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The elements on
a snazzy spin

A R Rahman's latest album bears his stylish stamp, but it can hardly claim classic status

HMV, Rs 42

Rhythm stars Arjun, Meena and Jyotika. Rahman's latest album is an attempt to capture in music the rhythm of the elements -- earth, water, air, sky, fire.

Representing the elements is something classical music often attempts -- ragas like Amritavarshini and Mia Malhar are fabled to bring down the rains. Mia Malhar, a frequently sung raga in the northern tradtion, approximates with its mix of vigorous graces and delicately knotted phrases not just the physical manifestations of the monsoon but also the emotions that the season seems to mirror -- the aural beauty of birds calling, peacocks dancing in anticipation, the gathering of dark clouds, the tumult of thunder and lightning and the relief the showers bring to the parched earth are all linked to the wait for the lover, and the swinging moods within the heart.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but can Rahman's water song evoke that element as well as a Bhimsen Joshi essay of Mia Malhar would evoke the rains? One feels not. Admittedly, the musical contexts are far apart. Rahman is working with a cinematic sequence, while Bhimsen Joshi is free to experiment in the abstract.

But then again, is it just a question of the medium? Film music does afford opportunities that composers seize to create haunting miniature representations of the elements. Does any song in Rhythm match O Basanti pawan pagal, a Shankar Jaikishen classic that addresses the sweeping, crazy winds to express intense longing? Just choosing a rain raga may not help -- Vani Jairam's Bolo re papi hara in Guddi is a neatly rendered song, but it avoids the tumultous gamaks and the oscillating glides of Mia Malhar, and perhaps for that reason fails to evoke the rains.

Shifting moods represent the river in the opening track Nadiye nadiye by Unnimenon. It starts with a tarana phrase, joins up with some waltz beats and chords, and strays into a Karnatak phrase or two. The tabla/dholak, uddukai and thavil carry on in the spate of the river. A violin plays Celtic folk phrases with a thavil and violin ensemble as back-up.

Vairamuthu draws on various images and moods of love to evoke the elements. While the sky is the vast longing for the beloved, water is the beloved woman in different stages of life. Wind is love, blowing you off your feet, while fire is the coming together.

Kaatre en vaasal vandai is an uncluttered song, not too many instruments, as though to let the wind blow in. Unnikrishnan is good as usual, and Kavita Subramanian nee Krishnamurthy sounds clear and melodious here like you've never heard her sound in Hindi. Shades of raga Darbari Kanada seep in. The song is repeated on Side B. All five tracks are long by film song standards, allowing for a huge soundscape.

Vasundara Das and Udit Narayan sing Haiyoo pathikichu, an all-holds bared number, with a throaty call dotting it. Tightly packed drums create tension, and the low bass flares out from time to time.

There are progressions in Nadiye nadiye and Kaatre en vaasal that remind you of Strawberry kanne from Minsara Kanavu (Sapnay in Hindi). Here is the referential Rahman, he constantly harks back to his younger compositions.

Shankar Mahadevan sings Nilame poru nilame. The patient, waiting land and lover come alive in his intense rendering. African drums anchor the song to the land. A sarangi brings in the soulful wait.

Sadhana Sargam sings En vaanil. The beginning leaves you wondering if you've turned on a sax tape by Kenny G. Heavy drums and heavier violins seem to bring the rain clouds and the whole sky in its tumultous array of clouds, colour and light.

For all the Indian instruments Rahman uses, one does not feel this album is rooted strongly in Indian music and then taking off in creative flights. That is the good and bad part of it. It does not touch you like intuitive, great music, yet it may mesmerise you for its strange use of sounds and instruments.

S Suchitra Lata

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