He is at the center of the stage but you could just as easily miss him. With his trademark tousled hair, dressed in a simple white shirt and jacket, he is almost lost in an orchestra of some 70 musicians. But there is no doubt who is the star of the concert. Even though he is traveling with some of the best known names of showbiz music like Udit Narayan, S.P. Balasubramaniam, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Chitra, Hariharan, Sivamani and others, A.R. Rahman and his music are definitely the centerpiece of the show. Dancer-actor-emcee Javed Jaffrey realizes this to his cost when he tries to kill time by cracking weak jokes about an optician’s daughter. With a steady hiss, the audience at the Cow Palace in San Francisco lets him know in no uncertain terms who they have come to hear. Jaffrey quickly stops in his tracks, ambles over to Rahman and says. “Won’t you say something to them?” The famously reticent Rahman mumbles “I think you have said enough,” and segues into the full-throated opening bars of Dil Se. The crowd goes wild.
A.R. Rahman is now reputedly India’s highest-paid composer. With an upcoming collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber he is poised to make a big splash in the international music scene. He has just been honored with a Padma Shri by the government of India. His theme for Bombay was played against the backdrop of the pyramids of Egypt for the New Year’s Eve Millennium concert. He has appeared with his own composition Ekam Satyam in Munich at the special request of Michael Jackson. He seems to have an infinite capacity for topping one hit with another. The critics have started popping up as well—a familiar refrain is he is too repetitive, too dependent on technology. Yet the awards keep coming—his music has won 12 Filmfare awards in a film career that is not even a decade old. He is barely 34—he was born, singer S.P. Balasubramaniam reminded the San Francisco audience, the same year Balasubramaniam started his musical career!
You started out composing music for ad films. What are some we might have heard that you liked?
ARR: Most of it was regional stuff though there was one for Allwyn watches in English and one for Viva and Boost (with Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev).
How has composing music for ad films influenced your film music?
ARR: I was working as a session musician for all the music directors. You know there used to be a specific trend of music that was going on for ages. When you are young you don’t like monotony (laughs). You want to explore more. One of my friends introduced me to a commercials director and I started doing commercials—that made me come out of the filmi circle and exposed me to more broadminded musical people. I learned a lot of things—one day I was supposed to work on a traditional jingle, next day I was doing an English jingle—all languages, all different styles. The demand of the job was educating me. When I came into films, all this experimentation I had done helped me in a bigger way.
In fact A.R. Rahman did not really want to work in films. Those days he was known as Dilip Sekhar and his father was part of the South Indian film music industry. When his father died, 9-year-old Dilip and his mother and sisters were suddenly faced with many hard choices. In order to make ends meet, at the age of 11 Dilip went back to what he knew best—playing keyboard for composer Ilaiyaraja. At the same time he continued to experiment with technology. His father had been one of the first people in India to buy a synthesizer in 1973 and young Dilip was hooked. Life could have ambled along but for a chance meeting at a party with a young South Indian director named Mani Ratnam. Ratnam who always swore by Ilaiyaraja, the doyen of South Indian film music, was intrigued by A.R. Rahman and his music and decided to take a chance on him. He asked him for music that would appeal to the nation, not just audiences in his native Tamil Nadu. The year was 1992, the film was Roja and its music, especially the song Tamizha Tamizha catapulted both Ratnam and Rahman to national fame. From every Chitrahaar program to panwala shop to a Filmfare award, a Cinegoer’s Award, the R.D. Burman Award for best new talent, Close Film Fans’ Award, Cinema Express Award to even a National Award, this “new” sound from a young unknown Southern composer took the nation by storm.
Mani Ratnam wanted music that would appeal to the nation. In fact Roja was dubbed from Tamil to Hindi. How did you span the differences in tastes between North and South India?
ARR: I had a passion for Hindustani music but had not thought of singing in Hindi. Most of the Tamil songs had Karnatik flavors. I thought it would be very different to have a Hindustani flavor in Tamil music. That’s why we used desh, darbari—North Indian ragas which were very new for South Indian people also. Then when it became a hit and won a national award, it was dubbed in Hindi.
