AR Rahman Interview: Rebel with a cause


Gentleness is the word one associates with A.R. Rahman, the Indian musical genius, who enjoys international fame through his musicals and contribution to Hollywood films. But when it comes to music, there is a rebel in him – one who will go against the establishment, defy conventions and be true to himself.

FOUR YEARS ago, on a misty, star-lit January night, it rained in Dubai. A. R. Rahman, the musical wizard described as the John Williams of the Indian film industry, was on stage at Al Ahli Stadium… singing, eyes closed, in the sublime ecstasy of bonding with melody, of binding with the Spiritual One…

It was a drizzle, yes, but then, what an evening it was!

Transcending genres, switching languages, bringing in electrifying rhythms and captivating melody, the young musician proved to a multicultural audience that music is a vast, frontier-less One-ness.

Four years later, as A. R. Rahman and his team ready for another Dubai concert today at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, the 42-year-old has traveled much further — musically and spiritually.

He is the only Indian in the list of one of the world’s top 25 all-time top selling recording artists; the OST for his debut movie Roja was listed in Time magazines ‘Top 10 Movie Soundtracks of All Time;’ he co-composed with Craig Armstrong for the Cate Blanchett-starrer, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; he worked with Finnish band Varttina to compose music for the stage version of The Lords of the Rings; he set the score for the Chinese period action film, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and Spike Lee picked one of Rahman’s soundtracks for Inside Man.
Rahman was only building further on the international acclaim for his first stage composition for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams and a piece for Vanessa Mae’s album Choreography.

Spiritually, the journey was further inward.

He meditates — to gain a fresher perspective for his own music — and he has instituted the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, India, which will not only strive to be a repository for world music but also be the training ground for Indian musicians where they can “invest in melody and harmony so they do not go against their conscience.”

He cut the album, Pray for me Brother, as an anthem for the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of eradicating poverty; and was appointed as Global Ambassador of the Stop TB Partnership, a project of World Health Organisation.

Rahman comes to the Sharjah concert with a new repertoire — one that has defined the evolution of his musical genius and enthralled millions of hearts through OSTs for Indian films such as Rang De Basanti, Guru, Jodha Akbar and Shivaji: The Boss.
Rahman, just as he was four years back, continues to be the man at peace with himself. There is a polite firmness to Rahman that puts you at a distance yet doesn’t ruffle you.

He smiles often, and is self-assured but modest. He appears to pick and choose his words. This is a man who might as well let his music do the talking.

But Rahman is also the person who talks when he must. He puts his foot down, where he should. Actor Shah Rukh Khan would know. Rahman backed out of the Indian superstar’s film Om Shanti Om because the producers would not agree on the music publishing rights.

Rahman stood his ground. He can afford to give a miss to Shah Rukh Khan but Rahman will not easily let go the publishing rights to his music. After all, he sees the flip side every day — in a plagiarism-ridden Indian film music industry, the work of musicians being trampled upon for easy money. Rahman’s integrity, indeed, is his biggest wealth.

For a man, who rushes to wrap up press conferences, 15 minutes of interview talk-time is a lot. Excerpts from the exclusive chat .

Do you revisit your songs and the films you compose for?
No, I finish them and go to the next one. You work so much and so long that you need a relief from it.

Which was the last film you watched?

Once (the Academy Award winning Irish musical, which also fetched the Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film)

Is it easy to cut off from your works?
I give it to the people; it is like giving your daughter in marriage.

It is said there is music in you in every waking minute. What is the music in you now, today?

When I am making music, there is a lot of music in me. Then I come out of it. I stay away from music though it is difficult. What happens is that when you meditate, you go to that stage – like a Samadhi (a high level of concentrated meditation) – It helps me to rejuvenate.

Do you meditate every day?

I try to.

How long do you meditate?

I follow what my Sufi master taught me. It helps me to go back to music with a fresher perspective. Otherwise, when you are constantly on to one thing, you do not realise the worth or flaws of it. It needs a fresher state of mind to see everything and judge it better.

Is this why your songs lately have a strong Sufi influence?

I don’t know whether it is so. There has been only one song with a Sufi influence – in Jodha Akbar.

In Guru too, there is a touch of Oriental. There is Maiya Maiya, the words that you picked up from Saudi Arabia on your pilgrimage…

Sounds fascinate me.

So when you are in a new place, do you pick up the music of the place… perhaps subconsciously?

I love to see what is happening in each new place. I was pretty surprised when I went to Jeddah and Beirut, how they make a difference to Arabic music. Arabic music has evolved in a nice way with quality in production yet maintaining that traditional touch.

Do you deliberately try to bring in new elements to your songs? Or is the choice largely dictated by the film’s director?

It is mostly by the director. But if there is something good, I ask them to listen to it. If they embrace it, I use it. If not, I keep it for myself.

The Lord of the Rings theatre production, Warriors of Heaven & Earth, Hollywood movies…. You are truly going international. Is this something you aspired for? What does it mean to you to be internationally recognised?

