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Today, if Bollywood can dream of going global, the reason, to a large extent, is a phenomenon called AR Rahman, writes Derek Bose
Song writer Sameer is yet to get over his first meeting with AR Rahman in 2002. It was for the music recording of the film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Rajkumar Santoshi was its director and Ramesh Taurani, the producer. Together with Sameer, they took a late-night flight to Chennai and straight from the airport, drove up to Rahman’s house ~ only to discover that the maestro was busy at another location.

“The location turned out to be a tiny maqbara in the middle of nowhere,” narrates Sameer. “Who would have expected that there, in the stillness of the night, amidst flickering oil lamps, lighted candles and incense smoke, we wound see this man, all alone with his synthesizer, composing music? There was not a soul in sight or anybody within hearing distance. In this spooky atmosphere, we hurriedly made a selection of nine or ten tunes and ran for our lives. By the first available flight next morning, we were back in Mumbai.”

However bizarre or exaggerated this anecdote may sound, there is some truth in it. “It is a fact that Rahman works by night,” says Madhushree, who has been singing for the composer since her Kabhi neem neem number for Yuva became a hit in 2004. “He does not compose during the day. He has a special place in his bungalow-cum-studio where he composes the first notes of every song he takes up. Nobody is allowed in there when he composes as he is supposed to be in communion with a Higher Power. For him, the process of making music is an act of prayer. With aromatic candles and the smoke of joss sticks around, the ambience is much like a place of worship. I do not know of any music composer who works like him.”
For Bollywood denizens accustomed to working in anarchic conditions, Rahman has always stood out as an enigma. Everybody recognizes his prodigious talent, but that has not stopped the flow of jibes and jokes targeted at him. He is made out to be an eccentric, an oddball with peculiar quirks, an idiosyncratic genius, a recluse nobody can befriend, a weirdo inhabiting a world of his own... Nobody seems to know who the real Rahman is. That he is painfully media shy and operates out of Chennai has all the more added to the myth and aura about him.

“But nobody can take away from the fact that he is the ultimate master of sound,” says Sameer, who takes pride in having worked with three generations of music composers ~ from Laxmikant-Pyarelal to Nadeem-Shrawan to Himesh Reshammiya. “Rahman is not only his own composer, he writes his notations, arranges the music, balances the sound levels, does the mixing himself and produces the final recording. There is nothing he does not know about technology. From A to Z, he is involved in every aspect of sound design and audiography.”
So will the real AR Rahman stand up?
Here, it is necessary to separate fact from fiction. AR Rahman is the name AS Dileep Kumar adopted at   the age of 21 (and not nine years as is generally believed) when he embraced Islam in 1988. At the age of nine, he lost his father RK Sekhar ~ a fairly successful composer, arranger and conductor of music for Malayalam movies ~ and the responsibility of looking after the family of three sisters and mother Kasthuri (later Kareema Begum) fell on him. The urge to convert to Islam was at the instance of a Muslim mystic, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani or Pir Qadri whose framed photographs today, adorn the walls of his Kodambakkam home. Bollywood music wizard and close family friend, Naushad Ali named him Allah Rakha Rahman.

These are established facts ~ as also the well known signposts of his career: learning to play the harmonium at the age of four, early apprenticeship under Dhanraj Master, assisting southern composer Illaiyaraja as a keyboard player since age 11, playing on the orchestra of M.S.Vishwanathan, accompanying tabla maestro Zakir Husain on his world tours and performing with local rock bands like Roots, Magic and Nemesis Avenue. He is a school drop-out, but had picked up a diploma in western classical music from Trinity College. Somewhere along the way, he slipped into advertising and in five years composed around 300 radio and television jingles. It was while collecting an award for a jingle on a well known coffee brand that he met filmmaker Mani Ratnam in 1991. A year later, Roja was unleashed!

The nation woke up to a new sound ~ a kind of music that went beyond the fusion of Indian melody and western beats Rahul Dev Burman and Bappi Lahiri had been trying to achieve. There was refinement in the integration of electro-pop, dancehall rhythms, Latin melodies, Hindustani and Carnatic classical... even Pahadi folk and Bengal baul. This was no arbitrary collage of incompatible harmonies. It was the work of a master, completely in command of his craft. And to imagine, this guy has just celebrated his 25th birthday.

All those who expected Roja to be a flash in the pan were disappointed. Rahman signed six films in 1993 and nine in 1994 ~ including blockbusters like Thiruda Thiruda, Pudhiya Mannargal and Gentleman. Bombay and Rangeela happened in 1995, closely followed by Dil Se, 1947 Earth, Taal, Zubeida, Lagaan, Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities, Yuva, Rang De Basanti, Provoked, Guru... In 16 years, Rahman did 108 films (not counting dubbed versions), averaging seven films to a year.

