By Siddhartha Krishnan . 10 Min read
Please note: This article contains links (look out for song titles and words in italics) which will direct you to the appropriate songs on YouTube or source materials.
In a quaint little village of Tamil Nadu, blessed with many natural wonders, the sun rose and draped the sky in mesmerizing shades of red, orange and yellow. However, with the rising sun, emerged an unusual tune, the likes of which had not been heard—at least not in Indian cinema!
The year was 1992 and the song I am referring to is “Chinna Chinna Aasai” (Dil Hai Chota Sa – Hindi version) from the Tamil film “Roja”. The Hindi (dubbed) version of the film had not released by then and I was watching it on a 14-inch BPL colour television at my Grandfather’s house in Kerala. I vividly recollect, even today, my aunt going gaga over the songs, while a 9-year-old me, was left to wonder what the fuss was all about?
However, once I was done watching the film, the infectious frenzy got the better of me!
A still from the song “Chinna Chinna Aasai”
The film’s music was so alien yet so refreshing that it captured the imagination of not just me but an entire country. Its songs were composed by a soft-spoken and unassuming 25-year-old debutante music director called Allahrakha Rahman (birth name A.S Dileep Kumar and known professionally as A.R Rahman). To an industry looking for inspiration, in the early 90s and an audience starved of originality—Rahman came in like a breath of fresh air. He won a National award for his very first film (officially) but this was just beginning!
In the years to come, Rahman went on to win six National Film Awards, two Oscars, two Grammys, one BAFTA and one Golden Globe Award. However, despite all the personal accolades bestowed upon him, Rahman’s greatest achievement is that he put Indian music on the world map.
Rahman at the Oscars (2009)
In a career spanning over 28 years, Rahman has managed to compose songs that cater to every mood, weather, genre and occasion. Furthermore, he has songs which appeal to all kinds of musical sensibilities. Hence, I have been warned by friends and fellow bloggers that picking a Top 15 list from his treasure trove of absolute gems could prove to be suicidal.
Thus, I’ll start with a confession that I am not here to pick “Rahman’s All-Time Top 15 songs” nor am I here to critically analyse or review his work. This is simply a tribute—a fanboy moment. Its my way of saying “thank you” to the Maestro for brightening my mornings and loosening my evenings with his compositions. In other words, this is “MY TOP 15 AR RAHMAN SONGS”— songs which I have grown up listening and keep going back to.
So, here it goes:
- Ishwar Allah – 1947 Earth (1998)
A scene from the film “1947 Earth”
This is the quintessential song for peace. The combination of Javed Akhtar’s soul stirring lyrics, Rahman’s lingering tune and an exceptional vocal performance makes this song unforgettable. It has the innate capacity to soothe your senses, however, among Rahman’s other songs in this genre like “Ek Tu Hi Bharosa” (Album: Pukar-2000) or “Gurus of Peace” (Album: Vande Mataram-1997) this is a lesser known song. Hence, if you haven’t heard it, you should definitely give it a go.
- Vennilave Vennilave (Chanda re – Hindi) – Minsara Kanavu (1997)
Kajol and Prabhu Deva in the song “Vennilave Vennilave”
Hariharan’s silky smooth voice and Rahman’s melody—what could possibly go wrong? This is a romantic ballad which I keep going back to every now and then, especially when I am down. Prabhu Deva’s choreography was the perfect icing on the cake and is bound to bring a smile onto one’s face.
- Dil Se Re – Dil Se (1998)
A still from the song “Dil Se Re”
Love in the times of war is the central theme of this song. For some mysterious reason, the songs that Rahman has sung in his own voice sound good only in his voice. The feel that he brings to this song is unmatched. To add to that, Santosh Sivan’s breath-taking cinematography, Farah Khan’s eccentric choreography and Gulzar’s poetry makes this song one of Rahman’s most visually stunning songs ever.
- Pudhu Vellai Mazhai (Yeh Haseen Wadiyan – Hindi) – Roja (1992)
A still from the song “Pudhu Vellai Mazhai”
This is my favorite track from “Roja” and mind you the film had some great songs and is still regarded as one of Rahman’s finest works. But this song stands out because of the freshness of its sound. Part of the credit, however, must be given to H. Sridhar, the sound engineer of the film. In 1992, sound engineering was a lesser known aspect of film making in India and Rahman pioneered the movement to give enough emphasis to this aspect of composing a song or musical score for a film. Sridhar collaborated with Rahman in many other films like Dil Se, Lagaan, Bombay, Saathiya and many more.
