Let's face it; every song has its grassroots in a Carnatic or Hindustani raga, even the folksiest numbers. But, the key to coming up with a great classical number has been working around them, knitting different ones together and bringing out the characteristics of perhaps more than just one of them in a single number. This act of working magic with swaras appears to have been mastered by A.R.Rahman. His classical numbers stand out from the pack for a reason and we are going to ponder why.
Appreciating a great song is just a matter of adjectives. But instead of just listing to songs, we will be taking note of underlying simplicity and how some very similar music can paint and entirely different picture somewhere else. After all, the real fun in music is seeing how the same swaras can be similar and produce different kinds of music at the same time.
En Veetu Thottathil - Gentleman
Raaga: Chenchurutti, Shankarabharanam
One of Rahman's earliest hits back from 1993, En Veetu Thottathil is still widely remembered by fans worldwide. Based mainly on Chenchurutti and Shankarabharanam, the song presented a fusion of ragas and had the fabulous SPB and Sujatha rendering vocals. With lines as sweet as the music itself, one could still fall in love with the mirudangam, veena and flute pieces all over again.
Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera from Swades heard right after this one lets you get a taste of Shankarabharanam in a different way.
Narumugayae - Iruvar
Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jeyashree
Mesmerizing right from the word go, Narumugayae is one of those songs which will haunt you into listening it over and over again if you are a fan of classical music. Although the presence of Nattai is quite evident, the vocals jump between Gambheera Nattai and Maand right at the end of the charanam. The "salangai oli" can't be missed, but the same applies to the ghatam and the mirudangam and this is probably some of the best classical percussion you can hear from light music.
In contrast, Narumugaye's counterpart comes in Dil Se Re, which can be strikingly different on first listen. Yet, both songs share the same raga for most parts.
Manmohini Morey - Yuvvraaj
If anything, Vijay Prakash's adeptness with classical music is seen in Manmohini Morey, a gem of a song from Yuvvraaj. Filled with countless intricacies, it offers a blend of some amazing Hindustani music with added western touches. Even as the vocals speak an entirely different language, Rahman plays around with the percussion and support tracks and even dares to go techno right at the end. What do you call compositions like this?
Right on the lines of this one is Lagaan's Radha Kaise Na Jale, which takes an innocent and folky approach to its classical counterpart, yet always embracing Abheri throughout.
Yenge Enadhu Kavidhai - Kandukondein Kandukondein
Raaga: Lathangi, Sindhu Bhairavi
Yenge Enadhu Kavidhai is another tribute to Rahman's music and is brought to life by Chitra. The fusion is seen once more, as the ragas Lathangi and Sindhu Bhairavi come together to make up a fascinating listen. Chitra's impact is particularly noted in the charanam where she drives emphatic lines through her vocals. Meanwhile, ARR's master class continues with the interludes, the chorus and the chords. Everyone, not just classical music fans, enjoy this one.
Interestingly, giving it company from a different perspective is Usurey Poguthey, a song that managed to win over hearts by different means.
Kannodu Kanbethellam - Jeans
Raaga: Abheri, Sudha Dhanyasi
Making a list of classical songs, one just can't miss Kannodu Kanbethellam from Jeans. Intentional or not, Abheri and Sudha Dhanyasi make for a great fusion, and
Rahman gives us a song that embraces it's Carnatic side while wanting to be a bit more folky with the percussion. The thavil go well with the swaras and make room for brahas when they are at their best. Meanwhile, the relatively modern use of chords give an added boost to all the effort.
Turn the clock down 9 years and you get another ravishing song from Guru, only more outward and straightforward, in Nannare Nannare. Boasting great vocals once again, the duo make a good example of variety in our man's music.
Udhaya Udhaya - Udhaya
Hariharan, Sadhana Sargam
If you haven't learnt to appreciate the beauty of the raga Charukesi, you should probably listen to A.R.Rahman's songs based on it. Right on top of the list would be Udhaya Udhaya. His fondness of it is seen regularly and this track just waits there sitting on the platter to be awed upon. The prominence of the strings and percussion, quite different for Rahman, is felt as the singers make their way through dozens of brahas and sangathis. The lyrics just make for the icing on the cake.
Once you have drooled enough over this one, tune over to Yedho Yedho from Enakku 20 Unakku 18 and you will find good reason to watch out for Charukesi songs.
Mettu Podu - Duet
Raaga: Anandha Bhairavi
Another beautiful raga, another beautiful song from ARR. Mettu grows from the popular Anandha Bhairavi raga and easily scales into one of his best songs. It's constantly preferred for stage shows as it makes for a great demonstration of instrumental and vocal proficiency. A whole lot of goodness packed into one song, and the saxophone triumphs over any similar composition, hands down.
To get a piece of melody blended with Anandha Bhairavi, listen to Anbendra Mazhayile once again from Minsara Kanavu. The resemblance is striking after you know the little secret.
Sowkkiyama - Sangamam
Finally we can come down to song call and say it belongs to one raga alone. Maand is a bit too Hindustani, some might think, but Sowkkiyama never gives you that