Music and spiritual surrender are the two big themes of AR Rahman’s life. As he returns with the Golden Globe, SHOMA CHAUDHURY explores how the public gift and private search intersect to create magic
BEFORE THE gift, there was the prophecy. After their first child — a girl — was born, an array of astrologers told the disappointed Tamil music composer, RK Shekhar and his wife Kasturi, that they would soon be gifted with someone extraordinary: a son whose name would illumine the world, a musical genius whose soul would arc across the sky.
Dileep Kumar was born just over a year after on January 6, 1966. The name — AR Rahman, mysteriously wrapped in instant and acetylene fame — would come later, but by the time he was three, the signs were firmly in place. He was, indeed, the fortunate one: he could play the harmonium before he could speak; and soon after his birth, his father inexplicably began to prosper. The word spread. His sister Kanchana, the elder one, music coursing in her blood too but born without prophecy, remembers her father taking the little boy to Sudarshan, a reputed music director, when he was four. “I hear your child can play anything,” Sudarshan challenged him, “let’s see if he can do this.” He played a particularly complex piece, then covered the harmonium with his veshti to make the playing more difficult — a kind of surrogate blindfold — and handed over the harmonium to the young boy. The calm little boy executed it perfectly. Humbled, Sudarshan leapt up and embraced the child.
The virtuosity has never abated since. On January 11, 2009, watched by elated countrymen across the world, Rahman became the first Indian to win the Golden Globe — a coveted precursor to the Oscars — for his musical score in the acclaimed Hollywood film, Slumdog Millionaire. This may be just one more crest in the stream of awards and recognitions that have lapped around him — a Padmashree, four national film awards, 12 Screen awards, 21 Filmfare awards, among innumerable others — but the excitement around the man Time magazine called “the Mozart of Madras” has never been higher, his name never more luminous.
In Chennai though, away from the champagne speeches and applauding lights of Los Angeles, a more profound underlayer of Rahman’s music reveals itself. It is three days after the award, the maestro is yet to come home. The city is unusually quiet; the shops are closed, the roads are empty. It is Pongal and everyone is on holiday. Rahman’s studio — AM Studios — the most state-of-the-art, hitech studio in all of Asia, usually bustling with dozens of musicians and directors and sound engineers, is empty too. The four-storey white and lilac and parquet building has the aura of a prayer house, zinging with the vibration left by an intense concentration of human energy. In the heart of the studio is a large room that can host a 30-piece string orchestra. Facing it, in a glassed-off control room sits a massive mixing console — a Neve 88R, estimated to cost Rs 4 crore — a console with such a daunting array of knobs it could tune the universe. Elsewhere in the building, small soundproof rooms house gleaming pianos, synthesisers, violins, harmoniums, and drums. In a large, airy room on the roof, instruments of every conception sit waiting for the imaginations that will finally unlock their sound.
The silence is a kind of serendipity: it allows one to sense what very few people know. Rahman’s music — always new, groundbreaking, wildly intuitive, experimental, a kind of sound that masters of cinema craft like Baz Luhrmann, Shekhar Kapoor and Danny Boyle say “they had never heard before” — is deeply rooted, in fact, “sourced”, from Rahman’s idea of divinity.
When Rahman, or Dileep as he was known then, was nine, the radiant prophecy seemed to falter. His father, Shekhar died suddenly — on the very day his first film as a music director was released. The golden circle was breached, the family was devastated. Kasturi was certainly overworked, and insufficient sleep had precipitated her husband’s cancer. Although her sister and parents were part of the large joint family, there was no one to turn to. It fell on mother and son to find the money to keep the family together.
Rahman remembers it as a difficult, opaque time when there seemed to be no answers. His mother made some money by renting out musical instruments, but by the time he was 11, Rahman was more often out of school than in, repeatedly called away from the playground by his mother to record music for a fee. It should have felt like an escape: he was never particularly interested in school or playground games, for that matter. In fact, he had such low attendance and marks, he was asked to leave his first school. He went to another local one for a year, and then joined MCC. Barely a term in, when he was about 15, he gave up school altogether. He played the piano and guitar on television shows, and became a sort of “roadie” with different Malayali, Tamil and Telugu composers. For a year, he played with the celebrated Iliayaraja. It should have felt like an escape, but it didn’t.
