Last week, on the eve of India’s 71st Independence Day, AR Rahman announced the release of a new series featuring him as an anchor on Amazon Prime. Perhaps the best way to explain what this five-episode series does, is to tell you what happened when I started to write this review. With a deadline fast approaching, I decided to start writing even as half of the finale – where four experts in rare Indian music forms and ARR come together on one stage – was remaining.
I thought I could listen to the final track - the culmination of the first four episodes - on the earphones, and write the review alongside.
I was wrong. The finale is the crescendo to the symphony building up in the episodes preceding it. It is completely captivating, and dares you to look away. And chances are, you will not be able to.
Harmony follows the pleasant format of a travel show, but with music at its heart. In each of the four episodes, AR Rahman travels to a different part of the country, exploring a rare musical form, weaving the story of the art form seamlessly with that of the artist.
The first episode takes us to Cheruthuruthy in Kerala, to Kalamandalam, deemed to be University of Art and Culture by the Government of India. Here, through the eyes and story of Sajith Vijayan, we learn about the Mizhavu. The instrument is a copper pot, with a mouth that's covered to make it into a drum and is played entirely by hand.
In the second episode, Rahman brings us to Mumbai, where Baha’uddin Dagar speaks about how his family - first his late father, and now he - has kept alive the tradition of the Dagar gharana. The instrument he channels is the veena, one which belonged to his father and so, took 7-8 years to become his own.
The third episode features the first vocalist of Harmony, and the most interesting artist yet. Shot in the picturesque landscapes of Manipur, it features Lourebam Bedabati. Her powerful voice and unconventional singing give life to Khunung Eshei, a tradition of folk song that appears to draw inspiration from the homeland, tradition, flora and fauna.
Finally, Rahman goes to Sikkim, where he meets Mickma Tshering Lepcha, who plays the Pangthong Palith, a bamboo flute. Mickma also has a band and they take old, forgotten folk songs and mix it with Western music. He believes they are the only existing Lepcha band.
The stories of these artists and their instruments vary vastly, as do their struggles.
For one, not belonging to the caste that traditionally plays the instrument is a social and personal barrier that he overcame. For another, it is the responsibility of ensuring that the music and instrument is taken by students and carried forward. There are narratives of resisting and defying gender norms, and the struggles to make music a sustainable livelihood. And though the focus in three out of these four episodes is predominantly on the instruments and the music they create, it is the glimpse into the life of the artist that makes the series so engaging.
But perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Harmony is how it seamlessly marries Indian classical and traditional music with Western and popular music, and in doing so, makes the former more appealing to the masses.
First, it picks up traditional musical forms, many which are struggling to remain relevant. It then takes Rahman, a celebrity musician with a talent and popularity to match, as an anchor. With a slightly dramatised and visually appealing documentary format, Harmony brings you the stories of classical art forms, peppered with more relatable reflections on music from Rahman himself.
For example, if you are a layperson like me, chances are that the references Rahman makes to the notes, raagas and chords will not make much sense to you. It is however, the rare glimpse into the music-making process of the maestro that is fascinating enough to keep you hooked.
Sruti Harihara Subramanian’s direction makes for compelling narratives and Viraj Singh Gohil’s cinematography makes the series not just a rich experience in music and storytelling, but also a visual treat. Vijai Shankar’s skillful editing is evident, especially in the final sequences of each episode that intersperse stunning landscapes to the sound of musical harmony between traditional and electronic music.
Allwin Rego and Sanjay Maurya’s sound design is stunning for the most part. The only want for me was that of more silences. There are very few instances in the series where there is no background score. There were times where the trickling of water, gushing of wind and the narrative of an artist’s story was so powerful, that I couldn’t help but wish for less aural stimuli to concentrate on.
The finale, of course, is the most exciting part of Harmony. The artists all travel to Chennai, and in a fantastic composition by Rahman, come together to create ‘Mann Mauj Mein’ (translates to ‘Heart is in ecstasy’), a song which delivers the emotion in its name.
At the heart of Harmony is perhaps a line Rahman says in the last episode: “Music brings unity… so I think it’s the only hope.”