening to Alternative rock and Punk led to me listening to Trip Hop, then listening to Jungle, then listening to jazz rap, then listening to - you get the gist. My ears never really fell on what my country had to offer in its own language. At best, I was acquainted with Pentagram and Scribe and other local acts at a young age but that was still an incredibly western formula of music.
But the more I think about it, the more I see the one common element that has always kept my roots alive - the Hindi driving playlist my father keeps for long drives. Apart from all the old 70-80’s Hindi songs and Ghazals, what really stuck onto me, if I really have to search within myself, was Mohit Chauhan’s voice and A. R. Rahman’s music.
When I think about A. R. Rahman, the first song that comes to mind is listening to ‘jo bhi main’ when the battery on my PSP died, and I was forced to listen to what was playing in the car. It wasn’t hard to warm up to. I love that soundtrack. But where A. R. Rahaman specifically plays an important part in my life is through his contributions towards the soundtrack of Rang De Basanti.
My dad would play ‘Ik Omkar’ every morning back when we still used to live in Goa. I would catch parts of it as I would be getting ready to go to school and I would feel this immense wonder strike upon me with concerns about my heritage. Why am I here in Goa, with my dad listening to this prayer from Punjab (where I was born) but I feel no particular allegiance to that state? The music made me feel wholesome, but it raised so many questions; and then I would go off to school and come back and listen to my music once again.
His music feels so grand and soulful. Listening to ‘Dil Se’ while traveling around the streets of Mumbai feels like a celebration of life itself. I have seldom had the same experience with the kind of music I listen to on a regular basis - only the likes of The Flaming Lips met that kind of grandeur.
I remember my dad playing Rang De Basanti’s Title track last year as we drove to SoBo, the day before I had to undergo a major surgery. The car ride to the hospital was riddled with riots of anxiety and panic from my side, but my dad seemed fearless. He just looked at me from the front seat and went onto play the song, and everything just cheered up. I remember a weird sense of comfort listening to that song - even found myself tapping my feet to it. I do it every time now. It’s so incredibly joyous and monumental, that it touches a part of the Indian soul that is so ingrained within us yet might feel abstract. It feels so much larger than life.
I feel the same way when I listen to the song ‘Yeh Joh Des Hain Tera’. I’m not one for blatant patriotism - I believe in the dismantling of borders - but man, does this guy know how to communicate incredibly specific and complex emotions into songs! It instantly makes me homesick - images of having heard the song first when I was 4 in some theatre in Faridabad flash in my brain and whisk away.
The man himself
Fun fact : The first movie I ever watched was ‘Yuva’ when I was 4 years old. I somehow have a distinct memory of hearing Dol Dol’s fast paced 90’s drum ‘n’ bass inspired drums mixed with dhols and tablaas run through my ears, followed by Rahman going ‘FANAAAAAAAAA (fanaa fanaa fanaa)’ on the ending track with its 90’s rave influences masterfully mixed with Indian classical vocal harmonies. It all slowly makes sense.
The man truly blended in stylistic qualities from various different genres across the globe, and introduced it to the Indian masses while adding in his own stylistic flares at a time where the masses were still used to Bollywood bubble-gum pop songs with heavy strings and slow tempo mega dance hits. The sheer idiosyncrasy of Rahman allowed the man to forever change the music landscape of our country- forever leaving a deep impact into the contemporary youth of India.
Every composition is so technically sound yet manages to also remain versatile from Rahman’s back catalogue and seems to carry its own identity. In an industry where music often seems to get sutured with the generation its main target audience seems to reside in (from DDLJ to Gully Boy, don’t get me started). Rahman is able to break the chains of having his music be defined by an era. Especially his work in the early 2000’s, although it may sound a little dated now due to the heavy use of synths (and some of the backing vocal flourishes, Fanaa), was revolutionary for the Indian landscape at the time and compositionally immaculate. Whatever emotion the song is centred on, not only becomes the driving focal point of the track, but in Rahman’s skilful hands, becomes magnified tenfold. It really feels like a whole nation rings through songs like ‘Ma Tujhe Salam’. The beauty that can arise through stubborn love can really be felt on a track like ‘Saathiya’. Also, that had dub influences! I may not listen to a lot of Hindi music, but I can’t even imagine any other composer in the Indian landscape that would’ve created such an expansively influenced and then such an expansive, grand and heartfelt catalogue!
No wonder he’s such a big part of our collective childhood. But more importantly, I realised that he’s been a big part of mine as well.
Singing ‘Yun hi challa chal’ forever