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April 01, 2019

A. R. Rahman: The Man Behind The Music

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Dabboo Ratnani. Styling by Nitasha Gaurav. Fashion Assistants: Saloni Parekh, Lavanya Joshi and Simran Kumar. Hair and Make-Up: Nandini Jadhav. Location Courtesy: Hyatt Regency Mumbai

His creative genius has conjured up a host of rhythmic offerings — from soul-stirring notes and romantic ditties to pulsating rhythms and foot-stomping beats. Over the years, A. R. Rahman has captured the imagination of countless fans, not just in India but worldwide as well. Interacting with the Oscar award winner in his Chennai home, Verve delves into the mind of the maestro

His home in Chennai is a quiet hub — undisturbed behind its gates even though cars regularly drive past it in a narrow lane. The bungalow that houses both his residence and his workspace, in different wings, bears ample evidence of the personality of its owner, A. R. Rahman. On a glass door I spot a translucent design of music notes. In the rooms inside, a piano occupies pride of place — as do a variety of other musical equipment.

When I walk into his living room on the ground floor, my eye immediately takes in the innumerable awards lined up in a showcase on one wall, too many to count in that split second before we begin our conversation. We start with the recent 10-year anniversary celebration of Slumdog Millionaire’s release in India (2009). Danny Boyle’s cinematic offering had got Rahman his two Oscars, a feat that made him the first Asian to bag this twin honour in one year! Rewinding to that historic moment, the 52-year-old musician says, “When Slumdog Millionaire won, Andrew Lloyd Webber told me that we had deserved it much earlier. He had believed in me since the musical Bombay Dreams (2002). However, I feel that for everything there is a time! Even now, I do not think that the Oscars were my success. The achievement was the aspirations of all of India — the culmination of all our attempts to win an Oscar. I was lucky that there was a director doing a movie on India and the music could trigger applause in an international audience.”

Since he grabbed the spotlight with Roja (1992) his versatility across diverse forms and languages was quickly established, and film critics soon learned that it is well-nigh impossible to box the man’s genius, though initially he was referred to as Mr Synthesiser. This was largely due to the fact that he was talked about primarily for his use of ‘computer music’. His melodic rhythms soon wooed not just India but the world as well; as the man from Madras (now Chennai) reinvented the art of creating tunes, merging melody with technology. But, while embracing the new, he also absorbed age-old traditions and creatively used a variety of sounds — the voices of old ladies, folk artistes and children, different choruses, jungle rhythms, orchestral arrangements and waltz scores — in his songs with equal impact.

So, when I ask him how he would define the ‘Rahman sound’ that film-makers come to him for, he smiles. “I don’t know. I think it’s the vibe that comes through the music. And if there is a direct connection between your thought process and the way it is implemented, then the resulting work is magic.”

It would not be untrue to call Rahman a living legend — but the man feels the tag is undeserved. Pausing for a minute as his staff member comes in with cups of hot coffee, he states, “I feel that you are just as good as what you are doing. The past is fine and I respect the love people have for my past achievements, but you have to keep moving on. Otherwise, you are done — and that is my nightmare.”

Music has fuelled his life to greater heights. And Rahman remains grateful for the opportunities that he has had. He says, “Music is a blessing that I received. I had my mother’s blessings — my family and my mother protected me. She let me do my work, without letting me worry about its social impact or where I would be in the future. I didn’t have to think about all that.”

But the early years weren’t easy for the young boy, the only son of Rajagopala Kulashekhara Shekhar and Kasthuri (renamed Kareema Begum after the family converted to Islam). His father — a talented musician, composer and arranger — exerted a great influence on the young lad, but when he died at 43, the boy had to swiftly become the man of the house. Till the age of 16, young Rahman balanced the dual responsibilities of attending school and learning how to create tunes on the computer. When it soon became tough for him to juggle college and music, his mother told him to focus on the latter. Though harbouring no regrets, Rahman admits to a feeling of guilt, “I was working and studying. So if I didn’t go to school, I would be questioned and told that I was going to fail, that I will be a loser. But my mother did not care about that. She told me, ‘Your father did this, you have to do this.’ And rather than missing out on the joys of childhood, there were challenges that I had to face. We went through the normal things that most families face. My sisters were studying and I had to morally support my mother. Eventually, we shifted from our old home to this place, so that we could start a whole new life away from a dark past.”