- Uyire Uyire (Tu Hi Re – Hindi) – Bombay (1995)
Poster of the film “Bombay”
The central theme of this track is yearning for love. The minimalism with regards to orchestration and use of natural sounds (like the sound of waves) is noteworthy. In Hariharan’s voice, the end result is spectacular!
- Maa Tujhe Salaam – Vande Mataram (1997)
Visuals from the song “Maa Tujhe Salaam”
This is one of those songs which has become synonymous with the name AR Rahman. Sung by him, “Maa Tujhe Salaam” epitomises a man’s longing for his motherland. He sings the song with such passion that you are bound to be overwhelmed. The album was released in 1997, the year India celebrated its 50th year of Independence. The visuals of the song conceptualized by director Bharat Bala stir the patriotic spirit and give you goose bumps.
- Radha Kaise Na Jale – Lagaan (2001)
Still from the song “Radha Kaise Na Jale”
Rahman’s understanding of the use of specific instruments to evoke a particular emotion is exemplary and the clever use of indigenous rustic instruments like the dhol and dhandiya in this song is testament to this great talent of his. “Lagaan” which was nominated for the Oscars in the ‘Best Foreign film” category had some great songs and this one was pure gem.
- Luka Chuppi – Rang De Basanti (2006)
Poster of the film “Rang De Basanti”
Whenever I listen to this song, I get teary-eyed. Prasoon Joshi’s exquisite lyrics, Lata Mangeshkar’s ethereal voice and Rahman’s heart-rending tune, makes this song one of the Maestro’s best emotional compositions.
- Kun Faya Kun – Rockstar (2011)
Ranbir Kapoor in the song “Kun Faya Kun”
Ranbir Kapoor’s brooding eyes can take part of the credit in making this song an all-time classic but for me “Kun Faya Kun” is my favorite among Rahman’s Sufi compositions, which by the way, is a commendable list of its own and includes the likes of “Arziyan” – Delhi 6 (2009) and “Piya Haji Ali”- Fiza (2000). I would have loved to have these songs added into this list but alas this is only a Top 15 list.
- Hai Rama – Rangeela (1995)
A still from the song “Hai Rama”
If a song on lust could be made aesthetic and blissful, then this is it. It is nothing short of a masterclass and Rahman builds the emotion through some clever instrumentation. The song traverses through some uncharted territories and leaves you spellbound. You must listen to the track to understand what I am trying to say.
- Nenjekulle – Kadal (2013)
A scene from the film “Kadal”
Whenever Rahman has teamed up with ace director Maniratnam, we have got cinematic gems like “Roja”, “Bombay” and “Dil Se” to name only a few. Maniratnam’s films do not comply to the usual formula and are often path-breaking. “Kadal” was also a result of their partnership and it had some experimental music as expected. Among its many songs “Nenjekulle” was simple and soothing. The eye catching visuals in the song, captured by cinematographer Rajiv Menon, complemented the music perfectly.
- Kannalanae (Kehna hi Kya – Hindi) – Bombay (1995)
Actress Manisha Koirala in the song “Kannalanae”
There is very little orchestration in this song sung by K.S Chitra, however, it feels as if a lot is going on. The Sufi elements in the track, especially a transition toward the beginning leaves you mesmerized. The Guardian has included this song in its list of “1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear” and “Bombay” in its list of “1000 Albums to Hear to Before You Die”.
- Raasathi – Thiruda Thiruda (1993)
A still from the song “Raasathi”
“A capella” — is a kind of chanting, performed mostly in Churches, in which a group sings without instrumental accompaniment. To combine this style of singing with earthy folk elements makes this song one of Rahman’s most experimental compositions ever. Also, to have attempted it in 1993 when such sounds were alien to the Indian audience was courageous.
- Bombay Theme – Bombay (1995)
Live performance of the “Bombay Theme” by the Maestro
At number 2 is the “Bombay theme” which takes me into a trance whenever I listen to it. The transitions of this composition are simply divine and there are several goose bump moments that one might experience while listening to it. Bombay was a difficult film to watch especially in the latter half and this track enhanced the mood/emotion that the film was trying to cultivate within the audience perfectly. It is regarded as one of Rahman’s iconic creations.
