July 06 2020
When Rahman meets four unknown musicians
01 October 2018

In Harmony with A.R. Rahman the maestro meets musicians in Sikkim, Maipur, Kerala and Navi Mumbai

A.R. Rahman both puzzles and fascinates me. I get this irrational urge, possibly stemming from leftover teenage angst and his frequent dazzling golden bling jacket, to dislike him. Like Sachin Tendulkar, for example, he’s just too highly regarded, too well liked, for the juvenile nonconformist inside me to embrace his greatness without suspicion. “There has to be something wrong!” So I’ve tried. I’ve looked for glaring flaws or oversights. But I’ve thus far found nothing too scandalous or substantial. He’s no omniscient musical sage, as he’s often touted to be, but he is brilliant. He is also, as I learn over the five episodes of Harmony with A.R. Rahman, quite endearing.

On the show, a travelling music documentary series on Amazon Prime, Rahman dons a different kind of jacket. He is a conduit, presenting four gifted musicians from diverse musical traditions.

Deep dive

First, Rahman heads to Kerala to visit Sajith Vijayan, who plays the exacting temple drum called mizhavu. Next up is Ustad Mohi Baha’Uddin Dagar in Navi Mumbai, a master of the rudraveena. In Manipur, Rahman meets Lourembam Bedabati, a phenomenal folk singer from the Khunung Eshei tradition. Finally, there’s Mickma Tshering Lepcha, who plays a special bamboo flute called the Pangthong, in Sikkim.

Each episode is a dive into the lives, the instruments and musical traditions of these artists, ending in a quick collaboration with Rahman, where the latter uses a different electronic instrument each time. The fifth episode, a finale of sorts, sees them all gather in Chennai to perform an elaborate fusion piece.

Conceptually, the show is not particularly novel. The idea of exploring hidden musical cultures and engaging with them has been done before, think The Dewarists. Also, a lot of the sequences seem too scripted. Artists stare pensively at the sky, first-time introductions look staged, complex conversations happen across languages. And Rahman, like so many musicians, isn’t the most comfortable in front of a camera.

But it’s within these jarring moments that the magic lies. In the episode featuring the electrifying Bedabati, there’s a moment when she says: “Anyone who doesn’t want to listen to or sing a song is a mad person.”

I suppose some flavour may have been lost in translation, but the thought hits home with piercing honesty. Rahman and the show allow the subjects and their stories to shine. Rarely does the aura of ‘A.R. Rahman’, India’s Greatest Musician EverTM, overshadow the musicians he’s working with. It’s a relationship of equals. The conversations we witness are enlightening: from Rahman and Baha’Uddin discussing their fathers and the impact they had, or how Bedabati is trying to keep her tradition alive, or Lepcha’s struggles. There are also undertones of socio-political commentary, such as Vijayan speaking about how he didn’t belong to the community that traditionally played the mizhavu, or shots of the army on Manipur’s streets.

Fresh avenues

In the behind-the-scenes moments Harmony is at its finest.Each episode has a jam bit, as a precursor to the episode-closing ‘collaboration’. It doesn’t often work; the two artists simply don’t vibe at times.

But that’s part of the fun too. The show allows these moments the space they deserve, and they’re really the highlight, philosophically, if not always aesthetically.

The final collaboration, composed by Rahman, is quite something. It has its moments, but ultimately heads off in far too many directions to really make an impact. Fusion is its own little conundrum, so let’s just say the pieces are adequate.

Anyway, the point of the show isn’t one grand conclusion, but rather how Harmony and Rahman allow some incredibly gifted musicians a brand new platform and, hopefully, many new avenues.



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