India’s only Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman on coming to terms with fame, picking himself up from failure and building bridges through music.
The fresh and dewy vocals of singer Minmini arranged with synth and ghatam in Mani Ratnam’s Roja, in 1992, brought a new sound to Bollywood. In the times to come, Dil hai chhota sa, chhoti si aasha, became the soundtrack of our childhood, times when things were simpler and it has stayed that way. However, its creator AR Rahman has come a long way. “It’s been 30 years and I am still evolving,” he says.
This, coming from the one who has two Academy Awards, a Grammy and numerous National Awards to his credit. Now after a prolific career, the rather reticent musician finally seems to be getting comfortable being AR Rahman. He may be a sombre, emotional performer on stage, finding refuge behind the piano, the microphone or the metaphysical, but between all that is a quick-witted character. Dressed in a grey suit and seated in the green room of Stein auditorium at India Habitat Centre, Rahman is playing with his iPhone 6 when we find him. It’s nearing midnight, just before his rushed trip to the Nizamuddin dargah, and the musician agrees to talk. The composer was in the Capital on Tuesday to attend the screening of Umesh Aggarwal’s biographical documentary on him titled Jai Ho.
Almost nothing — extreme criticism or praise — has stopped the composer from experimenting with new sounds and tunes. “As an artiste, I want to be self refined. I want to see where else I can go, how can I surpass what I have done before. Sometimespeople say it’s (music) great. Sometimes people go, ‘what happened’,” says the musician, whose work at the 2010 Commonwealth Games met with much criticism. “In situations like these, I go back to the basics. I wonder, is it because of the music or is it because of the way they have portrayed it. In the case of the Commonwealth Games, it was leaked to the press that I took a certain amount of money for it. So the worth of the music was questioned. After every fame, there’s some blame. I knew something will come, like a tsunami, and it came. But, the experience helped me understand, and be careful about exposing myself. I need that buffer always. At that point, I had to leave many movies to do that work,” says Rahman.
Initially, he couldn’t wrap his head around why his music was not working in the first few months of its release, a discussion that brews in the music world every time he brings out something. “It’s all to do with over expectations. When I did Aditya Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, everyone hated the music. Six months later, it became themost downloaded record. Music is also very simple. It doesn’t arrive from Mars. Sometimes basic things are important. The same thing happened to me when I was listening to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. I was like oh my god, everything sounds the same. Later I realised that there is so much packed within. Sometimes one is constantly judging the music rather than enjoying it,” says Rahman, who is currently, busy composing for Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha. A couple ofinternationalprojectsare to follow soon. He divides histimebetween LA andChennaithese days, with a large part taken up at the KM Conservatory where children learn “qawwali and Porcini together”. “That’s the final aim: to have a child who regularly playsIndianclassical play Beethoven and one fromforeignlands, who regularly plays western symphonies, play our ragas,”says Rahman.
It is this idea of bridging the world through music that led him to combine the oral legacy of Indian classical music with the written music sheets of the western classicalsystem, a blend that had worked at the hands of very few artistes. “I think you look at the purity so that it doesn’t sound cheesy. It’s not for the sake of mixing Indian with western rhythms. Sometimes you land on the right thing and sometimes you don’t. You have to be truthful to the art. It’s a process,” says Rahman, whose last internationalproject was Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom’s A Hundred Foot Journey. “The director never questioned that it doesn’t sound like western music. Then you realise that this prejudice of western and Indian, at the end of the day, it’s in people’s minds. It needs to be broken,” says Rahman, who now wants to experiment with a more ambient sound, one which works with silence and without the seven notes.