Looking beyond the bad times and into the future is a philosophy that Rahman abides by. “In every faith the one thing that is definite is death. So if you can come to terms with that, you realise that all our efforts are going to end there. The good is not going to last forever, but neither is the bad. But if you do something for a person that changes his/her life, that lasts forever. And your real satisfaction comes from that. My mother taught me that when you give, you have a reason to live.”

When his family embraced Sufism, he changed his name from Dileep Kumar to Allah Rakha Rahman. He tells me, “I had low self-esteem and it could have stemmed from my name. When I was a kid, children teased me about it. I also felt it did not match my personality. And I wanted to become another person. Then I had three options — A. Ram, A. Rahim, A. Rahman. I think the AR came in my mother’s dream and it sounded cool. So I went with A. R. Rahman. And the change of religion brought me a lot of peace of mind. Sometimes you just stop at a door, open it and you get an answer. It was just like that.”

He has come a long way indeed from the time his journey with music started. He bought his first ‘music computer’ in 1984. Rahman was doing sessions with composer Ramesh Naidu and he invested the money he earned in his new acquisition. The next huge landmark for him on his journey was getting his own studio, which gave him the tools to create what he loved making — music. Rahman says, “It gave me the protection from the outside world. Sometimes, I didn’t even feel like I was living in India — it felt like living in another space, and that helped me shape the music the way I wanted to.” Rahman does not believe in compromising with quality, and his music is released only after he is completely satisfied with it. “The day I feel that I don’t like a piece but I think ‘just let it pass’ is when I’ve failed, not commercially but as an artiste. It is like having a hole in a boat — the boat is bound to sink.”

What he terms ‘creative ego’ is what has helped him in his quest for excellence, and I realise that he is not using this term in a negative sense. He feels, “Your heart and mind need to be free. And you need to work towards greatness. That happens only when you feel that you have to do something amazing. And despite striving for greater heights, as a person, you try to be as humble as possible because you don’t know when you are going to fall. That’s a fear that makes you humble.”

His attitude towards his work indicates a humility that his achievements have thankfully not erased. When his studio was created (and grew into the Panchathan Record Inn & AM Studios), he would — and still does — enter it with a great deal of deference, almost as if he was entering a religious space. “I follow a certain ritual; it is a disciplined routine,” he states, adding, “I have a bath and get dressed. I will never go there in my night suit. I am entering a space where I need to get into the zone.”

Anyone who knows even a little bit about Rahman knows that he works largely at night — a fact that prompts me to ask him if he is an insomniac. Smiling at my remark, he states, “I think, in the morning, one’s mind is too active. You get up and it’s sunny. For music, you need calmness, and that does not come in the day — there are too many distractions and too much action happening constantly. At night, everyone is sleeping. I just keep it quiet and make my music.”

Which brings me to my next question — how did he maintain a work-life balance, especially after his marriage to Saira Banu (not to be confused with the actor) and the birth of his three now-grown-up children — Khatija (23), Raheema (20) and A.R. Ameen (16). He admits, “It was very difficult to leave them and go on extended trips for work. And later on, as they began to grow up, they began to do what all kids do — follow the father. They would wait for me, hang out with me, especially in the two years after the Oscars win. I had to urge them to stick to their bedtimes. But one or the other would inevitably reply, ‘How can I sleep when you’re awake, Daddy? I want to spend time with you.’”

He takes great comfort from the support he gets from his wife Saira. The way the match was made makes for interesting reading. With a mischievous glint in his eyes, Rahman tells me, “I was working like a possessed person, enjoying the process of creating music and the love that people were giving me. I didn’t have the time to go and find a wife. So, I left the search to my mother and told her that my wife had to be educated, beautiful and humble.” One day, at a mosque, his mother found a young girl praying and took a liking to her. When she went to the girl’s house, the girl’s father told her that she was the younger daughter — and the older one, Saira, would have to be married first. They sent a photograph home….”

