A R Rahman has experimented, quite successfully, with myriad musical genres. But when it comes to spiritual songs, he likes to leave them untainted by not adding a lots of bells and whistles and rely heavily on the core melody itself.
I don’t think any other music director (in Bollywood, if not in India) has given us more “spiritual” songs than the maestro. I like to call them spiritual songs, as opposed to religious or devotional, because although majority of these songs have either Islamic or Hindu flavor, I find them universally appealing and elevating. Here’s a list of my favorites from this genre:
Khwaja Mere Khwaja – Jodha Akbar
This song was dedicated to the Hidalwali (Saint of India) Khwaja Ghareeb-un-Nawaz, and was rendered by A R Rahman himself. He one mentioned in an interview that this song is very close to his heart, and you can feel his sincerity in the way he has sung this beautiful song. The soul stirring instrumental (Oboe) version of this song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
[Trivia: The lyrics of this song were not written by Javed Akhar – who wrote all other songs of this movie – but by someone named Kashif.]
Arziyan – Delhi 6
Backed by harmonium, tabla and continual gentle claps, this mesmerizing qawwali is like an ode to the Islamic culture of Old Delhi. Javed Ali, along with Kailash Kher, does full justice to Prasoon Joshi’s meaningful lyrics and A R Rahman’s magical tune.
Piya Haji Ali – Fiza
This was the first Sufi-style qawwali that A R Rahman composed for a movie. For Khuda ke vali (God’s friend) Haji Ali, to be specific. Shaukat Ali’s beautiful lyrics give a glimpse of how Islam, the monotheist religion, has blended with the local cultures in India: Yahaan hindu muslim sikh isaai faiz paate hai.
[Trivia: This song was performed by Ghulam Mustafa brothers, Srinivas and A R Rahman. Can you identify which lines are sung by Srinivas?]
Apart from the obvious Sufi semblance, muqaddar/taqdeer/kismat is another connecting link between the aforementioned songs: Arziyan (Marammat muqaddar ki kar do maula), Khwaja Mere Khwaja (Bekasoor ki taqdeer, tune hai saNwaari) and Piya Haji Ali (Bigadi kismat aap ke dar par saNwarti hai).
Al Maddath Maula – Mangal Pandey: The Rising
Unlike the three songs mentioned above, this one has a high tempo, an adrenaline rush and a dark tone of impending calamity. Murtuza, Qadir and Kailash Kher sing this song with a fervor, with intermittent devout spine-tingling calls to maula by A R Rahman.
[Trivia: Murtaza and Qadir are the same Ghulam Mustafa brothers from Piya Haji Ali. They also accompanied A R Rahman in Tere Bina from Guru, and rendered some beautiful lines in Chupke Se song from Saathiya.]
O Paalanhaare – Lagaan
There are actually two versions of this song. One sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Udit Narayan, and the other with an additional female singer. It’s the latter version that was used in the movie (to distinguish the lines picturized on Gauri and Bhuvan’s mother). But I prefer the former one, with Lata’s aging yet divine voice accompanied by mellifluous flute and subtle sounds of temple bells. Here’s the version that was used in the movie.
Noor-Un-Ala-Noor – Meenaxi
Written by the great painter and inept director, M F Hussain, this addictive qawwali raised a controversy because some Muslims got offended (I think the song uses a phrase from Quran to praise the beauty of a mere mortal: Meenaxi). And guess who are the singers of this qawwali? Murtaza and Qadir again!
Man Mohana – Jodha Akbar
As I wrote in my review of Jodha Akbar’s music, add Mira’s pangs of separation (from Krishna) to Radha’s passion (for him) and you get the recipe for this devotional song. The way Bela Shende has rendered this bhajan - her unflattering voice and command over the highs and lows of the song leaves you wondering why she doesn’t get more offers as a singer. (Isn’t Kangna Re from Paheli is her only other song?)
Ek Tu Hi Bharosa – Pukar
Lata and A R Rahman joined hands only seven times, and the result is always breathtaking. The tune of this song was originally composed for a concert in Malaysia and later used for this movie.
Zikr – Bose: The Forgotten Hero
This song is something else! I can’t really describe the elevated sense of euphoria that it evokes. One shouldn’t merely listen to this song, one should experience it. Since I am not a religious person, I attribute the effect of the song to the music (as opposed to its meaning).
Ishwar Allah – 1947 Earth
The secular message of this melancholic number is in the form of a series of questions to the almighty. It’s played in the background when the end-credits roll, and I think that was a perfect way to end this movie – a story of savagery and violence narrated by a Parsi girl.