Millennium Post

AR Rahman: The Oscar-winning Virtuoso

Guided by a deeply spiritual philosophy, while displaying undeterred passion for music– AR Rahman has altered the musical landscape of India, writes Sharad Dutt.

Contemporary film music owes its moorings to the advent of the talkies in 1931, corresponding which, it grew by leaps and bounds. While the influence of Rabindra Sangeet and Marathi Natya Sangeet dominated the 30s, the best of North Indian folk enriched the film music in the 40s. The following decade was an amazing blend of classical, folk and western influence. The 60s made the youngsters ecstatic with pop and jazz, as melody was outdone by rhythm. Some composers stuck to classical and ghazal. But by and large, it was the swinging 60s. The trend of Hindi cinema changed tremendously in the 70s, as sex and violence took over with music becoming secondary. The trend continued even in the 80s and music was at an all-time low, barring a few exceptions. The 1990s showed little hope with the return of musicals as the power of music was amply reflected in Qyamat Se Qyamat Tak.

The old generation of composers ranging from SD Burman, C Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Shankar Jaikishan to OP Nayyar was replaced by Kalyanji Anandji, RD Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Bappi Lahiri. They curated some soulful music. RD Burman reigned over the film music for two decades. But music lovers lost this genius in 1994, and his last film, 1942 A Love Story, was released after his demise. Soon, the vacuum created by RD Burman was occupied by a new composer from the South, Allah Rakha (AR) Rahman, with Mani Ratnam's Tamil film Roja which was also later dubbed in Hindi. Its music arrived like a wave of fresh breeze.
Born as AS Dileep Kumar to RK Shekhar and Kasthuri on January 6, 1966, in Madras (Chennai), his father composed for Malayalam films. Since his childhood, Dileep wanted to step into his father's musical territory and was duly encouraged. He started learning piano at the tender age of four and also tried his hand at the synthesizer and harmonium. By six, he had mastered playing the keyboard and formed his own group, Nemesis Avenue, and was also a member of the Roots and Magic groups.
Dileep was still learning music when he lost his father; but, despite the adversity, he continued to practice music. In 1989, his younger sister fell sick. All the doctors gave up hope but by the grace of a Sufi saint, she was cured. This is when Dileep and his mother embraced Islam and he was rechristened as Allah Rakha Rahman.
To support his family, Rahman started playing the keyboard in maestro Ilaiyaraaja's team, when he was barely 11. His mother (now Kareema) encouraged him to follow the father's trajectory. His music career hovered as he played in the orchestra of MS Vishwanathan and also toured abroad accompanying the tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain and K Vaidyanathan. In the meantime, Rahman received a scholarship from the Trinity College of Music, London, from where he thereafter graduated in Western classical music.
After his return to India, he set-up a state-of-the-art sound studio with the latest equipment and named it Panchanatham Record Inn. Here, he worked in the daytime with other producers and at night, concentrated on creating his own compositions.
His professional career commenced in the advertising world with jingles for popular brands like Boost, Leo Coffee, Premier pressure cooker, Titan and Asian Paints.
Subsequently, his film career took off in 1992. Mani Ratnam was looking for a new music director for Roja, and he entrusted this task to AR Rahman, who rendered enchanting music and made the film a hit. When the film was dubbed in Hindi, Rahman became an acclaimed music composer overnight at the national level with his composition—Roja jaan-e-man and Yeh haseen waadiyan (SP Balasubramaniam).
It was an encore with Mani Ratnam as he composed for his film Bombay, and his song, Tu hi re (Kavita Krishnamurthy-Hariharan), touched the ultimate chord of sensitivity. Kehna hi kya (Chitra) portrayed the philosophy of life. And a peppy number by Remo Fernandez, Humma Humma, caught the imagination of the younger generation. Rahman also composed Hema Sardesai's number, Awara Bhanware, incorporating a complete Western flavour with a classical touch, which rendered this song a super duper hit.
Rahman made his debut in Bollywood with Ram Gopal Verma's Rangeela. He invited Asha Bhonsle to sing for this film at a time when her singing was restricted. Under Rahman's baton, she sang, Rangeela re, Yai re yai re and Tanha tanha. It was incredible that Asha was in her sixties and gave playback for Urmila Matondkar who was in her early twenties. Rahman's complete control on rhythm and superb blending of Indian classical with western music had never been experimented in Bollywood before.
