The Skilful Use of Navras

March 29, 2009

So long, long, ago, Beatzo came up with a muhuh thuhuh about A R Rahman:

The deal with Rahman music is that most of it, the stuff that has stood the test of time, is music that does not really have a template from previous film music. You sure as hell hadn’t heard an acoustic guitar and claps and a growling bass – and those instruments only – backing Chitra’s voice, until you heard ‘Kannalanae’ (That’s ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ for you non-purists) in Bombay. You heard Shweta Shetty singing herself hoarse on TV channels, but did you really think she could pull off the kind of high-pitched vocal violence that Rahman subjected her to in ‘Mangta Hai Kya’? Fine, so Iruvar was based on 70’s MGR movies, but were you really prepared for the scat portion in ‘Hello Mr Ethirkatchi’?

Let me tell you a secret. These three songs I mentioned above? I hated all of them the first time I heard them.

Why can’t we love AR Rahman’s music the first time we hear it? Because we are minor mortals. Because we have limited attention spans and equally limited aural capabilities, rendered sterile by the kind of puerile sonic experiences we are subjected to in the name of music. Please note that the previous sentence was bereft of irony of any kind. It’s true, you know it.

OK, so let’s take this ahead with the Dilli-6 title track.

For starters, let’s set aside the lyrics and the inevitable question of how truthful the statement ‘Yeh hai Dilli mere yaar, bas ishq, mohabbat, pyaar’ is considering that so much of Dilli is also road rage, sexual harassment, and papri chaat. What we’re focusing on is the music – and especially the vocals. Which were just as unexpected as Beatzo would have found Kannalanae or Mangta Hai Kya. Unlike Beatzo’s reaction, I didn’t hate Dilli-6 the first time I heard it. But I didn’t love it either. My first reaction was an overwhelming WTF.

Be warned. At this point the post abandons all objectivity and veers into dangerous fanboyism.

Yes, my first reaction was not “Yuck!” or “Wow!” but “What the hell is this? French women rapping? Mixed with Punjabi spoken word? Just what is the accent on Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar anyway?”

The second time I heard it, my reaction was the same as the first time, except this time I also asked “And how does it all come together so well and become so awesome?”

Now is when I unleash my inner fanboy. The second time I heard it, I went ape over the song (no kaalaa bandar jokes in the comments, please). I sat stunned because I finally got past how strange everything sounded on its own, how it sounded even weirder together, and it still sounded brilliant despite all the weirdness. The French rap was catchy, the Hindi chanting was even more so, and Tanvi Shah’s refrain was incredible.

Okay, fanboyism over, and on to geekdom. The question now arises – why do the separate sections sound so different? I shall hazard – it is because A R Rahman has done an incredible job of mixing and matching rasas. Remember the time Neha Natalya Pandey wrote about navras over here? In case you don’t, click through on the link – but the quick summary is that Indian classical dance defines nine separate collectively exhaustive emotional states, or rasas. And while most Hindi movie songs use only a single ras, A R Rahman uses three rasas in the title track.

The मस्ती है मस्तानों की दिल्ली दिल्ली / Masti hai mastaanon ki Dilli, Dilli male vocals are in veer (courage) ras. As I had said to Beatzo when we were discussing this, the male vocals sound like an assembly of sardars chanting ‘Deh Shiva Var Mohe‘. They’re assertive without being aggressive, proud without being cocky, and are delivered with the assurance of stating the obvious.

The French and Hindi female rap? I’m not quite as sure on this as the other bits, but I’d say it’s in adbhut (astonishment) ras. There’s a sense of wonderment and novelty in there, at this utterly cool and new and weird place that is Delhi.

And now we come to the यह है दिल्ली मेरे यार, बस इश्क मोहब्बत प्यार / Yeh hai dilli mere yaar, bas ishq mohabbat pyaar bit. And – there’s no escaping this – it’s in shringaar ras, the expression of love, compassion, and erotica. Except that the love is being expressed not for a person but for an entire city.

OK, now even more overanalysis.

The majority of Hindi movie songs are love songs, and so are done in shringaar ras. And within that – the shringaar generally comes with an element of longing and unfulfilled desire. Not always – there are a bunch of songs from the 60s which skip this (though I can’t remember any off the top of my head at this exact moment) – but pretty overwhelmingly.

Cast your mind back to the most romantic songs of 2008. Bakhuda tum hi ho from Kismet Konnection? It’s awesome because it too brings in adbhut ras with the shringaar ras, but it’s still very much about unfulfilled love – look at the कैसे बतायें तुम्हें, और किस तरह यह, कितना तुम्हें हम  चाहते हैं? line. Then there’s that other Rahman masterpiece, Kahin Toh. It’s about aching for a place which you don’t have where your love will be safe. Milord, I rest my case.

So the refrain is weird and incredible because it’s shringaar ras in a setting of veer and adbhutam ras, which we’re not used to. But it’s doubly weird and incredible because even as shringaar ras, it’s very fulfilled shringaar ras – Tanvi Shah acknowledges that Delhi is full of love, and accepts this. She doesn’t want or look forward to anything more. To reference my original conversation with Beatzo again, he pointed out that it sounds like a cat purring. And that is something which is so unusual in a Hindi movie music context that it just blows our socks off.

The other songs on the album also evoke the WTF-in-a-very-good-way reaction. But none as much as the title track.