Kanchana says her brother wanted to be an ordinary boy — sleep late, play carom — and used to resist being woken at seven by his mother to practice the piano. But the mother, fervently knocking at temples, churches, and mosques, was determined to refuel the prophecy. Suddenly, around the time he was 11, destiny came knocking again. The family met Karimullah Shah Kadiri, a Sufi pir (at a railway station, goes the apocryphal story). Karimullah foresaw the boy’s entire future and said Dileep would come to him in 10 years. “That was the turning point,” Rahman admitted in a rare moment of candour to a CNN interviewer. “Everything happened as he said it would.”
ON HIS music teacher John Jacob’s insistence, Dileep applied for a scholarship to study music in Trinity College, Oxford — a crucial interlude that exposed him to western classical music. In 1987, around the time he was 21, moved by everything that had happened to them — dreams, oracles, signs — Dileep, his mother, and two younger sisters converted to Islam (Kanchana would convert a little later).
Two years later, in 1989, he set up Panchathan Record Inn in his backyard — the foundation stone was laid by Karimullah Shah — and began to make jingles for ads. In 1991, legendary director Mani Ratnam took a chance on the untested youngster and invited him to score the music for his new film, Roja. With the divine assurance of a prodigy, Dileep proceeded to break every rule with his debut.
Now, on the eve of Roja, seven new names were offered to him: Dileep chose Allah Rakha Rahman, the first of the 1,000 names of Allah. Soon after, Roja was released, and as the pir had prophesied, the Isai Puyal — “musical storm” — AR Rahman was born. Wrapped in instant and acetylene fame.
Like other prodigies across time who have bent the arc of history, Rahman’s debut track was unlike anything anyone had heard before. It sent ripples through the industry and got Rahman the National Film Award for Best Music Director, the first time ever for a firsttime film composer. In 2005, Time magazine picked it as one of Top Ten Movie Tracks of All Time. “Rahman is like a weaver. With Roja, he created this incredibly intricate, complicated sound that no one had ever tried before,” says lyricist and friend Prasoon Joshi. “The Indian music and film industry had always relied on extraordinary melodies and singers, the mukhara and the antara. But Rahman played with the structure, he layered the melody with different strands of sound, he created spaces where one could listen to a single string or enjoy a beat before returning to the voice. He created a river with many side streams you could step into. It was unlike everything that had gone before.”
Over almost two decades since, the experimentation has never stopped. Director Rakeysh Mehra likens Rahman to the great Chinese travelers of 2,000 years ago, who wandered the world gathering influences from faraway lands. Western classical, Indian classical, reggae, hip-hop, rap, rock, pop, blues, jazz, opera, sufi, folk, African beats, Arabian sounds — there is nothing Rahman has not dared to meld together. No new voice he has not dared to use. No texture of sound he has not strained to perfect. The stories are legion. Of how he got Maryem Toller, a Canadian, to sing the hit song Mayya, Mayya, itself triggered by the sound of a man selling water, saying mayya, mayya — Arabic for water — overheard on a Haj trip. Of how he got R&B singer Ash King from the bylanes of London to sing Dil Gira Dafatan for the forthcoming film, Dilli 6, although King didn’t know a word of Hindi, just because he liked the texture of his voice. Of how he spotted Naresh Aiyar, who had been sidelined by judges like Adnan Sami in a Channel V talent contest, and picked him to sing the sublime song Ru ba ru. Of how he spotted Blaaze and Sukhwinder and Madhushree and Vijay Yesudas and scores of other new voices he has launched in the world. Of how he took 17 years to give his sister Kanchana — or Raihanah, as she is called after her conversion — a song of her own in the blockbuster Sivaji, because her voice finally matched the sound playing in his head.
The stories are legion; what is less known is Rahman’s understanding of his own gift. Unlike Mozart, the legendary giant TIME magazine compared him to, whose creative genius seemed to flow from some mercurial, manic yet sublimely flamboyant ego, those who know Rahman say he has absolutely no ego. A little like the shy Srinivasa Ramanujan, the untutored mathematical genius from Chennai who believed his prodigious acumen was channeled to him by his family devi, Namagiri, apparently Rahman too believes he is merely an instrument. As director Shekhar Kapoor puts it, “Rahman does not believe music resides in him, but that he sources it from a field of consciousness that exists eternally. He believes that to access or to be able to reach that ‘field’ you need to be very pious. I believe as long as he continues to believe the music is not his, that he is merely the conduit, he will have no limitations.”