Bombay was always intended to be in Tamil and Hindi. What were the challenges for you as a composer?
ARR: The film script was based in Bombay. It demanded North Indian music. There was a kind of qawwal feel, even a Gujarati song. It was Rangeela that really started the Hindi film trend for me. I didn’t know what people would like. Only when I started working with Subash Ghai, he made me understand the value of lyrics. Before I would just do the music, thinking the director would take care of the lyrics. The movie was almost 90 percent tuned to lyrics.
Actually you have been criticized for your lyrics—from Telephone Telephone to Mustafa Mustafa to Humma Humma. Some have dubbed them simplistic and repetitive?
ARR: I have stopped doing those types of films because when you dub films from South India they don’t make sense in north Indian languages. BecauseBombay and Roja were successful people get confused and think that everything is commercially viable. That’s stopped now—the last film was Dil Hi Dil Mein which again was reshot in Hindi. Now it’s either a Hindi film or Tamil film.
But even your musical style has been called repetitive though perhaps being repetitive and making songs have the A.R. Rahman touch are two sides of the same coin?
ARR: (Laughs) It’s very strange. When people start complaining, they complain about the same thing. They don’t know whether it’s true or false. When they praise it, everyone says the same thing without knowing if it’s true. It’s all in the game—sometimes you get good things, sometimes bad. But I try to get out of my trademark—if you have something favorite, you think OK let me do it in another song. I can’t do that—people listen to one song so many times, that if it’s done again or even a sound is repeated in another song, people recognize it and say it sounds like that other song because they might have liked it there.
But take the music in Zubeida. It’s very different—some of the songs in ZubeidaI have been wanting to do for years. That’s possible only because of the script and the director (Shyam Benegal).
How important is the director to you as a composer?
ARR: Main intention for a director is to do a decent movie. When you work with Deepa Mehta (Earth) or Shyam Benegal (Zubeida) or Subash Ghai (Taal) or Mani Ratnam (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se) they have a vision of the music. That plays an important role when you know the director is trying to get somewhere with the film. They want the music to be one with the film, not stick out. The director plays a very important role.
In 1997 Sony entered the music market in India and one of the first artistes they signed up for a three-album contract was A.R. Rahman. Looking to do something different from the film score grindstone, Rahman and his old school friend Bharat Bala tossed around the idea of an album to commemorate the 50 years of Indian independence. The album was called Vande Mataram and it was launched on Aug. 15, 1997 with Rahman himself performing before the Indian prime minister at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi. The album went on to sell an unprecedented 1.2 million copies in India.
What surprised you most about the success of Vande Mataram?
ARR: In fact nobody supported it in the beginning other than Bharat Bala, Kanika, and myself. They said, “What are you wasting time for? You can do two movies in that time.” Once it was done it went beyond all of us—it was a blessing for us from God. Some songs are like that—you don’t know—it just happens. Take Roja’s music—most of the songs can’t be done again—they came from a frame of mind and some blessings. Some songs just take off to a different level.
You say songs sometimes just happen. As a composer how do you handle creative blocks?
ARR: Creative bocks come only when there is too much worry and too much unnecessary feelings in your heart. I try to pray and make the heart lighter, and then music flows. Even then sometimes it doesn’t come—(laughs)—more prayer!
I believe prayer and faith play an important role in your life. After your father’s death your whole family converted to Islam moved by the teachings of a Muslim pir and your sister’s miraculous recovery from an illness. Yet you must be aware, especially in the West, when people say Islam they often have visions of the Taliban banning all music.
ARR: For me religion is a very personal thing. I am more into Sufi ways. Music is a spiritual thing for Sufis and it is a very personal thing. Everybody can see God.
Whose idea was it to collaborate with qawwali great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Vande Mataram?
