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Volume 26 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 14-27, 2009
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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AWARDS

Music of the soul

MEERA SRINIVASAN

A.R. Rahman’s journey from being a young lad who was enticed by the keyboard to becoming a world-class musician is marked by a rare grit.

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

A.R. Rahman with his two Oscars at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood on February 22.

“I FEEL like a slate waiting to be written on.” These were the words of Allah Rakha Rahman, after he was honoured by the Rotary Club in Chennai last June. In less than a year, so much has got written on the “slate”, one would think. But ask him, “Oh, this is just a beginning. There is so much more to do,” is what he said after returning home with the two Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire (Best Score and Best Song).

No matter how many coveted awards flood in, Rahman will remain the same, a simple musician humbled by the magnificence of music. “The spirit of his music is in his total devotion to the art; it is a complete surrender,” says Srinivas Krishnan, mentor at Rahman’s K.M. Music Conservatory. “We often talk about M.S. Subbulakshmi’s music, which is an example of that kind of devotion.”

Rahman’s journey from being a young lad, who was enticed by the keyboard, to becoming a world-class musician is marked by perseverance and a rare grit.

These were, perhaps, in his genes, for his mother Kareena Begum is herself an inspiring model of courage and determination.

“Our father passed away when Rahman was about 10. Things were not easy at home. But my mother made sure that we did not feel our father’s absence and brought us up with so much love,” says Rahane, the eldest daughter of the family.

On the day Rahman, his wife Saira and his mother returned to their Kodambakkam residence after the Oscars, Kareena Begum, who was greeted by excited well-wishers, merely smiled and said: “It is God’s grace.”

Rahman, who also believes that every success of his is a divine gift, converted to Islam in the early 1990s. It is said that an inexplicable sense of reassurance and comfort that the words of a saint created in Dilip Kumar (as Rahman was then known) persuaded him to take a new path as Allah Rakha Rahman.

Listen to his “Anbendra mazhaiyile” (Minsaara Kanavu), “O palan hare” (Lagaan) or “Khwaja mere Khwaja” (Jodhaa Akbar). In all the three tunes, binding the lyrics on different faiths, there is a common underlying melody that conveys submission. “Music and religion are the only important things for him,” says Fathima, Rahman’s younger sister.

With these two guiding forces, Rahman plunged into the media industry, with tunes that came like the fresh breeze. “It was so unbelievably new, different and ahead of its times,” says Trilok of Trish Productions, which made the Leo Coffee advertisement with Rahman’s score.

The strains from that veena and flute, in the predominantly melodious piece, had the stamp of a genius and highlighted the influence classical music had on him. It was Trilok and Sharada of Trish who later introduced Rahman to film director Mani Ratnam, for an association that was to produce some of the best melodies and stylish numbers that Kollywood can boast of.

S. Subramanium

A.R. Rahman with his mother, Kareena Begum, at a function in New Delhi in July 2006. “It is God’s grace,” the mother said about the son’s achievement, on their return from Hollywood.

Rahman and Mani Ratnam

In 1992, Rahman’s national award-winning music for Roja was a revelation. Suddenly, everyone’s ears tuned in to the magic of “Chinna chinna aasai”. The brief vocal prelude to “Kaadal rojavae” was powerful and the mischief in “Rukkumani rukkumani” made listeners blush. “Pudu vellai mazhai” virtually took one to snow-covered mountains and “Tamizha Tamizha” introduced Hariharan’s voice to the world of films. Ever since, whenever Rahman and Mani Ratnam teamed up, audiences knew that they were in for a musical extravaganza. Be it Thiruda Thiruda, Bombay, Dil Se, Iruvar, Alaipayuthey, Kannathil Muthamittal, Ayitha Ezhuthu or Guru.

