It was in a cool, dark theater in India that I first heard Rahman’s music. I was on holiday from my international high school in Singapore, spending the summer with my grandmother. The first chords of Chinna Chinna Aasai, (Little Wishes), struck up as my imagination took flight with Roja’s character as she cavorted through the fields of South India and splashed through crystal waterfalls. My spine chilled with emotions I had yet to comprehend with Pudhu Vellai Mazhai, (New White Rain), as Roja discovered both her love for her husband and the beauty of snow. My feet ached to march patriotically as Arvindh Swamy doused the flames of our flag, as Tamizah Tamizah, swelled majestically in the background. My world had finally found utterance on the silver screen. A.R. Rahman had arrived.
Rahman’s music is for every Indian and for every citizen of this globe. He captured a multicultural world in a way that no one had before him. He draws elements from many music traditions, blends their best aspects, and serves them up as melodies, which, time and again, captivate, and surprise me.
I grew up with Rahman’s songs. His songs colored my journey through college in America. If I was weary on a Saturday afternoon, and needed that extra jolt of energy to clean my room, I didn’t turn to caffeine. No, I turned to one of his concoctions with Sivamani, say Chikku Bukku Chikku Bukku Raile, with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics and invigorating railway beats. If it was a Friday afternoon, and I was filled with pent up energy from a week full of homework assignments and preliminary exams, I would turn down all the blinds in the basement apartment where I lived my junior year, turn the boom box up, and dance madly to Chaiyya Chaiyya. If it was a misty, gray, and rainy afternoon, when there was nothing in particular to do, I would play one of the wistful love songs voiced by Unnikrishnan, with poetic lyrics by Vairamuthu and set to tune by Rahman as I day dreamed about my husband-to-be, whom I hadn’t met at the time.
Rahman provided a whole nation, a world of college kids with anthems, with songs for every occasion, whether it was for them to dance to, or to perform with their own music troupes or to serve as the soundtracks for numerous causes at benefit dinners and events. His themes ranged from songs that empathized with the plight of Sri Lankan refugees or folk musicians, to simple prayers which reminded the world to forsake violence in favor of peace.
I graduated and moved to California. Of Rahman’s many albums I had collected over the nineties, I left with only two or three. This was because my dormitory mates and apartment mates, who came from New York and Tennessee, from Jamaica and Indonesia, from different places and worlds, loved my Rahman albums so much that I ended up giving them away, as keepsakes and souvenirs of our friendships.
Rahman continued to be the soundtrack of my life, as I joined the working world, and attended a memorable live concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Here, all my worlds came together as one, under one roof, my family, my college friends, and my colleagues at A.R. Rahman Live. Of that evening, what I remember most vividly are the green laser lights flashing on stage, and the increasing intensity of the evening till the audience flooded outwards through the exits in a burst of euphoria, feeling charged by an evening filled with Rahman’s best pieces, culminating in a rendition of Vande Maataram.
My friends began to get engaged and get married. I sang them Mehendi Hein Rachne Vaali, (may the henna decorate your hands and your future life be filled with greenery), though, as time went by, I had to run to the computer in the middle of various engagement parties, to find the right lyrics.
Then, the rest of the world discovered Rahman, with Bombay Dreams. When Western audiences were raving about Shaka Laka Baby, we were able to wink knowingly and say, “Oh! That song? We were dancing to that about five years ago. Yes, we know, he’s very good, isn’t he?” India had to share A. R.Rahman with the rest of the world. That’s only fitting, isn’t it? Since he shared music from the rest of the world with us.