ARR: It happened four years ago. Myself and my friend Bharat came to New York and saw Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in concert. Bharat felt it would be a very good idea to get Nusratji especially because it was 50 years of independence for both India and Pakistan. We were lucky enough to do the song before Nusratji died. We did it in one night in Lahore and it was an unforgettable experience because Ustad was singing from night to 6 in the morning!
Now you have another big international project coming up. Bombay Dreams with musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is it true he heard Chhaiya Chhaiya from Dil Se and was hooked?
ARR: He heard a song in 1995 and when Shekhar (Kapur) played some of Dil Se and Taal, he said “Oh, this is the same composer I listened to.” Then he would spot my song out of a lot of song mixes and say that’s the same guy and that’s how he liked my style and then got me into working on this.
How is it different working on a musical like this compared to film scores?
ARR: You need really singable songs. It’s not about technology because you need songs that can work on stage. I got interested in it because it was a complete musical score.
Speaking of technology you are often regarded as the technology whiz kid composer. What are your own thoughts about the place of technology in music?
ARR: Technology can’t be ignored. If you are patient enough, you can get something good. But again it pulls you in different directions and you have to be firm on your melodic line and musicality. And that’s a difficult balance to get, which some people lose out on.
How do you maintain that balance?
ARR: Sometimes when you do a song it becomes overcrowded because it’s so easy to throw everything in. You must imagine how will a human play. You need to take a breath here. So cut this. Think about all these things for each track. Then there is a human source coming back to it.
Technology has also meant everyone is getting remixed these days. What do you think about that?
ARR: The value of melody always remains. I’ve been working for the past 20 years—arrangements might change, but a strong melody and good lyrics have long term value.
One of the other things that makes your music distinctive is the use of unconventional instruments like the oud in Telphone, the blues guitar in Mustafa Mustafa. What’s your thinking there?
ARR: People want to listen to new things. But you have to give something new in a way that they can digest, in amounts that they can digest. If you go overboard you have a problem. They can’t listen to a rock guitar hammering the ears the whole time, especially Indian people—they have a soft ear for melody. It’s a risk, but people are receptive to new things.
Another new thing you have tried are unconventional voices—many of them are not the typical film playback voices.
ARR: Sometimes you get sick of the old styles and sounds. Then you think about a new kind of voice. Sometimes little naïve mistakes that the singer makes, play a part in making the song great. It complements both—I get something new and they get a platform to exhibit their talent. Take Anupama who sang Chandralekha—it was the first song she sang. Even now when you hear her sing it on stage, it is as if she was born for that song. In South India we used a couple of old ladies for some songs. But again you have these classic songs like in Zubeida which Lataji sings—it reminds you how songs became immortal.
How do you handle moving from novices like Anupama to legendary voices like Asha Bhosle or Lata Mangeshkar which are so familiar to listeners?
ARR: Then you have to give them songs that are legendary too, no? You can’t call them for every song, like a funny song or things like that. Especially inZubeida, the two songs Lataji has sung, her voice complements the song so much that it elevates the song.
What is your own first musical memory?
ARR: My father’s friend covered the harmonium with a cloth and said to me, “play sa re ga ma on it.” And I tried to play—that’s one of my earliest memories. I was six years old.
His father’s friend probably never thought that one day that 6-year-old would be performing before a shrieking audience in San Francisco. As Sukhwindra Singh bounded on stage to Chhaiya Chhaiya the audience was on its feet dancing in the aisles. A.R. Rahman has truly been a musical ambassador, nimbly springing across styles, taking a bit of Tamil folk songs to college students in Delhi, smuggling a little Punjabi vigor into the musical diet of Chennai housewives.
From newcomer Anupama to veteran Lata Mangeshkar, they have all sung to his music. In fact Lata Mangeshkar herself apparently told Rahman she liked hisVande Mataram better than her own classic rendition from the 1950s. A compliment from the grande dame of Indian film music is an award itself. Ever bashful, Rahman only says softly “Insha Allah,” (it is all the will of Allah) and leaves it at that.
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.