One by one, Bollywood’s old timers like Ravindra Jain, Anu Malik, Raam-Laxman, and Jatin-Lalit were being put out of business. They were all hoping that a composer who did not understand, let alone speak a sentence clearly in Hindi, would not be able to hold his own in Bollywood. Sooner than later, they would see his back. But when Sony Music signed Rahman on a three-year contract in 1998 and recognition began pouring in like the Padma Shri in 2000, three national awards and 14 Filmfare awards (for Rangeela, Kadhal Desam, Minsara Kanavu, Dil Se and Taal), they had to come to terms with the Rahman phenomenon. There are also the awards from Mauritius and Malaysian governments, the Sanskriti Award, Rajiv Gandhi Award, Lata Mangeshkar Award and so on, besides collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Jackson and David Byrne.

True, Rahman is weak in Hindi and it would therefore seem a miracle that he is able capture the emotion of lyrics he does not clearly understand. The trick he employs here is two-fold: one, he never gets into an argument over ‘meanings’ in a song (something, inconceivable with most Bollywood tunesmiths) and accepts the lyricist’s word as final; and two, he brooks no interference from any quarter on the technical detailing of any score he composes. It is like saying, “I don’t get into your way and you don’t get into mine.” In effect, the comfort level between lyricist and composer is instant and no time is lost over endless experimentation and arguments. More importantly, he leaves no scope for trial-and-error, because every tune is tailored to pre-written lyrics. With other composers, it is usually the other way around. Words are ‘fitted’ to pre-recorded tunes.
Still, he has had to face a lot of flak from time to time. From sounding the same and being repetititive to even funding an extremist group, Rahman has heard it all. By and large, the charges against him are on the following, somewhat predictable grounds:
unable to elevate himself from a jingle composer;
being more at home with musical idioms of the West than Indian ragas;
his hip-hop scores leave little scope for good lyrics;
over-dependence on computers and technical gadgetry; and
excessive use of singers ignorant about the nuances of language.
On the other hand, he has been credited for raising the bar for Indian film music by bringing about changes on five key fronts:
consistently introducing new singing talent, from Suresh Peters and Shahul Hameed, to Aslam Mustafa, Sreenivas, Mahalaxmi Iyer, Harini, Minmini, Sujatha Mohan, Nithyashree, Noell James (his secretary) and Madhushree;
only composer to credit his entire team of rhythm programmers and instrumentalists on the inlay card of his albums;
only composer who insists on being paid a royalty rather than a lump-sum fee for an assignment;
first Indian music maestro to go truly international when his Vande Mataram was released simultaneously in 28 countries in 1997 under the Columbia label;
his originality, creative drive and ground-breaking innovations have led to what is recognized as the ‘Rahman School of music’ ~ a brand by itself.
In balance, it becomes abundantly clear that no composer from India can match the stature this 41-year-old master enjoys in contemporary film music. With all his quirks and kinks, reticence and humility, the spiritual fixation and hunger for perfection, he stands tall in the community of world music greats. Today, if Bollywood can dream of going global, the reason, to a large extent, is this mystic minstrel.

He is the best fusion of art and science in music. He is a great man, inspired and blessed by God above. I don’t mind changing all my nights to days to work with him. He creates fresh tunes in the night and sleeps during the day. That’s how all great men are.
Subhash Ghai, filmmaker

He is a milestone in Hindi film music. He has single-handedly changed the sound of music in the movies, breaking the mukhda-antara-mukhda scheme of composition and replaced the traditional patterns of tuning.
Gulzar, lyricist-filmmaker

I admire three things about Rahman. Among the young composers he probably is the most original. He has a strong sense of melody and his harmony is unbeatable. Finally, he gives his music a rich tonal colour through his combination of instruments.
Shyam Benegal, filmmaker

Rahman is known to record only during the night time. But he records with me during the daytime... when my voice is fresh. I don’t like recording at night. And he does not take long over his recordings. Jiya jale was recorded in just 40 minutes.
Lata Mangeshkar, playback queen

I find him an all-rounder. He knows Indian classical as well as folk music, he is in touch with western music and he has really studied western classical also. He knows Middle Eastern music as well. No wonder you see so many different colours in his songs.”
Javed Akhtar, lyricist

It is challenging to choreograph Rahman’s songs. He does not stick to the conventional four-eight-twelve-sixteen beats. He’s unpredictable. Sometimes, he gives you a two and three-quarters beat. What do you do with that?
Chinni Prakash, choreographer

I worked with Rahman for a beautiful song called E nazneen suno. I was very nervous, especially since he records at an unearthly hour like three in the night. But he makes you feel as if you are AR Rahman and he is just an ordinary fellow.
Abhijeet, playback singer

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