Paradigm Shift is a Mumbai- based progressive rock band that owes AR Rahman a huge debt. A couple of years ago, the band—which was looking for a break, anything to rescue it from obscurity, from becoming yet another band that performs at college festivals—recorded a heavy instrumental version of Rahman’s song Roja. The cover version went viral, which in turn landed the band a big gig, and then led to the release of its first album. Ironically, lead vocalist Kaushik Ramachandran was not even in favour of his band’s cover. “My band tried to convince me, but I didn’t agree,” he says over the phone from Mumbai. But the others, more than convinced, took Ramachandran’s absence from Mumbai as an opportunity to record their version—with a fabulous guitar riff in the middle. “I wasn’t even part of it,” he mock complains. However, he does admit that it’s what got them a lot of gigs. “Now it’s not possible to not play Roja,” he says, “That’s become a part of our repertoire.”
The cover version not only won the band fame, it also set off a trend of musicians interpreting Rahman’s compositions in their own way and garnering their own fan base for these. Recently, the Berklee College of Music released a sumptuous new version of Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera from Swades, which featured the maestro himself, along with 21 singers and 37 instrumentalists. The song has received nearly a million hits on YouTube. It is the second Rahman cover by the Berklee Indian Ensemble and Berklee World Strings. Their first cover version, Jiya Jale from Dil Se, was released last year to much applause. With over 1.5 million hits online in five months, its popularity rivals the original.
Rohith Jayaraman, whose vocals in Yeh Jo Des are hard to miss, is a student of music therapy at the institute; trained in Carnatic music, he joined the Ensemble by chance after listening to them sing in a rehearsal. On the choice of the two songs, Jiya Jale and Yeh Jo Des, taken from Rahman’s vast repertoire, he says over email: ‘For our first song we wanted some groove. It was our first ensemble video for Rahman sir’s residency at Berklee, so we wanted it to be fun and exciting. It’s a tough choice to make, when you have legendary tunes from movies like Lagaan, Dil Se, Bombay, etcetera. We chose Jiya Jale because it had enough in it for the whole ensemble, as well as the potential for us to explore and inject our Indian Ensemble flavour into it. Yeh Jo Des was an easy pick… apart from the beauty and patriotism of the song itself, it hit home for all of us.’ The song, which appears effortless, was a lot of hard work. It took about 18 hours just to record the choir, soloists, band, and the Berklee World Strings portion.
Fellow member Kaushlesh Purohit feels strongly about Rahman’s cover- worthiness, which he explains thus: ‘In order to perform these covers, we had the opportunity to carefully analyse Mr Rahman’s work, and each day, we’d find some interesting phrase or performance section that we hadn’t heard earlier, and everybody would be amazed. So I think just because of the sheer brilliance of the music he makes, he is the most cover-worthy artist.’ Purohit plays the tabla and is the only musician in a family of sportspersons.
Vocalist, violinist and songwriter Harini Srinivasa Raghavan, who has worked with the acapella group Harmonize Projekt when she was in Chennai, says, ‘Of all Indian composers, Rahman has been the one person whose music has influenced all of us who are here at Berklee, irrespective of which part of India we are from. Apart from his music itself, the fact that he was always ready to go off the beaten path and experiment, showed his child-like enthusiasm and inspired all of us to do the same.’
It’s difficult to escape Rahman’s influence on the Indian music scene. Many people owe their singing repertoire to him. But why would musicians opt to cover him? Many of them say that given the popularity of his compositions, a cover version ensures they get more eyeballs. Once these musicians have built a certain ‘cover’ audience, they begin to work on originals. Take, for instance, Saiesan Muthulingam, based in Canada. The youngest of five brothers, all of whom are deeply invested in music— Muthulingam has also appeared on popular Tamil reality show Super Singers on Vijay TV. The cover versions he has created in collaboration with older brother Ramanan’s Pearl Media Studios, are for a YouTube audience, and mostly in Tamil. Saiesan has rendered covers of Bombay, Kadal and I. He’s a soulful singer and his rendition of Uyire from Bombay is especially noteworthy. Speaking from Toronto, where he currently resides, Saiesan says, “I can’t think outside of [Rahman], he’s addictive. His compositions are very challenging, especially those sung by SP Balasubramaniam and Hariharan. Being a singer, I chose those songs because of the technicalities involved, and how we had to give importance to the lyrics,” he says.
But if you hear the Adiye cover (originally sung by Sid Sriram), you notice that there is no improvisation. Usually, the idea of a cover is not to take a ‘cut-copy-paste’ approach, but to offer a unique interpretation of the original. “That’s something we learnt after we created Adiye. We couldn’t be identical,” he says, “A cover is not karaoke.” So when you see his version of Ennodu nee irundhaal from I, it’s softer, with just a piano as the musical accompaniment that Saiesan plays himself. He has also teamed up with Shweta Subram for Moongil Thottam, which was originally sung by Abhay Jodhpurkar and Harini. Subram is a fellow Indo-Canadian like Saiesan and people perhaps know her for her YouTube video on ‘Bollywood evolution’. “Moongil Thottam was Saiesan’s idea, and my first Tamil cover,” she says over the phone. “Rahman’s songs instantly connect with one’s soul— they’re original and soothing. When he debuted with Roja (1992), he brought music that didn’t exist. One can learn so much by just listening to him,” she says. However, she does feel that covers are perhaps overdone, and that musicians must begin creating originals.