The search for piety — the complete purity that will keep him in touch with his music — has meant a kind of twin journey for Rahman. On the one hand, there has been an ever amplifying outward honing of craft, a restless search for new stimuli, a mastery of technology, a constant self-education, a perfecting of the conduit. Parallel to that has been an ever intensifying private inward journey towards submission and surrender to the will of God — a destruction of ego, an effacement of self.
At the heart of this journey are two figures. Arifullah Mohammad al Husaini Chisti ul Kadiri — son of Karimullah Shah, no more than in his 20s or 30s, who took his father’s place as Rahman’s spiritual teacher after his death. Said to be descendants of Hazrat Mohammad, Arifullah’s dargah in Karrapa sharif, Andhra Pradesh, is both pilgrimage and refuge for Rahman. ‘Malik Baba’ Rahman calls him. AM Studios, set up in 2005, is probably named after his initials — Arifullah Mohammad — an educated guess, because even many of Rahman’s closest associates say they don’t know what the initials stand for.
(My brother is the most secretive man in the world,” laughs Raihanah. “If I ask him for a house, he will give it to me. If I ask for a studio, he will give me one, just don’t enter mine, he will say.”) But an observant eye cannot fail to miss it. A small picture of Malik Baba adorns the entrance to the studio that hosts the tuning console for the universe. There are curious palm-marks in auspicious chandan on many windows and walls — quiet signs of faith.
RAHMAN IS the most spiritual person to ever touch my life,” says Mehra. “He has zero ego, there is no ‘I’ or ‘me’ in him.” “It is true. He has a surreal influence on people,” agrees Deepak Gattani of Rapport entertainment agency, who constructs most of Rahman’s extravagantly mounted concerts and has been a friend for 16 years. “He has taught me there is more to life than we normally see. He never has knee-jerk responses to things.” “He is sent by God, kudrat ne unko banaya hai,” says singer Kailash Kher, who has toured with Rahman often. “One day you will see him in Los Angeles, standing with people like Weber and Boyle and the owners of Fox. The next day he might be sitting in a dargah among fakirs and dervishes.” “His spirituality is not something others can understand,” says his sister. “I am in complete awe of him. He is a blessed thing. God considers him a special child. He has surrendered totally — every move, every action, every thought is surrendered to God.”
This surrender has taken many forms. Absolute simplicity. Frequent visits to dargahs. Generous alms to the poor. Sleeping on bare cement or sand if necessary. A sublimation of material desire not related to music. (Rahman apparently loved cars, but never drove anything fancier than an Innova until he finally indulged in a BMW last year, 18 years after monumental commercial success.) Sometimes, for others, the forms of surrender have seemed more irrational and inexplicable. For instance, his daughter was born with a hole in her heart, but Rahman refused to have her operated. Prayers, he believes, can change destiny, so he surrendered to the healing faith of his pir. Miraculously, his daughter was cured when she was two.
(“God always looks after him. It is uncanny. What others have to knock for just comes to him,” laughs his sister. Press for examples and she says facetiously, “You might be traveling abroad and desperate for some good hot food. People like us will have to worry about going out in the cold, catching a taxi, finding a place. But Rahman will just be sitting and praying and then, suddenly, someone will come and ask him, what would you like to eat? North Indian or South Indian?”)
But in other cautious snatches from friends respectful of Rahman’s desire for privacy but willing to share their marvel of him, slowly a small trickle of illustrations pile up. Gattani talks of an unexpectedly stormy night in Bangalore. Thirty thousand people are gathered in the Palace Grounds. Rahman’s pioneering Three Dimensional Concert — staggering in scale — is about to start. A sudden squall catches everyone unaware. The backdrop collapses, the grounds flood. Amidst the panic, an unperturbed Rahman locks himself in his green room for half-an-hour. When he emerges, he tells his associates to ask the crowd what they want — have the show or postpone it. Have it, they say. On cue, the rain stops, the songs roll out. Just as Rahman sings the last bar of Vande Mataram, it starts raining again. “It was astonishing,” says Gattani. At other times, when an important decision is to be taken, Rahman retreats into himself and says he will ask for “permission”. A couple of days later, depending on how the divine consultation has gone, he calls back with either a refusal or a go-ahead. Take his most cherished project — KM Conservatory, for instance, a pioneering school of music he has dreamt of for years. Initialed after the elder pir, Karimullah? Again, no one knows. For a long while, there was talk of partnering with the government. Finally, Rahman said he would seek “permission” for the partnership. It did not come and Rahman went it alone — funneling huge sums of personal money and passion to start the conservatory on his birthday last year.