And the rest, as they say, is a happily-ever-after tale in the Rahman household. The man of the house states, “Marriage made me feel like I was growing from being a boy to a man. Also, I was trying hard to balance saas-bahu-sasuraal! I knew that I have to be kind to the girl who came into my life, for she is my responsibility. There were no major adjustments. It was just a great learning on how to deal with different points of view and find common ground. My spiritual learning helped me a great deal, and when the kids came along, it became an amazing blessing to understand them as well.”

It’s not easy for any child to live in the shadow of A. R. Rahman. When I point out the legacy that they are shouldering, he says, “I just pray for them. I keep on telling them that there is time for them to grow but to do that they must have that fire inside them. No one can ignite that except for themselves. If that is not there, you may have everything but you might just fail at what you are doing.”

And even though, to a certain extent, they live in the reflected glory of their father, Rahman has done all he can to keep his work and personal space separate. He remembers, “I did face problems when the kids were young. I would be carrying Ameen, getting ready to board a flight and people would ask for a photograph with me. I would politely decline, but some would not listen. In the last three years, I have begun to let them go and let them explore the world for themselves.”

The behind-the-scenes music composer-director has come into his own in the live performances that draw audiences in hordes. Admitting that he used to feel nervous before a show, he says, “If your preparation is thorough, it generally goes as you have planned, even though in live shows there are always risks. With my own troupe, the band can stop and start any time — they are always in that switched-on mode. I still suffer from stage fright — it’s just that now it’s getting worse because everything is being videoed on some 6,000 phones and people just take images and make comments like ‘At 22:01 see how bad he is’ or ‘At 22:01 he missed a lyric’.”

On evolving into being a super entertainer on stage, Rahman gives credit to all the exposure that he has got. “I watched superstars like Michael Jackson. And I honestly feel that people can listen to music on CDs in their homes, but when they come out for a concert, they need to be entertained. When you have 60,000 people watching you, the performance needs some energy, some fancy stuff. If you just have a mike and a piano, people might get bored.”

He’s taken all the bouquets and brickbats in his stride, not letting the former turn his head or the latter demoralise him in any way. “If the criticism is justified, I take it in a positive way and try to improve. But if it has been said out of spite or jealousy, then I ignore it. But unnecessary flattery can bring one down.”

He has worn many hats — composer, music director and singer. With his latest stint as a mentor on The Voice India, one sees him guiding young talent, while with Le Musk, Rahman has turned director of a virtual-reality, multisensory film. Apart from his ample body of work, his A. R. Rahman Foundation has brought to eager learners the KM College of Music and Technology. It houses studios and supports The Sunshine Orchestra, comprising talented schoolchildren who would ‘ve otherwise never gotten the chance to learn music. For Rahman believes in giving back in ways only he can: “When you are young, you want chocolates, then games, love, a job and cars. When you are over 40 you realise that you are heading towards that finite moment. And before you go, you want to do something good. Music has given me so much joy, respect and love. I want to pass that on.”

His wife, Saira, walks into the living room — and I take the opportunity to speak to her about her husband, for in their 24 years of marriage, she has seen him immeasurably grow professionally, and yet remain the same. She states, “As a performer, he is great, the best. But as an individual, he is a simple human being. I come from a regular middle class family and so does he. We have not forgotten our roots. We try to keep success and the attitude that comes with it outside our doors. But the children are aware of their legacy. I would like them to be like their dad. He says that they should be better than him.”

On the several adjustments she had to make, Saira admits, “That was a big challenge, indeed! My days started becoming nights and my nights became days. And with all his travels, we ensured that we stayed in touch through calls, FaceTime, Skype and more.”

I ask her if he’s particular about things being a certain way, and she points out, “The place — whether it is the house or the studio — has to smell good. Everything has to be neat and tidy. And he hates imperfection at work. It makes him angry and then he shouts — and when he does that, everyone goes quiet.”

As I leave, I spot him walking into the room behind the translucent door — all set to interact with the children who’ve come for lessons. The night is still young for the maestro!

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