Pearl Media Studios began as a marketing company, and gradually resorted to covers. “We brothers were huge fans of Michael Jackson, but Rahman was instrumental in us turning to Tamil music,” says Ramanan. He goes on to explain how YouTube allows people to get instant recognition and ‘make a splash’. “We’re creating these covers as [Rahman] fans. Take a look at Sid Sriram, Jonita Gandhi, Shweta Subram, Shankar Tucker—these people are not one-hit wonders. It’s about creating opportunities,” he says. According to him, anything that Rahman creates becomes a trendsetter. “Just listen to Mental Manadhil (from O Kadhal Kanmani). The reason why Rahman is cover worthy is that he believes in his music so much—it’s a reflection of his character and personality,” he adds.
Each of Rahman’s compositions has a distinct appeal, and perhaps one needs a keen ear for music to appreciate the various interpretations. That’s why Virginia-based Bharathwaj G’s flute renditions of Kaadhal Rojave (Roja) and Jashn-e-Bahaara (Jodhaa Akbar) are so soothing, almost acting as lullabies. Growing up in Chennai, with its rich tradition of Carnatic music, influenced Bharathwaj whose first inspiration was his father, a violinist. He explains his choice of the covers thus: ‘I considered these two songs to be very special among many of AR Rahman’s masterpieces because the melody is just so powerful and can really move people irrespective of language and cultural differences.’
It was in the early 90s that Rahman exploded on the scene with Roja and Bombay, forming an association with filmmaker Mani Ratnam that is still going strong (his soundtrack for Ratnam’s latest, O Kadhal Kanmani has got rave reviews). It was Rangeela, however, that marked his Hindi debut and gave him a wider audience. Hai Rama from Rangeela was based on Raag Puriya Dhanashri, an extremely difficult raga to attempt, as the Sanskruti Band found when it recreated this song for Music Mojo, a musical show produced by Kappa TV, a Malayalam channel. Singers Abhay Jodhpurkar and Bhavya Pandit have lent their voices to this rather addictive rendition. Whether it’s Jodhpurkar’s full- throttled beginning, followed by how he immediately lowers his tenor to sing Paayaliya jhankaar, or how Pandit takes on the mukhda—it is undoubtedly their interpretation and the raaga happened to be a favourite. “It’s an intense raaga, and when you’re covering Rahman sir’s song, it’s all the more challenging to pull it off well, given the different arrangements,” says Jodhpurkar.
Pandit was a finalist at Indian Idol Season 4 and is currently studying at Rahman’s KM Conservatory in Chennai. “Although he’s indisputably the most loved and respected musician, any cover version that people attempt will either be loved or disliked. There’s no middle way,” she says. She feels the challenge in attempting covers is that “you cannot, and should not replicate the original”; “Why would people listen to an exact replica when they already have a lovely original? Sure, one has to maintain musical dignity, and you’ll never know how listeners will respond until the cover is released,” she adds.
Jodhpurkar is a Rahman discovery from Indore. He got his big break with Moongil Thottam, which he sang for Kadal. Trained in classical music, he found it natural to adapt to semi- classical singing. Both he and Pandit have collaborated for several covers and have built quite a repertoire. “Covers are always better as they have a better reach. More people have heard the song, so there’s a sense of familiarity. Of course, given a chance, I’d love to do originals, but it’s a good option to begin with covers, build a fan base and then do originals,” he says. Jodhpurkar has also teamed up with Carnatic singer Jananie SV, based in Chennai, for a Rahman medley. “Most of my fond memories are accompanied by music, and invariably, it happens to be Rahman’s. It was ARR’s music that made me notice there was much more to a song than just the vocals—the background score, interludes and not to forget the unpredictable chord progressions. Almost every time I listen to one of his songs, I hear a new layer, even now,” Jananie says.
While Rahman’s music is sublime on the ears, it is that much harder to perform. “We decided to make a fusion of a few of his songs set in Raag Charukeshi—said to be one of the most beautiful and evocative raagas. Its intensity is bound to leave you both happy and pensive at the end. We knew Rahman had quite a few numbers in this raaga and thought it be interesting to interpret it our way.”
Several other artists and bands, such as Thaikkudam Bridge, Shankar Tucker, Orfeo Band, The Fiddle and The Keys, Piri Musiq and many others have performed Rahman covers that merit a listen. Many of these are from the musician’s early days, the period when he’s deemed to have been at his creative best. Almost every track of his would end up as a chartbuster. Rahman has not been able to maintain that momentum, though, and some argue that he is way past his prime. Old-timers miss ‘that’ Rahman—the one who had them hooked at first hear. But his legacy endures in various ways.