SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 15 SEPTEMBER, 2017
The Life and Times of A.R.Rahman
In May this year, music magician A.R. Rahman completed 25 years in the film industry as music director. Rahman presented a two-hour concert in New York at the IIFA awards on July 14 in celebration of his 25 years in Indian music. Time magazine, which dubbed him “the Mozart of Madras,” placed him in its list of the world's 100 most influential people in 2009. Incidentally, this year also marks his 50th birthday.
He has won numerous awards, both in India and beyond. But it was the Oscar for his music in Slumdog Millionaire that changed our perspective about the Oscars being an American-dominated award scenario or, at best, a pan-European tribute. Rahman's songs, for best song and best score, made him only the third Indian to win an Academy award. The Oscar brought along other ‘prizes.’ “I had the chance to meet some of my great heroes,” says Rahman. “such as being able to meet Barbra Streisand and work with Celine Dion. I became the first Indian to perform at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Rahman's strength lies not only in his perfect sense of melody and rhythm but also in his immaculate sound engineering. His music has been hailed as that of the digital age and has also been assailed for the very same reason. His music can never be adequately described in words. One has to personally experience the pleasure of his creations. Many of his compositions might actually sound ordinary the first time.
But his music has this amazing capacity to grow on you and establish hold the listener captive. His compositions are an intriguing cocktail of musical pieces that blow your mind. His music is unique in its offbeat instrumental interludes, unconventional harmonies, and use of far from perfect voices and thumping rhythms. He has been compared with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Paul McCartney. “In India, we love melodies in the background,” he says, “in the West, there is a greater preference for more ambient sounds and plain chords.”
“Indian music has its own charm. It is like an ocean from which you can pick precious gems. I think this is one of the reasons why we should be proud of our culture of which music is an integral part and take it further. It is important to use our culture to shape what people listen to. So, if you take the CokeStudio (@MTV Season 3) we brought some old songs back and strangely, it seems to be the favourite among people like aao balam and soz o salaam,” said Rahman in an earlier interview with this critic when he won one of his several National Awards.
Drummer-composer-producer Ranjit Barot who has been with Rahman since the Humma Humma song in Bombay says, “Rahman has that rare quality where the music he makes reflects the person he is, his sense of peace and oneness which then takes on another direction and finds its way into people’s hearts. I am not only playing with hm. I am helping him reinterpret some of the songs without compromising on their inherent popularity.” Ranjit has been an integral part of some of A.R. Rahman's greatest work through the years and continues to bring his unique personality to this genre of music.
Elaborating on how Rahman has evolved as a composer over the years, Barot says, “His music is becoming more and more sophisticated and so are his writing skills. By the time he composed for Roja, he was already recognized as an accomplished composer in the southern films and his ad jingles. At that time, his music was contemporary, traditional, and extremely popular and rooted to the classical system of ragas. Today, those years of crafting some of the most popular songs have given him the confidence to push the envelope. The beautiful thing is that his fans and listeners worldwide are also evolving with him.”
Does Rahman look for members to man his team when he works for Bollywood films with people who have a sense of rhythm? “It is easy to sell something very musical to people who understand music. Otherwise they settle down to mass numbers or something catchy. Sometimes, I do not carry an idea to its full and final denouement. It is on my phone and they hear that and say that they like my stuff. For some people, I really have to produce it with rhythm and chords and everything to convince them,” says Rahman, adding, “I do not like the term Bollywood.” His life story could be a modern-day fairy tale fit to fluidly shape into a feature film.
A. R. Rahman was born A. S. Dileep Kumar on 6th January 1967 in Chennai to a musically talented Tamil Mudaliar family. His father R.K. Sekhar was a composer, arranger and conductor in Malayalam films. Dileep's earliest memories of the studio are with his father. On one such visit, music director Sudarshanam Master found the four year old playing a tune on the harmonium. He covered the keys with a cloth. It made no difference. Dileep replayed the tune effortlessly. This impressed the music director who suggested that he be trained in music.
He lost his father when he was only nine. It was rumoured that his father died because of black magic. He passed away the same day his first film as music director was released. His belief in God took a bad beating. He joined Illaiyaraja’s troupe as a keyboard player when he was eleven and learnt to play the guitar. He had to drop out of school in the eleventh grade because of the financial burden of the family. His varied experience of playing at music concerts for stage shows, television, with music composers of renown gained him a scholarship to the Trinity College of Music at Oxford where he obtained a degree in Western classical music. He came back with a dream to bring an international and contemporary world perspective to Indian music.
In 1988, one of his three sisters fell seriously ill. The family tried everything. Then it came in contact with a Muslim Pir - Sheik Abdul Qadir Jeelani or Pir Qadri. With his blessings, Dileep's sister made a miraculous recovery. Influenced by the teachings of the Pir and the succour they found in him, Rahman’s family converted to Islam. A. S. Dileep Kumar became Allah Rakha Rahman. Rahman says “Islam has given me peace. As Dileep I had an inferiority complex. As A. R. Rahman I feel like I have been born again.”
“I was not crazy about music. I was more interested in technology". He was drawn to the synthesizer bought by his father, one of the very first in film circles then, from Singapore. "As a child, music seemed to be a means of earning bread and butter. I had no special fascination for it... it was associated purely with work. Yet I couldn't take my eyes away from the synthesizer, it was like a forbidden toy.” Dileep would spend hours experimenting with the instrument which was to shape his future in music. The synthesizer was Dileep's favourite instrument, the ideal combination of music and technology. About the evolution in music, Rahman says, “Earlier, experimenting with older interludes which were counted sacred was a grave sin. Now, to quench the thirst of a younger audience, the worshipping of experimentation has taken a new turn.”
"Till I met Illaiyaraja, I thought you had to drink or take dope to be a good artist. But Ilayaraja was making such beautiful music and leading a pure life!' I was under the impression that if its music, whoever it is, must have some bad habit. When I saw them with drinks and drugs I thought 'Oh! they are music people. They have to take drinks, smoke and cocaine to get their inspiration'. Illaiyaraja changed all this. He proved that one can make good music without bad habits! Even now he is an inspiration for me being so religious today,” Rahman reminisces.
Over the past 25 years, Rahman has worn many hats besides just music composer. He can sing, write, produce, perform and entertain audiences. He has given some of the most memorable hits in films after he made his presence felt in Mani Ratnam’s Roja in 1992. Among them are Gentleman, Bombay, Rangeela, Indian, Minsara Kanavu, Dil Se, Taal, Lagaan, Guru and Slumdog Millionaire. A musical featuring his music, Bombay Dreams, debuted in 2002. Among his hit music videos are - music videos including Maa Tujhe Salaam,Pray For Me Brother, and One Love.
What magic does be work at to be able to create so many different genres of music from classical, sufi, pop, techno and folk? His response is, "When you follow simplistic rules it becomes boring so you have to dodge and find ways to do that again and again and still sound new. It's a challenge and a pleasure. He is all ready to step into direction within the world of virtual reality through his directorial debut in a virtual reality film to release in India by the end of this year. Reacting to the question what triggered the director in him, he says, “I have been trying to tell stories through music for a long time, and finally I’ve found the way [virtual reality] to go about it.”
He remains unassuming, charming and modest to a fault in an era of trumpet-blowing. “I was born in Mundakanni Amman Kovil Street in Mylapore, Chennai. My mother delivered me at home with the help of a midwife. I have fond memories of this area. The area I lived in was a slum near Valluvar Kottam. I used to go to Padma Seshadri School from a rented house. The warmth and love I got from these people is touching. Despite rapid progress, some of the people are the same and I love this about them,” he sums up.