Malik Baba is the most visible manifestation of this surrender. It is to him that Rahman turns to most. Often, to a critical eye, such faith can seem to skate precariously close to subjugation rather than creative surrender. But it seems to work unerringly for Rahman. “Everyone may not understand it, and it may not work for everyone,” says superstar Aamir Khan, “but Rahman is a very spiritual person, and in a curious way, his complete surrender to his faith opens him up completely. It frees him to work.”
The other figure key to Rahman’s journey is his mother, Kasturi — or Kareema Begum, after her conversion. “Amma”, as she is universally known — a jovial, quintessentially motherly figure — has remained a powerful leitmotif in Rahman’s life. “Their relationship is like the bhakt for his bhagwan,” says Kher. He follows her wishes with unquestioning faith — “aastha” is the evocative word he uses. “If she had asked him not to go to LA to receive the Golden Globe and go to a dargah instead, I am sure he would have done it.” She, in turn, is affectionate, solicitous, the keeper of the prophecy, often traveling with Rahman on his tours abroad. Ask her about her son and she says, “He prays five times a day. He is Allah’s gift.” “Old worldly” her elder daughter calls her, momentarily dismissive, and through the crevices of the brisk praise that follows, you catch a glimpse of the inevitable shrapnel around a blessed sibling — the mistakes of a conservative family, the unintended but painful eclipses, the little neglects, the big oversights, the sisters unconsciously less precious than the boy. “We were there, somewhere in the atmosphere,” jokes one of them.
BUT NOW it is the fourth day after the award, and late in the evening. The maestro has come home and the driveway to his house is swarming with waiting journalists. There is a comforting smell of incense in the air. The windows in his reception are curtained with white veshtis, carpets adorn his walls. It is a decorative detail repeated in all his buildings.
The Panchathan Record Inn — Rahman’s private studio, his sanctum sanctorum — is a lush, comfortable room draped in rich red curtains, alternated with white. Computers, consoles, instruments and hi-tech gizmos strew the room like books might in another’s study. It is past midnight before we meet; a journalist’s deadline looms over the meeting like a vengeful shadow and in an unfortunate inversion, Rahman is game for a long conversation, but I am in a hurry. The encounter is briefer than it should have been. Still, none of the conversations around him has prepared one for the man himself. Neat, boyish, he is incredibly youthful, light-hearted — calming in an odd way — and disarmingly open. Every account of him has steeled one to meet a man of few words — the secretive brother one has to tease things from. Instead, Rahman is willing to talk about everything. And is, often, unexpectedly funny.
As we retrace his life, it is suddenly cast in more complex light than music, prayer and simple surrender. “I did not convert overnight, nor did anyone force me,” says Rahman.
“It was a long process. I was really intrigued by the whole Sufi thing and had gone very deeply into it, puttingx aside three hours every day to learn Arabic. I was drawn to Sufism because they have no regulation, no rules, no distinction between Hindu-Muslim — they just look straight into your heart and see your love for the auliyas, the noor of the Prophet.”
THE SURRENDER, too, has a complicated relationship with the music. “When you are in a creative field, particularly something like film or music,” says Rahman, “you can be tossed between highs and lows, good reviews and bad reviews. To maintain equilibrium, you have to detach yourself and abandon yourself merely to the service of music — look at it all from a different perspective. For this, the destruction of the ego is very important. At the same time, there are ironic counterpoints. If you don’t have an ego you can switch on and off, you cannot make music, you cannot do something extraordinary. You have to be committed to the idea of excelling the standards you have set yourself, fulfilling expectations. So, there is a good ego and a bad ego. Something like music also draws you away into another energy field — money, fame, women. For a long time, these impulses used to pull me in separate ways — the desire to renounce and the desire to achieve. You can never perfect these things, but finally now, I feel I am walking in sync, with both impulses hand-in-hand.”
Over the years, Rahman admits to many moments of stasis and saturation — phases when he felt enough is enough, he had done it all and would like to renounce the world. Each time, he laughs, something would come and uplift him, raise the scales. When Roja was offered to him, he was fed up with everything he had been doing: the jingles, the recordings for other music composers in Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil. “I revered Mani Ratnam and it was my dream to work with him. I thought this would be the last soundtrack I would make, so I just did what I pleased. I wanted to have fun. There were no walls in my head, no limitations. All the young people were listening to Western stuff those days, even me, so I thought, what’s the problem, are we not experimenting enough? And I let myself go.”
