AR Rahman turns 55: 'The unknown always fascinates me. If it didn't, there wouldn't have been a Roja'
'The budgets for films are shrinking, so are the funds to compose music. So my creative vision has to be tailored to suit the altered financial state,' said AR Rahman.
Today 6 January, the maverick composer AR Rahman, the repository of raga renown, turns 55. I confess I am not a major Rahman fan. Some of his soundtracks notably the ones for Mani Ratnam’s Roja, Bombay and Dil Se are pathbreaking. But much of the rest is repetitive and, day I say, even bland.
Evidently, I am in the minority. Even the greatest musical talent that civilisation has ever produced, Lata Mangeshkar thinks Rahman is phenomenally talented.
“Lata Mangeshkar: “AR Rahman bahot talented insaan hain. I’ve sung very few songs for him. I love 'Jiya jale' in 'Dil Se', 'Khamoshiyan gun-guna lagi' (1 2 Ka 4) , 'O paalan hare' (Lagaan) and 'Luka chuppi' (Rang De Basanti). AR Rahman and I came together for the first time for the evergreen 'Jiya jale' in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. Then we collaborated on a prayer-song 'Ek tu hi bharosa' in Boney Kapoor/Raj Santoshi’s Pukar. It was a very special song. But I must admit 'Jiya jale' was a very special song too. It became such a rage. And I’m asked to sing that song at every concert that I go to.”
Lataji reminisces about the pleasure of singing for Rahman. “I think he was a little intimidated by me when we did 'Jiya jale' in Chennai. But he allowed me to do it my own way. And when I started humming an impromptu alaap at the end of the tune, he told me to just go on. He recorded that as well. Subsequently, I recorded other songs with Rahman including 'O paalan hare' in Lagaan and 'Door kahin ek aam ki baghiya' in Zubeida. My duet 'Luka chuppi' with Rahman for Rakeysh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti became so popular. It’s rare nowadays to get a good song like Luka chuppi.”
No one can take away from Rahman what he did to the sound of Hindi film music. As Gulzar Saab once told me, “I feel very proud of Rahman, always have, always will. I think Rahman brought a change to Indian film songs. He gave a new form to the film song. He broke the age-old tradition of mukhda-antara-mukhda…every composer since time immemorial had used that rigid format. He has made a world of difference to the Hindi film song. Otherwise classical Indian music was always known globally even before the film songs. I started noticing his path-breaking tendency when he did his first score with me in Dil Se. But even before that he was doing pioneering work.”
Interestingly Rahman’s son shares his father’s birth date. Rahman once told me he relived his childhood through his son Ameen. “So far I’ve just been busy living life. From my childhood I was surrounded by grownups, I never got a chance to enjoy being a child. It took me a while to realise how young I was. By the time I realised I was missing out on youthful activities I was no longer young. Now I’m re-living my childhood with three children. If I’m able to give them everything that I couldn’t afford they too are giving me back something vital.”
And what sense has he made of of his life? “My life has always been a journey. When I was in my 20s I went through the most turbulent and hectic time of my life. Now I spend as much time as possible with my children Khatija , Rahima and Ameen. My studio in Chennai is bang opposite my house, so they spend a lot of time with me. All they’ve to do is cross the road and they’re with me.”
When I had asked what lessons Rahman had learnt from his life the reticent genius pondered then said, “In my life, I’ve always found dreams do come true, though often they true come long after you’ve forgotten them. Just preserve your dream at the bottom of your heart and wait for it to fructify. For years I nurtured a dream of giving Western classical music a legitimacy in our country, to cultivate the dedication and discipline of orchestral music in our youngsters who at the moment feel western-classical is too distant and esoteric for them. My ultimate dream was to create an orchestra that would be capable of performing the world’s best musical pieces and thereby building a cultural bridge across western and Indian music. We finally launched our music conservatory.”
Rahman also spoke earnestly of how he desires new generations of musicians to find their bearings. “I want to teach young musicians how to play within an orchestra. As things stand if I want to record orchestral music I’ve to go to Prague. If Ilayaraja wants to record an epic score he goes to Budapest. Why can’t we do it right here in our own country? I want to build a repertoire of musicians who can play western instruments as expertly as the sitar or tabla. Our talented young musicians who want to learn western classical music have to head for London. I want to give a certain legitimacy to western classical music in our country.
