Magical MeenaxiIt's not quite 241 not out, but it is very, very close.
. Sachin Tendulkar and A.R.Rahman have always had a few things in common. They've plied their wares in the same era, and have been acclaimed for being geniuses at their own talents. Both have a reputation for being reticent and softspoken, but they are always among the two most talked about personalities in the media. And their every output is scrutinised with eagle-eyes. Over the last 12-odd months, their creations have not met the (colossal) expectations of their fans and more so, their critics. But their fans didn't write them off as some others did, especially as they kept offering small glimpses of what they could do, having unveiled their bag of tricks over a decade.
Tendulkar came back to blistering form, but not without a few adjustments forced upon him - he learnt that marrying opportunity with his talent was all that he had to do. His opportunity came, and now it is the turn of the quiet guy from Panchathan.
The buzz around Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities was quite extraordinary among the fan groups, almost suffocating. In fact, this has been counter-productive in the past in terms of setting expectations. A prolonged and tantalising wait for the release was followed by a sneak peek at some of the songs before I finally laid my hands on the album.
I was prepared to be disappointed, given all the hype. The trailers for Yeh Rishta (Reena Bharadwaj, with the trivia nugget that the scratch version was recorded in Rahman's apartment in London) suggested a melodious piece that could be the highlight of the collection. The song begins with a humming almost identical to Konjum MainakkaLey (Kandukondain...). The orchestration is diverse, but toned to enhance the singer's voice - the beats are conventional and do not overpower. In fact, when the percussion rejoins the rest, it sounds quite inspired. John Themis's strings (a constant refrain in the album) are very supportive. Bharadwaj does a good job with her controlled modulations. A very typical ARR melody, harmonious and good, especially with the deft touches such as the sound of rippling water that contributes a great deal to the dreaminess of the lyrics (Rahat Indori).
Chinamma Chilakamma (lyrics and voice by Sukhwindara Singh) is somewhat reminiscent of Gopala Gopala (Kadhalan), in part because of the Telugu lyrics and the folkish portions. The backing vocals grow on you, and in fact get better later in the song. Foot-tapping with the Indian dhols. Anyone who says this is the next Chaiyya is doing all concerned a disservice. Sukhwindara Singh is decent without being extraordinary. Not among the top songs of the album, but definitely not bad. Give it some time and it'll catch on. The flute in the initial sections is different from the usual ARR employment.
Sonu Nigam, in what is becoming somewhat of a trademark, is in another quietly exhortative song on life and is much restrained in his effort with Do Kadam Aur Sahi (the original title for this film). The famed ARR violins coupled with the strummings of Rashid Ali make a collective comeback after a hiatus. A mellow percussive beat and Naveen playing almost unnoticed fill in the sounds, followed by triumphant trumpets.
Dhuaa.n Dhuaa.n carries the signature elements of an Asha-ARR combo. Kunal starts off with a very curious, initially-hard-to-get humming to the accompaniment of heavy percussions (evidently Sivamani), followed by Asha Bhonsle's na na na opening to yet another heavy breathing exercise in conveying smouldering, passionate lyrics . I rather think she pulls it off. I was quite disappointed with the second half of the song, it seems to run counter to the rush and drive of the first. I haven't quite come to terms with that part yet. Very rhythm-oriented, a la Rangeela.
Alka Yagnik, with additional vocals of Dallinda (a Lebanese singer), sings Rang Hai, another highly rhythmic, quick tempo
song. There are a lot of modulations, I'm still not sure if Yagnik's effort works. Easily, my least favourite of the
six vocalized songs. But there are some parts that were very interesting and still worth repetitions.
(The opening sequence with the "ra.ng laayiire" seems quite familiar, but I can't place it)
I then heard the first of the two instrumental pieces. These are quite innovative in terms of conception, and the execution succeeds to a certain extent. Cyclist's Rhythm has Naveen on the flute on top of his form, with Sivamani doing his own thing - one can picture him stroking and banging away on his myriad collection of drums, large and small, along with his other percussion thingies (I can picturise them, but can't name them!). And if you are wondering, yes, it is sprinkled with the ringing of a bell.
Potter's Village is for James Asher and Hossam Ramzy to jam away - very West/Central Asian sounding strings and percussion ranging from the ghaTam and jhinchaks to electronic beats. The piece conveys a remote and rural spot, with the mellow sounds of a fantasy village erupting slowly into a frenzy and then subsiding back again.
By this time, my feelings about the album were mixed - I didn't think it had that extra-special quality about it, bar a couple of songs. Perhaps a re-listen would slowly change my opinion? I tracked back through another iteration hoping to assuage my own expectations about this collection. It did not strike me at all that I had missed something I had marked out when I heard the listing. Not before track six began with its alaaps did it hit me that I had somehow skipped the qawwali! And boy, did it rock!
The guys behind the awesome Piya Haji Ali (Fiza) were back to full form in Noor-un-ala. If these are the kind of lyrics an octogenarian painter is going to churn out from a hospital bed, then M.F.Hussain should probably do more of the same. Murtuza Khan and Qadir Khan (no mention of "Mustafa" in the credits) take off where they left last time. Everytime, ARR gets out the harmonium/peti, he has scored. From Bombay's KaNNalaNe to the Wedding Qawwali from Bombay Dreams (Noor is in this fashion) and Piya Haji Ali, he has scored. Noor is a rousing addition to filmi qawwalis, and fits the bill perfectly, different from the reverential Haji Ali. Rahman is even audacious enough to add electronic strokes to it. If you could hit a last-ball six in a music album, this would be it. And definitely a big one at that.
I've never revised my entire opinion about an album based on one song as much as I did with Meenaxi. But Noor-un-ala is just tremendous and lifts the entire album. In any album, if a song like Yeh Rishta plays second fiddle to a qawwali, it has to be one heck of a set of six plus two.
Now I can't take the headphones off. The cover design for the CD is quite exotic and wonderful, with different shades of reds, blacks, yellows and Tabus :-). But I wish they'd included the lyrics (atleast I didn't find them), for Rahat Indori has done a fine job, steering clear of platitudes and clichés. Someone has also remarked how the mood of all the songs are upbeat and soulful - it probably reflects the subject created by the barefoot man with the brushes. All the more reason why the album scores - if there is one word I'd describe it by, it would be "rich". The orchestration is lavish, varied and resonant without being a slave to extravagance. I wouldn't say the songs break any new ground musically, with all the elements having appeared previously in other Rahman collections. But they combine well together. It's too early to say where it lies among the echelons of previous ARR efforts and how it will be received by everyone, but there is a lot in its sounds to be hopeful about. I'm not raving yet and trying to be objective, but its difficult to be so! This is a great example of how creativity from different strands of art could mix to produce a little bit of magic. And apparently, there could be a couple of songs being kept behind, including a Malayalam song.