THE INSTANT and meteoric success brought its own counter stasis. “I thought, this is it,” says Rahman. “I have won the National film award, now I can just live off the earnings of my studio.” But then the excitements and challenge of the Hindi film industry came calling. Rangeela first; then a flood of other Hindi films. When the stasis of that threatened, there was the spike of Elizabeth, Bombay Dreams and Lord of the Ring. The western world came calling. By the time that threatened to pale, the KM Conservatory had been born, and Rahman’s Foundation Against Global Poverty — committed to eradicating poverty in India, Africa, and now, he chuckles, even America. “With all of this, I struggle less with the desire to renounce. I have found new meaning, a new sense of duty towards living, not only towards these projects, but to my wife and kids, and even my music. I see music now as being all about love, a service to humanity — it is about sharing joy with fellow human beings,” says he.
For many years, Rahman’s family — wife Saira Banu, daughters Kathija and Raheema, and son Rumi, were rarely seen publicly around him. “I plan to take them around with me much more now,” says he. “Be it in my studio, my tours abroad, or on my spiritual journeys. I don’t want them to feel separate. My father was such a huge influence because we were always around him. Without him, there would have been no music in our life.”
Typical of Rahman, his encounters with the western world too have yielded deeper things than success and awards. “After my first National Film Award, the Golden Globe has mattered the most to me because I wanted to bridge that vacuum — the fact that no Indian had won these international film and music awards. But as an individual, there is only so much of fame you can take in. Very quickly you detach yourself from it, you are only there as a representative of something else, not as an individual.”
What the forays into the western world have yielded for Rahman then is an expanded consciousness. “When I went to London first for Bombay Dreams, I was living isolated in this house, making music, meeting nobody. I used to pray five times a day and try to keep my fast. All around me were these pubs and drunk kids would piss under my window. Each time I went out, I would come back and bathe. But slowly I realised love can transcend all these segmental issues. You need to find a larger perspective which bridges all these worlds — west and east, Muslim and non-Muslim, or whatever else divides us.”
Bridges — that is an apt metaphor for Rahman and his music. In a jostling, frenetically commercial world — brimful of quick encomiums and sudden deaths — it has become difficult to gauge the true merit of things. Is Rahman the Mozart of our times? We may not be sure yet, but of this we can be certain: his music offers a way to bridge that huge void between the known and the great unknown from which earthly beauty stems.
A BLOCK AWAY from Rahman’s home, his new sense of “duty towards the living” is illumining a new generation. As the maestro was flying back across the continents with the globe — literally — in his hands, on the day of the Pongal holiday, you could have chanced on a handful of young boys and girls on the first floor of AM Studio. Students of Rahman’s dream project, the music school, KM Conservatory, they pored over their computers and music sheets. Occasionally, the strains of music wafted out from adjoining practice rooms. It would be difficult to find a more eclectic group: Anurag Sharma, 16, had given up on school and traveled with his mother (another keeper of prophecy?) all the way from Delhi to rent a room in Chennai for the opportunity of studying music in Rahman’s school. Ashrita Arockiam, a 23- year old post-graduate in English from Hyderabad, was straining to put together a scholarship to study music abroad, when the opportunity to do a similar course suddenly bloomed on home ground. Saurav Sen, 32, a computer engineer from Kolkata, gratefully gave up his job, and exchanged it for a year cocooned in music.
mix of foreign and Indian faculty, exposure to Western and Indian classical music, training in music technology, and a chance to workshop with many of the great musicians across the globe is only a part of the grooming the students from the Conservatory get. Three of the 40 chosen for the full-time foundational course — all of them had to audition before they were selected — are already apprenticing with Rahman. “We put together a concert every week,” says young Anurag, “whenever he is here, Rahman sir sits in on the session. It is amazing to be able to do that.”
But before the stasis of this can set in, a new scale is waiting for Rahman: the dream of creating India’s first symphonic orchestra. “We are a country of a billion people, bursting with talent,” says he, “why doesn’t India have a single orchestra?” KM could well be the womb for that. And in nurturing all of this with love, he might finally overcome the difficult opacity of his own teenage years.