You see, Indian classical music has room for unlimited improvisation and spontaneity. A classical recital requires far more formal discipline. And the whole orchestra brings one emotion into play throughout a recital. We don’t have that discipline in our country. It used to be there. But now the younger generation is more enthused by other forms of western music like dance and hip-hop. I want to inculcate that sense of discipline required for western classical music. Today a keyboard player gets tons of money whereas a violinist gets a pittance. I want the orchestra player to be proud of what he does. For that, the violinist or the flautist has to be a complete techno-savvy musician.”
Rahman feels India’s art and culture stands a terrific chance in the West. “I think the time for India in the western world is now. The respect for all things Indian has gone up in recent times. We need to take an initiative to propagate our culture. Yes, I’ve consciously cut down on assignments in Mumbai. I always have been picky. I’m happy I’m moving to another level. In that endeavour, I lost some movie assignments in Mumbai. But the sacrifice is worth it. The unknown always fascinates me. If it didn’t, a Roja wouldn’t have happened.”
On the deteriorating standards of film music Rahman had said to me, “If you have durable melodies and good poetry, people do respond to it, even if not immediately. When I see the so-called difficult songs being sung effortlessly by children on television’s talent-scouting contests I realise the most hummable songs are those that touch on life. Composers take the easy way out. They make tunes that hit the charts for a month and then exit, therefore nothing memorable happens. I wonder why an album like The Legend Of Bhagat Singh didn’t work. I worked really hard on it. And then nothing happened! I had to invent new tunes for established classics like 'Mera rang de basanti chola'. Tragically if a movie doesn’t do well everything including the music falls by the wayside. I think people got put off by the element of terrorism that underlined the overt patriotism in Bhagat Singh’ story.”
When I had told him he’s considered the saviour of film music in India Rahman said, “I guess different people like different things in my music. And I’m open to more offers in Mumbai. For me music is music. It doesn’t belong to any region. My theme for Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was done in Tamil, then it went into Hindi and soon it was playing all over Europe and Australia. If a tune comes to me it takes wings.
The problem is with the shrinking film market in India. Because the budgets for films are shrinking, so are the funds to compose music. So my creative vision has to be tailored to suit the altered financial state. This is the first time I’m facing this situation in the last ten years, and I don’t relish it.”
Poet Prasoon Joshi feels Rahman has an exceptional talent. “Artistes and human beings like Rahman are rare. All my work with Rahman is very special to me. Much as I enjoyed writing fun songs like 'Masti ki Paathshala' and 'Masakali' I cherish exploring the spiritual side of my creativity in the songs 'Arziyaan' and 'Zariya' (the latter for Coke Studio). May God bless him with some of the happiness that he has given us through his music.”
Mani Ratnam with whom Rahman has done his best work once had this to say to me: “Working with AR is always special. He amazes me every time. Not just the music, but the way he pushes himself to come up with a soundscape that is so unique to each film. My favourite among our collaborations is 'Dil Se'. Why? I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that happen. There’s nothing predictable about Rahman’s music.”
Some years ago Rahman spoke to me about his need to keep evolving as a person and a musician. “When you have accumulated knowledge and some influence you want to share it. At age 20, I was another person. At 30, I had evolved a bit more. At 40-plus I had a lot more to share. And that’s what I am doing. I feel I’ve got much more than I deserve. I am very grateful to God. When you look at other lives, some very talented but not so successful, you feel grateful for what God has given you. I’ve family, friends and fans. What more could I hope for? One has to constantly re-invent the sound and the style. The audience that heard my music years ago in Taal or Hindustani is not the same today. Change is especially a must on stage. You have to innovate onstage. Otherwise, you just become a visual avatar of the radio. There is no end to how much one can evolve as an artiste. Individually I may feel satisfied. But if I can excel along with my team it’s a different high. When you play something innovative the audience and listeners are receptive. Civilisation is more open to new ideas. I guess I am part of a changing world.”
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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