- Konjum Nilavu – Thiruda Thiruda (1993)
A still from the song “Konjum Nilavu”
“Konjum Nilavu” occupies the number one spot in my Top 15 list. When I first heard it 27 years ago, it shocked me more than anything else because it was so outlandish, experimental and modern for its times. The song starts of in an opera style followed by an unexpected jaw dropping transition which grabs you by your throat. Then, the electro beats, urumi drums and the husky voice of Anupama Krishnaswamy (perfect for the composition) take over. What we get in the end is a masterclass in rhythm! I can never get over this song because it is so unique in terms of orchestration, sound engineering and vocal performance. If you have a good set of speakers or headphones at home and if you haven’t heard this song, I urge you to listen to it straightaway.
In an interview to film critic Rajeev Masand renowned composer Amit Trivedi recalled the impact that the songs of director Maniratnam’s fun heist film “Thiruda Thiruda” had on his life. It was an experimental film which did not do well at the box office, but Amit Trivedi concedes that this was the album that changed his life and inspired him to become a music director. I was so thrilled to hear this!
As, I go through my list of Top 15 Rahman songs, the overwhelming emotion I feel is guilt. There are so many songs which I have grown up listening to that have not made it to this list—including iconic songs like “Urvasi Urvasi” and “Humma Humma”. In the end, I have no option but to let out a sheepish grin and concede that this is the best I can do since it is impossible to encapsulate the talent of the man through a mere countdown list.
I had recently watched a documentary on Amazon Prime Video called “Harmony with AR Rahman” (2018), in which Rahman travels to different parts of India, to explore the country’s rich musical heritage. He seeks lost arts and, in the process, discovers four specially curated instruments and vocal traditions. The people whom he met and who had mastered these instruments spoke languages that Rahman did not understand. However, he was still able to communicate with them and use their talent adequately to come up with a mesmerizing performance in the final episode of the mini-series.
A still from the documentary “Harmony with AR Rahman”
Well, as they say music has a language of its own which transcends all boundaries and Rahman understands this language very well. Perhaps, this is the reason why he is called “The Mozart of Madras”.
Pic credit: pinterest, scroll.in, hungama.com, amazon.in, smule, indiatoday and newsminute.
Source material: wikipedia, imdb, scroll and quint.
A very apt tribute to our maestro AR Rahman. A big shout out to you Siddharth for giving voice to the emotions and thoughts of so many fans of his. After long I have come across such a well worded article!
Thank you so much for your kind words. Its very encouraging!
All songs take you to that time zone. Very well articulated
Definitely a great read. I have listened to all the songs except Konjam Nilavu. And I am listening to it now. In deed an amazing song. Thank you for making me go through my childhood days. He is one of the reasons, why I quit my job to persue music.
Glad you liked the article Naveen! Good to know that Rahman has been an inspiration in your life as well. All the best for all your future musical endeavors!
Superb Analysis.. all songs are all time favourite
Thank you so much. Glad u liked it.
Ar rahman sir is god of world music
Love that list! I hadn’t heard Nenjekulle…did it right away! My fav part of ARR creations is the mystery…you just don’t know how the songs gonna turn next! Dil gira dafatan from Delhi6 is one of the much ignored songs…but its a beautiful piece…He has taken Sufi music to heights no other composer has…! ARR had asked Javed Ali to wash his hands and feet before they recorded Kun faya Kun…and its felt…soul of that song is so pure! And I think I should stop now😆
Hi Ritu, from your comment I can make out that you are an ardent follower of Rahman. Yes “Dil gira Dafatan” is a beautiful song from “Delhi 6” which is one of Rahman’s best albums till date. That little anecdote with Javed Ali, I wasn’t aware of, so thanks for sharing!
If music is the spice of life…. Let’s play on….
A wonderful piece of musical treat on one of my favourite music composers in Sid’s crisp and lucid style. The informative writreup on A. R Rehman who is a school in himself is worth a read and I am desperately waiting for more on this maestro in Sid’s special style…. Tu Hi Re….. 😊
Thank you so much. Glad you liked the article.
All of them are like “anthems” for 90’s kids. Nice compilation of the master’s classics.
True… many of Rahman’s songs, 90s kids, know by heart, word to word. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the piece.