After doing a few films, he created a stir with Dil Se, introducing a Sufiana score. Despite weak grasp over Hindi, Rahman did complete justice and enhanced Gulzar's poetry in this Sufiana number, Chhaiyya Chhaiyya (Sukhwinder Singh-Sapna Awasthi), and Lata's Jiya Jale influence by Raga Bhairavi. Lata Mangeshkar stated in as many words that, "Jiya Jale is a milestone in film music." Rahman has his own unique style of using instruments. In Dil Se, he used Dobro Guitar beautifully in the song Mustafa Mustafa, and in the song, Telephone Telephone, he used Arabic sound with much flourish.
After Dil Se, Rahman became the most sought-after composer in India. His name acquired more significance than the producer and director of the film. The showman Subhash Ghai acknowledged it openly when he did Taal with Rahman. It had a trendy and flashy dance number in Taal Se Taal Mila and a subtle flavour in Ishq Bina Kya Jeena Yaaro, both of which became chartbusters of that year.
Rahman has a spiritual disposition and a reposed faith in Sufism that is evident in his qawwali number in Fiza, Piya Haji Ali; in Saathiya, songs were based on Amir Khusro, Naina milaye ke, Meharbaan meharbaan and Na shiqwa hota. It was an unprecedented blend of the western rhythm with Sufiana soul. Lagaan was another feather in Rahman's cap; set in a rural backdrop, he successfully captured the soul of rural India. Its number, Ghanan ghanan (Udit Naraya-Alka Yagnik), O Mitwa (Udit Narayan) and Radha kaise na jale laced in with garba style proved the genius of Rahman. His number Pathshala in Rang De Basanti and Khwaja mere Khwaja sung by himself in Jodha Akbar became equally popular.
Although Shyam Benegal's favourite composer was Vanraj Bhatia, he was impressed by Rahman's talent and popularity and teamed up with him in Zubeidaa. Rahman's music added to the nostalgia and romance of this princely period film.
Noted master painter, Maqbool Fida Hussain, signed Rahman for his film Meenakshi. The numbers, Ye rishta kya kehlata hai in Reena Bhardwaj's voice had shades of the style of Ilayaraja and MM Keeravani. It had a fine mix of light classical and traditional style.
Rahman scores music for his films at night in his own studio in Chennai. It is said that if you sign Rahman for your film, you have to keep two things in mind: first, camp in Chennai and then have sleepless nights. According to Rahman, the second choice lies with the producer. "While scoring for Netaji - The Forgotten Hero, Shyam Benegal would come in the morning and listen to what I had composed in the night. But on the other hand, Subhash Ghai sat in the studio the whole night when we were working on Taal. He is known for his keen sense of music."
Well into the new millennium, Rahman continued to be the most revered composer at the national level, as he set his foot in the West, composing music for 'Bombay Dreams', commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and was also involved with the stage production of Lord of the Rings in Toronto. Thereafter, he scored music for Shekhar Kapoor's first British film, 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'. He also composed for a Chinese film, 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth'.
His finest hour came on February 23, 2010. In the Oscar Award ceremony at the Kodak Theater, he received two Oscars for 'Slumdog Millionaire'. The packed house was chanting Jai ho Rahman, Hamare paas Rahman hai. The humble Rahman, while accepting the honour, spoke the iconic dialogue of film Deewar by Shashi Kapoor, "Mere paas ma hai". His mother was present in the audience.
He has earned the sobriquet as the Mozart of Madras and is indeed very fond of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, The Carpenters, rock and fusion. He loved the music of Naushad in Mughal-e-Azam and showed his professional regard for Michael Jackson as he partnered with choreographers Sobha, Prabhu Deva and a Tamil film dancing troop to perform with Michael Jackson in Munich.
He has conducted several world tours in Singapore, Dubai, Canada, UK and the US, and has also had the distinct privilege to perform at the White House dinner hosted by President Barack Obama during the state visit of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.
At home, Rahman has a mammoth fan following. The late President Dr APJ Kalam asked him to compose his poem, Song Of Youth, to be played on Children's Day. Rahman has even given a new musical interpretation to the National song Vande Mataram. In his perception, Vande Mataram symbolises Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian unity, and has reiterated that belief in his album Ma Tujhe Salaam.
Rahman and music are synonymous and his quest for music is endless, as in his words, "Indian music lies in my heart and I make use of classical, Tamil, Punjabi, Hindi and Sufi music that defies categorisation. Neither is it northern nor southern; essentially, it is Indian."
Recipient of the Padma Bhushan and decorated with a plethora of four National Film Awards, Fifteen Film Awards, Six Tamil Nadu State Film Awards, two Oscars, two Grammys, Bafta Awards, Golden Gold Award, and numerous honorary doctorates at home and abroad, humility is the USP of this deeply religious man who diligently works in his studio from sunset to sunrise. Every time you listen to his renditions, you will feel like echoing, Jai ho Rahman!

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