Several such associations blossomed, not just with directors who were willing to experiment with a new kind of music but also with veterans, whose films were known for phenomenal numbers scored by celebrated music directors. Somehow, for Rahman, each and every combination began to work, be it with Shankar, Rajiv Menon, S.J. Surya, K. Balachander or Bharathiraja. Meanwhile, Rangeela had invaded Bollywood’s music territory and from then on, most of Bollywood’s best numbers were to come from Rahman. His music had also become enough of a passport to the West. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams led to more associations abroad and the Oscars were imminent. When Rahman received the Oscars, it was seen as an acknowledgement of the hard work that a little boy had put in for years. And now, the music director has, indeed, done the full circle, from Kollywood to Bollywood and Hollywood, while modestly emphasising that his journey has just begun.

It is this genuine modesty that is going to take him further and further, says the playback singer S.P. Balasubramaniam (SPB). “When people taste a little bit of success, the manner in which they speak, walk and their body language change. But with Rahman, I know for sure that he will remain this way no matter how many awards he receives.”

SPB recalls the recording session of “Thanga thamarai magalae” for Minsaara Kanavu. “It required a tone that reflected the feelings of someone totally smitten and intoxicated by love. The character singing the song in the film is on a high after finding his girl.” And if you thought SPB’s rendition conveyed the mood perfectly, he says: “I only tried my best to imitate Rahman, who sang it for me. The imitation fetched me a national award,” he laughs. “He gives singers a lot of liberty, yes. He would ask us to improvise and sing the same line in as many ways as possible. But finally, he would have made you sing it the way he wanted it. He is extremely efficient when it comes to making singers deliver,” adds SPB.

SPB has given thousands of scintillating numbers over the years. But when one such singer, and one of the best playback singers ever, sings for Rahman, it can only get more special.

The veteran singer P. Suseela is full of praise for Rahman. It must have been quite a dream for Rahman to work with his favourite singer. “Even one song can be proof enough for one’s mastery. Listen to ‘Kannukku mai azhagu’ [Pudiya Mugam]. What a melody!” she says. Not surprisingly, even legendary music directors such as M.S. Viswanathan eagerly sang for Rahman in films such as Sangamam and Kannathil Muthamittal.

It was not just the legends that he worked with. Rahman has the credit of introducing a new breed of talented and versatile musicians to the film industry. From Harini and Karthik to Chinmayi, many youngsters decided to take to playback singing as their profession, in the wake of the “Rahman effect”.

Rahman’s strength is not in music alone. As someone who pioneered the use of synthesisers and multi-tracks, he has a great sense of technology and has been able to use the best of it in his music. “Anyone can sound great in Rahman Sir’s music. It is only when we sing live that you realise that it is his supreme use of technology that brings out the best in every voice,” says an upcoming musician. “I was flattered listening to my voice the first time I sang for him. For a moment, I was so proud of that “divine voice”, the singer laughs.

Rahman is also a master in identifying talent and bringing it to his studio. Be it a senior Hindustani musician, a Western classical expert or a young Carnatic musician, “if he thinks a particular voice will suit a particular mood or actor, it will be so right. You won’t know until you see the final output,” says another close associate of the composer. Rahman’s search stops not just with the voice. He records casual tones and sounds made by the singers and uses them aptly in the song.

Rahmanesque

S. Sivakumar, who has been Rahman’s sound engineer for nearly 15 years, says: “Listen to ‘Jiya Jale’ [Dil Se], you will notice the sound of an anklet. It is actually Lataji’s bangles that Sir had recorded.” Similarly, Harini was once laughing in the middle of a recording session. That chirpy laughter made its way into “Suthi suthi vandeeha…” (Padaiyappa). “It sounds so natural”.

Rahman thus emerges as a magician who can concoct brilliant mixtures with his innate musical abilities, acquired ease with technology, and enviable way with artists. At the end of it all, he leaves his fans in awe. Being Rahman and being unaffected must be quite a challenge, and that he manages in style. With Rahman having conquered achievements that many dream of, there is only one more thing to look forward to, a lot more of his music.



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