Let me, right at the very outset, clarify that an essay on AR Rahman’s use of Indian classical music is not a commentary on Ilaiyaraaja’s use of classical music. In fact, my writing about Rahman does not, in any way, suggest that I have a preference for him over Ilaiyaraaja. This seemingly silly disclaimer is quite necessary on the interwebs. The South Indian web has collectively and furiously typed more words online defending their favourite composer than all the words that describe Indian classical music in totality.

The second of my disclaimers has to do with me. I am primarily an instrumentalist who, as a young boy, was put in a Carnatic gulag that annually produces thousands of kids who hate music from the bottom of their hearts. This preponderance of instruments in my life has left me with a rather strange disability – words don’t register when I listen to music. All I hear are melodies and how they fit into chords and how these chords move within a larger harmonic tapestry.

So, if you are a normal human being who is moved by the beauty and power of the voice and powerful poetry, you might find my analysis rather oddly limited. But I understand music theory and instruments, not poetry or voice, so that’s what I will focus on.

It’s important to realise that Rahman’s use of Indian classical music doesn’t necessarily fit any standard formula or genre. Dividing music into genres has always been a very reductive Western thing. Indian film music has historically never bothered with hard boundaries between genres. It’s only here that it’s perfectly acceptable for a country western style banjo interlude in a song that features dubstep beats with a tabla and sarangi playing alongside a cello.

Historically, this was hard to do before the advent of digital music because you couldn’t play instruments with a wireless mouse back then. I really think Indian film music is breaking more ground musically than we tend to give it credit for.

So with that in mind, I like to categorise Rahman’s use of Indian classical music into three broad categories.

Category 1: Minimalist

Quite often, Rahman will take a traditional classical composition and present it with very little embellishment other than pristine vocal clarity, superb production values and spare background arrangements. Two examples that epitomise this kind of Rahman song are Manmohini Morey from Yuvvraaj and Alaipayuthey from the movie Alaipayuthey.

Manmohini Morey from Yuvvraaj (2008).

Manmohini is a Bandish in Raga Bhimpalasi (Raga Abheri in Carnatic music). As Vijay Prakash sings the Bandish in Manmohini with breathtaking fluency and phrasing, with dizzying improvisations at every line, the background is nothing more than the electronic rhythm played very much in the background so that it does not get in the way of the vocals at all. Once the bandish is done, we then hear a string orchestra play the main theme and the song ends.

Alaipayuthey is a rather short song, clocking in at about two minutes, but it’s how Rahman chooses to structure the song that is interesting. Alaipayuthey in the Raga Kaanada is even more minimalist than Manmohini. The genius of the original composition is how the melody almost “speaks” the lyrics. The choice of note shifts fits in beautifully with some of the visual metaphors the words represent. So all Rahman does is add a rhythm track that manages to get out of the way while yet providing a foot-tapping anchor for the lay listener.

The title track from Alaipayuthey (2000).

When you think about how traditionally classical music is performed or recorded, there has always been a historical lack of production values and attention to detail in sound engineering. Till very recently, every live classical concert had terrible equalisation and mixing levels and no sensible use of tools like compression or delay/reverb. What Rahman has done with his minimalist renditions is present the sophistication of classical music in a truly accessible and beautiful sounding way while avoiding overly lengthy and complex improvisations that are common in live classical concerts and targeted at the “elite” listener.

Category 2: Indian++

The second category is what I call Indian++ and is the most interesting and unique aspect of Rahman’s use of classical music. It’s also unfortunately the one kind that he seems to have stopped doing since the 1990s.

It’s important to understand that what we consider to be “Western music” is largely harmonic music, where melody is subservient to the larger harmonic structure of a song. In simpler terms, there is less diversity in melodic experimentation because not all combinations of notes will fit into the few easy-on-the-ears popular song formats. This is also why most pop songs tend to sound a bit alike. It’s also why genres like jazz or Western classical, which are an order of magnitude more improvisational than your typical Lady Gaga song, have historically found it more natural to jam with Indian classical musicians.

So long story short, Indian classical music is not harmonic in nature, which means that melodies are free to roam like the wildebeest whereas popular Western music likes to keep vocalists and soloists herded like sheep. The sum of the parts is what matters there, not solo virtuosity.

And here is where I think the ’90s Rahman exhibited a kind of genius that was able to take really hard-to-harmonise ragas like Panthu Varali and still build an ethereal and immersive soundscape without the need to fit it into any typical Western pop song harmony. In these songs, the typical Western idea of a chord structure forming inviolable scaffolding for the overall composition is dispensed with. Instead, an ensemble of instruments plays individual virtuoso elements while being stitched together with some really creative percussion.

Rahman added layers of sonic grandeur without having to dumb down the sophistication of the raga too much. A good example is Hai Rama from Rangeela.

Hai Rama from Rangeela (1995).

Hai Rama sounds so much more expansive and lush than you would expect a typical classical composition in raga Panthu Varaali might. And amazingly, it uses so many western instruments and yet sounds entirely Indian in a way typical fusion music does not. Your run-of-the-mill fusion piece is a buffet of western dishes with the occasional Indian dessert. This specific kind of ’90s Rahman song managed to sound Indian classical despite the grandness of the arrangements.

Category 3: Fusion

And finally, we get to the third kind of use of Indian classical, which is fusion. I use that word despite loathing it with an unnecessary amount of vehemence. The problem with the word is that it’s rather lazy and generalises everything from hipster California surf rock played over a tambura drone while a sadhu-type chants Om to the Madras String Quartet’s brilliant adaptations of popular Carnatic songs.

Raga Saga by VS Narasimhan.

A lot of “fusion” with Indian classical music over the years has involved a western/rock/jazz band laying down a basic structure into which the Indian virtuoso shows off his magical skills in small bits. An additional constraint is that not all ragas fit nicely into harmony, so the usual approach is to just wing it and hope the less knowledgeable listeners don’t notice. After all, a big part of the appeal of Indian classical music is a fanbase that is regularly willing to appear more knowledgeable than it is.

But just once in a while, Rahman demonstrates how to do this with an astounding level of depth. The title track from Kandukondain Kandukondain is my favourite example. He takes a rather catchy raga, Nalinakanthi and weaves it into a tapestry of flutes, nu-jazz synth and percussion, and a really inventive bass line.

The title track from Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000).

In general, the more sophisticated the song’s harmonic arrangements, the more likely that the main melody of the song is non-Indian classical in feel. Nice ragas and nice chords don’t go together that regularly. Some of my favourite Rahman songs such as Rehna Tu, Dil Se Re, and songs from Thiruda Thiruda all avoid any kind of Indian classical feel for that very reason.

Rehna Tu is brilliant and has no Indian classical influence in it. Manmohini Morey is perfectly minimalist and has very little sophistication in arrangements. Hai Rama is gorgeous and has little or no harmony. Kandukondain Kandukondain has a little bit of everything and that makes it special for me.

There’s nothing inherently special about using Indian classical ragas in film music. Ragas are after-the-fact abstractions and this sense of “one must observe the purity of the raga in a song” is largely pointless. Creative geniuses like Rahman or Ilaiyaraaja regularly alter ragas in between songs if it makes the harmony work better. It’s what the song feels like in your headphones that matters, not whether or not it is “pyoor Mayamalavagowla”.