When I make music, say, for a Tamil film, it is as respectful to me as working for a Hollywood production. I don’t think I am doing a Tamil film, so let me do a shoddy job. I give my fullest to it.

It is the team I work with that makes a difference – the concept and visualisation. I treat everyone equally – whether it is an American or Indian audience – which is one of the reasons why it (the music) kind of transcends audiences.

Having worked with several Western orchestras, what is one similarity or difference you have experienced compared to working with their Indian counterparts?
In India, I work with known musicians. I just have to give a start; they will end it for me, taking the music further. In the West, I have to write everything – I can’t write it in my mind and pull it off. There is a full process of orchestration.

Is it more challenging?
It is not the challenge. There are several more steps towards it (the execution). In India, I wake up in the afternoon and I can have my orchestra ready. In the West, I need to book three months in advance.

Do you agree to the observation that Indian musicians are less dedicated than musicians in the West?

I don’t agree to a generalisation on dedicated and non-dedicated. Those who are dedicated are dedicated in a very different way; they are unique. The infrastructure in the West is built in such a way that it is more organised there. In India, there is a lack of unity and we have suffered a bit because of that. Now, hopefully things will be better.

Is your KM Music Conservatory a step towards that?

Definitely. We needed that one step of organising and help to have the infrastructure where our musicians can play any kind of music. It is one step ahead for them to go to the international arena.

Do you plan to bring Western sounds and music to India through the Conservatory?

It is vice versa. I also want our musicians to attain more perfection and passion for music, and gain more jobs.

The KM Music Conservatory trains in all Indian musical instruments. Considering that you have been accused of bringing in an overt dependence on technology, is this sort of repentance?

(Smiles)… Not repentance – it is a way of life. We came up the hard way. When our musicians are provided more education, they can see more music. People have only accused – they never thought of educating people in the right way. Only the rich could go to Europe or America for studying music…

So you are paying back to the society…?

(Smiles)… I have my selfish reasons.

What is that?

I will be writing for my own orchestra in five years or three years or ten years. The seed had to be sown; this had to be done.

How do you respond to the allegation on your dependence on technology?
I don’t think it is an allegation; it arises sometimes from ignorance or sometimes from a lack of understanding of what they say. Technology is progress. If I make good music with the technology, it is progress. There is good and bad in everything; you have to filter it. In every area there is mediocrity; technology is not a shortcut to creativity.

Is mediocrity what irritates you the most?

Definitely… it irritates all of us. That is the reason behind KM Music Conservatory. Once people invest in melody and harmony, they will never go against their conscience; they will take the music further.

You have once said that the Indian music industry lacks a powerful male voice. Do you still hold to that?

Well, there was a time when people used to love this tenor kind of voice. The last person in that league is Yesudas and… probably Jagjit Singh.

But you hardly use these singers… You are more known for bringing in newcomers…

I do only experimental stuff, never mainstream stuff. I am a rebel in my own way. I want to do things that excite me and take me to another spectrum of music that is not explored.

That makes you a rebel with a cause. What is your cause?
(Smiles)… My cause is to give people something interesting to sing. I want to make music that is interesting to listen to…

But a lot of people make interesting music. Is music something on a higher plane — even spiritual — for you?

Yes, without any blessings I will be nothing. (With the music) I am making peace out of chaos.

How personal then was the song Pray for me Brother?

That song did haunt me because ‘Pray for me’ is the only thing that we tell to people – to our friends. We say, ‘I am suffering. Pray for me.’ It is not about money, it is about wishing someone good.

You did it for UN as a campaign against poverty. Do you think music can really make a difference to such causes?

People have noticed the song; in the corner of their heart, a seed has been laid. They might think twice before spending money unnecessarily. I wanted the song to be an inspiration not a solution. In that respect, the song has made a difference.

Do you ever go back to your pre-Roja days, when you were struggling?

I don’t.

Because you don’t have to…?

Not because of that. I think of the future. In the past if there is something bad, thinking about it brings back the venom and bad memories. That is what is happening to the country… to the whole world. It is pointless to think about the past. I remember the good things and I am grateful for that. The bad things, I forget.

Have you ever felt handicapped that you aren’t too well-versed in Carnatic or Hindustani music?

I don’t think so. If I were fully into one (stream of) music, I couldn’t have embraced the other kinds. This way I can explore different musical landscapes, and since my understanding is from a very different point of view, I can get away with it.

You bring in so many new talents. You pick people like Naresh Iyer and make them stars. What do you see in a new singer that makes you feel this is potential star material?

I can never make a person a star. They have it in them. I try them out and if they have it in them, the brilliance just comes out.

Who must be credited for a successful song – the composer or the singer?

All of us are instruments. We just do what we have to do. God is the one in control.

Isn’t that very fatalistic a statement?

I believe that things are put together. I believe in good things and that things come together. You can’t dictate anything.

What is one song you will want to be remembered by?

I don’t know. Each person has a different favourite. I respect them and let them decide.

And with it Rahman moves on…

(Published in Weekend magazine of Khaleej Times on April 18, 2008)


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